She’s a street artist in L.A. She used to be depressed. Her handle is unfukyourself.
On social media she is known as unfukyourself. In person she is soft-spoken, with classic Southern California good looks—blonde hair, tan skin (though she was born on Long Island). She agreed to meet at her studio south of downtown Los Angeles, a small space in a gray building with not enough windows, in a neighborhood of old warehouses, treeless streets, and abandoned grocery carts. As I sat with her inside, I couldn’t take my eyes off a bright orange, maniacal-looking goldfish she had painted. It would soon be glued on to a building, either late at night or early in the morning when police might be on a donut run, which is easy to do in L.A. because it has the highest donut stores per capita in the United States.
Unfukyourself, who also goes by her first name, Padhia, says she only knows of one other female street artist in L.A., though more women are breaking into the scene. Maybe it’s no surprise that she needed an attention-grabbing handle. But overcoming gender barriers with cans of spray paint was never the goal. The goal was psychological exploration, expressing what Padhia refers to as “our interior human landscape.”
Many street artists are inspired by pop culture, politics, and social trends, yet Padhia’s paintings and installations are personal reflections: on her difficult upbringing, her diagnoses of depression and anxiety, her time at a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment center, her history with therapists, the ups and downs of taking various pharmaceuticals over the years, trying to find a treatment that worked. “I used to be so consumed with shame,” she says. One colorful installation from this past spring could have been mistaken for something cheerful at a distance but was actually a pile of giant pills in lively hues of reds, blues, and yellows. Made of chicken wire and paper mâché, the piece was titled “Self Portrait From a Few Years Back” and sat outside an Urban Outfitters on Melrose Avenue during May, Mental Health Awareness Month.
A conversation with Padhia about emotional wellbeing swings between feeling like a chat with IT support and feeling like a session with a life coach. She describes the heart and the brain as “our own personal operating system, both of which must be in sync for happiness” and the messages in her work as “reprogramming.” Operating systems can be “reinstalled,” she says, and working our way out of the darkness and suffering, healing old pain, setting “an emotional destination and believing in yourself” is a “journey to freedom.”
Words appear frequently in Padhia’s work; sometimes a message is the work. The day after meeting Padhia, I caught up with a friend for tacos at El Coyote Café on Beverly Boulevard and literally stepped on one of her many Love Me Anyways messages that she had spray-painted in black on the sidewalk. No image; just those three words. This has been one of Padhia’s most successful campaigns, which spread across her various social media platforms including Instagram and Facebook. She refers to it as a “thought initiative” designed to help people with anxiety, depression, and PTSD find hope and inspiration. Its corresponding visual, when she uses it, is a take on the iconic skull and crossbones image—but the skull wears sunglasses with a twinkle in its eye meant to symbolize rebellion, the crossbones are fireworks, and the tagline is “Rebel Spirit.” On her website, you can buy her original art, prints of her work, or related apparel; black tank tops that say love me anyways sell for $15; a 30” x 30” resin canvas imprinted with the words sells for $1,900.
Doodling while we talk, Padhia explains that “unfuck yourself” was what she used to say to herself to pick herself up. She talks about the psychiatrist who dressed like a surfer and who wanted to put her on anti-psychotics. She talks about going off medication and crawling across her apartment floor because of the intense vertigo she felt. She describes growing up in a severely abusive household and living in the shadow of a mentally ill parent. These formative experiences taught her early on that she needed to rely on herself to create new ways to process her feelings and her environment in order to avoid collapse. She never attempted suicide. She decided to pursue her dream of becoming an artist, rewrite her narrative. Years after all that, Padhia says she has reached a point in her life and career where “I don’t want to do anything unless it makes me feel extreme happiness.” Quietly, she says, “I feel better than I ever have in my life.” She’s been pharma-free for a few years now and, as she puts it, is “letting go.”
L.A. appears to have provided Padhia with the freedom and blank canvas she was seeking. She moved here six years ago, initially thinking she would launch a career in the film industry doing special effects and 3D character modeling, but being inside sitting in front of a computer all day wasn’t fulfilling. She started exploring the thriving street art scene, and discovering that she can bypass the constraints of the more formal art world by using the city as her gallery. She found the work more creative and requiring a certain level of physicality; spraying messages on sidewalks or gluing images on to the chipped facades of buildings in under ten minutes meant staying focused while moving fast. She learned to avoid the police and dodge confrontations with folks sleeping on the street. “Working at night can be a bit scary,” she says. “The homeless here are really friendly but they can become aggressive and unpredictable. When you’re out, it’s good to have someone with you, a lookout.” Her studio mate, the fellow street artist Plastic Jesus, sometimes accompanies her on installations.
There’s a code of ethics to being a street artist. Choosing a spot to feature new art takes consideration. “No place with a new paint job,” Padhia says. “You always want to be respectful towards businesses and if they’ve put money into their facades. You have to ask, ‘Does my art add to this space?’ There’s a little bit of magic to it.”
Foot traffic is preferable to vehicle traffic, so drab exteriors in need of a paint job, where there are pedestrians moving between restaurants, retailers, and yes, donut shops, are ideal for displaying new work. Padhia recently posted another piece outside the clothing store American Vintage on Melrose Avenue, an active artery of passersby—this one is large, stenciled, and features Snoop Dogg posing with Martha Stewart alongside Marilyn Manson posing with Johnny Depp. The words jagged edges and magic happens are spray-painted in Padhia’s favored font.
“There’s no career path in this,” she says. “There’s no guarantee of anything with this kind of work. Sometimes, people even spray over your stuff. And it’s a dirty job.”
As in physically dirty. Padhia describes late nights that aren’t too different from a suburbanite attempting a do-it-yourself home renovation project: running to Home Depot to purchase more supplies, being covered in sawdust and paint, working with large buckets filled with watered-down glue. When spray-painting, she wears a protective mask that completely covers her face, which cost her about $40 and reminds me of those World War I mustard gas masks.
Buying her own supplies and running around downtown L.A. during off-hours to spray paint an inspirational message—and who knows how many people will see it—may not sound like it yields a great deal of possibility, but it gives Padhia tremendous freedom, and it is art on her terms. Her following and influence are growing; galleries in New York have contacted her.
Shortly after I visited Padhia in her studio, she made a sunrise run out to Larchmont Street with her large, orange, maniacal goldfish. I drove out the following day to find it, curious how a work of art would be transformed when moved from its birthplace to a busy community. It was a sunny summer Thursday afternoon. The street she had selected wasn’t anything like where she worked. Padhia’s goldfish was now plastered in an affluent—and homogenous—part of L.A., an impeccable retail promenade where well-dressed people walked up and down well-paved sidewalks carrying iced coffees or organic pressed juices in one hand and shopping bags in the other. Boutiques advertised the arrival of new Italian bags. There, among all this respectable consumer activity, was this crazy-looking creature and the message should have been nice to the goldfish.
Katrina Woznicki is a freelance writer in the New York City area. Her work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, Guernica, The Los Angeles Times and Lonely Planet.