Artist and recipient of OUT Magazine’s Most Influential People of 2017, John Hanning, discusses growing up gay in the conservative small town of Prescott, crushing on Tarzan, touching boys in Church Camp, the impact of Keith Haring’s death in New York and advice his gained from a culmination of experiences.
“To be alive, to be able to do what I do and to participate in this form of public engagement is a dream come true. I’m 57 now and I still sit at my desk like I did when I was a little boy making work, and I’m finally where I want to be.”
YOUTH and ROLEMODELS
How would you describe your youth and how do you think it would have been different for you if you were growing up as an adolescent today?
If I were growing up today in Prescott, Arkansas I don’t think things would be all that different. When I go home I still hear people using the word nigger and being gay is still considered a sinful lifestyle there. I think the only difference is that I would have access to a lot more information, but even with the internet I would probably still feel lonely like I did growing up. I’m not sure what date I was expected to enter this world, but on August 21, 1961 I decided it was time to get out of my Mother’s womb. She went into labor and my Dad drove her to the nearest hospital which was in Paragould, Arkansas because there wasn’t a one in Corning, where we lived. The road was hilly and there were a lot of curves. On the way Mother’s labor intensified, her water broke and she stood up in the front seat screaming. When we reached the hospital, a team of nurses were waiting for us because a police officer had stopped our car because Dad was speeding. The officer escorted us to the hospital and had radioed that we were on the way. Soon after we were in the delivery room I popped out. My entry into the world was chaotic and explosive like the times of the Sixties. I was born into a world rapidly evolving with new ideas full of tension and I was gay. My father was a music teacher and mother a housewife. We eventually moved to Prescott, Arkansas and that’s where I grew up. My first memories are from there, a small town in the bible belt, ruled and regulated by the word of God. I was raised Southern Baptist, we were country and even though we did not know it, we were poor. I knew at a very early age that I was attracted to men and it was like living in fear. I was told that everything was a sin and if I did not accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior I would go to hell, that there was only one way to Heaven and that was by living by the rules of the Southern Baptist Church. I grew up in the church, but never read the bible. The church services were usually low key events, but every once in a while there was a bit of a spectacle as everybody sang the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”. This and other hymns and the sermons were a way to indoctrinate and recruit you into this sect and I just did not want anything to do with it. “Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War, with the cross of Jesus Going on Before.”
In those days we had different maids and they would split their time at our house. They were all black and they wore a kind of candy striper uniform. One day one of the ladies was ironing clothes in the kitchen. We did not have a steam iron so the maids would use an ice pick to punch holes in a bottle cap, place it back on a coca cola bottle filled with water. They’d sprinkle water on the clothes to create steam when the iron touched the fabric. One day a maid was ironing and for some reason the iron slipped out of her hand and landed on the linoleum floor. This caused the power to short circuit and the electricity in the house went out. Dad scurried around the house to see what was going on. Once inside the kitchen he found the maid picking the iron up off the floor. She placed the iron on the ironing board and backed away from him to the screen door slowly opening it. I stood in the doorway and watched her run as fast as she could until she disappeared — she never returned. The blacks lived on one side of town and the whites on the other.
Dad always wanted me to go outside and play. I tried playing pee wee football and softball, but it wasn’t my thing. Mostly I liked to stay inside to make art. When no one was around I would play Barbra Streisand albums on the stereo and dance around the house. Mother found out Dad was seeing another woman and he left home when I was in the 5th grade. Up until then I felt lonely and like I must have been a mistake — that I should not have been born into this world. I would sit at my desk for hours making work which pictorially spoke about my desire to live in a far away place. The time I spent at that desk provided an escape from the world I was living in. Dad left just as I started puberty and I had no one to talk to about what was going on both physically and emotionally. At night I would sit in the backyard and when a jet flew overhead I would make a wish that it stop, pick me up and take me away from there. When he left Mother held down three jobs, she went back to school and two years later she got a job teaching at an elementary school. My parents eventually divorced, Dad refused to pay child support and a judge sent him to jail. Just before I started the seventh grade Mother told me that I was a man and that she would not be able to take care of me forever, that I would have to find a job. At that moment my heart seemed broken and I didn’t know what to do. But I eventually got three jobs, mowing lawns for neighbors, working after school in a grocery store and when I was old enough I obtained a certificate to work as a lifeguard in the summer. It was rough growing up a queer poor kid in the conservative south, but I learned a lot about myself and that, no matter what, it was possible to be whoever I wanted to be.
Do you remember your first crush?
Yes! I was in love with Johnny Weissmuller/Tarzan The Ape Man. I wanted to be held by and to hold another guy the way Tarzan and Boy held each other on TV.
What was your relationship with queer culture growing ?
