lmnopi is a Brooklyn-based street artist and political activist that has been causing a stir with her striking images and the messages they convey. lmnopi has been an active organizer of the occupy movement, adorned the walls of New York City with her street art that provokes you to ask questions and her usage of the Smokey the Bear image has landed her in controversy of late.
I’d like to welcome you lmnopi to powder. We love to engage with someone like yourself who is really making a mark with their art and it’s a thrill to speak with someone who was actually on-the-ground when the Occupy movement was at its inception.
Firstly, you’re an Occupy Wall Street veteran and organizer. Could you tell us a little about what it was like to be involved in the movement that had such an attitude changing impact around the globe? What was the atmosphere like in the early days?
Seeing the video of the two girls being pepper sprayed by Tony Baloney galvanized my support in an instant. That’s what the cops don’t seem to get. They provide free advertising when they abuse protesters. Like someone somewhere said “Fuck us and we multiply.”
When I got to Zuccotti the atmosphere in the park was busy. There was a lot of activity going on everywhere. The first thing I saw was an area where people were busily painting and drawing slogans on cardboard. An old friend greeted me with an enormous bear hug. It felt like coming home.
In the beginning, every morning people would roll their sleeping gear up and stash it. There were no tents allowed. This left a lot of space for gathering and conversing. If you were there for long enough, you would get fed. If you were cold, you could get warm clothes. If you were wet, you might get a rain poncho. If you wanted a good book to read, there was a free library. If you were lonely, you could find a friend to talk to. If you felt ill, there were medics. If you felt like expressing yourself, you could do a mic check. If your message was lame, the mic would stop working. If you needed to charge your cell phone, there was charging stations. Later we had bike powered generators, so you could even get a work out in the park.
When it rained, everyone would cluster together under plastic tarps that we’d hold up over our heads with our arms. The NYPD wouldn’t let us create shelters in the beginning. People would mic check jokes to entertain each other while we got rained on. Occasionally, the NYPD would make little excursions into the park, led by white shirts. Whenever this happened, someone would shout “cameras!” and a bunch of people would follow the cops around and film them.
There were a lot of trouble makers in the park. They’d start arguments, shout over other people during the General Assembly and generally behave in provocative ways. It wasn’t that hard to tell who the infiltrators were. There was a game among occupiers we could call “who’s a cop” Not the best game for morale, but the urge to know was kind of irresistible.
In the beginning, it felt like people were there purely for political discussion and to find people of like mind. But then the money started pouring in and donations of food and clothing, sleeping bags and blankets. The finance team would be carrying black garbage bags full of cash to the bank every night. It was kind of insane and out of control. Soon after the influx of cash began, the vibe started to change. The GA was spent, not carefully crafting our declaration or other documents, but deciding how to spend the money. It caused a lot of tension. NYC’s houseless population started to show up. It was a place they could sleep undisturbed, for the most part, by the NYPD and get a hot meal. People from all over the country started showing up too. Soon, tents were allowed. It got very crowded. The park developed a west side and an east side. The west side was more intellectual, that’s where the daily General Assemblies were held, the east side had the drum circle and the spare changers.
As much tension as there was, I believe there was even more unity. There was a common ground for us all to stand on. You couldn’t walk two feet without meeting someone you’d end up talking to for hours. These were not superficial conversations. Just being there gave permission to delve deeper than you normally would with strangers. It really did fill you with a sense of hope for the world, just knowing that there were other people thinking about this stuff too. I think the ruling elites prefer that we all stay isolated in our own little bubbles. It gives them more power when we don’t talk to each other. People can do this everywhere in small ways. It’s called “commoning.”
At night people tended to get upset and start yelling, which would give the cops an excuse to come in and rile even more people up so they could arrest them. I used to try to talk people down when they were upset. One night I remember a man, a very tall, older man, who was super upset. He was crying. Seeing a grown man cry just does something to me. He was trying to talk to the girls who were broadcasting over the livestream, but they told him to go away. I was usually behind the scenes on the livestream, helping out. As I watched the girl’s reaction to this large, tearful man I realized they were too busy promoting themselves to care about his upset. They just thought he was hitting on them. I went up to him and asked him what he needed. Turns out he just needed someone to listen to him. So we went and sat down on a bench. He told me he had travelled all the way from Afghanistan to be with us. He was very upset by the treatment we were receiving from the NYPD and from the city officials. He felt it was demeaning that they would not allow us to have sanitation facilities, port-a-potties. He was crying because some younger people who he had taken under his wing were sick and it was hard to care for them. He himself was very ill and sleep deprived. I sat with him for a while, listening to him. He was a beautiful person. It was incredible that he had come all that way to join occupy. We struck a chord with people all over the world. I'm really very thankful that I was part of that historical moment.
