Art Star (fiction!)
Kyle let out a performative sigh as he carefully lowered the base of a tall resin sculpture onto the polished concrete floor. After three days of dragging Nova Price’s lifeless mannequins around the 1200 square foot gallery he had begun to think about the art like his ex. Both could generate hype by looking good online and styling themselves in the glamorous detritus of someone oppressed and underground, but up close they were little more than cultural signifiers collaged into a mediocre facade.
It was probably the breakup, or the alcohol, or a general feeling of inferiority that had made Kyle so bitter, but he chose to blame his boss — a self-made geriatric who was still living off of the proceeds of artists she’d discovered in the eighties. She’d had him rearrange the installation at least six times, as if her old age had rendered her incapable of understanding the fact that the work was objectively bad, no matter where it was placed in the gallery.
Establishing himself in New York had been easy. He’d visited the city twice a year since he started college at SAIC, and when he finally made the move it seemed like almost everyone he went to school with had landed in New York after graduating. It was like he’d arrived with a built-in crew of artists and models who fit in perfectly with the downtown scene. But after a few months of coasting on free rent, free drinks from corporate-sponsored parties, and a reasonable allowance from his parents, his aunt — a well-known art collector from Miami — had convinced him that he should take a job at one of her favorite galleries. It would help him make connections, she said. “Kick-start his art career.” Kyle knew better. Art handling was bitch work, but it stopped his parents from harassing him about his plans for the future, and it gave him something to commiserate with his less-fortunate friends.
It was already ten-thirty by the time he left the gallery, too late to make it to Luke’s opening at Fortune, and too early to go to the after party. I need beer, Kyle thought as he attempted to jump over a dirty puddle, his worn Nike’s splashing in the melted snow. He hated showing up to parties sober, especially when he was trying to network. Every opening and after party was an opportunity to make connections, but tonight felt more promising than usual. Fortune was a new gallery, and despite the fact that the Chinatown space carried the smell of the fish shop below, the last show, a series of sculptures by a feminist, post-internet artist, had been reviewed in two major publications.
“Thank you,” a robotic voice garbled as Kyle opened the door to the bodega. He used to mimic the sound of the automatic greeting in a high-pitched voice whenever he and his ex-girlfriend went to buy vegan ice cream or cigarettes. He thought it was cute, but she, on several occasions, had accused him of being condescending, as if he were mocking the Chinese shop-keepers for their kitschy taste. He took out some money from the ATM and paid for a pack of Marlboro lights and a case of Modelo, which he promised to himself he would share at the party. Lately he had a habit of drinking too much and sleeping through his alarm. This concerned him, not because he cared about his work, or even his reputation at the gallery, but because his parents had threatened to stop paying the rent on his apartment if he lost his job.
In an Uber to the afterparty, Kyle discreetly cracked a beer and reached for his phone. The first post on his Instagram feed was, as usual, a photo of his ex. She was wearing low-slung grey sweatpants, a bright red g-string pulled up around her hips to frame a tattoo surrounded by pink, swollen skin. He immediately recognized the occult-like design — it was, a tag confirmed, the work of @ottotattoo, a German, Instagram-famous tattoo artist, who was also the boyfriend of Anna Korkova, the owner of Fortune Gallery.
Otto’s tattoo style looked like the font metal bands use on their records — hardcore, yet ubiquitous — like the work of countless other artists he had seen on his feed. He clicked on Otto’s tag. “Thank-you, Marina'' read the text on a story post of his ex’s fresh ink. The photo, shot from below to make her small, peachy ass look bigger than it really was, triggered one of Kyle’s anxious pangs. Marina was such a clout-chaser, but somehow she always came across as on trend. Kyle could never keep up with her, which was, of course, one of the reasons she dumped him.
He clicked the right side of the screen. Otto’s next story was a photo of Luke and Anna, posing proudly in front of one of Luke’s giant, graffiti-like paintings. Luke was a hack — which was part of the reason why Kyle felt so good about the after party. If Luke could land a solo show with his corny street art then Kyle could get his own exhibition at Fortune. All he had to do was meet the gallerist.