The first time I ever touched another boy it was at church camp. When we returned to Prescott we met one day after school for a bike ride. I followed him down a trail, we got off our bikes and in a clearing we pulled out pants down. I was on the ground, he was on top of me and inside of me and it was the most wonderful feeling. Then this snake slithered towards us, we jumped up, pulled our pants up, got on our bikes and out of there. I thought it was a sign from God. I had bitten the apple and I was going to Hell. A few years later I met my Mother’s hairdresser. He shared stories with me about men he had slept with. He introduced me to Interview and GQ Magazine. He also took me to my first gay bar, The Discovery Club, in Little Rock when I was 15. Even though I knew him, it was there that I learned I wasn’t totally alone in the world. Donna Summers, Disco and drag queens saved my life! When I was old enough to drive, I would go there whenever I could to meet men for sex. I was a minor, but I had purchased a fake drivers license from an ad in Rolling Stone that said I was 21.
What advice would you give to your adolescent self?
As you navigate your way through this journey called life, there will be bumps along the way and you’ll make mistakes. Don’t dwell on them, learn from them, don’t repeat them and keep going forward.
Did you have a role model growing up that influenced your artistic endeavours?
Lillian Hellman and Andy Warhol.
“…first I heard in my heard two words “Fuck You”. I was angry at our government who did nothing for years to combat the disease, I was angry at the born again conservatives, I was angry at AIDS that had ravaged my body and that anger quickly turned into meditative state where I looked deep within myself for a sense of control.”
You describe that when you heard of Kieth Haring’s passing away that AIDS felt more real. How did this moment of change impact your work and that of your peers?
In 1983 I dropped out of school and ran away from home. A few months before I ran away I read an article in the Advocate about an escort and the life he lived in the city. Later I saw an ad for escort services and one of them said “ROOM FOR RENT”. I was unhappy at home, living in the bible belt with conservative parents. I knew that I had to be in NY – not to be an escort, but that is where you have to be if you want to make art. I called the number and the guy on the phone asked me a series of questions. He asked if I had ever worked as an escort before and I told him no, but I was sure I could do it. The next day I got on a plane and when I landed, I called him and he gave me directions to his place in Brooklyn. Once inside of his apartment he told me to take my clothes off. I wouldn’t do it and he asked if I wouldn’t my clothes off for him how was I going to do it for the John’s? I took my shirt off and he took a pic of me with a polaroid and wrote notes about my anatomy and what I liked to do in bed. He told me what the rules were, I gave him the deposit for the beeper and paid him two weeks rent. Working as an escort was not a lot of fun. I slept with men I would never talk to and did things I had never done before. There were some interesting moments, but most of the seven months I spent working as an escort were dreary. But it got me out of Arkansas and it was a way to survive here.
I was free to do whatever I wanted to do, but if the beeper went off I had to call and get directions for the trick. I started hanging out at Uncle Charlie’s and it was there that I started playing Pac-Man.
Are you the unofficial King of Pac Man in New York?
I met some interesting guys playing Pac-Man. People would ask me what my beeper was for and I would tell them I was in med school at NYU and I was on call. Pac-Man provided an escape from the harsh reality of the world I was living in. When I wasn’t playing Pac-Man I was running around the city listening to music on my sony walkman – I imagined I was living inside of a video game. Everything was happening so fast and I never stopped to think about what I was doing to my body or what implications working as an escort might have on my emotional state. I was numb to feelings. One day I read in the paper about an artist who got arrested for making art in the subway. I was fascinated by this because he, Keith Haring, was doing what I came to the city to do. In the article it stated that not only did he sell paintings, but also t-shirts which were available at Patricia Field’s store, 10 East 8th Street. I ran to her store and bought a bright blue tee printed with Haring’s barking dog. I wore that t-shirt everywhere!
When I was a little kid I spent a lot of time at my Uncle Johnny’s house. I loved going there and reading his books, especially his books about Native American Indian Art. I was fascinated by the petroglyphs and cave paintings. What were the images on the walls of the caves speaking about, what was the message? Keith Haring was doing that in the 1980’s but on the streets of NYC and in the subway. His work spoke to me – it was/is a code that resonates just as loudly today as it did back then. I stopped working for the escort service and got a job as a busboy. I moved in the YMCA and never had sex for money again. I started meeting other young artist and started making art. One day at work I met a lady, Joanna, who took me under her wing. Months later she introduced me to her ex who was an art director at J. Walter Thompson – Susan. During our time together she showed us an ad campaign she was working on for TIME Magazine. It was a simple line which looked like graffiti – white line on red background with a little text. I asked her how she did that and she explained the technique. I asked if she would draw a doodle of me and Joanna. She sketched out doodles on a cocktail napkin which I took home and put in one of my shoe boxes. Months later Joanna suggested we start a clothing company – that with her business skills and my art we would make a lot of money. She told me to think about it and one day I was going through my shoe boxes looking for something to trigger an idea and I came across the cocktail napkin with our doodles on it. I made a couple of changes to the doodle to make it look more like me. I bought fabric paint and a package of fruit of the loom t-shirts – painted the doodle on a tee and started wearing when I went out.
