North Korea’s Banksy, Smear Leader, Goes to Washington
Big Brother is watching us, with his cherubic, beaming, double-chinned face.
If you’re a pedestrian in the metropolitan Washington, D.C., area, chances are that you’ve come across the jolly visage of Kim Jong Un on your commute. In recent months, stickers of the Supreme Leader of North Korea’s disembodied head have been popping up all over town in unlikely places: on street signs, construction sites, advertisements for propane cylinders.
Activists upset with the Washington Redskins’s refusal to change its name can take some delight in seeing a helmet displayed at FedEx Field with Kim’s face, festooned with feathers, covering that of the controversial Native American mascot.
This subversive public art campaign is the work of an anonymous provocateur known only as Smear Leader. Equal parts street artist, prankster, and social critic, Smear Leader’s day job is in marketing, which is appropriate given the way his wheatpaste stick-ups (mass-produced copies of an original drawing composed by the Smear Leader himself) and social media memes have gone viral. His Instagram account features a sham GoFundMe page beseeching potential donors to support the young dictator’s “Long range nuclear missile to destroy America.” Fans from Brazil to Kazakhstan have ordered the decals and posted them around their own cities. Unlike the ruler he’s ridiculing, Smear Leader doesn’t provide adherents with instructions as to how or where to post his stickers, counting upon their own innate creativity.
The voluntary, DIY-nature of the campaign offers a harsh contrast to the rigidly hierarchical and brutally coercive Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which, as the late Christopher Hitchens observed, might as well have been created using George Orwell’s 1984 as a user’s manual.
Last week, I sat down with the Smear Leader for an exclusive interview about his work. Meeting in a crowded hotel lobby, all I had to go on to recognize him was the physical description that he had emailed me several days before: “5 ft. 7 in. chubby. Navy blue Mao suit with a pin on, blowout hair. Always smiling.” In reality, Smear Leader is tall, thin, and bald, the only resemblance to his dictatorial alter ego being a near-constant jocularity (unblemished, one presumes, by occasional outbursts of homicidal rage directed at errant family members).
Smear Leader’s interest in the North was sparked by a VICE News documentary about the hermit kingdom. “That’s when I was like, ‘holy shit,’” he recalls. From there, he developed an obsession, “going down the rabbit hole” that is the strange and horrifying Kim regime. He devoured history books about the Korean peninsula and watched regime propaganda videos on YouTube. That fixation led him to a 2012 art exhibition in D.C. mounted by Song Byeok, a former DPRK propagandist under the regime of Kim Jong Il, son of regime founder Kim Il Sung and father to Kim Jong Un. After defecting from North Korea by way of China, Byeok turned his artistic talents toward mocking the man he had spent his life venerating. Beyok’s most popular painting, Take Your Clothes Off, features the head of Kim Jong Il transposed onto a voluptuous Marilyn Monroe attempting to keep her fluttering dress down standing astride a windy subway grate, an iconic image captured during the filming of The Seven Year Itch.
Around that same time, Smear Leader became interested in the work and method of “Hanksy,” who made his name by spray-painting Tom Hanks’s face over images popularized by Bansky, the anonymous British street artist. Hansky’s latest portrait, appearing on a brick wall in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, depicts Donald Trump’s unmistakable scowling mien as “a giant pile of shit.”
Smear Leader is clearly aiming to get a laugh with his depictions of Kim Jong Un. But his oeuvre also evinces a moral seriousness. Smear Leader hopes to raise awareness about the dire situation in the North, a “nightmare” of proportions not seen since “Nazi Germany.” Pasting images of concentration camps and starving children onto walls will “not really register” with “the Instagram generation” he seeks to influence; to use the parlance of social media, it won’t “carry” in the same way as a be-thonged “Nicki Kimaj.” The intermingling of a human-rights tragedy with pop cultural references may seem like a belittling of the atrocious North Korean slave state. But such a quick judgment misses the role that satire can play in weakening the foundations of tyrannical regimes.
On an abstract level, the prevalence of the Dear Leader’s face on every conceivable surface functions as a biting critique of the Kim family cult of personality, ubiquitous and unyielding. Any similarity to the cultural omnipresence of that other mass-murdering communist, Che Guevara, is completely unintentional, Smear Leader says. The face of the late Cuban revolutionary, affixed to the dorm room walls of historically illiterate college students for nearly five decades, is rugged and noble; Guevara’s reputation today is more that of a sex symbol than a proletarian hero. By contrast, Smear Leader’s stencil drawings of the grinning Kim undermine his self-concocted aura of heroic political leader, transforming him into an object of ridicule.
And becoming the target of humor—not being taken seriously—is a prospect the North Korean regime finds deeply threatening. Late last year, it expended much hot air denouncing The Interview, a silly buddy comedy in which Seth Rogen and James Franco team up to kill Kim Jong Un on behalf of the CIA. When hackers divulged confidential data and email correspondence belonging to Sony Pictures, demanding that the studio cancel the film’s release, U.S. authorities blamed the cyber attacks on the North Korean government.
Critics panned The Interview as puerile, which it certainly was, but in their scoffing they missed a vital point. Visiting Seoul two months after the hack, I met several high-ranking regime defectors, including a former poet laureate to Kim Jong Il. They all said the film had a potential revolutionary effect on the minds of regular North Koreans, in that it did the most dangerous thing possible: mocked the Dear Leader. Here was this allegedly godlike figure portrayed as a goofy, erring and – most importantly — fallible man. (While on that visit, I joined a group of such defectors in secretly launching promotional materials for The Interview by hot air balloon over the DMZ.)
It’s in that satirical tradition where the work of Smear Leader resides. Since its inception at the start of the Cold War, the Kim dynasty has craved to be taken seriously by the outside world, regularly threatening nuclear annihilation and other horrors upon its manifold enemies. Smear Leader is laughing in their face. Thus far, he’s emailed over 8,000 stickers to fans around the world, and the popularity of his project shows no sign of abating.
An upcoming meme will be Kim’s face plastered onto the similarly rotund body of George Costanza sprawled on a couch. When I ask him why he wishes to stay anonymous, given his increasing worldwide fame, Smear Leader sheepishly tells me that he’s concerned about his boss’s reaction to his extracurricular activities: “‘Oh, you can market that?’” he says, grinning. “‘What have you been doing for us?’”