Bart Simpson — once an underachiever and proud of it — is about to be the subject of gallery-worthy art.
French magazine Be Street’s founder Benjamin Benichou has a deep interest in off-brand cultural detritus, and this weekend he's bringing early Simpsons folk art, aka “Bootleg Bart,” to L.A. The form is having a revival of sorts, and Benichou is attempting to lead the movement, in part via an exhibit taking place July 25 and 26 at HNYPT downtown.
The form started back in the '90s. What a wild time, right? Saddam Hussein’s reign of terror was ended *forever*. There were no new taxes. No one inhaled. Kid and Play had three house parties that were all that and a bag of chips. There was nothing wrong with America that couldn't be cured by what was right with America. And a yellow, eight-fingered rapscallion with a flat top and his lovably dysfunctional family dominated primetime TV.
Such were the social mores at the time, the mere image of The Simpsons on a T-shirt drew the ire of adults to the point that they were banned — BANNED — from schools. Despite the fact that the title characters were regular churchgoers with a wholesome streak, it was their oldest son’s audacity to utter unthinkable phrases such as “Cowabunga, dude,” and “Eat my shorts” that put them on so many parents’ shitlists. Yes: wild times, indeed.
Before Homer’s ascension as the show’s focus after season three or so, it was all Bart. His rebellious streak captured something about that early-'90s zeitgeist to a point where official versions of his T-shirts couldn’t keep up with the insane demand — so people and organizations came up with their own versions of him to fill the gap and Bootleg Bart was born.
Anonymous T-shirt printers and amateur artists co-opted him into every cause — even those diametrically opposed to one another. Hate hippies? Bootleg Bart says, “Say no to drugs, man.” Love hippies? Bart Marley implored you to "Smoke de herb, man.” A jingoistic version of the gadfly fourth grader supported the first Gulf War by strangling Hussein with his bare hands and pissing on all of Iraq, while other interpretations of him advertised keggers and Cancun spring breaks. Bootleg Bart changed races and species. Bootleg Bart fought apartheid. Bootleg Bart somehow frequently got stuck in between massive ass cheeks, with the slogan "Crack kills." Witty.
For better or worse, all of those anonymous and scofflaw creators of the 1990s bootlegs — even the actually clever ones — remain unsung folk artists lost to history. And while some of it fetches handsome prices on Ebay, most of those T-shirts, created in a frenzy of blatant copyright flouting, have ended up in trash heaps or rag piles.
Benichou, whose exhibit will help launch Be Street's new L.A. office, explains it more succinctly: “All of it was all very creative and it was, for the most part, very subversive.”
And it was that mugging subversion combined with a social media–fueled interest in '90s nostalgia that revived it 20 years later. There's something about single images of Bootleg Bart T-shirts that can encapsulate that decade perfectly. So it was no surprise that websites and media outlets have been seizing on that renewed interest in the past few years. Some have run retrospective slideshows. Vice even ran an interview with an enigmatic guy who maintains an official unofficial Bootleg Bart website and analyzed how some Bootleg Barts became weird symbols of 1990s racial politics. (Racially morphed Barts were often "Black and Proud of It.")
Benichou just wanted to see that level of bizarre creativity emerge again — so he asked 70 artists from around the world to create new Bootleg Barts. "They could be as crazy as they want. And when we started to contact the artists, they all got very excited about the project,” he says. “The Simpsons are such a huge global phenomenon and there is not too much in the way of art for it.”
Benichou first reached out to artists he already knew — including street and graphic artists Buff Monster, Numbskull, Greg Mike, Eric Yahnker, Jimbo Phillips and Aaron Kai. And then Be Street put out a contest to find five nobodies and give them the opportunity to show off their Bootleg Bart skills. The response overwhelmed them — with thousands of submissions coming through in just a few weeks.
Benichou even received submissions from actual Simpsons production staffers like Sam Grinberg. While Fox, who owns all of the Simpsons copyrights, doesn’t vehemently crack down on unofficial merch as much as say, Disney — which has been known to send its lawyers to mom-and-pop shops — the studio doesn’t exactly endorse it. Simpsons creator Matt Groening, who owns none of the copyrights, has tacitly endorsed the Bootleg Barts, however. He told Wired in 1999, “Personally, I don't have a problem with it. This is part of the price of being successful and being part of the culture. I love it when there is a crude painting of Bart in the window of a bakery in East Los Angeles. I love the dreadlocked Bart Marleys. … I don't care if some kids appropriate my stuff for their website, or some fraternity guys make a bootleg Bart T-shirt.”
Be Street isn't looking for any official endorsement, though. "From the beginning we just wanted pure creativity and we are not looking for any sponsorship or anything like that," Benichou says.
And those thousands of responses offered that creativity with new subversion. "One I am looking at right now, the artist made three frames, all showing different aspects of the gay community in support of gay marriage. With Bart as gay saying, 'Let us be us, dude,'" Benichou says. "Another is showing the riots in Baltimore. When you put a news phenomenon into the Bootleg Bart angle, there is still a strong message but with less of the hurt.
“The good thing with Bootleg Bart is that everyone can just wake up in the morning and draw cool bootleg things," Benichou adds. "You don’t necessarily have to have amazing skills — it’s all about the cool concept."
"Bootleg Bart: Unofficial Art Show" by Be Street, HNYPT L.A , 212 W. 12th St., downtown; July 25-26, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; be-street.com/bootleg-bart-art-show-interview-buff-monster/?bart
Correction: This article originally referred to Sam Grinberg as an animator for The Simpsons. He is actually a member of the Simpsons production staff who draws cartoons but not for The Simpsons.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Paul T. Bradley on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Twitter: