Where the respectable avert their gaze, artists stare. In the Renaissance, we dissected bodies in order to grasp the workings of a shoulder joint.
Only two people have ever gotten angry when I drew their pictures: a Moroccan religious fundamentalist and a New York City cop.
I was 19 when I sat sketching in Fez's Old City. I came to Morocco with a hallucinogen-chomping writer and an orientalist streak as deep as Fez's open sewers. I abandoned both by the end of the trip. Besides motorbikes and street harassment, Fez's main sounds were those of tour groups clomping toward their guide's carpet shop. I didn't want to be like them.
Tour groups took photos. They'd jam cameras into someone's face. Before their subject could respond, they'd run off, happy to have proof that they'd stood somewhere quaint.
I'd curl up on filthy steps with my sketch pad. Street kids watched. Drawing was a monkey dance to prove that despite my dopey American face, there was still a skill I could rock. I'd draw the street kids. They'd scamper away with my sketches.
The man who didn't like my drawings had the long gray beard of the religiously devout. One morning he ripped my drawing from my hands and shredded it with a satisfied grunt. Dopey-American-style, I burst into tears.
A decade later, I sat next to journalist Matt Taibbi in a New York misdemeanor court, watching a judge pressure brown men into plea bargains for walking their bikes on the sidewalk. I drew the cop who was guarding the courtroom. He looked as pink and shiny as a boil. The cop stormed over. "What are you doing?" he hissed.
"Drawing. It's allowed."
"You were looking at me. When someone looks at me, they mean trouble."
The back of the courtroom burst into laughter as he stalked away.
In Morocco and Manhattan, I was channeling the art's twin desires—to mock power and to please.
I started drawing when I was four. It fast became a way to relate to a world where classmates wrote death threats on my book bag. In grade school, I'd draw kids so they wouldn't hit me. Artists are courtiers more often than rebels. Painters survived the gulags by drawing criminals' kids. Being small and skilled, you learn to create little portals of escapism—to which the strong are as susceptible as anyone else.
Later, drawing let me look. Since my tits came in, I've learned to walk with blind, bitch-faced indifference. If my eyes strayed, guys would take it as an invitation to fuck. They'd follow me down the street screaming "Cunt!" when I declined. The upside was that if I did want to fuck, I just had to look up.
Women are looked at. But as an artist, I had permission to look back.
Where the respectable avert their gaze, artists stare. In the Renaissance, we dissected bodies in order to grasp the workings of a shoulder joint. We drew naked models at a time when women corseted themselves neck to knees. We took rooms in brothels and captured courtrooms where no cameras could go. Our sketchpads are our excuse.
But as cameras came to dominate image making, artists retreated to our studios. During my modeling years, I developed a black envy of photographers. I posed for one of those inevitable portrait series of burlesque dancers without makeup (The Woman Behind The Mask!). As I shivered in my sequined G-string, I stared at the photographer's past portraits. Drag queens. Fetish stars. Performance artists with butterflies for lashes and 18-inch waists. It was the New York I had read about but was too awkward to approach. I longed to meet them, charm them, make them mine.
I slept with girls until I realized that I wanted to draw them instead.
When I was 24, I got the gig as the official Toulouse Lautrec of New York's most depraved nightclub. Onstage, my three-and-a-half-foot-tall punk friend would paint himself blue and mime intercourse with a girl dressed as a Smurf. In the audience, bankers vomited up champagne that cost more than my college tuition. I got the job by pulling out my sketchbook while sitting next to the club's owner. Drawing is disruptive. You're producing when you're expected to consume. Nightlife barons are no different than third graders. Art's magic trick works just as well on them.
Two years of 4 AMs found me curled up on the club's stairs. I drew girls in G-strings as they stretched their legs over their heads in the blue backstage light. We were both working, they and I. They were goddesses. I could capture them. I traced their images over and over, tattooing the moment, dancing with my hands.
When I was 29, I balanced on a railing and live-drew the Madrid general strike. It was the diametric opposite of my New York nightclub. But my impulse was the same.
Later, I'd draw anything or anyone that interested me. Piled on top of one another, my sketchbooks make a stack taller than me.
We live in the age of the ubiquitous image. Our phones are filled with porno selfies. CCTV cams survey our shopping trips. Cops post GIFs of the Boston bombers. Drawing is charmingly ineffectual in comparison. You take photos. Drawings you make. Cameras steal life force. Paintings, like The Picture of Dorian Gray, give you more.
When you draw, you're feeding an image with blood. I got tendonitis from drawing too much. My right hand periodically stops functioning, and I have to pay someone to electrocute it back to life. During long projects, I punch my palm over and over to make it hold a pencil. Constrained by mud, blood, and tendons, I'd keep on working. It's all I can do.
I didn't have any more encounters with the cop who didn't like my sketches. But I went back to that square in Fez the next day. A teen boy stopped me. "Sorry about that guy," he said. "He's crazy."
He shoved something into my hand. It was my drawing, its pieces taped up like a broken arm.
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