But that’s the thing about street art — you can’t shush it. You live with it, and if you live in D.C., you’ve lived with Absurdly Well. He wheat-pastes with the frequency and topicality of a witty millennial sending tweets. When I telephone the artist — who asks to be identified only by his first name, Mark — the week of Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearings, he has just made a stencil of a handmaid, a reference both to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel and the leadership role that Barrett served in the religious group People of Praise. As I speak to him, his stencil of Joe Biden grimaces at me from a storefront in Adams Morgan.
On the way to meet for an interview, I pass a wall of Mark’s posters honoring the late congressman John Lewis. While taking a break from working on this story, I notice Mark’s artistic addition to an electrical junction box in my neighborhood: A poster reading “A caged bird is never happy.” His work, Mark says, is driven by a truism that fuels pundits, politicians and prolific artists alike: “Nobody cares about your opinion unless your opinion is everywhere.”
And you’ve probably encountered his — be it via Absurdly Well-branded portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (presenting the justice with the glamour of Marilyn Monroe), or his images of Goya cans tumbling down a Chinatown wall, as if Andy Warhol’s soup cans had rolled out off their canvas. In a city psychologically defined by a mercurial news cycle and physically shaped by permanent, austere monuments, Absurdly Well’s timely, ubiquitous artworks create an iconography of the present.
I meet Mark near Capital One Arena because he wants to see if some of his artwork is still up. He’s wearing an Absurdly Well hat with “Not Today Karen” scrawled on the side, and he carries a USB drive around his neck with photos for his next stencil. The narrow sidewalks are clogged with shoppers and the sound of Black Israelites shouting, “White man is the devil” into megaphones.
Mark, who is Black, says that the Black community needs to be more organized, not angrier. “Anger makes people easy to control, easy to take advantage of,” he says. In his own life, he says he experiences anger mostly at himself, “for not keeping up with my mind.” Even going out to paint three times a week, working into the early morning, he says, “So many ideas get clogged up, and you want to just break a mirror.”
Ever since he fell in love with the what he calls the “randomness” of his elementary school art studio, Mark has been interested in art. He briefly attended the Art Institute of Chicago on scholarship but dropped out, feeling as if it was wasting his time and money. He has had difficulty keeping a traditional job and remains skeptical of the “professionalism” that traditional careers demand. After leaving school, Mark faced periods of homelessness, until a mentor let him start sleeping in his studio to help him get back on his feet.
Inspired by Warhol’s silk-screen prints and Jean-Michel Basquiat’s sketch-like, unfinished-looking paintings — Mark has landed on a style that merges the two, making spray-painted stencils, often of political figures or topical statements. He likens his practice to that of such artists as Henri de Toulouse -Lautrec, who gained recognition designing Parisian nightlife posters.
Three years into his career as Absurdly Well (whom Mark sometimes refers to in the third person), the artist tends to talk more about what he wants to do than what he has done — which a stroll around Chinatown suggests is quite a lot. Looking at his art, he sometimes talks about it as if someone else made it. “I must have had my coffee” he marvels, in front of a single wall plastered with 15 posters of RBG, Lewis and others.
You might think his work betrays a decidedly liberal perspective, but Mark hesitates to express political views, saying he’s no fan of bandwagon activism. He doesn’t like to “join,” he says, not politically, not professionally. He’s skeptical — to the point of suggesting conspiracy — about movements that resurface around elections. He’s grown sick of going to protests, where photo ops and cute slogans are in full supply but signs of real change are scant. “Just because you put syrup on it, don’t make that s--- pancakes,” he says.
Of course, his Pop-infused portraits could also be called syrupy. Isn’t there a danger to making celebrities out of public figures, like RBG? “Yeah it’s kind of like making her into a Pokémon,” he says. “Let’s be real though — she already knew she was a Pokémon.” For Mark, it is more about what that Pokémon can do. He worries that in the Black community, activism isn’t seen as “cool,” in part because people have more immediate concerns, like paying the rent. When asked what it might take to make it cool, he’s doesn’t hesitate: “A lot of murals. And lot of art.”
If you go
Follow @absurdlywell on Instagram. Prints of the artist’s work, street posters and branded merchandise are available at absurdlywell.com.