If you see people walking around wearing creepy skeleton face masks, you can blame Ron English.
The New York artist recently released a new line of masks with the Chicago-based company Threadless, with a portion of the proceeds going to MedShare, a charity that provides personal protective equipment to first responders.
There are more than 30 designs from the line, which turn his most celebrated artworks into wearable designs. From his trademark emoji grin to an American flag made of altered advertisements, there’s even a portrait of Donald Trump as an elephant named Trunk, who stands before the Fact Factory (there’s also a butterfly elephant named Elefanka).
It’s from an alternate universe English calls Delusionville, where a set of characters share similarities with figures in the American political landscape. The goal is to get people talking about religious and political beliefs without getting offended. It’s a cartoon-laden path to potential objectivity.
“Before Trump glided down the escalator, I was trying to not have direct parallels to the politics of the real world, but I couldn’t resist,” said English from his home in Beacon, New York.
As lore has it: “An elephant falls down a rabbit hole, which is how they all get to Delusionville, and half the animals think Trunk fell from heaven, while the other half are totally against him.”
With the election looming in November, the animals could be on the brink of getting out of the rabbit hole, the underground world where “people have their own politics”, says English.
“It becomes a way to talk about how these animals have become brainwashed in their own belief systems,” said English. “I couldn’t talk to people any more. They were already entrenched in their tribe and couldn’t accept any kind of information that went against their narrative.”
In Delusionville, there are pig tax collectors, sheep who represent spirituality and turtle soldiers who maintain complacency. “The ducks are the proprietors of quack, a placebo that makes the citizens of Delusionville buy their own bullshit,” said English.
Probably the most relatable characters are the rabbits. “They’re caught in all the insanity,” he said. “Ronnie, the main rabbit, is the only animal who tries to accept all contradictory belief systems, which has driven him completely insane.”
The masks started this spring when English’s wife, Tarssa Yazdani, started making masks for a hospital where one of their relatives works. Demand increased once the word got out. After almost running out of fabric for face masks, they cut up shirts and sweaters from English’s Popaganda clothing line. It led to collectors wanting masks too (English is a storied designer toymaker as well), and a collaboration with Threadless followed.
“I just figure, if we’re going to wear a mask, we might as well personalize them and make it fun,” said English. “It gives people freedom to express themselves, while being civic minded.”
One mask, Delusionville Manifesto, shows a trippy landscape of confusion, a prime pop surrealist masterpiece. “It could become a weird collectible from this period,” said English. “It’ll be a fashion statement now. Later, when it’s all over, it will remind you of those days and how you got through them. But people will be wearing masks for a long time.”
English started out in the 1980s in New York City, as a purveyor of the culture jamming movement, where he pasted up thousands of public artworks featuring his own political statements on top of advertising billboards. It’s part of “subvertising”, a snarky tactic in which an artist-activist subverts advertising messages to reveal truth.
“It’s like advertising but creating a different message,” said English. “I created counter-campaigns to cigarette ads and pasted them up around the country.”
He has carried out more than 1,000 billboard hacks since the 1980s, traced in a 2006 documentary, POPaganda: The Art And Crimes Of Ron English. Some of his ad-busting billboards say “America: home of the homeless” and “Jihad is over! If you want it”. He has also made Martin Luther King into Jesus, turned Barack Obama into Abraham Lincoln and depicted an overweight Ronald McDonald.
It was during university that English started to incorporate political messages into his art. “I hung out with a lot of activists who said: ‘Everyone knows your art. Why not do some politics?’” he recalls. “While my friends were going to war protests in Washington, I learned to use my powers as an artist, rather than being another person in a big protest.”
After the French situationists helped define “subvertising” in the 1950s with the philosopher Guy Debord, the movement saw its rise in America during Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign in 1972. More recently, the Yes Men have found fame as anti-globalization pranksters who have faked their way on to the BBC, while Indecline have staged nude monuments of Trump that poke fun at his manhood.
But English’s signature mashup of high art and lowbrow is called popaganda. Some of his most famous murals include his Humpty Dumpty Trump in Brooklyn and his Welcome Wall at the Canadian border, which reads “U.S.S.A.” alongside a chubby Uncle Sam.
But in quarantine, English has been channeling his forces on to the screen, working on bringing Delusionville to VR. “You’ll be assigned an animal and they fit into a class system of what you can and cannot do because they’re lower- or upper-class,” he said.
A soundtrack by the Rabbbits accompanies the project, singing the story of a disrupted utopia that leads to revolution, which puts Delusionville on the brink of civil war. Their Elephant album tells the story of Trunk the Orange Elephant, and their latest album, released earlier this year, We Are the New They, proclaims: “If you are the new us, we are the new they.”
It’s a change of pace for English, who has been painting murals around the world for the past 30 years. As he gears up to show new artwork at two New York galleries this fall – Allouche Gallery and Pop International – he may not be hitting the streets anytime soon.
His lungs are compromised from spray paint, which may have long-term effects on his health after he recovered from Covid-19 contracted in March. He has had to adjust his artistic plans and may never paint another public mural again.
“The kids like it, but it gets too much for some of us older people,” he said.
“Even the spray paint gas masks leak. They do cut down toxic fumes, but you’re still contaminating and damaging your lungs,” he adds. “There’s no easy way out of things. You trade your health for your art.”