Look, it's a bird! It's a plane! It's a fashion statement.
On Thursday night, members of Los Angeles’ cosplay community assembled on the streets of DTLA to infiltrate its monthly Art Walk. For the uninitiated, cosplay, or "costume play," is the practice of dressing up as one’s favorite fictional character and interacting with the public; it straddles the line between niche subculture and performance art.
“L.A. Art Walk brings together some of the most creative minds in the city,” says Chris Riley, founder of the Geek Pride movement and organizer of this guerrilla event. “It's also a great venue to expose fellow Los Angelenos to the art of cosplay. Our art form isn't hung on a wall or displayed on a shelf. We are art.”
Further blurring the lines between art and reality, Riley invited me to not only shadow them for the evening but to participate as well. Donning a Spider-Man wrestling singlet from Riley's collection, I joined this strike force of characters from the Harry Potter series, Marvel’s Avengers and both Star Wars and Star Trek. While the common denominator for the heroes of these franchises is their never-ending battle against adversity, these fiction-based fashionistas were welcomed with open, oft tattooed, arms. As the group strutted up Spring Street, hipsters and bohemians used smartphones to snap their pictures. Some of the bolder patrons requested selfies with them.
While the cosplayers garnered attention, no one was really shocked. Slowly but surely, geek culture is being normalized in mainstream society, as evidenced by the creative content of this month’s Art Walk. These Geek Priders fit right in with the likes of Janna MaPrie, who showcased a selection of Barbie dolls customized to resemble characters like DC Comics' Harley Quinn and Frozen’s Elsa. At the Hive Gallery, artist Londyn asked the group to pose with her papier-mâché Batman.
“Cosplay is seen in all niches because of the vast diversity climate in modern-day, mainstream pop culture that individuals and groups can identify with,” says Riley. “Even makeup companies now make sets based on characters like Wonder Woman or Maleficent.”
Riley is quick to point out that this mainstream attraction to cosplay is a recent phenomenon. Considered a pioneer of L.A.’s geekouture culture, his participation in this niche community predates the advent of Facebook.
“I created a fictional universe starring superheroes based on a group of friends that I helped assemble," he explains. "We portrayed these characters online and grew our following on social media back when MySpace was king. We cosplayed as these superheroes in and around Hollywood for years, attending pop culture conventions, red-carpet events and charity fundraisers. Back then, ‘cosplayer’ wasn't a word people used. They would just call us ‘costumed weirdos,’ especially when we were at black-tie events dressed in our hyper-sexualized crime-fighting attire. With each event we went to, the bond of our friendship grew tighter. Now we are achieving the successes we envisioned for ourselves way back then.”
As a publicist focusing on geek-culture events, Riley acknowledges that economic factors have greatly influenced the acceptance of cosplay.
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“The many pop culture conventions that have sprung up in the L.A. area in the past few years are countless: Wondercon, Whedoncon, Pride Con, D23, Gallifrey One, RuPaul's DragCon, Stan Lee's Comikaze — the list continues to grow. These conventions generate millions for the city. Geeks don't just buy a Harley Quinn T-shirt. They are collectors that buy that and a book bag, the lipstick, the cellphone case and the costume. In this day and age it's cool to be a geek, so people are more comfortable with showing their geek pride. The more people that do this, the more it signifies to L.A. officials that the geek community has a large and lasting economic impact,” Riley says.
The cosplayers' wider influence on the cityscape was crystalized when, toward the end of the evening, they turned an enclave of food trucks into an impromptu dance party where muggles shook their booties alongside Harry Potter. Within Art Walk, Geek Pride had found its Hogwarts.