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Philly Street Art Interviews: Hysterical Men Depicts the Female Experience by Subverting Sexist Language

February 13, 2020

Welcome to Season 3 of Streets Dept’s newest series of street artist interviews, created in partnership with Philadelphia’s own unofficial official street art museum, Tattooed Mom. Each month, Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale will sit down with one local street artist to ask them about their work. Together, we’ll learn more about the incredible artists getting up around Philly. (Photos also by Eric Dale.)

Street artists have a wide variety of motivations for doing what they do. Some create street art for fun. Some do it to help promote a larger body of artwork. And some are simply eschewing the more traditional world of gallery-based fine art.

My guest today, however, started creating street art out of pure, unadulterated rage.

The anger that fuels street art newcomer Hysterical Men is rooted in gender inequality, social injustice, and congressional incompetence—in other words: politics. While many artists began incorporating political messages into their work after the 2016 election, Hysterical has built her entire brand around candid political commentary. Focusing mostly on hand-drawn portraits of members of Congress and other political operatives, I’d say she’s currently the most political street artist working in Philadelphia.

Hysterical Men has a particular talent for distilling complex and emotional sentiments down to a crystal clear message using powerful language and symbolism. And she’s using this ability to smash the patriarchy.


 
Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Thank you for doing this interview!
Hysterical Men: Oh, it’s my pleasure!

SD: So first of all, I’m really curious to know where the idea for Hysterical Men came from. The underlying concept is one of those rare, perfect ideas that’s utterly simple yet incredibly powerful. I know that the Kavanaugh hearings were the initial inspiration—if you can call it that—but how did this idea to turn men’s sexist language back on them come to crystallize in your head?
HM: That’s a great question. It did start with the Kavanaugh hearings. I had been tossing around in my head for a year prior how to bring my concerns about the state of the country into my artwork, and I had been trying different things, and nothing was quite right. I had been seeing Symone Salib’s work around a lot, and I saw her portraits at Broad and Wharton of Cristine Blasey-Ford and Anita Hill. She is always so good about tapping into the current moment, and getting stuff up, and she just got that up right at the right time, when we were all just so traumatized by those hearings.


 
And I had already been, like, rage drawing—I think Lindsey Graham was the first one I did—cause I was just like this is insane. Any woman watched that and knew how insane it was—and many men, as well. That they could act that way with impunity. Blasey-Ford was just so composed—she had to be—like, there was no option for her. So I loved that Symone was highlighting and honoring these women, but I wanted to tell the other side of the story, which is why they have to be so composed, even though they’re retraumatizing themselves by being on that stand.

I don’t remember where the words came from. I’m a big fan of Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, and artists who work with text, so maybe it comes from there. But I was just in a fit of rage and anger. I had also been, for a while, working on giving myself permission to express those things. Because as women, we’re socialized to not only not allow ourselves to feel those things—which, they don’t go anywhere; they just get buried—but to not even express them. So it was sort of this project in me allowing myself to express my rage and also pointing out the hypocrisy of these men. I didn’t know anything about the etiquette of street art or anything. I just googled “wheatpaste recipes.” …And I’m allergic to wheat! So I got kind of sick the whole time I was doing it. I had all these health problems, so I finally just moved on to wallpaper paste because I couldn’t take it anymore.

But I made my own wheatpaste, and I was just drawing them with sharpies, and hand doing the text—which is insane because I’m not great with text as an artist. And then I just started copying them on a photocopier and putting them up around Symone’s piece as I would get them done, little by little over the course of a week.

SD: How many trips to that spot did it take to complete that piece?
HM: Probably like five—it was the least efficient street art situation, cause it was the first time I ever did anything!

SD: That’s unusual, that your first foray into street art was a collaboration!
HM: Yeah, maybe so. All I can say is I was fueled by adrenaline and rage and this real sense of urgency. So when I look at pictures of that stuff now, I’m like oh, the contrast was not good. I didn’t have Photoshop—I hadn’t used Photoshop in like a million years. But I think I like the gritty quality because I think it hints at the sense of urgency and the sense of blind adrenaline I was feeling. And halfway through, I did message Symone, and I was like is this ok? And she was like yeah it’s great! You know how Symone is! She was very kind. Then at the end I painted rays of light around the women, overlapping, cause I just wanted to make it clear that I was honoring them. Cause I had totally surrounded them.

