Update: As of Thursday, the mural is now open to everyone thanks to "intense public pressure," according to the people behind it. Original article below:
On Monday I got a press release from publicity manager Alex Martinett promoting the launch of the “first ‘influencer only’ mural.” The email informed me that this wall art was promoting Like & Subscribe, a soon-to-be-released scripted comedy on the Go90 streaming platform about YouTubers. To take your photo next to the mural or even catch a glimpse of it, supplicants would have to prove their influencer status by showing the on-site security guard their social media account with either a verified checkmark or over 20,000 followers. Only then could you go inside the tent containing the mural.
If the concept itself hadn’t tipped me off that this stunt might be satirical in nature, the release's fawning praise of influencers and claims that “they work harder than anyone every day” left no room for doubt. But I was an influencer myself thanks to my blue checkmark on Twitter—I had to see this mural, stunt or not. The made-for-social-media wall was on Melrose Avenue in LA’s street art–oversaturated Fairfax district, only a short drive away.
The security guard at the mural, Qasim, told me I was the first person to stop by that day. I asked him what he thought of the stunt’s concept. It seemed “pretty interesting,” he told me with a politeness that made me feel like he didn’t care one way or another. Pleasantries behind us, we moved on to the next step, both uncertain of how it was exactly supposed to play out.
“So, I show you my Twitter now,” I said, with about half a question mark at the end of the sentence. “I don’t have 20,000 followers,” I confessed. “That’s OK?”
Qasim told me it was fine, and I was in. Cringing at having to actually flex my blue checkmark, but in.
Beneath the white canopy tent that hid the mural from those passing by on the sidewalk was a painting exquisite in its manufactured banality, a pastiche of all the worst instagrammable street art trends of the past decade. Front and center were LA’s 500th pair of angel wings. Then you had “City of Angels” above, replete with scare quotes. There was even a little meta Banksy-esque stencil of a guy wheatpasting the (painted) rest of the mural up. And topping it all off was a verified checkmark halo, meant to signify the influencer’s divine status and superiority to the plebs who would never make it inside the tent. Living in LA, you see a lot of bad murals, but I had never seen one so intentionally awful in my life. I loved it.
I asked Qasim to take what would be his first of many photos that day before going back to my car to post and get out of there. On the drive away, as vibrations from my notifications went from sporadic to ceaseless, I began to realize this promotion was going to hit much harder than I or its creators had anticipated.
When I tweeted and instagrammed the pics I’d taken at the mural, I figured I was in for some grief. I assumed there would be some annoyed scoffs from those not “getting” the stunt and thinking it was a full-throated endorsement of a social media caste system. I expected some ribbing about the “had to do it to ‘em” pose I’d thrown into my pic. I even braced for the usual horde of fanemy trolls to come out of the woodwork to tell me I’m worthless. What I got instead was a full day of people from across LA, the country, and eventually the world processing this mural with a staggeringly diverse spectrum of reactions.
There were some who laughed it off as a silly joke and “so LA.”
A few presumed the mural was a bit for a future Nathan for You episode. They’re wrong, of course, but I can’t think of higher praise for the team behind the mural.
Others made it known that they thought the mural sucked, which of course is the point.
A few pieced together the clues from the obvious signage in my pictures that this was in fact marketing for a new show.
Then there were the roughly 10 billion people who made the same Black Mirror joke, a move infinitely less funny and original than the mural itself.
Most, however, jumped straight to outrage. This mural, in their eyes, was a harbinger of the end times, proof positive that humanity is an awful species deserving of every tragedy that befalls us. But the root cause of this societal sin varied from person to person. The mural was a Rorschach inkblot. Capitalism, Millennials, social media, neoliberals, gentrification, and so many other entities were cited as the original sin that spawned this piece of generic wall art.
Calls to vandalize, cover, or bomb away the painting filled my mentions. A tagger friend texted me a picture of a spray can–filled bag along with his intent to get the mural that night.
Some of the more incensed responses ranged from the usual jokes or suggestions that I kill myself or be killed to full-on death threats. All this because I took a photo in front of a mural.
Jack Wagner, one of the producers behind Like & Subscribe, told me that "the show itself is about influencers. The mural and all of the reactions are a very accurate and real-life preview of how ridiculous the show is."
Whatever your particular feelings about this mural, be they ire, hopelessness, awe at its brilliance, or all of the above, you cannot deny that by eliciting these emotional reactions and opening up a conversation about a festering social blight, the Like & Subscribe crew has created a work of art. You can hate it all you want, but it’s still art.
But as real influencers with six-digit follower counts hit me up for the mural address so they can get "ironic" snaps with it—and as I notice my own follower count climbing higher due my role as patient zero— I wonder how much good trenchant satire can do. Maybe this is just who we actually are.
When I asked Wagner if, after seeing how visceral some of those reactions were, he felt they might have crossed a line, he laughed and told me, "No. I think it's self-evident how ridiculous it is. I'm just really grateful how many influencers are talking about the show."
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