When you click on the website Grindr Remembers, which went viral earlier this week, you are flooded with a rush of conflicted emotions. The first is confusion, probably followed by a boner. Where is this place that sexy gays pose in front of imposing concrete blocks for their Grindr profile pictures? After reading the site's mission statement everything becomes clear—all of these enticing snaps were taken at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin. #dark, right? These guys are using the Holocaust to help them get their rocks off? There's a certain amount of horror to the whole thing, because it seems so tawdry and inappropriate. But there's also a bit of amusement, because of course the baser elements of gay culture (the ones that turn public parks into cruising grounds) would do the same to a Holocaust memorial anywhere in the world. And then, to those who appreciate a chiseled gay physique, there's an amount of eroticism because, well, some of the guys are hot and the symmetry of the long rows of gray sarcophagi are rather aesthetically pleasing.
Ariel Efraim Ashbel and Romm Lewkowicz, who run the site under the pseudonyms Zion Afuta and Boris Cukierman, don't try to explain what you should feel or why people choose to take seductive photos in front of a Holocaust memorial. The friends, who are both Israeli Jews and now live in Berlin and London, have been compiling these images since 2011, and their oddness has finally taken off.
A couple of days ago, perhaps thanks to the recent rush of attention, Grindr changed its official opinion on the site. Back in 2011, Joel Simkhai, the owner and founder of Grindr told a small Jewish news wire, "As a Jew and an Israeli, I’m deeply moved by how users are coming together as a community on Grindr to share and inspire others to take part in the memory of the Holocaust." On Wednesday, however, Joel released a statement to Salon, saying “What started as users expressing themselves on a topic not often discussed in social networking profiles, has now become disrespectful. We strongly encourage our users to engage in a respectful manner and honor the memory of those who perished in others ways outside of the app.” There was no official explanation for the shift.
Ashbel and Lewkowicz don't have many answers either, but they certainly have some keen observations on the subject. Here is their first interview since their odd online art project has forced all these weird boners and conflicting emotions on the world.
VICE: How did you guys start this site?
Lewkowicz: It wasn't started with an idea. It was actually pretty spontaneous; I saw this one picture and I sent it to Ariel. Then we started exchanging more and more pictures and wherever we went, we found a gallery of photos that we just couldn't keep to ourselves. It was just too outrageous. We had a lot of fun making this blog, and then it started rolling over the internet and getting more and more pictures.
When did it become so popular?
Ashbel: Only a few days ago. Before it was just friends of ours who would send it to friends of theirs, and we just got pictures that way. I think someone on Twitter found it. I believe it was related to International Holocaust Day. It's quite old, though. It's really old news.
Lewkowicz: When it reached the mainstream media and the backlash came, Grindr changed their stance on the site.
Ashbel: There's a righteous backlash not only from mainstream sources, but the gay community as well.
Lewkowicz: I think it's really bullshit. I don't see it.
Ashbel: I don't think the pictures are problematic. It's a prudish approach to assume that anything that has to do with sex is immediately disrespectful or obscene. I just think it's really sad that people are so old-fashioned.
Why do you think people take all these pictures?
Lewkowicz: I don’t think there is one clear answer. For most it's probably really random. I think people are trying to make deep connections that aren't really there. Gays go to Berlin because it has lots of other gays and clubs. They spend six days in the clubs, and on the seventh they go sightseeing. They are on vacation, so they go to the Memorial and take loads of pictures. Here they have a neutral background, so they take their shirts off and start posing. I'm not sure why.
Ashbel: We aren't trying to explain it; we're just seeing the thing for what it is and putting it out there.
Lewkowicz: I just think it's awesome that people are doing whatever they want with the city. That's what the city is about. The whole idea of public space is that you make it your own somehow, and the gay community is judging what is proper and what is not. I don't think that's too cool. It’s way too disciplinary.
Since Grindr works based on location, where did you find these profiles?
Ashbel: Wherever we went. Berlin, London, Tel Aviv, Paris, Belgium… all over the place.
What do you think of Marc Adelman’s work? He’s an artist who compiled similar profile pictures from the cruising site Gay Romeo.
Ashbel: We saw it only afterward, when we noticed he ripped off all of our pictures.
Lewkowicz: We think he's a douchebag. Not only did he rip us off and take our pictures, he totally capitalizes on that. We're not getting any money out of it—we don't care. This guy just wanted to become this boring international artist. His premise was totally boring.
What was his premise?
Ashbel: I don't remember, but it was ridiculous. It was something about gays and death and how they're always associated with death because of the AIDS epidemic.
Do you think people use the memorial as a backdrop for cruising pictures because it's aesthetically pleasing?
Ashbel: I don't know if you've been, but it has a very cruise-y feel to it.
Lewkowicz: Some people think that. I have a friend who has been sending a lot of pictures, and he thinks that there is very good lighting at the memorial—he believes it is flattering to the face. However, when he talked to people who took their pictures there, for them it was about commemoration.
Do you have any favorite pictures on the site?
Lewkowicz: There is one where the irony is really strong. He writes in his profile, "No Asians,” which is kind of unbelievable to me.
Do you think people will stop using their pictures from the memorial on Grindr now that there has been a public backlash?
Ashbel: Well, I hope not. Maybe it will be the opposite—maybe more people will do it. They might want to be famous and be on the famous blog.
Lewkowicz: I think it’s going to be an interesting experiment. What is stronger: social shame, or the need for publicity?
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