SD: Right—with shouting men!
HM: Yeah… But I was thinking of their perspective, being where they were, looking up at all of these white Republican men, staring down at them. It must have felt like a witch trial. So just that sense of how strong they had to be to do that.

SD: On Instagram, Symone described the finished piece as “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever made.” How did you feel about it?
HM: The same! I was so pleased that she was open to it and had no problems with me just starting it without her permission, because I respect her a lot. It was this moment of women collectively having this same experience, and just having to express it, and it working really well. It was definitely one of my most fulfilling artistic things I’ve ever done. Because it was a big change for me, and a big exercise in being like I’m not waiting for permission. I’m just gonna do this. And it worked well. So I was really lucky.


 
SD: That’s really awesome. That must have been such a great experience. Overall, how have people responded to your work?
HM: The response has been overwhelmingly motivational. Coming from the fine arts world, I really expected some pushback, especially as a newbie… I expected to really have to prove myself. From the street art community, everyone’s kind of welcomed me with open arms. I’m extremely grateful to people like Robert, from Tattooed Mom’s, who’s always treated me like what I was doing mattered from day one, and like I belonged. He’s the best! Everyone knows that. Same with Conrad (Founder of Streets Dept)—he’s always treated me like what I was doing mattered. And the female artists have been amazing. Like Hope Hummingbird—I cannot overstate her influence, because I run so many ideas by her, and I’m so appreciative of her. People like Sixteen CatsCaptain Eyeliner, in New York, has been incredibly supportive; the Nicoles at South Street Art Mart… They’re amazing.

You know, there are haters, like some people really hate the message. But it’s not street artists as far as I know. It’s like alt-right incel boys who are really really mad. And so that’s one reason I stay anonymous—because there are people who depend on me and I have to prioritize them.

SD: Was there a singular moment when you realized just how incisive the idea of Hysterical Men was?
HM: Some of it is I just got lucky, and some of it is I had been working as an artist for many years prior and trying to work with difficult concepts. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, and this one just felt really right to me. But you never know until you get it out there. And one of the things I like about street art… Again, having a background in fine arts, I’m so used to the slog of having to prove yourself slowly, over time. When I originally started thinking about this type of work, I thought that if I tried to go some sort of gallery route, it wasn’t going to work, and it was never going to get in, and no one was going to want to show it that way. So putting it on the street, you just sort of subvert all the gatekeeping. And then I got such an immediate response, it was amazing. It resonated with people more than I thought it would, which was nice because it felt so right to me. I tapped into some real primal rage, and I think that whenever you are tapping into something really deep like that, that’s how you can simplify things.

SD: Are you familiar with cognitive linguist George Lakoff? I feel like he would be a big fan of your work.
HM: No! Let me write that down! Cause I always like more resources!

SD: He wrote the book Don’t Think of an Elephant!, which is about how framing works in politics. He’s been trying for years to get the DNC to understand that negating a frame only strengthens it. So if a Republican says “we need tax relief” and a Democrat responds “we don’t need tax relief,” the Democrat is accepting the framing that taxes are a burden. So I think he would really like how you’re reframing the meaning of these words.
HM: That’s cool. I’ll check out his work. Yeah, it seems like any time we have one of these big public spectacles, like the Kavanaugh hearing, or the impeachment situation, the Republican leadership, which is largely old white men, adopts this performance or posture of behaving like toddlers. And the only word that ever comes to mind is hysterical, which is a word that is always used to demean and dismiss women. You saw it with Brett Kavanaugh screaming and crying, you saw it with Lindsey Graham’s hysterical shouting, you saw it with the Republican men who stormed into the closed-door impeachment hearing, massively breaching security protocols, just to manipulate the public into thinking they were being kept out. Like, they were just such drama queens about it! It seems like half the country sees that and they’re just really moved to sympathize. The things I heard after Kavanaugh… I heard people like me, but then I was also hearing people say that poor man.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of himpathy? I’ll let you Google it if you want to, but I’m sure you can imagine. It’s like a sort of brainwashing, where you’re predisposed to feel empathy and sympathy for certain types of people and not for others. And to assume that certain people feel pain more distinctly than others, too. That has racial connotations, gender connotations… It makes me so mad because having the many years under my belt of living in the world as a woman, I know that there’s often no respect, no sympathy, no compassion, no allowances made for a woman displaying anything but cheerfulness. Sometimes sadness is allowed, but definitely not anger, not rage. Not passion. And even when we don’t express those things, we’re branded as hysterical.

