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WhIsBe’s ‘Back to School Shopping’ rebelliously shows the importance of gun control

In his most recent installation, “Back to School Shopping,” the artist WhIsBe presents the vision of a capitalist hell-scape of a future in which a casual school shopping trip includes stocking up on brass knuckles, handguns, and body armor.

WhIsBe, most known for his work in the street art world, uses Warholian tactics in order to mesh representations of childhood innocence with more sinister notions of greater American violence.

WhIsBe gained international attention for his “Vandal Gummy” series, a project that depicts various gummy bears holding Department of Corrections placards.

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This series was featured as a part of Coach’s Signature Remix collection, in which they commissioned street artists to incorporate Coach’s signature pattern in their most iconic work.

The Vandal Gummy series was the artist’s first exploration of the intersection between childhood innocence and larger American violence — up until the opening of “Back to School Shopping.”

This installation, created in partnership with the Starrett Lehigh gallery for their Social Impact Month, paints an incredibly bleak window into the future of the commercialization of mass tragedy.

With companies such as Bullet Blocker and Guard Dog Security selling bulletproof backpacks after the Parkland shooting, this future may not be as distant as we’d like.

Maintaining the highest standards and guidelines for all bulletproof vests, bulletproof clothing, bulletproof backpacks, and body armor, more companies like Bulletproof Zone will also have a new and younger customer.

“I don’t like to tell people what to think,” WhIsBe told Kulture Hub.

“There’s no secret agenda to it… My work is not passive aggressive, it’s all right there.”

Art: WhIsBe | Photo Cred: Jesse Vargas
Art: WhIsBe | Photo Cred: Jesse Vargas
Art: WhIsBe | Photo Cred: Jesse Vargas

Here, WhIsBe makes an adept illustration of this future. Mannequins wear bulletproof vests with ninja turtles, sequins, and Louis Vuitton insignias. Outside, the windows of the Starrett Lehigh gallery space loudly advertise the vests, stating: “Kids & Adults Bulletproof Vests, Available in all sizes, Kids sizes start at 49.99, Adults sizes start at 99.99.”

These prices are coincidentally around the same price as the uncertified “bulletproof backpack inserts” sold by BackPack Armor in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shooting.

“Safety defense boxes” — aka children’s lunch pails — are nailed to the walls, each one stocked with a gun, taser, pepper spray, a first aid kit, brass knuckles, and a snack. A claw machine called “Gun Control” encourages kids to take a chance and play for prizes such as handguns and AR-15s.

Art: WhIsBe | Photo Cred: Jesse Vargas
Art: WhIsBe | Photo Cred: Jesse Vargas

Littered around the space are WhIsBe’s iconic Vandal Gummies and along one of the far walls, a series of prints depicting Peanuts characters with a similar dystopian context.

One lemonade stand sign reads: “Psychiatric help Guns & Ammo 5¢” with a bottom text of “The Doctor is MIA.” These pieces deal with larger injustices concerning mental health awareness and lack of background checks as talking points in the gun control debate.

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“I originally wanted to do something with bulletproof vests a couple of years ago,” WhIsBe told Kulture Hub concerning his initial vision for “Back to School Shopping.”

“But [with the surge in mass shootings] I couldn’t avoid what was going on culturally. It started to fester in my head and so essentially I took this idea of bulletproof vests, [realizing] we would have to have bulletproof vests for kids eventually, [and then thought] what would it be like if that was just a normal piece of everyday life?”

“It’s about seeing things for what I feel they really are,” WhIsBe continued.

“Sometimes when it is sitting right in front of your face you just need to present [your audience] with what they already know. All I do is bridge the gaps between a train of thought.”

WhIsBe partnered with The Brady Campaign and is donating the proceeds of “Back to School Shopping” to the organization. The Brady Campaign states on their website that they work on both a legislative and community-based level in order to meet their goal of reducing gun violence 25 percent by 2025.

With “Back to School Shopping,” WhIsBe presents his vision of the future without actively pushing his own opinions onto others.

Whisbe | Photo Cred: Jesse Vargas

“If you come to the installation and have a strong reaction, you are clearly affected by what is going on,” WhIsBe said.

“Take your own individual action on the subject. I’ve taken my action by presenting how I feel about what is going on. The simple take away is ‘do something about it’–but not in a jerk kind of way.”

Make sure to check out WhIsBe’s Back to School Shopping installation at Starrett-Lehigh. The show runs thru June 30.

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