The muffled sound of a blown out speaker grew louder as he climbed the worn stairs of a decrepit, Canal Street apartment building. Ariana Grande. Some art-bro must be djing, he thought. Everyone says irony is dead but there’s no way anyone actually likes this shit. It’s so pathetic that even DJs play like algorithms.
He opened the door to the party and a blast of hot air, cigarette smoke, and the scent of a Le Labo candle enveloped him like a comforting hug. He pulled a beer from his case of Modelo and scanned the room. Luke was hunched over a fold-out table in-front of a make-shift dance floor, studying a computer screen. What a control freak, Kyle thought. I would never play at my own party.
It was only eleven but the room was already packed with boys in puffer jackets and girls who dressed as if they were part of a post-apocalyptic ballet: fishnets layered over neon-colored tights, drawn on eyebrows, and long, poorly styled hair with thick, yellowish streaks that reminded him of middle school. Not hot, Kyle thought to himself as he took a sip of his beer and made his way toward the DJ booth. “Heyyyy how are you,” Clarissa drawled, giving him a quick kiss on the cheek, her wet lip gloss suctioning onto his stubble. Kyle loved parties like this. It was so crowded that no one would bother trying to make small talk with him. Instead, overdressed girls would just smile, or ask for bumps, or pretend they wanted to know how he was doing without expecting a response. He actually liked these exploitative, one-sided transactions. They made it so that he could pretend to be someone relevant, someone popular even. Not just another art-handler. Besides, he didn’t want to take any of the ballerinas home. The only girl he wanted to talk to was Anna.
“Finally!” Luke yelled over the thumping speaker. “I have your stuff.”
He fumbled for something in the pocket of his paint-stained jeans, pulled out a small baggy, and slid it into Kyle’s moist palm. “Have you met Otto?” he asked, gesturing to a tall, tattoo-covered guy behind him.
“Oh yeah, we follow each other,” Kyle mumbled, reaching out awkwardly.
Otto lifted his beer and cigarette and smirked, excusing himself from the hand shake.
“Nice to meet you,” he said softly. Kyle felt stupid for thinking it, but he was immediately jealous of Otto. Europeans always had it so easy. Their accents and soft-spokenness made it seem like they were all naturally laid-back and confident, unlike the neurotic, ego-driven New Yorkers he usually hung out with.
Kyle dropped his outstretched palm and reached for the Marlboros in his back pocket. He feigned a smile and gestured his cigarette toward the speaker next to him. It was too loud to carry on the conversation, so he stood there smoking and nodding along as Luke, not realizing the beats were off, transitioned into something by Gigi D'Agostino.
“I love this track” a woman holding a plastic cup of red wine yelled at Luke. Kyle peered around his friend to get a better look. She had long jet-black hair, juvederm-filled lips, deep-cut cheekbones, and a small sigil tattooed on her wrist. It was Anna, the gallerist. Luke held up his beer as if to toast her, mouthing along to the song. He’s so embarrassing, Kyle thought. How did he even get all these people to show up? Anna gyrated her hips, simulating twerking in a way only a size zero Eastern European woman could get away with. She looked like a retired model, too old to star in a campaign but young enough to pull off the trashy red mini tube dress she was wearing.
“Introduce me” he yelled into Luke’s ear, jabbing his fingers into his friend’s waist.
“What?” Luke yelled back. Anna twirled away.
A few hours later, Kyle found himself perched on top of a toilet seat in a tiny bathroom, fumbling with the ziplock opening on a miniature plastic bag. “I love your tattoos, man.” Kyle said as he reached a key up to his new friend’s nose. “I want one of those sigils.”
Otto inhaled a mound of white powder and looked down at Kyle’s arms. There was a smiley face, a triangle with a line through it, a trail of barbed wire, and some illegible text that looked like something a child might scrawl on a wall with crayon. Kyle’s face reddened. “My old roommate had a tattoo gun,” he shrugged, grinding his teeth.
Otto grinned. “I have an opening tomorrow at 1pm,” he said, slurring, or at least that’s what it sounded like to Kyle, who was finding it harder and harder to comprehend Otto’s quiet sentences. “Someone cancelled on me.”
