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Interviews

Meet the Artist Who Paints Your Favorite Music on Boxes of Empty Cigarettes with Cute, Cuddly Animals

Her name is Bridge Stehli and she calls the project Smokémon, so you obviously gotta catch 'em all.

It's a 100 percent confirmed scientific fact that smoking cigarettes—despite causing cancer and being one of the worst possible activities you can do for your health—looks fucking cool. Don't believe me? Grab a cigarette, go outside, lean against a wall (preferably one that's made of brick), spark it up, and have someone take a picture of you. Yeah, I know, right? Toss a sweet filter on that baby, upload to Instagram, and watch the likes pour on in.

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Anyway, because we've now established the already well-known fact smoking looks inherently cool, it's not surprising that it's been embraced by musicians for pretty much as long as music has been around. Think about all those dope photos you've seen over the years of rock stars smoking being way sweeter than you ever will be, from Jimi Hendrix to Jack White to John Lennon to Robin Thicke (OK, maybe not Robin Thicke).

To push on this connection between music and smoking even further, Sydney, Australia-based artist Bridge Stehli has started painting cigarette packs with cute animals and music logos. But it's bigger than just something that looks cool aesthetically. "I hope that the juxtaposition between something that’s cute or sweet would be jarring next to something that’s sinister or morbid," she says. She calls the project Smokémon, and we caught up with the 29-year-old over email to get a sense of why she's doing this project.

Continued below.

Noisey: What’s your relationship with music like?
Bridge Stehli: Music is a pretty pivotal part of what I do. I don't make it. I’m not a musician. But I don’t work without it. I make a lot of work about the music I listen to. I listen to a lot of metal, death metal, black metal, a lot of hip-hop. I guess, probably music that’s a little more on the extreme end of the scale.

Is it important to you to work with music?
Yeah, it’s extremely important, I can’t work in silence and it helps me to focus on what I’m doing rather than the million other things that are always going on.

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Do you think the music inspires you to make the work or do you think the work inspires you to listen to that kind of music?
I think probably both, although, obviously this particular work is influenced largely by the music I listen to and not the other way around.

How did you come up with this as an idea?
I was living on my friend’s couch and he was a very heavy smoker. I needed to produce some work on cardboard for a show and these Marlboro Lights packs were lying around everywhere and I started to think a lot about the warning labels and censorship and responsibility. This was when I was living in London and there are some health warnings on their packs but not nearly as many as Australia, and looking at those against the packs I collected whilst in the States which had next to no warnings.

Was the cig pack just a good canvas?
It was more that it was an available canvas at the time—when I didn't have really a studio space didn’t really have any actual canvas, didn’t really have any money and had limited time. It was just what was available and then I started to think about them and started to think about… Well, it’s an obvious link, the censorship of music and then the censorship of advertising or rather trying to protect people from things that are considered harmful.

How do you choose the artists or bands?
Well they’ve gotta be artists who have been condemned at some stage for one thing or another, whether that’s indecency or violence or they are considered harmful to their listeners or viewers in some way. I mean, you couldn’t really make a pack for Taylor Swift or something. I made a pack for Tyler, the Creator because he was at the time being demonized for being this figure who was a misogynist with lyrics that were really violent and they were trying to keep him out of the country that I live in. A lot of the metal bands that I’ve made packs for have had similar things, or just metal in general has been demonized in that way. Also the band names are also significant in that obviously writing Slayer on a cigarette packet or writing like, Venom or Merciful Fate is something that’s pretty self explanatory and pretty heavy.

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How do you choose the animal that correlates with the band name?
I dunno, that always changes. Sometimes it’s a really obvious choice, sometimes it’s a private joke, sometimes it’s just an aesthetic thing, sometimes I haven’t painted that particular animal before and I feel like I want to. I mean mostly the animals are kind of more about creating a mascot for something that usually wouldn’t have a mascot. In the same way that Camel used to use that… What was that guys name? Joe Camel? Or my personal favorite Willie the Kool Penguin—that’s kind of what these anthropomorphized animals are about. A cuddly mascot for something which is considered kind of sinister, something that would appeal to children.