What was created by the act of occupying a public park 24/7 was a sanctuary for public assembly; an experiment in direct democracy. Everyone seemed to want us to prove we had the answers, but we were too busy asking each other questions. The outside world pressured us to define ourselves by demands. The fact that we refused to allow ourselves to be defined allowed us the freedom to discuss possibilities; to imagine another world. The idea of demands is completely missing the point. Let’s say we had put out a list of demands. Would we have agreed to stop occupying the park if those demands were met? How useless would that have been, how obedient. And who would we be making the demand from? The Politicians? The Bankers? The Traders? And if our demands were supposedly met it would be only in words, which are pretty meaningless in the mouths of politicians, CEO’s and bankers. We were not there as a bribe to get something, nor were we there expecting a ransom before we would return the kidnapped park. No. We were reclaiming the commons for the people. The occupation itself was non-violent direct action. It was civil disobedience, although, technically, I do not believe we were breaking any laws. The raid was the perfect illustration of the death of the Bill of Rights.
“Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.” - Martin Luther King, JR
The camp was a microcosm of the larger society. All of the ills of society were present there; Racism, Sexism, Ageism, Ableism, they all led to ism-schisms. People condemned the movement for being “too white” “too middle class” “too homeless” “too male dominated” and some chose to walk away because of those complaints instead of realizing that those problems were merely a reflection of the larger world. That was always my response to the outside critiques: “if you think you can do better, come and join us and share your perspective” It takes work and a willingness to unpack your privilege.
The elites that formed up in Occupy Wall Street, the ones who naturally became default leaders were pretty much all from Ivy League backgrounds. These leaders in our leaderless movement, for the most part, came from educational privilege or from money. It is nearly impossible for someone with the confidence nurtured in those environments to not stand up and start sharing their ideas. Leadership is learned behavior. Soon those people were looked to for direction by people whose learned behavior is to be followers. The formation of these elites had as much to do with entitlement as it had to do with disempowerment. We are all in need of healing and personal transformation. Instead of condemning people for being a product of their upbringing, why not have some compassion? Blame doesn’t transform the world. Gossip tears movements apart. I firmly believe today that no revolution can succeed without a personal inner revolution taking place within each of us first.
The feeling I get when I think back to those countless hours I spent in Zuccotti, is this feeling of earnest hope. It stirred up so many feelings inside of me, being in these huge General Assemblies, where the mic checks were in 3 and sometimes 4 generations in order for everyone to hear. I’ve never felt the pure raw power of the people as I did in those days. I think that feeling still resides in everyone who was there, it’s a spark and a seed all rolled into one. Perhaps it is dormant for now, but it won’t take much to wake it up next time.
How is the movement going today? What’s happening now and what do you think the impact has been looking back over the movement’s history?
The movement today is still evolving. It’s falling apart constantly, it’s coming together constantly. So many great projects came out of OWS. I’m proud of all of them. OWS without a doubt had a global impact on how people talk about wealth. I recently saw an info-graphic from the yearly World Economic Forum. It shows, year by year the top five topics discussed on the agenda since 2007. Before 2012, Severe Income Disparity was not even on their radar. After 2011, it was the number one topic every year. I think we can safely attribute this to Occupy’s influence.
There is a weird discord between how the outside world perceives OWS and how occupiers perceive it. People on the inside have tons of grievances against each other. It’s a mess. We need group therapy. There was never any decompression from the raid. I think a lot of us have mild to severe cases of PTSD.
Despite that, however, there are so many great projects that came out of OWS, some I was involved in, others I just felt inspired by. Occupy Sandy, Strike Debt, the GMO movement, Occupy the Pipeline, the Illuminator and the NYC Light Brigade, just to name a few.
You created an anti-fracking series of artworks using the iconic Smokey the Bear imagery. could you explain to us why you were compelled to speak out about fracking?
