This Is What Happens When You Give Artists Free Rein To Mess With Barbie

Guns-blazing Barbie and Flamingo-head Barbie are just two of the send-ups of the iconic doll that you’ll see at this year’s “Altered Barbie” exhibition–where artists boldly go where Mattel wouldn’t dare.

No matter how many politically correct Barbies are released by parent company Mattel, the classic American doll will always remain a symbol of sanitized femininity and unattainable perfection. (When people try to emulate Barbie’s look in real life, the results are always horrifying.) All of this is what makes the Altered Barbie show, an annual exhibition in San Francisco that invites artists to slice, dice, and alter Barbie however they see fit, so satisfying.


This year’s show, held in a cave-like gallery in a residential neighborhood, features 28 artists, all of whom offer up striking and hilarious ideas of what Barbie can be (and do). The goal of the show, according to the Altered Barbie website:

The Altered Barbie show has spawned a creative community of artists who utilize Barbie and Ken, our modern day icons into creative and culturally relevant art where start up artists and established artists take Barbie boldly where Mattel / Disney would never have the guts to take her. Altered Barbie art reflects current events in our society, how we view women and men within these events and what our roles are that we play, play being the operative word.

The art isn’t cheap–surveying the room, I noticed that many pieces were selling in the $150 to $400 range. But all are guaranteed conversation-starters. They range from the overtly sexual (Barbie as a stripper, half-naked Barbie emerging from a saloon with guns blazing) to the flat-out weird (Barbie stuffing a dead Ken doll into a car trunk while Barbie #2 looks on, Barbie with a flamingo head).

“You can do anything you want with her, but she’s not blank to start with. You have to either work with her or against her,” notes one of the Altered Barbie artists in a video for the exhibition. Judging from this year’s Altered Barbie show, working against her is much more fun.


About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.