So it’s frustrating to see these specific men—because I’m not against men displaying sadness or anger, obviously! The #notallmen should be implied—but it’s that these specific men are using these performances of emotion to manipulate and move and shape the culture and the laws in ways that deliberately and specifically harm women, especially women of color, while at the same time not only not allowing women to express these things, or even feel them, but severely penalizing them for doing so. So when I speak of harm to women, I’m thinking of things like the extremely high maternal mortality rate for black women, because their expressions of pain are disallowed or dismissed. I’m thinking of harmful workplace policies that don’t allow women to rise to the top. I’m thinking of laws that limit women’s reproductive options, and often those laws take place as a result of not a lot of women being in the room to make those decisions. Why are they not in the room? Because it’s very difficult to rise to the top, because of the double standards I’m pointing out with the text and the portraits. It just makes me angry!


 
SD: As it should! Alright, I just want to preface this by saying that I mean this as a compliment: it feels a bit like you’re turning one of Trump’s strategies against him—repeating words over and over until you can’t help but internalize them. Is that in any way intentional?
HM: It’s not intentional, but I’ve noticed it too. Sometimes I worry about my work being propaganda-esque, and I wonder if that’s the right way to do this, but I don’t know if there is a right way to do this in this moment, and I feel like if I sit back and wait for the right way, I’ll just never do anything. I think when we ask questions like that, you have to think about who has the balance of power. I don’t know—my thoughts may change. I do like repeating it over and over in a large space. That’s my favorite way to do it cause I like it to feel overwhelming and hard to escape from.

SD: And that’s a definition of Trump if I’ve ever heard one.
HM: Very true.

SD: What would you say is the role of anger in your work?
HM: It is huge. I’ve talked about it a little bit already, and I don’t want to go into it too much, but I will say I come from a conservative background, where women are highly discouraged from—and there’s a lot of shaming for—feeling negative emotions, and especially for expressing them. And that’s highly toxic and damaging. So part of it’s a personal journey to just allow myself to feel and express anger. Maybe some women who didn’t grow up the way I did don’t struggle the same way, but I think a lot of them do. Some of it’s just anger at the state of our reality right now.

And also, I am someone who’s coming into everything I do with a relative amount of privilege, so there are things I was not aware of when I should have been aware of them. So some of it is almost an anger at former brainwashing, and anger at myself for, in my privilege, not recognizing how difficult life is for people who don’t have the same privilege as me. I think we’re sort of socialized to think that anger is going to destroy us, or at least I was—that it’s bad for our health, and if you’re coming from a religious background, that it’s bad for your spirituality, and I just completely disagree. I think you have to express it and get it out in a constructive way, or it doesn’t go anywhere.

And our anger is righteous at this moment in time. So my dream is just for some woman to be walking down the street, or a person of color, or a non-binary person, and for them to see this and realize they’re not alone. Like yeah, I’m just as angry.

SD: Are you comfortable talking about an instance where you realized an element of your privilege that you were unaware of?
HM: In the culture I grew up in, there was an odd mix of messages. It was both considered unseemly or uncool to be too invested in politics, but also there was an expectation that of course we are all Republicans. So even though I had been trying to leave that way of thinking behind, and had been a registered Democrat for many years, I think maybe I didn’t do everything I could leading up to the 2016 election. I think the blinders were just taken off. When Trump won, there were people who were surprised, and there were people who weren’t surprised. And I think that there has been a sort of reckoning happening. There needs to be a repentance for those of us who were surprised. You know? I don’t know if that makes sense. I think it’s really important to acknowledge, as a white person in the world, I didn’t realize how racist the country was. I had been self-educating and learning slowly, but it wasn’t enough, and when you don’t feel the full weight of the fire, it’s easy to not see things. Or to choose not to. And I don’t want to do that anymore.


