People sound off on the billboard that depicts President Donald Trump and Nazi-like symbols in Phoenix. Hannah Gaber/azcentral.com
Artist Karen Fiorito knew backlash was bound to come. And it has.
Commissioned by a downtown Phoenix art gallery in January to create a billboard art piece that would comment on President Donald Trump’s administration, Fiorito said what she had in mind was going to stir up a controversy.
“Billboards are perfect because you don’t have to go to a gallery to see it,” she said. “You’re creating a dialogue with the public. You’re reaching people you’d never reach with your artwork.”
The completed billboard, now looming over Grand Avenue and Taylor Street, went up in downtown Phoenix on Friday afternoon amid the Art Detour event. Plastered on one side is a depiction of Trump’s face staring down. The red background is mingled with mushroom-cloud explosions and dollar signs in typography imitating Nazi swastikas.
On the other side of the billboard, one word, “Unity,” stretches across, accompanied by five hands spelling out the word in sign language.
Stories on the billboard went viral Friday night. The Arizona State University alumnus said she and her husband, who don’t currently live in Arizona, began receiving threats Saturday morning.
“I’ve been called a communist, a Satan worshiper,” she said. “I’ve been told I’m a ‘very, very sick person.’ I’m not sure what that means. I haven’t been answering the phone. My husband has because he’s not afraid to talk to anyone, but he told me he received a couple death threats this morning. … He said, ‘They were coming to get us with their boys.’ ”
Previous art, previous threats
This isn’t new territory for Fiorito. As an artist and activist who makes billboards as forms of artistic commentary, Fiorito has received death threats before.
“I’ve had people tell me they’re going to come rape me and kill me,” she said.
The more frustrating thing this time, she said, is that the businesses under the billboard have been receiving threats as well.
“At first I was really excited about doing it, but then you always have this fear, this ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen if I do this?’ ” she said.
She said part of the reason La Melgosa, a gallery in Phoenix that “supports the arts community in Phoenix,” commissioned her to do the piece is because it knew she didn’t have a problem speaking up. They knew because in 2004, when she was a graduate art student at ASU, she created her first billboard piece at the same location. It was focused on President George W. Bush’s re-election, alleging he was a liar.
Since then, she’s installed commentary billboards all around Los Angeles and other California cities, most focusing on politics and the state’s drought.
“I started doing the first one in Phoenix because, during that time, saying anything about the president or the government was very, very taboo,” she said. “Nobody wanted to put that in a gallery, so I started putting my work up on the street and then I got the billboard.”
In recent years, she started leaning away from political commentary art, but in January, shortly after Trump’s inauguration, La Melgosa reached out.
She began designing, coming up with a number of possible pieces. She created a depiction of Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s controversial relationship, but it was too easy to brush aside, she said. She created a piece with fists raised in the air under the word “RESIST,” but La Melgosa wanted something more uplifting for the other side.
Eventually, they landed on the billboard standing over Grand Avenue and on the dollar signs imitating Nazi swastikas emblazoned on either side of Trump. It was a symbol her friend, New York artist Hugh Gran, designed in 2004 and one she viewed as powerful enough to draw a parallel through her art.
“It’s more of a form of resistance, a form of protest,” she said. “I feel that I’m really just speaking for other people who might not be able to say anything, or speak out, or may not feel safe in doing so. Part of it, the back of it, is a call to unity. It’s a call for people who feel like they’re in the minority to come together.”
On social media, Fiorito received reactions from both sides, with some on Twitter asking for copies of the work and others suggesting she leave the country. Here were some of the comments:
- @Nikal.Katha: “Terrifying & hilarious at the same time, much like Trump himself. It’s perfect.”
- @spinball6: “You could have donated to charity with this money and helped the refuges instead of making a statement.”
- @bibagofjones: “That billboard is kinda gangster, Where can I buy a poster of it.”
- @tambinijulianyc: “Dearie, you are unhinged please seek mental health help now…President Trump is a great man!”
- @MiamiRsr: “Bravo Karen! And may other artists and intellectuals unite against the American fascist in power.”