I was raised to care about the environment and to consider nothing to be more important than protecting nature from exploitation. I'm just wired that way. If I see a truck full of dead trees, I have a visceral reaction in my gut. When I think of rivers and the water table being destroyed, I experience rage, as if someone is trying to kill my own Mother; which they are. The best way for me to process this rage is to translate it into art, or to sit in front of a back hoe.
Fracking destroys water. We need water to survive. It's pretty simple, it's not rocket science. Smokey was the perfect fictional character to speak out about Fracking. His job is to protect the Forests from fire. Fracking causes water to be flammable. So of course Smokey would be pissed. How is he supposed to put out a forest fire with flaming water? No bueno.
After your Smokey the Bear, ‘only you can prevent faucet fires’ campaign picked up it caused a lot of controversy and you were threatened with imprisonment. What actually ended up happening?
I was served with a cease and desist letter by a corporate proxy (the Metis Group) on behalf of the USDA on behalf of the Forest Service. This letter threatened me with six months in prison and $150K fine if I did not:
immediately cease the use and distribution of all infringing works, and all copies, including electronic copies, of same, that you deliver to me all unused copies of same or destroy such copies immediately and that you desist from this or any other infringement of these rights in the future.
Instead of immediately ceasing and desisting, I immediately consulted a bunch of lawyers who reassured me that my satire was fair use and political speech covered under the 1st Amendment. So I wrote a press release. A friend who is a freelance journalist wrote an article which Waging Non-Violence published. His article went viral and got republished on many big websites. Village Voice interviewed me as well. I don’t think the government counted on me fighting back. They thought I would be intimidated. I wasn’t. I was excited. It was a perfect opportunity to amplify a message. It was an activist’s wet dream. It was a great chance to engage in artistic civil disobedience. By risking arrest & publicizing it, I was able to inform people about the US Forest Service's leasing of National Forest Lands to Gas Companies and their plans to do more of the same (currently George Washington National Forest is being threatened).
Through this publicity, I met the director of the FSEEE (Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics), Andy Stahl who just happened to be not only a former Forest Service employee but also the man responsible for the spotted owl litigation which saved millions of acres of old growth forests in the 80's. His main hobby is suing the Forest Service and winning. So, he took me under his wing. He was part of a team that had already counter sued them for a Smokey cease and desist once back in the 90's and won. He believed that the reason the Forest Service chose to use a corporate proxy was directly related to the Lighthawk case. Using a corporation to serve the cease and desist relieved them from being implicated for violating my 1st amendment rights. It was a bluff.
Andy reassured me that he had lawyers to back us up and so we set about trying to provoke the US Forest Service into directly serving me with a cease and desist so we could counter sue them. We did this by sending out an email to 20,000 Forest Service employees asking them to show their support for a ban on leasing National Forest land for Fracking by buying a Smokey shirt and wearing it to work. He got a whole lot of very entertaining hate mail, but nothing from the USDA or Forest Service. It was a little disappointing. We wanted to counter sue them and blow the whole story up further. But at least I have the satisfaction of knowing that the government backed down against me.
I am still selling the shirts. People from all over the country order them, mostly from the Fracking hotspots. I see them as little warriors going out to fight on the front lines. They are educational tools and conversation starters.
(You can pick one up here.)
You’re quite the political activist. I’d like to ask what three issues you’d like to give special mention to besides what we’ve already touched upon and why?
All of the problems facing people on the planet at this time stem from the capitalist system which is global in scope. It’s exactly like a malignant cancer on the planet, only the planet cannot be killed, ultimately. It can just become extremely inhospitable to all life. The human race as a species is in danger of extinction, not in some far off time, in thousands or even hundreds of years but within the next few decades. There is a growing consensus that by the end of this century, humans could be facing extinction.
So, there are many issues I’d love to give special mention too because they are so numerous. However, all of those issues, be they economic, social or political, will become moot when the ecological system can no longer sustain us. So, in my opinion, the climate trumps all other issues.
Most people perceive the environmental catastrophes as isolated incidents needing attention, regulation and clean up. These environmental issues are seen as outside of ourselves. The problem with that kind of thinking is it ignores the fact that humans are part of the ecological system and the ecological system is part of us. There is no separation. What is good for the environment is good for us. The problem with capitalism is that it doesn’t recognize this fact. In Capitalism, the short term profits are more important than the long term well being of the species. Their business model is to destroy the planet. - Naomi Klein
Pretty much everything that is currently shitty about everyone’s life can be attributed to capitalism. By “everyone” I mean, for lack of a better term, the 99 per cent. Things are awesome right now for the ruling elite, the richest 1 per cent of Americans who own more than a third of the Nation’s wealth.
