Picture, for a moment, a conceptual map of the early 21st Century. Put all the power gaps—wealth, politics, class, identity—on the latitudes, and all of the geographies—Syria, Palestine, North Africa, France, Wall Street—on the longitudes. The resulting chart would feature refugees and protestors, fat cats and pigs, soldiers and prisoners, sexual freedom and repression.
In short, that map would mirror the art of Molly Crabapple, our irreverent guide for the new Gilded Age. At Vice and on Twitter and for the New York gallery scene, Crabapple draws prisoners at their Guantanamo trials, paints posters that read “One Day The Poor Will Have Nothing To Eat But The Rich,” and chides ISIS as a “cosplay ‘caliphate.’” No one else could deliver such a rebuke.
Her new memoir, Drawing Blood, is a remarkable read, dripping in old-fashioned sex, drugs, and rock and roll. No, not the mud-caked Woodstock version. Go back further, to the cabaret of Moulin Rogue. For the uninitiated, the book is a peak behind the dressing room curtain. For her established fans, it’s a rewarding creation story, the tale of how Jennifer Caban, a shy and shame-filled Puerto Rican-Jewish girl from Queens, became Molly Crabapple: empowered sex-positive feminist, resident-artist of a worldwide movement, and producer of murals that have been compared to Diego Rivera, Bruegel the Elder, and Cirque du Soleil.
Even as a teenager, Crabapple was a restless traveler and sketcher, and we know this because (unlike most writers and artists) she cops to her juvenilia. From an early age, she draws what compels her, what she loves, and while art fills the book, she is more guarded with her illustrations than with her words. Portraits of old boyfriends, soldiers, and investment bankers: 0. Sketches of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, where she lived as a “Tumbleweed”: 4. “Photos are such lies,” she writes, and words can be cheap and superficial, so I recommend you judge this book on its art if you want to know what is truly important to Crabapple.
Lacking the money for a pricey art school, Crabapple attended the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. On breaks she traveled to Europe and North Africa, and growing frustrated in her classes, looked for drawing gigs outside of the typical academic path. To make ends meet, she also became an on-demand model, posing for the website Suicide Girls, as well as icky amateur photographers just trying to get girls naked in their apartments. Crabapple derides these men as GWCs, Guys With Cameras.
She rationalizes the objectification and commoditization of her body—they’d look at her on the street anyway, she thinks, might as well get paid for it—and, more importantly, always feeds the experiences back into her art. On her way up, Crabapple does good work and bad work for every outlet that will take her stuff. She hosts art shows with prints in plastic spray-painted frames where no one comes. She places illustrations with publications that range from the high-brow New York Times to the lowest-brow smut zines. In this way, she should be an inspiration to the aspiring, a reminder of how haphazard and meandering is the path to success for so many creative types. The point is to work, and she does, always improving.
And always learning. In Morocco, she learns to be a “pure observer.” From an abortion at a Planned Parenthood in Manhattan, she learns solidarity, and vows never to be powerless again. At the Fashion Institute of Technology, she learns education is a racket. From posing for Suicide Girls, she learns corporations are always out to screw you.
But in a community of sex workers, Crabapple also finds her muse, and her art blossoms when she trains her pen on burlesque dancers and strippers and others on the fringe. “Artists are the dorks in the corner; drawing gives us an excuse to stare,” she writes. In this world of the demimonde—“the liminal space of prostitutes, journalists, artists, and hustlers,” as she describes it—she focuses on art and sex, the two places “where class could be transgressed.”
Her big break comes when she is chosen to be the unofficial artist-in-residence at the infamous Box in Manhattan, a club and carnival where most performances seem to involve penetration. Every night, Crabapple sits on the steps at the corner of the stage and sketches in the strobe-lit dark. “The rich and poor rubbed against each other until they bled,” she writes. In her allegorical art, the New York of the Box is full of coke and whimsy and porn stars. The scene “compelled and disgusted” her, but it was also inspiring, populated by a cast worthy of Les Miserables. Her work tempts you to the stripper pole stage and then kicks you in the face with a platform heel. This is more than allusion; as a burlesque and go-go dancer herself, Crabapple writes of relishing the intrinsic power of the situation. When she murals the walls of a similar club in London, she wants the audience “to see that they were the pigs in this hellscape. The performers were the gods.”
In the demimonde, she learns that “glamor is armor,” but she also felt that she was “not a performer but a spy.” So while this book is Exhibit A in any misguided trial of her street cred, it is also true that Crabapple’s voyeurism is always self-aware. The rich are paying the poor to perform, the dancers are broke and have nothing to lose, but Crabapple always has her art. She is just as poor, just as exploited as her subjects, but we know, as does she, that there’s less at stake for her than them; we’re reading her book, we know she turns out okay. If Crabapple does not display gratitude, exactly—too much power inequity still for that—she does have perspective.
Today, Crabapple is known for her work covering war, inequity, refugees, and the Middle East, and the shift happened in 2011. Crabapple was a 17-year-old college freshman, and still known as Jennifer, when the Twin Towers were hit. For this reason, perhaps, September 11th gets the least treatment in the book, only a two-page chapter. Crabapple’s equivalent pivot in life happened a decade later, when the Arab Spring and European student protests spawned the Occupy movement. Before, she tangentially tweaked the noses of rich bankers through her murals at the Box. Now, she would participate and advocate more directly; it is as if she spent the boom years drawing for the rich, and since then has been atoning for it.
Crabapple is clearly moved by the message and spirit of Occupy Wall Street. A mania of illustrations follow, elegant women in Americana pageants beset by fat cats and vampire squid. All of her inspirations fuse: Crabapple’s art is a Victorian political cartoon soaked in absinthe and then wrung through a gonzo filter on Instagram. But still she feels like she never really fits in. Occupy Wall Street protestors demonstrate using Crabapple’s posters, she’s arrested during a march on the one year anniversary, and her “General Strike” illustration is admitted into the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art as representative of the movement, and yet she writes “When I talk about Occupy, I’m still unsure whether to say we or they.”
Crabapple is smart and wicked and wicked smart, a master of imagery and perception, and so her art always works on multiple levels. So too the book. She’s not afraid to provide contradictory thoughts and feelings, even on the same page, but it’s more than that. Her subjects are often performers, and her own personal roles and experiences–nude model, burlesque dancer, protestor, visual artist—are highly voyeuristic by their very nature. But so is memoir writing, of course.
Which begs the question: in this book, is she just trafficking in intimacy, the currency of the sex workers and memoirists the world over? Is a shy girl really letting us in, or are we readers just another GWC?
“Molly Crabapple” is a mask and an image and a piece of art. In her few sketches of herself, she is always small, but she’s also in the game and knows how to prosper. So this is the memoir of Molly, not Jennifer, and she knows that, meta self-awareness on every page.
And Crabapple is so good at it, I don’t care. I’m enchanted by the fantasy, even if that’s all it is. Whether you find it seductive or lurid, Drawing Blood might be the sexiest thing you read this year.