His face, his clothing — all identifiable things are off limits. He does not want real life to interrupt his fame fantasy, which, over time, has taken on a realism of its own. Indeed, Mingering Mike, the beloved Washington-based outsider artist, has always lived between two disparate worlds: the rough streets of his neighborhood in Southeast Washington and a fantasyland of his own making where he was once a soul superstar, selling out shows at the Howard Theatre and whatever happened to exist beyond it. In 2015, Mingering Mike will see the remnants of his private dream exposed, when many of his illustrated album covers and 45s will hang in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It’s an uplifting story, teetering on unbelievable, which is why it went viral long before the phrase existed in our lexicon.
‘It . . . touches people’
As a poor kid growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Mingering Mike dreamed of becoming a recording artist. In pursuit of that dream, he drew. In his late teens and 20s, he made album covers out of painted cardboard and discs with hand-drawn grooves that illustrated the story of a young man’s fantasy. He drew characters and sidekicks — “The Outsiders” and “Big D” — who sang with him on his “Capitol Records” and “Fake Records Inc.” labels. Mike recorded some original music and lyrics in his parents’ bathroom, but he never toured or performed on the stage he imagined for himself. The Smithsonian has some of these amateur, muffled recordings, but they don’t carry the same cultural significance that the illustrated covers do.
His works illustrate much about African American culture in Washington at the height of the civil rights movement. Those nuances were woven into the fantasy, and for that, he has a real fan club, which includes international record collectors, musicians such as David Byrne and the Smithsonian Institution. But they’re fans of his art, not necessarily his music.
“It comes from a completely different place than mainstream art comes from and touches people in ways that loftier pieces can’t,” said Leslie Umberger, curator of folk and self-taught art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum acquired about 150 pieces of ephemera, including Mike’s LP albums, song lyrics and drawings. It’s a sweet culmination of a surreal story for Mingering Mike and Dori Hadar, the man who discovered this collection of art almost a decade ago.
In 2003, Hadar, 38, a record collector and criminal investigator in Washington was scouring a flea market at RFK Stadium when he came across a collection of vibrant albums. Upon closer inspection, he realized all the albums were fakes made of cardboard. There were double albums, benefit albums, soundtracks to Kung Fu movies starring the superstar. The albums referenced each other, indicating a world of connections. Intrigued, Hadar bought the illustrated records for $2 apiece and went searching for the artist. Hadar tracked Mike down; he was living in the same neighborhood he grew up in. Mike had missed a payment on a storage space he was renting and the albums disappeared. Mike and Hadar became friends, and their story became myth, retold first by diggers, the term for people who search for rare records, then by major news media outlets and music publications. (Disclosure: Hadar is the son of an editor at The Washington Post.)