The representational style of democracy we are currently under has clearly failed the people. The elected officials are all millionaires and they represent the interests of their corporate donors. Elections are elaborate puppet shows. It is no longer We the People but instead We the Corporations. Citizen’s United must be repealed. Corporations are not people and should not have the same rights as us.
I really look forward to the future of a Democratic Socialist USA. Call it Eco-Socialism. Ecological Sustainability must be made top priority.
In the meanwhile, stopping the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) is extremely important. The TPP gives even more power to the corporate rule in an already out of control global Corporatocracy in the name of so called “Free Trade.”
Additionally, indigenous people must have sovereignty as independent nations. The land in the so-called USA and Canada that was stolen must be returned and the treaties honored.
How do you get your inspiration for a new artwork or project and from there what is your creative process?
My inspiration bone is connected to my heart bone. My heart bone is connected to my eye bone. I work intuitively. When developing a new piece, I start with sketching and water colors. I pay attention to my dreams. I look for symbols and signs. Some of it ends up in my performance work. Some goes into my street art.
How did you start out as an artist? What led you in that direction?
I was born this way. I think it was mostly genetic but also the environment I was raised in. I don't think I had a whole lot of choice in the matter. My Mother surrounded us with music and art. I breathed it in. I relished my Mother’s influence and made it my own. Through my life, I’ve explored various mediums. I like to switch it up. Some stuff can only be expressed through performance, other stuff is visual.
Your artwork has a lot of American Indian themes. How did that come to be?
My spiritual connection to the Earth is more mysterious than what I can articulate here. This spirituality compels me to connect with the ancestors and my living relatives from First Nation Tribes. What I paint is homage to those ancestors and a sort of prayer of reconciliation and peace in the present.
What’s it like creating out on the streets of New York City? Have you ever been in trouble with the authorities?
It’s fun. As far as being in trouble, the answer is yes, but only once for so called vandalism. It was dropped. The other times were all civil disobedience related arrests. I’ve been in the tombs more times than I’d like.
What other street artists do you follow on the scene? Who inspires lmnopi?
A lot of what inspires me creatively is not necessarily particular artists. It's more about seeing art outside the context of capitalism that makes me feel inspired. I prefer the streets to galleries.
What I like about street art is that it’s reclaiming the commons for the public. It provides a living story board and it allows an alternative to advertising. I like the visual conversation that happens out there.
I don’t enjoy the role it plays in gentrification, however. For example, Bushwick. Real estate owners recognize the appeal of street art and so they use artists who sometimes can’t even afford to live in that neighborhood themselves and most of the time they don’t even pay them to paint on their buildings. It’s exploitive.
Art is labor. If you recognize the value of it, pay the artists for their labor. Or, just let us choose our spots and if you are lucky, it might be in your doorway. It may sound like a contradiction, saying that on one hand I enjoy seeing art outside the context of capitalism, but on the other hand, artists should be paid for their work. We live in a paradoxical world. Artists have a hard time making it in a capitalist society. At least back in the 1930’s we had the WPA which hired artists to paint murals. Some would call that Socialism. Whatever you want to call it, when it all boils down, we all need to eat.
I try to find those neighborhoods which are out of the way or not considered “hot” I’ll throw up a piece there as a gift for the people who live there. That to me is what it’s for. It’s like when you are walking along in an area and suddenly there is a beautiful piece in an unexpected spot. It’s like finding a treasure.
What projects are you working on at present and what do you have coming up in twenty fourteen?
I’m performing at Panoply Performance Labs on 15 Feb as part of a show called Metaphysicality.
There are some grants and fellowships I am going after this spring and planning on doing more travel this summer. A bike trip is in the works…. Currently working on more drawings to turn into stencils, keep an eye open on the streets for them! I’m painting and doing silkscreens in my tiny studio in Bed-Stuy. I’m looking for mural gigs. Have passport, will paint for food.
lmnopi it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you. Your art and your message are truly inspiring and we look forward to seeing what controversy you conjure up in the future.
Thanks for listening. Peace.