You certainly wouldn’t be the object of derision if you sauntered into the Starrett-LeHigh exhibition space in Manhattan and thought it was an authentic outlet for some back-to-school shopping. After all, the sign on the door says exactly that.
You’ll find backpacks, T-shirts, and lunch boxes—but with a disturbing twist. There are bulletproof backpacks, printed with cute Pokémon and Super Mario designs. The graphic tees read “Make America Safe Again.” And if you open one of the Captain America lunch boxes, you’ll find pepper spray, brass knuckles, and a Taser.
This is the latest brainchild of Brooklyn-based street artist WhIsBe, who is best known for his arresting Vandal Gummy series, composed of giant Gummy Bears posing as if for criminal mug shots. This time, his socially conscious art tackles the uniquely American epidemic of gun violence—specifically school shootings.
A decade ago, the images conjured up at the exhibition would have seemed like far-off, dystopian ideas. But today, post-Sandy Hook, post-Pulse nightclub, and post-Parkland, which the artist cites as the three most significant events that motivated him, these horrific visuals could form a legitimate back-to-school sale in the not-too-distant future.
In 2018, there were at least 103 instances of gunfire on school grounds, according to research by Everytown for Gun Safety, resulting in 60 deaths and 88 injuries. Some school districts are already arming students with rocks and mini baseball bats, and teachers with bona fide firearms. Sacha Baron Cohen’s Who Is America illustrated the willingness of politicians to give kids guns, by endorsing the “KinderGuardians” program, a fake initiative that would arm kindergarteners with lethal weapons adorably tailored to tots, called Puppy Pistol and Uzicorn.
This isn’t a fictional TV nightmare. At the National School Safety Conference in Orlando, Florida, entrepreneurs sold tech gadgets intended to avert and manage school shootings, including pepper-spray guns, door barricades, and emergency tourniquets.
The reality hits you hard from the street corner outside the Starrett-LeHigh building, when the 14-foot-tall colorful advertisements on the windows—”Grand Sale!”—usher you in. At first glance, at the sales racks and price tags, it’s a run-of-the-mill store. But the full grim picture soon sets in. You’re greeted by infant mannequins, which WhIsBe said he chose for their creepy lifelikeness, donning tiny bulletproof backpacks, printed with a range of patterns. There are Care Bear backpacks for tots, designer ones for fashion-forward high school students, and ones adorned with the LGBTQ rainbow, which the artist said refers to the Pulse nightclub massacre.
WhIsBe said he created the vests from scratch, picking out the materials for each from New York’s Garment District: pink fabric and gold buckles, for example, for the little girl mannequin with bright-pink lip gloss who has her hands raised in the air.
Also curated from scratch are the warped lunch boxes. Ordinary on the outside, with Snoopy and Power Rangers graphics, the interiors form a survival kit. Each is packed with a revolver, stun gun, bear claws, and a first aid kit, plus a sugary snack of gummy bears in case hunger pangs kick in during a live shooter situation.
The crowning glory of the little shop of horrors is a working claw machine. More fitting if on the Coney Island boardwalk and filled with fluffy toys, this warped version of a childhood favorite is crammed with plastic guns in bright yellow, red, pink, and blue, intertwined with balls of the same vibrant colors. It’s a ball pit of plastic pistols and assault rifles. A gun pit.
On the walls behind are blown-up, close-shot photos of the corrupted ball-pit-claw-machine hybrid. Especially vivid is the photo stretched in front of a 10-foot-by-14-foot light box that draws you into its luminous but perverse presence.
The exhibit began on a smaller scale at Miami Beach’s Art Basel, where the pieces stood in a 200-square-foot booth, and unlike in this New York iteration, WhIsB had the eerie claw machine continually running, its discordant music playing hauntingly ad nauseam in the background. “Kids would go up and play with it,” he said, of the innocent nature of children and brightly colored toys, “and the parents would stand back and watch.” The irony of the kids obliviously playing with guns makes the installation’s message even more unsettlingly on the nose.
There’s more: a Warholian parody of a Peanuts cartoon printed in different pop-art colors, with Charlie Brown at Lucy van Pelt’s “psychiatric help” stand only to be offered “guns and ammo” for five cents. It’s a comment, WhIsBe said, on how mental healthcare is being shunned in favor of passing out pistols to buyers without due diligence. While federal law requires background checks, the majority of states don’t require them for purchases made online or at gun shows.
As WhIsBe led the tour of the exhibit, which was closed to the public that day, a father looked into the building from outside, bemused, as his daughters played around him. “You get this all day,” WhIsBe said. “You just see their mouths go, ‘holy shit.'” People are naturally drawn in, and even want to buy some of the items on the faux sales racks, the artist said.
Namely, they’re eager to purchase the T-shirts and hoodies that WhIsBe stencil-printed with the satirical motto, “Make America Safe Again.” At first, he was wary. “I wanted to stay away from money and tragedy,” he said. But he changed his mind when the demand grew. “I figured, at least the money could go toward the cause.” So he has teamed up with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, a nonprofit that advocates for gun control, which will receive the proceeds from the tees and hoodies he’ll soon be putting up for sale—after raising the prices slightly from the ones advertised on the sham sales racks.
Scott Rechler, the CEO of RXR Reality, which oversees the Starrett-LeHigh space, went further. “If it takes a certain level of shock to get people’s attention, so be it,” Rechler said. “The future of our communities, our friends and families, and our children depends on our somehow breaking through the wall of inaction when it comes to this national epidemic.”
Visitors can leave reactions inscribed on a chalkboard, which sits behind two classroom desks in the exhibition room. People have left scribbles such as “Books, not guns” and “Gays against guns.” Someone scrawled, “Today’s lesson: AR-15 training.” Perhaps the most poignant came from the hand of a 6-year-old, who wrote, quite simply, “I hate guns, because they hurt people.”
WhIsBe views his art, and the notion of gun control generally, as apolitical. Background checks are a no-brainer, and devoid of politics, because they don’t question any law-abiding person’s right to own firearms. “If you fall under regulations, you have nothing to worry about,” he said. “And if you don’t, then you shouldn’t have a fucking gun.”