 
SD: You’ve recently been creating powerful pieces in conjunction with Project Amplify. How does this fit into your larger body of work?
HM: Yeah! Oh, that’s been so important to me. It doesn’t necessarily fit in—I just decided to do it anyway. I care about children a lot, and it’s been so disturbing to see us have what are basically concentration camps on U.S. soil that are specifically targeting families and children. That’s near and dear to my heart. And so after a number of sleepless nights that many of us have had over this, I just decided to do this.

You know what it was? I was listening to an interview with Warren Binford, the lawyer who started Project Amplify. She was one of the people who were the first to go in and inspect these camps, and she was so horrified by what she saw that she took sworn statements from these children with translators—and they continue to take sworn statements—and she just wanted the public to have access to these. I was listening to an interview with her and she said “these words should be everywhere.” And I was just like I can try to do that. I feel like there’s so much power in the words themselves that I didn’t want to do too much artistically to detract from them, but it’s really difficult to sit with those quotes everyday for a long period of time, so after I had worked on it for a while, I had to take a break, because I was really burnt out. So I don’t know how she does it. I’m definitely a firm believer in taking breaks so you can keep fighting the good fight, because we’re in this for the long haul.


 
SD: One piece of yours that has really stuck with me is your image of an ovary being used as the rope in a tug-of-war. Were you, like, a political cartoonist in a former life or something? These razor sharp concepts—where do they come from?
HM: From my gut! I think I’ve just been learning as an artist how to distill things down. I don’t have an illustration background. A lot of people think I have an illustration background and I really don’t. I wish I had more education in design and illustration. I think it would help me with this work. I Google whenever I need to know how to use something in Photoshop. I’ve just been really trying to tap into the personal for this. It is an exercise in using my own voice without permission to say what I feel and what I think. I’m sometimes tempted to over-explain things and make them abundantly clear, but I’ve been really trying to challenge myself to distill my work down and come from a personal place. In this case, I asked myself what does it feel like to be a woman with this situation happening? And it does feel like people who have no idea are playing tug of war with my reproductive organs. Who have NO IDEA!

SD: Your bio says that you are “raising a ruckus.” What does that mean to you?
HM: Haha! I forgot I wrote that. Just, like, bitching about things that I’m mad about. I guess maybe that’s another throwback to where I come from, where it’s considered unseemly for a woman to engage with things in this way. I’m just trying to subvert that. Take back my power and just encourage people like me to do the same, or to just get through their day. And to bring public awareness to issues I care about. It’s also very cathartic to just openly mock these bad men.

SD: Towards the end of last year, you created a new series, Electability, that turns your original idea on its head. Rather than pairing men with the negative adjectives they use to put down women, it pairs women with the positive traits usually attributed to men. Do you have any plans for this series as the election approaches?
HM: Well, I’ve been working with the image of Elizabeth Warren a lot lately, because I just really believe in her so much.


 
SD: Alright, this is your moment: do you endorse Elizabeth Warren?
HM: Yeah, I do endorse Elizabeth Warren! I think that’s probably clear. I am also a big Bernie Sanders person. Love him. Every time I’m watching a debate, I feel like it’s mom and dad and then just a bunch of other people. I just feel like they shine compared to everybody else, and they’re similar in so many ways. I definitely voted for Bernie in the primary last time, and I’d be happy to vote for Bernie again if he were the nominee. But I’ve been watching Warren for a long time and I just think her anti-corruption message is so strong and so important and I think she brings a lot to the table in terms of her experience. I think that whether she’s faced with a Republican Senate—or even if she’s not; there’s a lot of moderate Democrats that might not get on board with everything—I feel like she’s uniquely situated to put on the Band-Aids we need to stop the hemorrhaging right now and also shoot for the long-term goals. We absolutely have to do both. So I think she’s great.

