Markus Prime isn’t the type of person to curb his instincts to make others comfortable.
The illustrator and visual artist has been making waves online for a while, his career taking off after one of his subversive cartoons became a viral sensation. For whatever reason, that image of Jasmine and Pocahontas smoking hookah struck a chord, and in the intervening five years, Prime has become one of the most polarizing and popular artists on the Internet, renown for his highly stylized (and highly sexualized) art.
At the heart of the controversy surrounding Prime is his work’s current emphasis on recasting popular cartoon and comic characters as women of color, and whether he is qualified to speak about the female perspective.
“A black woman can be the most powerful character in her story and without it being portrayed as out of the ordinary. But that’s just my opinion.”
These words, from the foreword of Prime’s upcoming book, B.R.U.H.: Black Renditions of Universal Heroes, succinctly capture why the cartoon aficionado is turning heads amongst casual fans and comic book nerds alike. And while there is a fine line between using art to make people uncomfortable, and using art because you have privilege, Prime humbly maintains that his inspiration stems from sincere empathy for the disenfranchisement faced by women of color.
“I don’t want black women to feel like I’m trying to speak for them in any way,” he relates to me over the phone. “I’m trying to put a spotlight on them, and give them a chance to be heard.”
Prime is enjoying the perfect California weather when we spoke late on a Friday afternoon in January. As a recent transplant to Los Angeles after a two year stint in Brooklyn, the former Army brat is already warming up to his new home, particularly as the East Coast is under siege by the worst winter storm in recent memory.
“It’s kind of growing on me already. I might have to find me a house out here; I don’t know. I just moved here and have to decide how long I want to stay. I feel like I might be here for the long haul.”
Though Los Angeles was arguably the epicenter of black excellence in 2015, at least when it comes to music, Prime thinks it is lagging behind other major American cities in terms of black representants in the visual arts, and he believes he can help lead the charge.
“I feel like there’s a huge void out here in terms of black art. I came to visit two months ago and I was surprised that there wasn’t a huge scene already,” Prime says cautiously, at first, as if pondering each word as he speaks it. With renewed confidence, he continues, more certain in his belief.
“Brooklyn, New York has its own thing – and even D.C., and Atlanta has a nice little thing going on. LA is one of those places that doesn’t have anything happening like that. Fertile ground is the perfect term for it, and it will be interesting to see what I can do.”
Brightest Young Things: I got to see the preview of B.R.U.H., and the art itself is beautiful. A lot (if not most) of your art depicts strong black women, but still manages to capture their feminine, fairly sexual side. How do you strike a balance? Can you achieve that as a male artist?
Markus Prime: You know what, that’s a perfect question – the ending of that question is perfect. I will never know the answer to that, as a man, and I think that’s what makes it controversial. Yet, it still seems to be effective. It’s kind of hard to say yes or no. The majority of my supporters are black women – I would easily say 80% – so it’s hard to say who agrees with that; I guess it would depend on who you’re asking.
All the ways I portray women are based on women I know; I try to draw from real-life experiences. How would a strong, independent black woman carry herself? How would she handle this? And the answer is never the same. If I had ten black women, they’d all give me a different answer. It seems to be correct, as far as I’m concerned, because I think they know it’s genuine. I try my best to make sure that even if it’s sexual, it’s tasteful, and that’s the key. It’s not just blatant raunchiness, and I think I’m doing OK.
BYT: If the tables were turned – if a female artist was depicting the reality of black men, do you think there would be the same kind of response?
M.P.: It’s funny you say that, because I had a conversation about this recently. It seems that masculinity is a little more fragile. Men are a lot more defensive than women, regardless of popular opinion. Matter of fact, there seem to be a lot more men who are offended by my work than women, and they are much quicker to express that opinion. I was not ready for that. I was not prepared for that response. [Laughs] So, I think based on the way men are responding in general to anything that doesn’t look mainstream, they’d be offended. That’s hard to answer, too. [Laughs]
BYT: Where do you generally draw inspiration from? I saw your sketch in response to the police brutality incident in McKinley, Texas, last summer, but I’ve read that you don’t normally respond to media with art. What is your art a response to, and what inspires you to draw, generally?
M.P.: In response to the political part, I tend not to do it because it seems to be more of a…it’s taken more of an opportunity for people. I don’t know how to word it correctly, but a lot of times when something happens in the news or in the media, people expect you immediately to draw something, and it becomes more of a spectacle. I can be vocal like anybody else, and I can speak, but people expect you to draw something because you’re an artist. I believe very much so that if I’m not inspired to do it, I won’t post it, because it’s a serious issue. The McKinley piece came because I actually felt it, and it was in the moment and I drew it as I felt it. That’s why I tend to stay away from political pieces like that, and I feel that’s a certain kind of artist, and that’s what they do for a living.