Kyle’s mind started to race as he dug his key back into the tiny bag. He didn’t actually love Otto’s tattoos, in fact he didn’t understand what the whole sigil thing was about. To him it was just some woo woo bullshit, like yoga or astrology, two things he often found himself pretending to be into whenever he was trying to convince a girl to fuck. Downward dog, sagittarius sun, aquarius moon, scorpio rising. He didn’t know enough about satan worship to larp as a ink-loving occultist, but Otto wasn’t just any Instagram-famous tattoo artist. He was the boyfriend of an up-and-coming gallerist — and Kyle knew better than anyone how nepotism worked.
“Cool,” Kyle said, doing his best to look casual as he shoved a key up his nostril. “Let’s do it.”
Outside Otto’s apartment Kyle felt his hangover anxiety starting to kick in. Otto worked out of an oversized loft on the Bowery that he and Anna shared, which meant there was a chance that she would be around when he got his tattoo, a proposition that caused Kyle’s hands to shake. He had met her briefly the night before, upon exiting the bathroom with Otto, and he wasn’t sure she had noticed him. Today was his chance to make a real impression on her, or at least get closer with her boyfriend. But last night’s party, along with the two bowls of stale weed he had smoked that morning, had left Kyle feeling like a two dimensional version of himself, as if he had swallowed bits of his charisma along with each bump that had dripped down his throat the night before.
Anna opened the door, revealing a massive room furnished with a low-slung black leather couch, a painting reminiscent of Otto’s tattoos, and a king-sized bed dressed in red sheets. The space was painted black, as if to give the impression that it was a dark, nebulous vortex instead of an overdressed, overpriced loft designed in the style of a Hot Topic store. “Hellooo welcome” Anna chirped, as if Kyle was just another random person coming over to get tattooed. “Otto is just finishing up with a client, you can wait on the sofa.” Before he had a chance to respond, Anna had put on her black Montcler puffer jacket, flicked her long, shiny hair across her shoulders, and stomped out the door.
In a small room off the kitchen, Kyle’s arm was outstretched on a thin piece of parchment-like paper, the lines from a bright blue marker drawn haphazardly across it. “This is just the base of the pentagram,” Otto said. “Then I freestyle.” The tattoo gun started to buzz and Kyle started to sweat.
“I feel your energy is very tense,” Otto said. “You seem insecure, like your mind is small.” Sweat began to pool under Kyle’s armpits. A million little droplets of Modelo.
“I don’t think I’m that—”
“I’m writing you a power sigil,” Otto interrupted. Kyle could swear he saw a smirk creep across Otto’s face. Who the fuck does this guy think he is? Blood leaked from the fresh lines on his arm. Scratch, wipe, scratch, wipe. Kyle was dizzy, the pain from the tattoo needle felt worse than usual. Is he fucking with me?
“It’s like a portal, you can enter when you feel weak.” Kyle tried to focus his eyes on the lines. Embrace it, he thought. Maybe I need this.
That night, at the opening of Nova Price’s show, Kyle debuted his new tattoo. “Spooky,” Luke sneered, gesturing at the moist ink on Kyle's arm.
“Omg I looove it,” Clarissa chimed in, pulling down her low-rise jeans to reveal a moth-like shape etched into her freshly waxed pubic bone. “We’re matching!”
Kyle wasn’t sure if it was the tattoo, or the attention, or the three beers he had chugged, but he was starting to feel like himself again. “Can you text your guy?” He whispered to Luke, so his boss wouldn’t hear. “I have cash.”
It was 7am and Kyle was having a hard time falling asleep. He was still buzzing from all the coke and attention he’d summoned at the after party. It was like the spell Otto scratched into his arm actually did something. Even Anna had remembered his name. He grabbed his phone and opened Twitter. There was an e-girl he had never met complaining about her boyfriend, a topless photo of Clarissa to promote her only fans, and a weird, all-caps post from some SJW that he didn’t follow.
“SOME OF Y’ALLS FAVORITE TATTOO ARTIST IS A NEO NAZI SMFH”
It seemed to Kyle like someone was getting cancelled every other day. Racists, sexists, people with the wrong friends. He didn’t care about any of the drama, as long as it had nothing to do with him. He kept scrolling. “Luke Williams at Fortune Gallery” read a tweet from Artforum. Of course he got a review, Kyle sneered.
