Before Meaghan Garvey began creating the exquisitely detailed tributes to the heroes of rap that have gained her an enthusiastic internet following, she was an art school student making what she describes as “serious drawings.” “I was in a weird place in life,” she says, “so it was all like, sad animals and occult shit.”
But at a certain point during her time studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Garvey got fed up with the work she was doing and with a scene full of dudes that got into hip hop through witch house and that privileged “guitar music” over the rap, pop, and R&B she grew up with. She decided to, in her words, say “fuck it, I’m going to make stuff about Biggie.”
And so she did. After creating an illustrated companion to the Bed-Stuy legend’s classic “Juicy” in 2010, Garvey launched into a body of rap-inspired work that ranges from Aaliyah votive candles to stickers emblazoned with Kanye West’s musings on Twitter to perhaps her most ambitious work yet: Talking to the Holy Ghost in My Bugatti, a conspiracy theory-baiting book that reimagines various rappers and singers as shadowy Illuminati figures.
We chatted with the artist about her process, her inspiration, and whether or not Jay and Kanye are really ushering in the New World Order.
ANIMAL: Rappers and hip hop music in general play a huge role in your stuff. What is it the music that resonates with you, and how did you come to be doing work about rap artists?
Garvey: Well, I grew up listening to mostly R&B and pop music–just everything on Top 40 radio and TRL, basically–and that lead into getting more and more into rap as I got bored of the “guitar music” that most of my friends listened to.
One thing about rap that is really compelling to me is the trajectory from being a sort of transgressive subculture into being basically the dominant culture in pop music. And all that over the course of 30-something years–that’s pretty crazy and fascinating
And then, when I started going to art school, I got really burned out–just not interested in what I was doing. So I was like, “fuck it, I’m going to make stuff about Biggie,” and made that illustrated “Juicy” book. I kind of figured people would think I was some lame, shallow teenybopper, but when people were actually into it, I was like, “OK let’s do this!”
What do you hope people take away from your art?
One thing I feel really passionate about is combating the sort of “rockist” mentality that a lot of people have–maybe it’s based on what kind of music they grew up with, or maybe (more pessimistically) it’s a racial thing, but basically treating rap/R&B/pop music as a lesser art form or a guilty pleasure. So I try to display musicians I love in a way that takes them seriously as artists and not just as ironic figures. I want R. Kelly and Future to be treated with the same sort of reverence as like, capital-A-Artists.
Do you have any trouble squaring that mentality with the Illuminati-oriented stuff you do? The pieces are sick, but they could be construed as parody, or something like it, depending on what the viewer is bringing to the table.
Oh yeah, totally. A lot of people have viewed it as ironic, and of course, there is an element of humor behind those pieces, because the whole rap Illuminati conspiracy is by and large pretty ridiculous when taken literally.
But really, it’s more about contemporary pop culture myth-making than seriously considering Jay-Z as a Satanist. When seen as more of a symbolic representation of the “religion” of money and power, rather than a literal cult, it actually becomes something you can think about seriously.
For example, Kanye has referenced the Illuminati a lot in his lyrics and visuals ever since people started accusing him of being a member, and I think he’s attracted to it because over the last three years, a lot of the themes of his music have been centered on, “What has my money and fame and power done for me? Has it affected me for better or worse? Was it all worth it?” And it seems like as he moves farther and farther away from the Christian spirituality of his first few albums, he gets more fixated on this “cult” or “religion” of power and materialism. To me–and I think Kanye gets this too–the idea of the Illuminati and its elitism is a great representation of that.
Is there an element of artists goading the conspiracy theorists with Illuminati references/visuals?
Oh, hell yeah. Rihanna, Kanye, Jay-Z, Gaga… they all do it on purpose to get attention, I’m sure.
Do you think there’s any kernel or possibility of truth in the Illuminati conspiracy theories?
Honestly, there is a small part of me that wants to believe in it. There was a point, while I was spending tons of hours researching about the Illuminati, that my skepticism started to fade a bit. I still don’t think it’s likely, but…
So are you a total expert on Illuminati shit now? What did the research entail?
I wouldn’t say I’m an expert. There is a lot of information to wade through, but I mainly focused on the aesthetics of the Illuminati/Freemasons. I read a few books on secret societies that were kind of weird and cool (i.e., Mark Booth’s “The Secret History of the World“), and then the most fun part was going through tons of conspiracy sites and sifting through a bunch of weird bullshit. Vigilantcitizen.com is the best for that. I also looked at a lot of Masonic engravings and illustrations, which is where I got a lot of imagery.
What do you hope the viewer takes away from the Illuminati stuff? Is it the same thought as that of your work in general–that we should be taking these people seriously as artists, not as “ironic” figures or guilty pleasures?
Well, in order to be considered as a member of the Illuminati you basically have to be rich as shit–you know, you’ve achieved an insane level of success. So, in a weird way, it’s kind of a celebration of these figures, who are all African-Americans that have made it against the odds, and now they are so powerful and loaded that people are claiming that they’re in secret societies.
Obviously, you’re a die-hard rap fan. What should we be listening to right now?
Oh, man. Future, of course–man of the year. I’m working on an illustrated book about him right now actually. The Late Nights with Jeremih mixtape has been on constant rotation since it came out. Ty $ – “My Cabana” –that hook will haunt your soul. One more: Dawn Richard – “Wild ‘N Faith.” Both the song and the video are amazing.