12Dec07

Read this original article from the New York Times here.

Consumed

Recycled Phrases


Illustration by Peter Arkle
By ROB WALKER
Published: December 2, 2007

Spam Art

Like everybody else with an e-mail account, Linzie Hunter gets a lot of spam. It might be a little more unusual that she sometimes finds the subject headings so amusingly absurd — “No More Lonely Nights for Linzie,” for instance — that she forwards them to friends. (Recipients tend to be nonplused. “Maybe it’s just my sense of humor,” says Hunter, who lives in North London.) More recently, when Hunter, who is an illustrator, was experimenting with hand lettering, she did something extremely unusual. She found a way to convert commercial entreaty and flimflammery into something pleasing. That is, she made spam into art.

Hunter has been working as an illustrator for about three years (she was a theater stage manager before that), for clients like Adorn magazine and The Guardian. She became interested in lettering and wanted to practice without worrying too much about the meanings of the words, “to free myself up.” So she chose the spam subject lines she found funny enough to keep. Working quickly, with a tablet and stylus attachment that allows her to draw in the computer program Photoshop, she gave each a unique treatment, like a hand-painted sign. Suddenly phrases like “Realise All Your Dreams With Our Help for a Short Time” or even “Local Chicks Who Need Lovin’ on the Side!” redone in bright colors with an almost folk-art feel, became funny, campy or ambiguous.

After a day and a half, she uploaded about 20 of these to her account on Flickr, creating a set of “Spam One-liners.” While Flickr is generally a photo-sharing site, many illustrators use it to show work and experiments to friends and colleagues. Two weeks later, one of her Flickr contacts, the illustrator John Martz, posted a link to the set from the popular illustration and cartooning blog known as Drawn! at drawn.ca. It quickly ricocheted — via art blogs, design blogs, tech blogs, personal blogs — to BoingBoing.net, which is about as close as the fragmented culture of the Web gets to Walter Cronkite-level definitiveness. In the space of a little more than a week, the number of views of the Spam One-liners set went from about 500 to more than 50,000. And more than a few people were asking Hunter to make prints or postcards that they could buy.

Hunter was startled, of course, but the enthusiasm shouldn’t be too surprising. In a way, she joined an appealing tradition of making something from nothing, converting trash to treasure, extracting pleasure from junk-culture detritus. Physical-world examples are particularly popular now, perhaps as a result of eco-unease: there are accessories made out of candy wrappers from a company called Ecoist, or the recently founded William Good brand, which sells clothing made from discarded apparel. The general idea has plenty of precedents, from Pop Art’s recontextualizing of ephemeral expression into museum fodder to the awe-inspiring conversion of industrial scrap into the Watts Towers in Los Angeles.

O.K., so the Watts Towers took decades to construct, and Hunter’s project took a day and a half. It may be because the digital garbage she chose to work with is so obnoxious, ubiquitous and deeply despised that her work was so quickly embraced online; making someone smile with a spam byproduct is no small feat. And reading the comments of Flickr users makes it clear how thoroughly her treatment reinvented those subject lines. Spam touting “male enhancement” products can be particularly irritating, yet the subject line from one of these inspired a bright and popular piece: “Don’t Put Off Your Happy Life.”

Hunter’s Flickr following has expanded considerably since Spam One-liners made the rounds, and she has received at least one commission as a result. But she has been too busy with assignment work lately to figure out how to meet the sudden demand for a buyable version of her project; she’s considering perhaps a postcard book, and maybe working through a third party to make some prints available. Meanwhile, she is still trying to answer all the e-mail she has received. “The downside,” she says, “is that now people send me random spam e-mail, saying, ‘Look at this one, it’s great!’ ” She laughs. “At least I know I’m not alone in my appreciation of a carefully crafted subject line.”



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