“I Stare At Men The Way They Stare At Women”. Artist, Zach Grear, talks punk and the ideologies it shares with queer culture. The designer of the AIDS Memorial t-shirt discusses what wellness and personal development means to him, Lil’ Kim’s impact on his queer identity and his advice to other creatives on their artistic journey.
Growing up was there a heroine or pioneer in the punk movement that inspired you as a queer teenager?
I specifically remember seeing the video for “Push It” by Garbage on MTV one morning in Junior High and it totally blew my mind. Shirley Manson carried an effortless cool that made anything “weird” seem correct. Then twenty years later I’d see her wearing the AIDS Memorial t-shirt I designed is such an amazing feeling. Around the same time I noticed Lil’ Kim. Even at that age I already recognized Hip Hop as this aggressive male thing (much like Punk), so seeing her flip that lyrical and sexual aggression so flawlessly was like a lightning bolt I’d cling to as my queer identity emerged.
The most rebellious achievement of your life?
Going sober. Taking any kind of step to better yourself from the “substance abuse-as-chic/hard partying” ideal – which the queer community especially is fed – shows a vulnerability that most of society would prefer you kept private. It seems a little bold to call it a rebellious act but it is without a doubt one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What does wellness and personal development mean to you and how do you apply yourself to these processes?
Wellness and personal development mean being able to make/expect/demand time for myself and my craft. I’m good at being by myself and know that it’s essential for me to have that time in my day. Earlier this year I quit a full-time job that often bled into my free time and my days off. Being hyper-aware of and detaching yourself from those types of toxic environments (which often stem from toxic people) is crucial to developing as an artist and person.
In 2018, does punk need to be more prevalent in queer culture and do you think the ideologies of punk are still relevant?
I think punk ideology runs quite parallel with the queer community. It’s a declaration of existence. I will exist exactly as I am however it may contrast to the cis-het-white-affluent patriarchy. And I will be aggressive with my existence if need be.
When did you first discover the Queercore movement and how did this transform your outlook on life?
I discovered Queercore pretty late, in the last few years. Limp Wrist “I Love Hardcore Boys/I Love Boys Hardcore” specifically stands out. What I felt was a fast jolt of that underlying wrath that I think all queer people have in them—and should always have in them. Queercore also feels like another necessary chapter of queer history that, if it’s told at all, often gets lost in the middle-class gay white male narrative.
“Embracing my queer identity, surrounding myself with queer creatives, feels like the most honest “coming out”.”
You’ve mentioned 1970’s New York as an inspiration throughout your career. What is it about this era that resonates or motivates you?
One of the aspects of 70’s NYC that fascinates me most are all the scenes happening at once. There’s the Bowery and CBGB, the Chelsea Hotel, uptown at Studio 54, and obviously the gay paradise of the Piers. A bankrupt city left for the artists and creatives to run amok. I used to be hyper-aware and avoidant of romanticizing this time period I never lived in; However, now I actually want to pick the decade apart and put it together in my own way. I think it’s precisely that “faux nostalgia” which helps feed my work.
Tattoos are often correlated with anti-capitalistic and anti-authoritarian principles. In your work you blend this angst with beauty and history. What do tattoos mean for you and why do you use them in your artistry?
Tattoos for me are a way to reclaim my body. I realized quickly that certain insecurities about my body would either fade or disappear as soon as I got that area tattooed. The more tattoos I get the more I become my own beauty standard. In my art, as on my body, tattoos feel natural and necessary.
What was the genesis for the Boy Division collection?
BOY DIVISION began as a zine concept. The very first t-shirt features the cover design for “Issue 1”. I didn’t get much further than that issue but I got a good reaction from the shirt! At the time I was working in retail so it felt natural to pursue clothing, and there’s no better feeling than getting compliments on shirts featuring your artwork. I’d encourage all visual artists to make their own tees.
“She’s Lost Control” is a quote often referenced in your sync art pieces. Is this a cultural nod to the Joy Division track of the same title that drew inspiration from the stigma associated with neurological disorders?
Yes, “She’s Lost Control” is one of my favorite Joy Division songs. Along with using it in my art I actually want it as my next tattoo.
Your “What is Remembered, Lives” t-shirts for the AIDS Memorial was designed to raise funds for House Works. As a self taught artist did you ever imagine you would be impacting the LGBTQ community in such a participatory way and what advice would you have for someone embarking on their own artistic journey?
I’m really grateful to the AIDS Memorial for giving my art a platform to contribute to the Queer community. I certainly would have never dreamed of it as a young angry closet case. There are so many stages to “coming out” that I don’t think get talked about. I still held onto a lot of self-hate early on after coming out—I was technically “out” but still glorified this idea of “not being like other gays”, keeping my distance from my more flamboyant/femme friends, and thinking it was a compliment if someone thought I was straight. That translated to my art as well, keeping it safe and flat and, well, straight. As a result I didn’t even take my own art seriously.
Embracing my queer identity, surrounding myself with queer creatives, feels like the most honest “coming out”. My advice to those on an artistic journey would be to keep on creating no matter what. Wondering if other people will like it, or worse, comparing yourself, is toxic to your talent. You can’t control followers and “likes”, but you can control making art that speaks to your experience.
“Being hyper-aware of and detaching yourself from those types of toxic environments (which often stem from toxic people) is crucial to developing as an artist and person.”
Where do you see your art in 5 years time?
In 5 years I want to see my art spill out onto the streets. In general I want queer art to be aggressively visible, like the tattoos I draw.
Divine was an iconic Drag Queen of punk. Is there a Queer artist championing punk that we should have on our radar?
Dreamcrusher is probably the hardest queer artist out there right now. I tend to go for darker aggressive music and their music—especially live—is like an all out assault in the best possible way.
Do you have any future projects that you’re currently working on?
I’m working on a sort of visual memoir, a way to connect the dots from my current identity as a queer artist of color to my childhood/young adult self who felt like he didn’t have an identity at all.
Wellness and Personal Development goals for 2018?
My wellness and personal development goals for 2018 are to show up for my queer creative community. I’m fortunate to be in a place where I absolutely embrace who I am and I aspire to help other creatives do the same.
What would you graffiti on the back of a toilet door?
“I Stare At Men The Way They Stare At Women”.