Grindr Users above: "3" (left) and "Young big guy looking for fun"
Grindr is a wondrous thing. It facilitates easy, no-strings sex between like-minded men who can't be fucked to trawl the clubs, bars, saunas and supermarkets of this world. And by "like-minded", I mean they both want to have sex with each other. The problem is that this is really about as much as it's geared towards. I know – you'd have thought that a piece of technology that lets you pick which of many 2D faces you'd like to have sex with would be somewhere around the Wordsworth marker on the romance scale, but, sadly, it's not.
That was partly what inspired Ted Sterchi – a London-based web developer and the guy behind Grindr Illustrated – to start painting some of the inanimate faces he saw on Grindr; a bid to soften the otherwise mostly hard, sexually aggressive profile pictures he was confronted with every time he logged into the app. That said, he still keeps each photo's original headline (stuff like "Horny Hung Top" and "2 for fun *wink wink*") meaning there's still a bit of that blunt sexual propositioning going on. I caught up with Ted to see what he finds so inspiring about the harem of men nestled inside his phone.
Grindr users above: "No pic = no chat" (left) and "202Tall"
VICE: Hey Ted. So what inspired you to start painting Grindr portraits?
Ted Sterchi: I was looking for something to do after a breakup rather than drinking and spending too much money, and was browsing through Grindr, chatting up guys and exchanging pictures. But I'd get all these messages from guys when I was out, then more asking me to Skype when I got home, and it was just too much – like, nothing is sacred. So I started using it to find people to paint. I paint different people, but if I'm looking for sex I might narrow it down a little bit to the person I want to sleep with.
Do you only paint people from Grindr?
They're pretty much only from Grindr, yeah. I think I’ve painted one person from Scruff, but that seems less diverse so I deleted that. What I do is I’ll paint someone, then send them their picture after so it’s kind of a surprise for them. It's got a bit more popular recently, so I feel bad about putting people's pictures up without telling them and have asked a couple of guys before I do it. But 95 percent of the time it's a surprise.
Don't people get a bit freaked out?
Actually, one of my friends, Will, asked me to take his portrait down because he was dreading his mum stumbling across it or something. He was flattered by the portrait, but admitted that he was a little freaked out it was online. But no, it's mostly been positive responses. Some people get weirded out, but it's not too bad.
I suppose it kicks up the who social media/privacy debate.
Yeah, it’s like, I get that you don’t want anyone from work seeing your portrait, but what’s to stop them from going on Grindr and finding it anyway? I mean, at the end of the day, you’re getting a free portrait out of it, so you can’t complain too much.
Grindr users above: "Masc" (left) and "8"
Agreed. So, considering there's very little romance involved with Grindr, is Grindr Illustrated an attempt to make the whole no-strings hook-up culture a bit more intimate?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m taking these sexually charged images and painting them from a kind of light-hearted approach. I wouldn't say it neuters the images, but I think it makes the overly sexy images a bit more friendly. Mind you, some of them still have titles like, "2 for 1 more", which is what two guys write when they're looking for a three-way. So yeah, I'm making these sexual things a bit more innocent.
How do you pick your subjects? Are they guys you’ve hooked up with or is it usually just about aesthetics?
I’ve actually only hooked up with one of the guys from the project. I’ve been on dates with a couple of them, but generally it's if I find a picture that I like. There are all these different troupes on Grindr – like, you always see these guys saying, “What am I doing on here? I want to find somebody that’ll be worth deleting Grindr for.” Or some people are basically racist and say, like, “No Asians,” or something. So if I see those headlines, which are basically stereotypes by this point, I’ll try to incorporate them. It's definitely about trying to capture the diversity of the people on Grindr.
I'm not sure of the Grindr photo policy, but I'm assuming there must be more explicit ones, right? Have you intentionally ignored them?
Actually, there can't be nudity on the profile pictures, so it's almost as raunchy as it gets. So yeah, you can't really do nudes, but I think it would kind of besides the point if I did nudes anyway. You have so many people reblogging porn on tumblr and I'm just kind of over it. I wanted to do something a bit more tame, but also with more of an edge.
There's one thing missing from your collection – a portrait of Grindr users posing at the Berlin Holocaust memorial.
Yeah, I haven’t come across any of those, to be honest. I’ve had some requests from people around the world wanting me to paint their pictures, and I’ve done it in a couple cases, but it’s generally just people from around my area. I try to give my work a bit of edge, but it’s all in good fun and the sexiest ones are where you have a really blunt or crude headline. I don't want to slut-shame anyone, either.
Grindr users above: "Yup" and "Horny HungTop"
Which is your favourite piece?
Oh gosh. I think I need a minute to think about that. It’s not what I go for when I’m dating, but I think some of my favourites are the older guys. It’s almost like there are more details to paint. Part of me is cheering them on – one of the guys is actually in his eighties, and I’m like “Good for you!” I think it’s kind of cute they’re still looking for sex. I really like the guy with the green mohawk as well, actually. I try to respect all my subjects, but it’s fun to paint people who aren’t the conventional idea of beauty.
Yeah, beautiful people have it easy enough as it is. And you’ve started selling your work on Etsy now, right?
I’m not selling any of the portraits themselves – I'd feel kind of torn using people’s images to make money – but I am taking custom requests. I get a lot of girls writing to me, or straight guys with families who want family portraits.
Oh nice. So to conclude, who would be your dream portrait? Is there anyone standing out in your mind who you dream of painting?
Oh god – let me think. It's easy for me to just paint guys that I'm in to – arty types with beards. But I love a profile with character, something a little bit weird yet endearing. I guess my ideal profile would have a barely comprehensible headline full of typos and a picture of someone who looks like they've maybe had a tough life, but they're still trying to get laid on Grindr through it all.
Tragic beauty. Thanks for talking, Ted!
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr
If you want a custom watercolour portrait, check out Ted's Etsy store.
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