Rainbow ‘Riot’ unrestrained

By Trevor Ballanger

Riots come in many forms. Oftentimes, they are violent street demonstrations, but for one gay rights activist and artist, his riots are executed through artistic expression.

The Los Angeles-based street artist known as Homo Riot recently brought his work to Chicago. His art is primarily composed of graffiti, printed posters and collages that portray gay men who are usually depicted in sexually explicit poses. He said he uses a combination of vintage gay pornographic photos and friends who have offered to model for his cause, which began in 2008 as a protest against California’s Proposition 8, a law that legally defines marriage as valid only between a man and woman.

The artist said when the law went into effect in November 2008, he lost faith in Americans’ support for gay rights, which prompted him to begin creating provocative street art. Riot, who chose not to reveal his real name, said his work is representative of mainstream media’s portrayal of the LGBT community, such as images of people at Pride parades, and men and women dressed in leather outfits and drag.

“I was really just doing this to spit in the face of right-wing voters who had voted for Prop. 8,” Riot said. “What is it they’re so freaked out about? I just kept coming up with the fact that there are these straight men in power, in politics, who are either deeply closeted homosexuals who don’t want to be reminded of their own sexuality, or they’re so uncomfortable with their own bodies and sexuality as straight men that they don’t want to see two

guys kissing.”

Bert Green, director of Bert Green Fine Art gallery, 8 S. Michigan Ave., said he discovered Riot when he passed a gallery displaying the artist’s work while living in Los Angeles. Green contacted Riot and invited him to display his work in a solo exhibit that will run through Dec. 22.

Riot came to Chicago in September to display his work in multiple neighborhoods, including Wicker Park and Logan Square. Green said not everyone will identify with Riot’s work because it sparks reactions and uses homosexuality as a focal point to promote equality rather than to seek fame.

David Getsy, professor in the art history, theory and criticism department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 112 S. Michigan Ave., said he believes any representation of homo-erotic content displayed in public is a political act. However, he said the degree of political involvement varies

depending on the different contexts, audiences and messages of the work.

“As long as people are categorized, judged and have unequal rights based on their erotic and life choices, then any representation of things that are outside of the purported mainstream will be a political act,” Getsy said.

He said there was a surge in gay political groups—such as AIDS advocacy group Queer Nation and artist collective Gran Fury—that used graffiti to promote change from the ’60s through the ’80s. According to him, artists like Riot are direct descendants of the artists of that era.

Riot said he hopes his work shakes up conservative lifestyles by giving a voice to gays and lesbians. Green said while the art may not have directly affected the 2012 election, it is still a symbol of the need for change.

“You [had] a very stark choice between [Obama], who is clearly intending to advance the cause of rights for gay people, and [Romney], who has specifically said to do the reverse,” Green said. “I don’t know if the election has had a specific reaction to anything that’s going on with [Riot’s art]. I think [it’s] because it’s happening at the same time, and there’s some anxiety and friction that happens as a result of all of those things.”

Riot said he also wanted to draw attention to hate crimes against homosexuals. He said a gay couple holding hands in the street is likely to prompt violence in some states, a few of which don’t recognize violence against gays as a

hate crime.

Riot said passiveness about this issue is offensive to him, and while violence toward homosexuals isn’t a state-sanctioned hate crime, some states perpetuate discrimination by denying them the right to marry.

“I had a motto for a while: ‘We’ll just f––k in the streets,’” Riot said. “If I offend somebody, great. Maybe it’s a good thing for their world to be shaken up occasionally because my world gets shaken up all

the time.”