Currently reading : An interview with Johnny Tragedy

An interview with Johnny Tragedy

7 July 2014

Author : mark-pieterson

Currently living and working in New York city where he earned his MFA at Pratt Institute, artist and part-time bartender Johnathan Stanish, or better known by his alter-ego Johnny Tragedy, has his hands in everything. Johnny’s practice ranges from fashion to both kinetic and non-kinetic sculptures.His sculptures borrow heavily from tribal tattoo imagery alluding to neo-tribalism, blending them nicely with screen-printed pop culture emblems.

He manages to excitingly bring elements of a subculture still on the fringes of acceptance to a refined New York art-world audience. In an increasingly cynical critical environment, however, it is important to note that the persona Johnny Tragedy is in no way a cynical avatar. Tragedy is an extension of Stanish as well as a direct consequence of his art practice. Tragedy is the Superman to Stanish’s Clark Kent or vice versa.
I caught up with Johnny in his Chinatown studio to ask him a few questions in order to get a better understanding of his solo and collaborative fashion, sculpture, and curatorial projects.

Your work is informed by body modification and neo-tribalism. Many of your pieces are either three dimensional representations of tribal tattoos with screen print elements or include direct tattooed elements or piercings. The screen print elements are usually of images of easily identified pop culture icons and imagery. Do you think tattoo and body modification, though they seem to be primarily identified as a subcultural practice, can be placed within the same space as pop culture phenomena?

Have you ever seen the reality show Ink Master? That show pretty much describes this phenomenon.


In your opinion is the divide between subculture and pop culture becoming blurred?

Johnny Tragedy

When and why did you first become interested in tattoo and body modification?

Music videos obliviously had a huge impact on me. I was interested in it for all the wrong reasons.


Were you immediately aware of its artistic merits? Do you do any tattooing yourself?

I don’t tattoo but I have a lot of respect and have tattoos myself. In many ways it does inform my practice and current projects. I could never forgive myself for putting bad work on people. My first tattoo was a poem I wrote in High School, how emo right? Currently my friend Becki Wilson is tattooing some leather iphone cases and leather hats which is part of the next There There collection. So I am interested in using tattoo machines to tattoo consumer items, not people.


Jonathan Stanish, Johnny Tragedy,,, these are all projects you are affiliated with and inform your practice. Are these projects an extension of a singular idea or are they each informed and address different ideas? Do these projects fit in with a chronological progression of ideas you wanted to address or are they cyclical? Are we to engage with Johnny Tragedy and Jonathan Stanish as active, everyday performance per se?

Collaboration is important it keeps things moving in many directions. All of my projects inform each other in some way, the main difference is the url. For is a typical artist website with cv, portfolio, contact etc…. kinda circa 2007 .com era. The project is an online avatar that uses social media to self promote.


In a recent interview you mentioned that punk has increasingly become commoditized “a la Hot Topic”. You mention, “Punk is just a signifier…that can’t actually be counter cultural anymore, it has become a brand.” In a way do you not think that, were punk to have been adopted by a mass of individuals it would inevitably not escape its move to becoming a “brand” via tacit marketability?

But punk was adopted by a mass of individuals. Perhaps the initial driving ideology has drifted from its roots but it has by and large become a commercial subcultural practice.

I visited your studio and got the chance to see your kinetic work with lard. Can you explain the concept behind the piece?

They are vinyl wrapped pedestals that are also subwoofers. The top vibrates at what ever sound frequency I set it too, which makes the gelatinous lard on top oscillate. You can’t necessarily hear the vibrations though, unless you know to look for them, so in some ways it appears to be some sort of dumb magic. But its also referencing car culture and booty shaking. The patterns, which come from typically masculine clothing that relates to some of the cultures that reference my Montana upbringing- camp and flannel.


With you and your fellow collaborator Loney Abrams attempt to place the project at the intersection of art and documentation. In many ways it is not a foreign or unusual concept to straddle. Was this the initial idea behind the project?

That’s exactly right. We are just making the nature of experiencing art after the Internet transparent. The grand majority of art we see is in the form of its documentation, mediated through our computer screens. installs and documents exhibitions in non art spaces like hotel rooms. Then we present the work as documentation during one-night exhibitions at various galleries, and online. The gallery installation will sometimes just have the images projected, or sometimes they’ll have more elaborate installations that also include objects (like in the case of Debora Delmar’s solo show.) So the documentation of the gallery installation presents yet another version of the work. Which also harps on this idea that there is no singular representation of art (or anything) online. But actually, the project began when we wanted to put on shows but didn’t really have the space to do it. Renting a sex hotel in bushwick for 4 hours was the affordable alternative.

Johnny Tragedy

You have roots in Montana, United States, which to say the least is very different from New York city. How was growing up in Montana and did growing up there have any strong influence in your current art practice or do you find New York more so a defining place for you? Are there any marked differences in your view of the manifestations of neo-tribalism in Montana versus New York?

It’s hard to make work about something that you have no intimate relationship with, but also that you have no distance from. Coming to NYC was probably the most important move I made in terms of my art practice, largely in part because it gave me a distanced perspective of Montana and my upbringing. I think a lot about the culture in Montana, which isn’t very diverse – hunting, guns, jesus, outdoor recreation, white people, etc. A lot of my work shares these aesthetics and talk about the sort of mentality that most people have there. Now when I visit Montana, I look for inspiration – spending a lot of time shopping in hunting stores and shooting guns with my family on gravel roads in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes its hard not to be judgmental of the culture I came from – its so guided by religion, by fear. But at the same time its sort of refreshing to see people living so sincerely. Here neo-tribalism is a thing because its ironic; its appropriated. There its the real deal. Tribal tattoo designs have become popular patterns on clothing (HBA, ASSK, UNIF, Actual Pain) But clothes are removable. In Montana it’s the real deal, people commit to their tattoos just like they do their religious beliefs. Its not just for show.


Any upcoming projects we should be looking forward to in the near future?

There There has a solo show opening July 16th at Beverley’s, which is a really rad artist run gallery / bar in the LES.


What is the idea behind the project There There (, which is the project you collaborate with artist and writer Loney Abrams?

There There is also an ongoing collaborative project I do with Loney Abrams. It’s a fashion brand… kind of. We mostly just use clothes from Forever 21 which we alter or not alter, and put into new contexts. The show we have coming up is sort like a rebrand of Forever 21’s rebrand of Kurt Cobain. We are working on a video for it right now, which is loosely based on seance scenes from the movie The Craft.




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