The next afternoon, Kyle woke up to the sound of birds cooing on his fire escape. His head was pounding and there was a rotten, sugary taste in his mouth that only seemed to worsen when he took a swig from an old, half-finished bottle of Essentia he found next to the bed. He fumbled for his phone, retrieving a shiny, unresponsive screen from under a pillow. He reached to the wall for his charger, but it was gone.
At the bodega, Kyle gathered his favorite overpriced hangover drinks, a selection of cold, plastic bottles with labels that insinuated luxury in the way most mediocre brands targeted toward millennial consumers did. Such items could be distinguished by their brightly colored labels, blocky logos, and prices that fluctuated according to whether or not the bodega they were being sold in had received a gentrification makeover. “How are you doing, Kai?” he asked the man behind the counter, continuing his request without letting the clerk respond. “Can I get one of those Iphone chargers?”
The man spun around gracefully, unhurried but tactile, and lifted a small white cord and matching cube from a plastic bucket. “My name is Bill,” he said, carefully placing the charger on the counter.
On his way out of the store, Kyle mimicked the sound of the door chime, “thank you!” he yelled in a high pitched voice, loud enough, he thought, so that Bill could hear.
Back in his noisy, overheated apartment Kyle was reminded of how hungover he was, how easily the ego boost he had received the night before had flooded from his body. His phone vibrated. As the white Apple logo emerged from the darkened screen, Kyle had a flashback to the party the night before. He had posted a photo of his new tattoo, taken and approved of by Clarissa, and had yet to see whether it had gotten any likes. Kyle felt a sudden burst of energy at the thought of this potential validation. The pang of excitement had caused him to forget about his headache, the nausea bubbling up in his stomach. Maybe Marina liked it, he hoped.
The first post on his feed was a photo of one of Otto’s tattoos, a large-scale back piece that looked like some kind of twisted narnia rife with evil creatures and illegible symbols. “Not at all surprised to hear that @ottotattoo is on some racist bullshit,” the caption read. Kyle frantically scrolled through the comments. People were apologizing for supporting Otto, asking if anyone knew of a good tattoo removal place. His head started to pound. He thought of Marina’s bright red thong, the chaos of lines etched above her plush behind. He had 44 comment notifications, 6 DMs, and 12 likes. His stomach lurched.
“It’s like a portal you can enter when you feel weak,” Otto’s voice played over in his head. He could feel a sea of desperation swelling up in his belly, the sweet, rotten taste rising in his throat. He looked down at his hands to check if he was dreaming. His fingers quivered, but his tattoos were still there. He covered his mouth, leapt out of bed and ran towards the bathroom, but it was too late. A toxic concoction of lukewarm coconut water and bile had already begun to seep between his fingers and onto the hardwood floor.
As he lifted his head from the porcelain bowl the room started to spin. He thought of Anna’s long black hair, Otto’s smirk, the portal. His arm started to throb. He rinsed his mouth under the tap and looked up at the mirror. In the reflection it seemed like his new tattoo was starting to ooze. He leaned in closer. The lines began to move. “Fuuuck” he moaned as he watched the thin black strokes morph into two infinity symbols: the number 88. “Your mind is small,” Otto repeated.
I wrote this story over the winter while taking Bruce Benderson’s writing workshop. In February I sent it to an editor at a new online fiction publication. He thought it was great. “I’m particularly impressed with your ability to write from a male perspective ;)” he said, and promised to publish the piece in the magazine’s second issue this Spring.
The story was supposed to come out on Heavy Traffic Magazine today but it got cancelled last night because the editor decided that my depiction of cancel culture was too nuanced (he was pushing me to lean into an edgelord, anti-SJW perspective).
I don't think fiction needs to be didactic or moralistic. In fact, I think good fiction, and writing in general, should leave room for interpretation—especially when it comes to satire!
It’s also quite ironic to me that a publication with a clear anti-cancel culture position is so moralizing about the content they are publishing. Depicting something in art isn’t necessarily endorsing it, as those who favor censorship would lead you to believe.
Perhaps the editor aligned himself with the main character, and was upset to realize that he may not have been the hero he had hoped for…
Below is the final edit made before the piece was killed.
To the subscribers here for fashion updates, you will find a few snippets referencing 2017/2018 trends—but this is not a style piece. More fashion content soon!