Generally, I gain my inspiration from everywhere. I’m on Tumblr a lot, looking through a lot of beautiful imagery. If I had to be general, I’m trying to show the versatility of black women and black people, because people tend to think that because we’re black, we’re limited to certain kinds of things, as if we only listen to rap, or wear certain hairstyles, or only talk in certain ways. Being a child who was heavily influenced by comics and anime, I can speak on behalf of black people in terms that we are versatile, and that’s the main inspiration. When I see something like the Sailor Moons I drew, I made a conscious decision to make each Sailor a different shape, a different hairstyle, a different size, to show we come in all shapes and sizes, just like everyone else. My main inspiration is to show our versatility.
BYT: You’ve said that you feel like black women and girls have been overlooked in the Black Lives Matter movement, and that you were also blind to it at some point. What changed for you? What opened your eyes?
M.P.: What I do in all of the work, my main issue is to try to give them the microphone. I don’t want black women to feel like I’m trying to speak for them in any way – I’m trying to put a spotlight on them, and give them a chance to be heard. In that situation it was more so that I needed to be listening to them. I follow a couple of folks on Tumblr that were pointing out that just as many women were being shot and killed as men were. How could I have not been paying attention to that as well? That opened my eyes. If I’m going to sit here and try to stand for somebody, I need to be more into their experience and their situation. When I try to draw a certain subject matter, I usually draw from somebody’s experience who is actually going through it – for example, when I’ve done breastfeeding art. I have a couple of friends who have given me [stories of] personal experiences. I don’t just make this up out of the sky – I’m not a woman, and I can’t speak on their experience. When I draw, I try to represent women I know and stories they tell me. I want to respect the subject, and respect the issues, and have some kind of knowledge on it before I draw it.
BYT: So, do you consider yourself a feminist?
M.P.: [Sighs] I don’t know. [Pauses] That’s one of those things – feminist, activist – I don’t want to give myself that title. I don’t know if I’m doing everything that encompasses those terms. There are a lot of people I respect very heavily that are in the trenches, out in the streets. I could say activism; I believe if you use your ability for a certain purpose for the betterment and empowerment of it, you can consider yourself an activist. So I can consider my art to be activist art. But feminist? I don’t know. It’s one of those things where I’m not even sure that I’m doing everything that it requires. I would have to hear that from a group of feminists; I don’t ever want to give myself that title. I don’t know if I deserve it, and I’ve never even thought about that.
BYT: Have you considered depicting black men as well?
M.P.: Every now and then I do draw black men. I’ve done a little bit more this year, but I’m not really in a rush because I spent so much of my life drawing them. It’s weird – I definitely want to, but when you feel compelled to do something, it’s hard to fit anything in because it feels like I’m forcing it. At this point, you could say my mission is to draw black women, partially because of the response I’ve received. Drawing a male feels forced at this point. Drawing the black experience from a black woman’s perspective just feels like what I’m supposed to be doing at this moment, and I have no idea when that’s going to change.
BYT: In the foreword of B.R.U.H., you talked about your love for animation, and in particular 80s cartoons. What other artworks or media inspired you? What can we expect to see in the book?
M.P.: Mostly we have Dragonball Z, a bit of Cowboy Bebop, One Punch. There are a couple of American cartoons mixed in there too, actually – Adventure Time, X-Men, some DC and Marvel Comics. It’s kind of like I sprinkled a little bit of everything in there, and I was definitely planning on elaborating on this, and getting into multiple volumes. But Dragonball Z is one of my personal favorites, in terms of how elaborate the universe is, so there’s a heavy amount of her as Goku. She is what inspired me to even do this, because I’ve been doing Dragonball Z flips since I was in middle school, though at the time it was only focused around black males. I’ve always been into trying to flip things and make them look like me, so I could identify with them. There’s plenty of other stuff in there.
BYT: You mention Adventure Time. Are there other contemporary cartoons you watch and enjoy?
M.P.: I don’t keep up heavily on current cartoons, though I do like Steven Universe a lot. I’m a couple of seasons behind, though. I like Rick and Morty – it’s another favorite.
BYT: Man, I’m obsessed with that show. It’s so funny. I just bought the iPhone game last week.
M.P.: I love the concept of that cartoon. And I forgot they came out with a game! I’ve got to check that out; I saw the Adult Swim preview. But I think because of my age, I’m still very much attached to the old stuff – the cartoons from the early 2000s and 90s. That’s my era, and I can’t seem to shake off of it. Anything that’s current would be those adult cartoons, and anything from the last five years, like Avatar.
BYT: You mentioned you got started drawing when you were in middle school. Who are your main influences as an artist? Do you have any formal training, or was this a hobby that turned into a career?