One night I met a guy at Boy Bar who asked about my tee and I told him I painted it. He wanted me to come to his store (Graffiti on Christopher Street) to meet his partner and they ordered three hand painted tee’s the next day. I took this information to Joanna and we started a company. She wanted to call it Fido, but I didn’t like that because since it was a cartoon of me I did not want it to be called Fido. A few days later I came up with Fido Dido and that was that. We incorporated and applied for copyright protection. One night I met Patricia Field at a dinner party. I took off my leather jacket and sat across the table from her. She asked me where I got my tee and I told her I painted it. She said she wanted it for her store and to come see her the next morning at 8:00am. Pat loved the designs I showed her, but she told me I could not paint millions of tshirts and that I would have to silk screen them. Joanna, Susan and I met and worked on a series of tee’s which were printed. I took them to Pat a week later and she ordered two dozen — one dozen black and one dozen white. She placed them on a shelf in the middle of Keith and Kenny Scharf’s tee’s. Each day after work I went to Pat’s to check on the shirts – nobody was buying them. Pat told me not to worry because Keith was opening the Pop Shop and that his shirts and Kenny’s would be leaving the store. She told me it would be just Fido Dido and that when people saw the Fido shirts they loved them, but when they saw Fido Dido, INC 1985 printed on them they thought it was a Keith Haring knock off and would not buy them. Pat was right, the t-shirts started selling and she placed more orders.
I wore Fido tee’s everywhere and whenever I would run into Keith at a club or on the sidewalk I would avoid him because I thought he also thought Fido was a knock off! My relationship ended with Fido Inc and I signed over my rights to the company to Joanna and Susan. We settled and I also signed a contract stating I would claim no association with the corporation. There was a deep sense of sadness during this chapter of my life. Loss was everywhere, friends were dying so often – was I infected? I thought that probably I was, but I did not want to know. I had run away from home and worked as an escort — totally throwing away relationships from home. I came to NYC not to be an escort, but to be an artist and Fido was part of that dream and I lost it. Fido was more than just a design on a t-shirt, it was a dream that I was living and then it was gone. I left the country and spent some time in Europe. When I returned I ran into Pat and we had lunch at Cafe Mogador to talk. She offered to produce my stick figure alter ego, Cosmo. She would pay me $1.00 for each t-shirt that sold. I thought about it for a while, but I wasn’t ready to get back into something that reminded me of Fido. I had originally sketched Cosmo to be a friend of Fido’s and I own the rights to Cosmo. When I’m ready I’ll bring Cosmo into my work – I’m thinking of doing something with Cosmo like KAWS. In 1986 my Mom, her husband and his daughter came to NY to visit for Easter weekend. One night I took my step sister out to Nells and afterwards she told me I didn’t have to live like this. I immediately thought she was referring to my working as an escort and I got defensive. I asked her what she meant by live like this? She asked if I knew how they found me in 1983? I told her no and she proceeded to tell me that my Mom was really upset when I was missing. Her husband called an old friend who was then a 3-Star General at the Pentagon. That man called the FBI and I was found. I did not believe my step sister and so she told me that it was stated in the missing person report that I played Pac-Man at a gay bar in Greenwich Village called Uncle Charlies. I was pissed – I said goodbye to her, got in a cab and went to the Eagle to find someone for sex.
When I got the news that Keith died I knew I had to go downtown to the Pop Shop. When I got to Lafayette and Houston I could see the crowd in the street. The cops had shut down the street to traffic. There candles everywhere – the sidewalk in front of the store had become a shrine – a memorial. People were crying, some people were singing and it was quiet. A part of me died that night.
In your book Unfortunate Male, you express the desire for control to live and die on your own terms. What advice would you have for someone reading this who feels confined by their environment but who wants to ‘live on their own terms’?
If you don’t know how to mediate, learn. When my doctor asked me what my plan was, I told her I was going to get better, get out of that hospital and get back to living my life. She informed me that that wasn’t going to happen, that I needed to decide what I wanted to happen to my remains. The odds were against me, but I went to a place in my mind where I could see where I wanted to be. There were times when I thought I might not make it, every part of my body ached, but the sunlight coming through the curtains each morning gave me hope. That crack in the curtains and the sunlight coming through it served as a tool, a focal point – an opening to where I am today.
1995. You were diagnosed with AIDS and told you only have six months to live. This would have to be one of the most formative years of your life. How did you perspective on life change and what would you say to someone who might have artistic aspirations but feels the societal pressures to work 9 – 5?