What do you think the interaction between the logo the animal and the cigarettes creates for the viewer?
I guess I hope that the juxtaposition between something that’s cute or sweet would be kind of jarring next to something that’s sinister or morbid.

Do you think people get it?
It seems like people are just drawn to their favorite animal or drawn to their favorite band, which is fine, which is cool.

Which is your favorite that you’ve done so far?
There are so many… maybe the hell hammer one with the bat? Actually no, it would be the Mayhem one with the pig head. The Mayhem one with the Pig was my favorite because the pack was, I think, from Thailand, and the imagery on it was really disgusting, it was a really gory dissection scene, the cadaver was all grey and fucked up. I thought the pig was a pretty obvious choice for Mayhem—well, to anyone who knows Mayhem a pig is a pretty obvious go-to.

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I think the pig head and the cigarettes had the most weight because of like, corporate pigs and then obviously Mayhem puts pig heads on stakes so it’s got this like duality to it, that is very powerful.

What’s your goal, overall?
I thought I would stop doing this such a long time ago, but I just seem to keep making them whenever I get time. Sometimes I wish they weren’t broken up and I had all off them together as a big body of work because that would be really cool, but I have got literally hundreds of cigarette packs now so I think I need to figure out how I’m going to incorporate them all into one big piece, I mean, if I’m going to that at all.

What you said was interesting, that juxtaposition, and then this thing that everyone loves, like no one hates pandas.
No one hates raccoons, except people who work in parks, but people hate Mayhem because they burn down churches. People hate smoking because it kills people. Generally, the audience who would be involved or looking at my work are not going to be shocked by these things or offended but might really enjoy their subversive nature, all three elements incorporated into one work at that scale. It’s a really accessible thing. Lots of people can enjoy this work. It’s not some grandiose grotesque imagery, it’s very concise and you have to be very involved with it, the scale of it means you have to get up close to it.

That’s definitely an important part of why I’ve kept making it, because of the way that people connected with it was really surprising to me, people were really attracted to the pocket size of this work. I actually had a huge one made it ended up getting destroyed because the person I had making it was very drunk, but oddly it didn’t have the same impact at that scale, it just sort of looked like a cheap replica.

It’s interesting to think about what goes into your thought process, when some people will probably just view this and be like, “hey, that’s cool.
That’s fine with me, I don’t know that I set out in the beginning necessarily to make anything that was accessible or appealing but that’s what happened and when it did happen I liked it. I liked the way people responded to it because I like making people happy or making them laugh, and I enjoy that element of the work. The initial intention of the work is not the reason I keep making it. I’m certainly not saying anything new with it I know, but the reason I keep making them I think is because—well, it’s fun and there’s something kind of addictive thing about it as well, in the same sense that collecting anything is addictive. And smoking is addictive. And like, you gotta catch ‘em all.

It’s like with metal, it’s so much heavier than anything else that is on most people’s spectrum. People are like, “Why would you listen to this? You’re fucked, what’s wrong with you? Are you depressed? Are you suicidal?” And it’s like, nah man, this just makes me feel really good, and that’s the thing with smoking, even though it kills you, it makes people feel really good. Death metal makes you feel really good even though it’s fucking terrifying. And there’s that whole thing with everyone being obsessed with his or her own mortality and it’s a big part of the fascination with death metal and with black metal.

Listening to that music and being confronted with the imagery that goes with it forces you into a position where you have to consider those things and not be scared of them and treat them just as a part of your life. It’s the same thing with smoking. You’re like, psh, whatever, not afraid of death, not afraid of mortality, gonna just smoke this shit even though it's going to probably kill me. It forces you into a place where you have to confront the idea of your own mortality, or reach some kind of nihilistic plateau where you're like, “Well, we’re all gonna die, it’s not that bad.

See the full Smokémon collection here.