M.P.: I didn’t have any formal training – I’ve been drawing since I was a toddler, and I’ve continued to do it. You could say I learned to draw from my surroundings, and I used to try to draw my favorite cartoons. Nina Turtles was the first cartoon that I got into, and Spider-Man was pretty huge for me to. I got into Spider-Man right before the Todd McFarlane era.
If I have to name artists off the top of my head that influenced me I would say Norman Rockwell, even though his style is more realism. He just influenced me in terms of doing so much different stuff. He always seemed to be ahead of his time in terms of his concepts, and he was very much into the issues of the time. If he had Instagram, he would have been very popular. [Laughs] His picture of Ruby Bridges [Rockwell’s “The Problem We All Live With”] is still one of the most powerful pictures of our era. The details, and the stuff he captured – he was ahead of his time, and he’d would have thrived today just as easily.
Other folks would be Jim Lee, Ed McGinnis – there’s so many, and they’d be my top. Oh, and Alex Ross is probably my favorite comic book artist of all time – he’s the modern day Norman Rockwell, but for comic books. He made the most realistic art, and pushed you to start believing in it more, just from the way he drew the characters and hand-painted them.
BYT: What are you enjoying as a consumer or fan these days?
M.P.: There are two artists that I’m really digging, and they’re also good friends of mine. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Paper Frank, from Atlanta, but he’s a great contemporary artist. He’s done a couple of great murals around the city, and he has a great style that blends early 2000s cartoon style, and still incorporates graffiti. We did a show together, actually. I think you’d appreciate his work; it’s a great mix.
Another artist is my friend Nuri, and he goes by Action Hank Beard. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Action Hank, from Dexter’s Laboratory, but that’s where he gets the reference from. And I was a fan as soon as I saw his Instagram handle – I loved the reference. So, he uses the same type of markers that I use, and he actually put me onto those markers. He does some amazing illustrations, and has a lot of reference to classic video games, like Sonic [the Hedgehog] and Zelda.
Outside of the date, James Jean is one of my favorite artists. He’s amazing, and I don’t know how to explain what he does. Look up his Instagram, @jamesjeanart, and you’ll just be there for hours. He’s ridiculous.
Sarah Golish is an amazing oil painter. She actually paints black women, and it’s beautiful, though there’s a lot of controversy surrounding her, because she’s white. But I don’t care, and I think that’s kind of silly, because she’s portraying black women in an amazing light. It’s interesting to see the controversy that surrounds her work.
[Excitedly] Oh, and Mister Michelle! She’s also an amazing painter, with an interesting style – it’s almost deco, and uses a lot of intricate colors and lines and details. Those would be the artists that I’m constantly checking on. You should check them out – I think you’ll absolutely enjoy it.
BYT: I noticed that you have quite a few tattoos. Have you designed any of them yourself?
M.P.: I helped design most of them – I’ve been getting tattoos since I was eighteen. And honestly, this is standard; you can call me more of a collector. I’m not one of those guys who has planned a tattoo for six years ahead – I’ll think of a tattoo today, and go get it next week. The only one I thought about for a long time was the Africa tattoo on my chest, because I really want to go there, and experience it. I won’t be complete in life, and my vision I’m trying to express as an artist until I get to really experience Africa. That’s the most important one I have on me, in my opinion.
BYT: What would be the first country you’d visit in Africa?
M.P.: It’s been Egypt for the longest time, and I have it highlighted on my tattoo. I just love the aesthetic Egypt’s culture has – it’s one of the flyest places ever, in the history of everything. [Laughs] They’re still influencing fashion and art. Nigeria and Ghana are two other countries I definitely want to visit. There’s actually a mural someone painted in Ghana, with my face in it, and I have to see this! [Laughs] I was blown away – I have to go to Ghana, that’s not even a question. So yeah, those are my top three.
BYT: Now that you’re living in L.A., you’re going to get this kind of question. You touch on this lack of diversity in mainstream art and media in the US in the foreword to B.R.U.H. – what steps would you take to address this lack of racial, gender, and cultural diversity in the arts?
M.P.: Well, for one I would say the first one I did take was utilizing social media platforms to bring attention to it. We don’t have the same excuses we had ten years ago – lack of resources and things of that nature. Now we do have much more reach than we did. YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr – we can still get that audience, and TV is no longer the only way to be heard. This needs to be a mad push, and I keep trying to encourage people on my Twitter that I’m not the only one doing it – I don’t want to be the guy.
All of us have something to say, and all of us artists pushing our work on these platforms are going to have to be heard. The only way to do it is just to put up or shut up. If you’re an artist, you can do it to. We all have a chance to make an impact, because of the Internet. We have the same tools they have in Hollywood. So, fuck it. If you have an idea, get out there and write it, get out there and film it. Paint. Do whatever you have to do, because you have a way better chance of being seen than you did before. We have to use the Internet, and have a mass renaissance of creatives of color and just do this.