Twitter has many uses: distracting you from work you desperately need to get done, making you feel bad about yourself, and annihilating your attention span, to name a few. But perhaps its most reliable function is giving you something relatively insignificant to get really, really angry about. This week, those of us masochistic enough to spend vast chunks of our lives Logged On focused our collective fury on Portland-based artist Mike Schneider, A.K.A. “The Balloon Guy,” and this post he did:
It made its way onto Twitter through @EvelKneidel, who paired a screenshot of the photo with a simple caption: "I hate this guy so much." The tweet racked up more than 10,000 retweets and more than 150,000 likes from people who, apparently, hate this guy so much too.
The Haters, as I will refer to them here, seem to be pissed off mostly because they find the sentiment Balloon Guy is expressing condescending—something he’s faced criticism for before—and insensitive to the fact that many people in America can't afford therapy. For some, like journalist Ryan Broderick, who wrote at length about Balloon Guy in a recent edition of his newsletter, Garbage Day, it goes deeper than that:
"[Balloon Guy] specializes in that particularly noxious form of Gen X neoliberal internet art that basically just boils down to him taking a DSLR photograph of himself doing the Dreamworks smirk and saying something that you used to be able to buy on a T-shirt at Forever 21…. In a lot of ways he reminds of me of the 40-something Gen X guys I’ve worked with or bumped into at conferences over the years who basically saw a couple Ok Go videos in the early 2010s and decided that taking high-res photos of faux-bespoke pop art with memeable captions was the future of all media. I can’t say for sure that this is true of Schneider, but most of the Bored Panda-brained guys like him I’ve met irl ended up just being fake woke condescending hypercapitalist ghouls once you took away their millennial pink solid color backdrops and whimsical relatable content."
Woof! In the spirit of fairness, it's worth noting that Schneider's thing for bright colors and balloons is, partly, supposed to be ironic; he describes his practice as "[making] fun of social media tropes." Schneider also didn’t actually come up with the quote he's drawing so much heat for. Instead, he borrowed it (with permission) from Stephen Szczerba, an internet personality who regularly posts stuff like this on his Instagram account, @wittyidiot. Regardless, The Haters are directing their hatred at Schneider.
In the face of all this rage, it only seemed fair to give Schneider, whom VICE has covered before, a chance to explain himself. We reached out to him to do just that.
Why did you start making balloon art, and why do you keep doing it?
I always wanted to have sort of a perspective as an artist, and pretty early on, I decided that I was going to largely make fun of social media tropes. That happened with boxed-wine boyfriend, where it was kind of a send-up of pretty relationship pictures, except mine was with this, like, symbol of my sadness. That's why I'm in a lot of my photos, too; it's sort of that endless selfies trope. I thought it would be funny to do something using balloons, because those are a trope that you see in wedding announcements, or engagement photos, or birthday photos, or bridal showers. They're made for Instagram. My first one, the caption was, "Doo what scares you the most," and the letters spelled out, "I just pooped at work." It was stupid, and people liked it, and I was like, "I think I'll keep doing those." Over the years, I've just developed this collection.
Do you always use other people's quotes and one-liners, or do you ever come up with your own?
It's easily like an 80/20 or a 90/10 split. It's typically other people's words—or, in the case of something like, "Stop romanticizing the people who hurt you," it's a phrase that people just say.
What made you decide to go with the "fuck nudes, send me an invoice from your therapist" quote?
It was really witty, but it was also really sharp. The quote basically boiled down to, "Sexy photos aren't as important as evidence that you've worked on yourself." And I think anyone who's been on a dating app could relate to that.
How would you describe the feedback you've gotten on this post?
I mean, it's definitely mixed. I think the people who don't like it are loud.
Why do you think some people are so unhappy with it?
I think there's definitely a way to misunderstand the quote to mean something like, "I'm not going to date you unless you're going to therapy." That's a pretty specific and deliberate misinterpretation of it. But I do believe that therapy is a privilege, especially in this country, with our healthcare the way it is. If there's any silver lining in that deliberate misinterpretation of it, it is raising awareness that mental health resources and accessibility are not the same for BIPOC and other marginalized communities as they are for cis white people.
The other gripe that people seem to have with it is that they just feel it's condescending. What would you say to that criticism?
I don't see that in it, and so it's really hard for me to say. I think it's pretty sassy and snappy, and I think all humor has an element of snappiness to it.
Another part of the problem people seem to have with this post, and your posts in general, is that they feel like the quotes you use are trite, or corny. One writer described them as "something that you used to be able to buy on a T-shirt at Forever 21."
That's totally fair. The cringe is kind of the point. I look like a dork in half of my photos; I wear these ridiculous glasses. I realize there's a huge element of, like, dad humor to it, and cringey-ness to it. As someone making art who's a 47-year-old retail manager, there is an element of over-eagerness to a lot of it. I totally embrace that, and that is kind of the point.
Putting this particular post aside, it seems like there's a contingent of people out there who have always had a problem with you. Why do you think that is?
I've done pretty cringey things, so I think there is an accumulation of ill will. I would say that people maybe just want a villain.
Twitter is, in many ways, kind of just an internet rage machine, where every week people decide, "This is the guy: Fuck this guy."
You know, there was a tweet a couple years ago where it was like, "The whole point of Twitter is to not be that guy—just to spend the whole day not being that guy." And I've been that guy so many times at this point [laughs].
Does that bother you?
Not really. There are just going to be people who hate you no matter what. When something blows up, I just kind of expect there's going to be a small but really vocal community of people who come after me and are really, really unhappy. And that's just part and parcel.
As the youngest child of my siblings, I was very much the clown and the people-pleaser. So it's definitely been healthy for me to let go of that impulse to people-please everyone. Because I know I'm not going to. And in a way, it's been therapeutic, for me, to let that impulse [go]. To please everyone, and to be the peacemaker, and to have everyone get along and love my art—my art would have to be pretty boring, and I consider it pretty uncontroversial already.
On the flip side of all of the hate you've been getting, do you hear from people who really like what you do?
There are people who reach out and say that a message kind of fell into their lives at the exact right time, or [who] have these incredibly personal and moving stories about how just a simple phrase has become kind of a mantra to them, and [helped them] in getting over past trauma. That's incredibly validating, and incredibly moving. That's really why I do it, is that it helps people.
Are you going to keep making balloon art for a while?
Yeah, it's not gonna stop at all. So keep it up, haters! I will say, I always am learning. There have been posts where I've listened to people and taken [posts] down because I've been like, "No, this is actually hurting a few people." There have been posts where I've been like, "I wouldn't make it like that again; I centered myself in that, and I really shouldn't have, so redo it, and do it better." And I will be listening to things that trigger people. I get so much enjoyment from my art, and I think a lot of other people get enjoyment from my art. As long as they are, and it's not hurting anyone, I have no plans to stop.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.