I think there are good reasons that a lot of people have for being suspicious or skeptical about politics in general. But I think we have to be careful to not allow ourselves to become hopeless or so cynical that we become immobile. Because four more years of Trump—like, the damage that will be done in just one more term—the thought of it is breath-taking. And possibly irreversible. So I feel like at this moment in time, I owe it to my fellow citizens, to my descendants, to just engage in every way I can. Yes, civil disobedience, yes, protesting, yes, calling for revolution, but also voting for a candidate I really believe in and not letting fear make me vote for someone because I think that’s who my neighbor is going to vote for. I want to vote for who I really think will do the absolute best in a crisis. Cause we’re in a crisis!

Anyway, to circle back to the electability piece, yeah, I’d like to do more with women and using language that we think of typically for men, but for strong leaders. To try to flip the script. And also to not constantly be doing such dark work, cause that has such a cost. There’s such a cost to it, emotionally, and energy-wise.

SD: How did it feel when Elizabeth Warren’s campaign used your portrait of her from this series in their West Philly campaign office?
HM: Oh, it felt so good! I’m happy to be able to help, because I always feel like I wish I could do more. For anyone who’s interested, the portraits are available for free on my website. So download it, and print it out, and put it out in the world, or just put it up in your house, to remind yourself to vote!

SD: Speaking of electability… let’s talk about the elephant in the room who was just impeached. What was your personal reaction to that?
HM: It’s good. I think they had to go through the process. I have never been under any illusions that he’s going to be removed from office, and even if he is, we have Pence, who’s bad. He’s so bad. And McConnell’s so bad. But there has to be accountability for this level of outrageous, egregious criminality. So I felt like they had to do it and I’m glad that they did.

SD: And what was your reaction as the artist Hysterical Men?
HM: I guess… eyes wide open. He’s not the ultimate problem. The ultimate problem is what got him elected, and that’s a complex thing. So let’s keep our eyes wide open. We’re in this for the long haul. It’s a big fight. So take your vitamins, get some good sleep, drink your water, because impeachment is necessary but that’s not gonna fix our problems.


 
SD: What’s the role of street art in politics?
HM: Very important I think, because we can do things without any gatekeeping. Without any approval. And I think anytime someone’s getting really upset, taking your stuff down right away, you know you’re hitting a nerve. There’s not a lot of avenues that you can be that direct and honest and unapologetic. …So I think more people should do street art! Everyone should do it! you don’t have to be a good artist—just do it.

SD: What do you think your art will look like one year from now?
HM: I have no idea. I’ve been playing with my text a little bit and the way I do it. I would like it to evolve off of a square format, but I’m still sort of working within the constraints of how I get things printed and where I can do that. So I think probably as I learn more as an artist, I’ll evolve out of that rectangular format.

SD: Well you’ve already done that with your Slimeball series…
HM: Yeah, I’m trying—those were all hand-drawn. Which is a great way to do it. But I like being able to repeat, so I like being able to digitize things. But I really want there to be a handmade quality to it cause that’s my background and that’s what I’m most comfortable with. So I think I’ll just keep tackling things as they come and taking long breaks at times to refuel.

SD: I think the rectangular format definitely contributes to the propaganda feel you were talking about—which I had not considered at all about your work—but it IS propaganda. No offense; I think that’s kind of a good thing!
HM: Yeah. I love it and I hate it. But again, I think if you look at the balance of power, when you are the person who’s not the one in power, using that format can be different [from true propaganda]. I think that I’ll continue to think about all of that.


 
SD: What’s your lunch order at Tattooed Mom?
HM: I usually get a burger without a bun, because I’m allergic to wheat!

SD: Thanks again!
HM: Thank you! I appreciate it.

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PHILLY: Join Tattooed Mom for Philly for Change: March 2020 on Wednesday, March 4th at 7PM!

Philly for Change is where local progressives meet to discuss progressive change. It’s a monthly opportunity to meet and engage candidates for local office, ask questions, and get involved with grass roots activism. Every FIRST Wednesday of the month, meet a variety of local politicians, candidates, and activists.

Learn more now here!

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Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artist’s name… Season 1: Hope HummingbirdFaithsFunnnBob Will ReignTaped Off TVLow LevelVoid Skulls… Season 2: Kid HazoUnder Water PiratesSymone SalibSEPER, Morg… Season 3: As Above So Below!

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