A woman in a full black body sleeve is sitting in a Caribbean restaurant in Silver Lake, the material glistening in the shredded dusk light coming through a blinded window. She’s holding a tortilla wrapped around a dead fish, and pretending to stuff it in her mouth.
Another woman is squatting in front of her, snapping photographs with an old film camera. A waitress comes over.
“You’re making a lot of noise here,” she says. “We’re going to have to ask you to stop taking pictures, or leave.”
The photographer, who is tiny and wearing a short, see-through black dress and black boots, stands up.
“Just one more, please,” she says, “then we’ll be done.”
The two women are enacting a grassroots living art performance known as Permaid, a character who shows up in social media photos in different L.A. locales in her trademark black mermaid suit. She had her first major blip when the Ace Hotel instagrammed, to its 50,000 followers, a photo of her lounging next to its rooftop pool holding a peppermint-colored cocktail. This is art in the 21st century:
The two artists behind Permaid are Aeschleah DeMartino, a photographer, and Nicolette Mishkan, a fashion designer, best friends in their late 20s. DeMartino, who shoots for The Bold Italic, Refinery 29, Juxtapoz and Angeleno Magazine, had the idea for an immersive public art project based in social media photography. When a friend gave Mishkan the Permaid suit for her birthday, DeMartino knew instantly it was what she’d been waiting for.
DeMartino draws her inspiration from Nikki S. Lee, a Cindy Sherman-esque photographer who blends in with different subcultures, like a chameleon. Lee shoots herself playing different characters — a hip-hop thug with braids, a trailer trash blonde — immersed in the subcultures she's infiltrated. Permaid is sort of a reverse of Lee’s work — literally a fish-out-of-water who samples different subcultures throughout L.A., and can't help but stand out like a sore thumb.
Mishkan wears the suit, DeMartino sets the scenes and takes the photos. “We’re each others' muses,” says DeMartino. “We are Permaid.”
DeMartino's photos are instantly provocative, but laced with melancholy. Permaid has a disaffected malaise — like she’s going through the motions of life without really feeling anything.
DeMartino and Mishkan see Permaid as having washed up on the beach and having been adopted by a Persian family in Malibu. “We’re creating a story for her based on our friends,” says Mishkan. “It’s about the Permaid trying to fit in, learning to accept that she doesn't belong in any circle.”
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On Instagram, Permaid does what a lot of girls in L.A. do. She goes to the DMV. She shops at CVS. She gets too drunk. She stumbles upon a random biker party. She has a one night stand.
She also goes on Tinder dates.
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The Tinder dates are real. They're with guys who have actually swiped right on Permaid in costume. DeMartino and Mishkan respond to Tinder messages in character, and set up a live date. Shockingly or not, 80 percent of the guys they swipe right on are matches.
The two women show up unmasked and ask their date if he's okay taking photos with the Permaid. The meta-digital performance grows as the guy instagrams his experiences with the Permaid, and Permaid (@permaidpermaid) instagrams her experiences with the guy.
But the energy of the dates and the resulting photos isn’t that of an organized photo shoot. There’s an element of real interest for the guys, especially when they see the girls unmasked. “So, do you have a boyfriend in real life?” they always ask.
Outside of the dates, most people who interact with Permaid are guarded but friendly. A guy at CVS agreed to have his picture taken with her, and happily stroked her leg on DeMartino's instruction:
Another agreed to get naked and simulate the morning after a one-night stand:
Others, like their waitress in Silver Lake, have a different reaction.
“At the DMV, there was this old Asian man,” says Mishkan. “I was in the suit and was trying to explain to him what we were doing. He couldn’t hear so I was shouting, but he still didn't understand. I got a piece of paper and wrote, ‘We have to be careful,’ which was the creepiest thing ever. He got offended and left.”
There’s also the logistical issues of wearing an S&M fish suit in public. Once Mishkan is zipped inside, DeMartino has to hoist her over her shoulder and carry her from place to place. For Mishkan, it can be suffocating.
“You can breath through it, but if you freak out it chokes you a little,” Mishkan says. “It’s definitely from the world of domination.”
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DeMartino and Mishkan plan on finishing the project with a book and a gallery photography show. “Right now, we only want to release the more mundane stuff, and save the real juicy stuff for the narrative in the book and show,” says DeMartino.
Until then, Permaid will continue her struggle to find herself on her travels through L.A.. If you want to interact with her, or ask her out on a date, you can find her on Instagram at @permaidpermaid or on Tumblr at permaidpermaid.com.
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