DoubleTap is an interview series highlighting creatives whose work explores sex, body, and identity.
Etymologically speaking, the word queer originally meant “odd” or “eccentric” — anything that deviated from the norm. At the turn of the 19th century, it caught on as a pejorative for effeminate men, before ultimately being reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community in the 80s and 90s. What it means to be queer and who qualifies as such remains widely debated, however, most can agree that it doesn’t deal in the expected.
It is within this space and understanding multimedia artist Zach Grear’s work lives.
Concerned with more than physical expressions of queerness (although, plenty of same-sex action is featured), Grear’s art explores queerness as an expression of societal dissonance. Whether he’s superimposing tattoos over the bodies of Marilyn Monroe and Keith Haring or re-rendering iconoclasts like Nina Simone, he takes already eccentric images or figures and further queers them by subverting traditional visual notions.
His essential thesis: queer is punk as shit.
A portion of your work centers on marking up photographs of famous personalities with figurative tattoos and other body art — can you speak to the inspiration behind this?
The inspiration in utilizing tattoos and collage work comes from my own evolving standards of beauty. I got my first tattoo in 2013, and since then my journey with tattoos has become a way to reconnect with my body image. With each new piece I feel more in control of my body and my sense of beauty — each tattoo reclaims what the oppression of Body Fascism steals from us every single day. I know an image calls out to me when I’m compelled to place my own standard of beauty onto it.
Is there a criteria you consider when selecting these celebs?
In terms of the selection process, the celebs I use are people whom I have admiration for. And for some of them that admiration may very well be based simply on aesthetic. More and more I’m trying to focus on contemporary artists and activists, ones that inspire me daily, who may or may not be on a “celebrity” level.
Between collages, prints, and clothes, your art seems pretty multidisciplinary. Do you have a favorite medium?
My favorite medium has to be drawing — pen, marker, or mechanical pencil to paper. Somehow my mind is always most liberated while I’m drawing; no matter how complex the design I’m working on is, I find myself in the middle of strange daydreams all the time. It’s an odd balance of concentration and mentally letting go.
Whether it’s a tee with a leather daddy gripping his hard-on or a sweater with two men kissing naked on it — your art is unmistakably queer. Were you ever concerned that such strong imagery might alienate non-queers?
The concerns of non-queer people don’t interest me.
Reversely, has anyone tried to censor or sanitize your work?
Fortunately I haven’t encountered anyone outright trying to censor my work. I’ve been lucky with the companies I use for screen-printing shirts and for photo prints. They don’t seem to mind boners!
You have a backup Instagram account in case your “main gets deleted.” Have you run into problems sharing your work on the app?
Being a queer artist on Instagram is like being in a toxic relationship. I’ve gotten amazing opportunities, exposure, and, most fulfilling — I’ve met so many other talented artists through this platform.
However, sharing my work within the confines of ambiguous “Community Guidelines” is infuriating. 77.6 million people use Instagram, so the concept of “Community” is absurd, especially when run primarily by wealthy cishet [cisgender and heterosexual] white men. I have a back-up account because the “Community Guidelines” tend to snowball once you’ve had even just one post deleted. Most queer artists I speak to share the feeling of walking on eggshells with each post, trying to stay visible while being hit with shadow bans (which IG still hasn’t even acknowledged exists), all while expecting their account to be disabled one day for no reason or way to reach out. I’m enjoying the ride while I can. I was an artist before Instagram, and I’ll be one after Instagram.
There are some recurring “tattoos” in several of your prints — different dates, and in particular, the Roman numerals VII — is there a significance to these?
A few of them have significance. My life-path number is 7, which is why I use it often, and there are certain words I have an affinity for: “Lust”, “Bliss”, “Radiant”, and the Joy Division song “She’s Lost Control”. Often times while drawing I’ll use lyrics from the song I’m listening to in that moment. If the subject is a celebrity I like to use symbols attached to them — birth date, zodiac sign, quotes, etc.
Are there queer artists of the past that inspire your work?
Absolutely. David Wojnarowicz blows my mind with the extent of his reach: street art, photography, writing, music, protest. He knew it wasn’t about being comfortable — as any oppressed group will tell you, there’s no such thing as being comfortable. James Baldwin is my hero. Another Country is my absolute favorite book and I tell everyone I meet to read it.
How would you define “punk” within a queer context?
I view punk as a very ‘Now’ stance. That is, it’s the opposite of a “turn the other cheek and wait for the oppressor to decide we should exist” mantra or even the feeble “but we’ve come so far/let’s meet in the middle” platitudes.
As queer people, punk means we exist solely on our own terms. Society wasn’t created with queer people in mind, so the concept of assimilation and compromise only serves to feed the beast.
Your work gives nods to sexual subcultures, like Leather and BDSM — how does eroticism dictate your work?
Again, this comes to the idea of standards of beauty. The fantasy of vintage erotica is most powerful when viewed through a nostalgic lens. I gravitate towards them in order to clash and twist the old school appeal — whether 50s era muscle mags or 70s unpolished Honcho men — with my own standard of beauty.
You designed the AIDS Memorial “What’s Remembered Lives” t-shirt, which is a lot of responsibility. Can you talk a bit about that process?
I’d followed and interacted with the AIDS Memorial Instagram for a few months when Stuart, the moderator, reached out to help design the first iteration of the t-shirt in late 2017. It’s been great seeing people share their stories while wearing the tee, and I’m excited to see new versions of the shirt from different artists.
Has the current administration’s encroachment on LGBTQ+ rights affected your artistic output at all?
Like many people, the 2016 Election definitely woke me up. Toni Morrison specifically snapped me out of my red haze when, in response to the election, she wrote: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work.” 2016 was also the year of the Pulse shooting, so I realized that if I claim to be part of the queer community, I’m going to have to claim it loudly. Art, which up until that point had mostly been a hobby, became a place to funnel that queer rage.
Do you have any upcoming projects coming up that you can dish on?
I just purchased my first real “big boy” camera! I’m excited to start taking portraits of the queer creatives I’m surrounded by, then transforming those portraits with my drawing and collage.