I’ll never forget the first time I laid eyes on party photo king Mark “The Cobrasnake” Hunter.
It was Coachella 2003 and my friends and I were taking a break, sitting on the grass in the VIP area, when a dude in neon shorts, knee socks and a headband approached us and snapped our picture (without asking), then dropped a flier on my lap that said “Polaroidscene.com.” I was intrigued — by his boldness, his Richard Simmons–esque getup and his website, which featured wild, restless youth being debauched after dark.
I wrote about him, became friends with him and then worked with him at the Weekly via our side-by-side print columns Nightranger and Snake Bites. Soon after, he smartly changed his site’s name to his own moniker, and befriended and promoted mid-millenial DJs and club-scene kings such as Franki Chan (Iheartcomix) and Steve Aoki (Dim Mak), thereby showing the world just how cool L.A. nightlife was at the time and helping to create the “hipster” aesthetic of that era here. Young Hollywood starlets (namely, Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton) and their affection for the audaciousness of the indie scene Cobrasnake was chronicling, gave it attention on a global scale, but Hunter’s raw and raucous style and self-consciously cool non–famous subjects are what influenced mainstream fashion, music, nightlife and social media around the world.
With copycat bloggers, automated photo booths and selfie culture taking a lot of the novelty out of nightlife photography, Hunter successfully transitioned from club shutterbug to commercial photographer. He’s been working on big ad campaigns and editorial layouts, so he hasn’t been in the local public eye much. Or he hadn't been until LAist broke the story that he won a student government election against Stephen Miller, current Trump adviser and former student at Santa Monica High School. Miller’s spate of obnoxious, blink-free tirades about the president’s incontestable power on morning political shows made quite an impression on the media and public recently, while his background as a native Santa Monican raised eyebrows here. His discriminatory letter complaining about the school's Spanish-language announcements was widely reported in stories about his background, but it was journo Molly Lambert who tweeted about the Cobrasnake connection, thereby putting our pal back in the spotlight. It’s like 2006 all over again, with everybody wanting a piece of L.A.’s pluckiest picture guy. Even Pitchfork was after him for an interview (they got a written statement, which you'll see end of this post).
I’ve been wondering about my old comrade since way before the Miller maelstrom, though. One of the reasons Hunter did so well back then, and I’m guessing still does today, is his open-to-all, jovial vibe. He got crazy A-lister access, but he was just as into shooting non-celebs — the funky dressers, the kids, gays, freaks, nerds and so on. For all the posing and preening back then, the mix of people he captured was what made his work intriguing. I didn’t even have to read what Miller said or how he lost the election to know the outcome if Hunter was opposing him. But many people do want to know a bit more, and though he’s refused interviews thus far, he agreed to a brief email interview exclusively for L.A. Weekly.
I was just recalling when I first met you and wrote about you. You had the Polaroid Scene blog back then and were taking pics at Coachella. You were so young. I think you actually were still a teenager when you started, right? Were you still in high school?
Cobrasnake: I started Polaroid Scene, the first version of the Cobrasnake website, right after I graduated from high school in 2003. The name of the site changed not too long after that. My first Coachella was that summer (Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers!) and I haven't missed one since.
So what have you been up to lately, photography-wise?
Recently I shot for some of my favorite brands, like Sunglasses Hut, Forever 21 and Wildfox. I also had an amazing time shooting for Playboy magazine ... my editorial in the March/April 2017 issue [is] on newsstands now.
You do a lot of other stuff too. You have a store called the Cobra Shop and a health and exercise group too, right? Tell me the latest!
The Cobra Shop is doing better than ever with a great mix of vintage, dead stock and exclusive Cobrasnake designs. Last year we remodeled our brick-and-mortar store at 1441 Highland Ave. and we get visitors from all over the world. The Cobra Fitness Club is growing bigger every day, and we are still dedicated to making fitness culture more creative, exciting, fun-loving, inclusive and friendly.
You were acquaintances with Stephen Miller even before you beat him in the school election. How did he act toward you or treat you after that happened? In general was he disliked at Santa Monica High?
I didn't actually beat Stephen in the election because he was running for president while I was running for vice president. He was beaten (very badly) by Cynthia Santiago, the first Latina president of the school. She went on to become an immigration defense attorney who is now working to help the same people Stephen and President Trump are trying to hurt.
I don't remember Stephen acting any differently after the election; I don't think he expected to win so he didn't take it that badly. He never seemed like he had a lot of friends, and there were definitely some people who didn't like him, especially after his campaign speech.
You were always into picture-taking, not politics. Why did you run for school government in the first place? What was your platform?
I ran for vice president because it seemed like fun and all of my friends wanted me to do it. While I was in office I just did my best to help Cynthia, who was a natural leader and had a lot of good ideas. I ran on a very silly platform that included bicycle safety and rocking out.
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And here's Mark's statement to Pitchfork ...
I was friendly with Stephen Miller when we were both awkward, Jewish seventh graders at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica, and I knew him at Santa Monica High School. Samohi was very diverse, which I loved, but it always seemed to bother Stephen and make him mad. At Samohi I learned how to be friends with people who are different from me and it made me a better person.
The Cobrasnake and Cobra Fitness Club have always been about inclusiveness and acceptance of all people. I'm really lucky to have so many friends who have different sexual orientations, genders, races, religions and backgrounds. It is terrible that Stephen is working with President Trump to hurt my friends and make their lives harder.
Stephen wrote a message in my yearbook. He told me to vote for Bush in '04 and for Bush's daughters in '16, '20, '24 and '28, and he also said that he was thankful that I always appreciated his humor. Looking back on it, I don't think I did appreciate his humor in high school. Excluding people or rounding them up because of their backgrounds wasn't funny then and it isn't funny now. It’s horrible.