One Dr. Seuss book, out of all his stories, turned on the light bulb for Lu and Jay Reyes.
The duo, brothers from Camden who work together under the name Super Poor Kids, have gone viral in September with their art series The Saddest Story on Repeat. Each piece, which they exhibited IRL in at Kensington’s Open Space Gallery in October, looks like a page from a storybook. The hand-sketched, but digitally finished series tightly resembles Seuss, down to the meter and rhyme of the accompanying poems that the artists penned. The stories in large part portray police-involved shootings. The Saddest Story on Repeat series has caught the attention of national Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson and the Huffington Post.
At Victor’s Pub in downtown Camden, where Billy Penn caught up with Lu, the elder brother explained their inspiration came from from Dr. Seuss’ posthumous release What Pet Should I Get. Clad in a hand-painted hoodie and kicks and wearing a handlebar mustache, he explained the background.
Dr. Seuss’ wife unearthed a manuscript in his papers three years ago, decades after his passing. Random House completed it and released it last year, leading to an ensuing fan frenzy.
“Me being an artist, me being a big ass kid, [I’m] super excited. Like my God, this is great,” he said of the release. “On the opposite [side], it’s like, shit, there’s people dying everyday, why the hell isn’t that getting that type of reaction?”
It’s not that there isn’t outrage over police-involved killings, but Lu considers those reactions too transient. “When the next one goes, that person kind of gets wiped off the slate, and it’s almost as if they’re forgotten,” he said. “That’s why it’s just like, damn, these people are kind of turning into hashtags. That’s all it is. You can’t mourn a death for months at time because there’s going to be another one.”
“Any Dr. Seuss story,” he added later, “they just live forever. You can’t put a cap on when it’s time to get over Dr. Seuss… So, we thought we’d merge the two.”
They got started, but then caught a case of what Lu might call artist ADD, distracted by other projects and whatnot. Super Poor Kids may be best known for their Instagram account, where they drop portraits of the famous, the almost famous, but also activists and victims of police violence and discrimination. Ahmed Mohamed, the muslim boy who’s handmade clock was thought to be a bomb, got a portrait, for example. They paint and sell their own fashion too.
“It went a whole year without us working on the shit,” Lu said of the Seuss-inspired illustrations. “Then the Alton Sterling video surfaced.” The next day, of course, footage of Philando Castile impacted them too.
“Me and my brother were like, ‘That’s it. It’s time to dust off the old sketchbook,’” he recalled. “In a month, we created nine to 10 pieces from start to finish.”
From tees, to portraits, to activism
The Saddest Story on Repeat, hewing so closely to Dr. Seuss’ style, didn’t hint at their artistic origins the way their previous work did. The brothers developed a following on social media through their portrait-work.
Their graphic portraits are digitally produced. They use photographs as a base. How they shade them is the hook. The shading is done with multi-hued strokes— layered scribbles, cross-hatching— but arranged together to appear painterly.
By hand, their lettering sometimes recalls graffiti writing. They still work on canvas too, and those pieces at times lend the feeling of street art. Of course, they got their start at Miskeen.
You remember Miskeen. The local clothing company that sold apparel with hand-painted designs, their tees being all the rage around the early-to-mid-2000s. Shirts were treated as artworks not to be turned into patterns or replicated— each tee had to be one-of-a-kind.
Lu explains that he came from a landscape of limited expectations: playing ball, recording raps, or street hustling. His mother was an anchor. Miskeen was an outlet.
“We had a good life. My mom kept us in shape. My mom is 4’11. She would whoop our asses if we ever got into [anything], to this day! She kept us on a good path early on. Thank God we never got sucked into anything involved in the streets,” he said.
Lu and Jay, who grew up in a Puerto Rican household, used to draw sketches as teens. Their drawings, Lu admitted, were awful. A cousin who worked for a youth employment program saw Miskeen was hiring and pointed the brothers their way. The chance of making the shirts rather than buying them? They were hype off the bat, basically.
“We never touched paint a day in our lives. We sucked. We started at the bottom,” he remembered.
Lu, now 27, and Jay, now 26, both went to Rowan, both pledged Kappa Alpha Psi, both got heavy into Greek Life, away from the art culture they came up in at Miskeen.
“When we finished college, in hindsight, we were like shit, we really, not dropped the ball, because we were still making money doing Greek paraphernalia…” Lu was referring to the apparel and keepsakes fraternity and sorority members buy with their organizations’ colors, shields, letters and so on. That wasn’t exactly the freeform artwear that Miskeen encouraged its painters to create. “It was like, yo we kind of fell off as far as honing our craft,” said Lu.
So, they got back into it. A mentor, with “a wink and nod to Frank Ocean’s ‘Super Rich Kids,’” drew the words “Super Poor Kids” on a canvas.
“It was such a minor part of the painting,” he remembered. There was something about it, though.
‘That could be us that could be a hashtag’
Jay works in fashion retail. Lu works in corrections; that’s all he’ll share. In the current U.S. political climate, anything critical of police brutality can get easily misinterpreted as anti-police altogether, and since he’s in law enforcement, it’s a delicate point.
Three years ago, Camden nixed its city police force in favor of a county department. The rare reorganization called for emphasizing tactics that favor community policing and non-deadly deescalation on the street. According to data collected by The Guardian’s project, “The Counted,” while police-involved killings have taken place in other parts of South Jersey this year, none have been in Camden. Murders, which spiked in 2012, have fallen sharply, but violent crime in the city has not.
While even President Obama has praised Camden’s county police force, officers acknowledge they’re still working to improve public safety and community views. “You’re going to have to fight and scrap and earn the community’s trust,” one sergeant told CBSNews. Local police have said they’re pushing to recruit more Camden natives and hang on to more millennial officers. Forty-six percent of the police force is of color, but 94 percent of the city’s residents are.
Lu would like to see the numbers go up, to see the streets policed by people Camdenites can say they grew up with, who they recognize: “I think that helps ease a lot of the tension that’s there to begin with.”
Still, even with greater recruitment, he said a culture of defensiveness would still prove a hindrance. After tragic shootings, police departments seemingly protect officers whose actions were deeply, deeply wrong, he explained. He feels that cops involved in tragic incidents deserve to be held accountable through a fair process that might take time. But, it’s the rhetoric, too.
“It’s so hard to put into words. At least, give us some signs of alright, you’re at least trying to reason with us.” he said of police. “Yes, you have a police force of so many, you’re going to have some bad apples in the bunch. Good God, just say it!”
Lu couldn’t remember the first portrait the brothers did of a victim of police violence. There’ve been too many.
Lu thinks about ethics a lot. “First and foremost, when we make this art of victims, it’s almost like ‘shit, are we wrong?’ We don’t know if we’re like considered opportunists? Are we capitalizing on something that’s relevant? Are we fighting for a cause? Are we gaining notoriety? It’s a fine line,” he said, but, “We’re creating art, like, we’re in the moment. This is how we feel.”
“It was never supposed to be, ‘Yo, let’s make Black Lives Matter art’,” he continued. “All I know is we’re from the hood. That could be us, any given day. Because of the way we look, the way we talk, the way we dress, the way we carry ourselves. Not that we’re ignorant, not that we’re belligerent, not that we’re ‘ghetto,’ but shit, we know,” he repeated slowly, “on any given day, that could be us that could be a hashtag.”
Of course, there’s going to be a part two, and three, and four of The Saddest Story on Repeat series, Lu said. He doesn’t see police violence ending soon.
“In the 12 days that we were releasing these images, I think three or four new deaths happened or something like that?” he said “I got those names down on a list.”