When I was diagnosed with AIDS I felt a sense of relief, not regret. The moment my doctor told me I might have six months to live and that I needed to decide what I wanted to happen to my remains, at first I heard in my heard two words “Fuck You”. I was angry at our government who did nothing for years to combat the disease, I was angry at the born again conservatives, I was angry at AIDS that had ravaged my body and that anger quickly turned into meditative state where I looked deep within myself for a sense of control. I’ve always done things my way and I had to tell myself over and over not to give up. Being an artist isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be. It’s a process and the struggle is just part of that process. I’ve worked a lot of shitty jobs, but I always made art. There was a period in the late 1980’s when I did not make a lot of work and that continued until a few months after being diagnosed with AIDS. I did not have a lot of money back then, I actually had nothing but a few clothes. I had given or thrown almost everything away because I wasn’t supposed to make it. I moved home in October of 1995 to die. Things didn’t work out there, so I moved into an unfurnished apartment and slept on the floor. One day I decided that I wanted to start making work again and went to an art supply store to purchase a sketch book and a few pens. It was frustrating because I could not draw, it took some time but I taught myself how to draw again. Later I started making collages out of images torn out of found magazines.
One day I read an article about Visual AIDS and I knew I had to get back here. When I was strong enough and had a bit of money saved up I came back and eventually joined the Visual AIDS Archive. A few months after moving back to NY I met someone and as our relationship grew we built a portfolio of properties. My EX and I still own those properties and they provide rental income which helps maintain my practice. It’s still a struggle and I budget each project. In 2001 I was unhappy with my work, especially working with color. I studied color theory at Parson’s – it was challenging, but it was exactly what I needed. I was given a second chance at life and I embrace each moment. I do what I do because making work is a way to let go of a lot of shit that haunted me for years and prevented me from moving forward. Let go of any pressure and just do whatever you have to do to make honest work, put yourself out there and the Universe will take care of the rest – never give up on your dreams.
In your opinion what is the meaning of life?
This question! For me it forced me to look at myself and ask myself what do I see in my life and in this world around me? So, I thought if I were a cinematographer how would I see this? How would I visually tell this story and make it into a piece of work? How would I capture this story, record this story? How would I project this story? How would this story, this piece of be art be told on film? I thought the best way to look at this was as if life was a space. A physical space somewhere that we all shared. A container, a vessel, maybe a virtual space? Space, we all share this space. How would that space look if I could make art that represented my thought. To take you to where I was when I thought of this and how to share this with you. Thinking about it I think I would see a snow globe. Inside are pieces of glitter. Each piece of glitter represents a different chapter from my life. I’m able to look at those pieces of glitter from the inside and outside of the globe. I learn something each time the pieces of glitter move around inside of the globe. I learn to let go. I learn to reflect. I learn to move forward. I learn not to look back. I learn I share this vision with everyone. We’re all pieces of glitter in a big snow glove. It’s not so bad. We can say hello. We can share this space.
We share this space.
“I was on the ground, he was on top of me and inside of me and it was the most wonderful feeling. Then this snake slithered towards us, we jumped up, pulled our pants up, got on our bikes and out of there. I thought it was a sign from God.”
What have you learnt about yourself this year?
I do not know what it is about the time I spend in the shower, but often when showering I get these feelings or an idea pops into my head about something I’m working on. Back in July I was having feelings of doubt and began to wonder if I should stop making work – to figure out how to do something else. It was around this time while in the shower one day I started to feel like something was happening or about to happen. I was also noticing an increase in traffic on my site. The more I looked into the analytics I noticed there were repeat visits from the same IP addresses from zip codes in Manhattan and Los Angeles. I knew something was up, but wasn’t sure what was going on and at the same time I was having those lingering feelings of doubt. On August 18 I received a message from Michael Martin whom I had never met, but a few months earlier he reached out to me because he had read my book. In his August message he informed me one of his projects was OUT Magazine and he asked if I would accept being an OUT100 Honoree. In that moment I knew what all the traffic on my site was about earlier in the summer. I was touched and truly humbled by this like I am whenever someone shares a story of survival with me. At first I felt a bit strange, then I got a little emotional and cried. The more I thought about it I understood what all of this means and eventually I responded and accepted. To be alive, to be able to do what I do and to participate in this form of public engagement is a dream come true. I’m 57 now and I still sit at my desk like I did when I was a little boy making work, and I’m finally where I want to be.
Are there any young artists who excite you for the future?
Felipe Baeza, Carlos Martiel, Joakim Ojanen, Prezmek Pyszczek and Sam Vernon.
Fitness goals for 2018?
To increase my lower-body strength and to walk from my house in Brooklyn to The George Washington Bridge and back once a week.
Do you have any future projects that you can tell us about?
I’m working on a new book project and developing a play based on my first book.
What would you graffiti on the back of a toilet door?
A Blue Violet Heart.