“The penis is VERBOTEN,” says John Criscitello, who first came to prominence with a poster of a giant penis that read “Legendary” on top of a Jägermeister ad. Kelly O

You're the guy who's covered Capitol Hill in all the smart-ass street art about gentrification. When do you put up your posters? Do you go out in the middle of the night?

I try to go early in the week—a Monday or a Tuesday night on the hill when it's dead. Even as early as 10 p.m. I mean honestly, just between us girls, you can do anything you want at those times. There are no cops, NOBODY around! I have an old method that I've used for 25 years... Some people use wheat paste, but I use wood glue, or carpenter's glue—the yellow stuff. I empty half the bottle out, and I fill the other half with water. The bottle comes with a little square "spout" already on it. I just walk up to a wall and start squeezing. It makes this perfect amount of glue—then I put the paper on, slick it once, and walk away.

"This comes from the sentiment that we just don’t need this gayborhood anymore. The idea that gays are totally liberated, and now can go anywhere, and can also get married? Bullshit. Try to go kiss your same-sex partner in Spokane, and lemme know what happens."

Aren't you afraid of getting caught?

The thing with postering—and I wholly encourage other people to do it, too—is you have to act like you know exactly what you're doing. It's like when you walk into a nightclub without paying. You have to walk right in and act like you own the place. You can't be skulking around in a black hoodie and a bandanna over your face. Everybody likes to pretend that they're Banksy. But that's not reality. Really, you walk up with your glue and your posters and just do it.

"Bastardizing any corporate logo is good fun. We have to endure having that trite fucking orange grin shoved in our faces at every turn, so I’m just giving back to my community. Honestly, the image came from a doodle I made unconsciously while I was talking on the phone. Plus I think about dicks a lot."

How do you choose locations?

I don't want to be a vandal, even though I would LOVE to go up to one of these brand-new buildings and plaster it. But I won't do that. There are plenty of viable spaces. I do still come from the school, though, that you ask for forgiveness, not permission.

“Anyone who lives or works on these few blocks remembers the woman who lived in that doorway. She was obviously mentally ill, and her circumstances were dire, and she was there for a long time, long enough for very expensive apartments to be built around her. Then one day she was gone, so there was a vacancy."

What was the very first street poster you did in Seattle?

The first poster I did was last year, on top of the giant Jägermeister ad on the liquor store on the corner of 12th Avenue and Pine Street. Remember that? BE A LEGEND! That was the beginning of it all. Everything about that campaign reeked of drinking too much alcohol and acting like an asshole—almost ENCOURAGING this behavior. The advertisement was for Jägermeister, and it said, "Relive the night you became LEGENDS on Cap Hill," and then it had a bar-code thing you could scan, then upload videos to the Jägermeister site—videos of you getting all WAAAASTED on "Cap Hill." For me, that was the ultimate "fuck you" to the people who actually live in the neighborhood, carried out by the people who just come here to get drunk. Anyway, first I put a giant penis over their poster that just said "Legendary." I'd thought: What could I do to mess with these people? Dicks! People are real weird about dicks. I mean, the penis is VERBOTEN. People really react to penises! So I put a giant penis on the Jägermeister ad one night. It was torn down right away. Then, a few days later, I made a piece that said "Basher-Meister" on an iPhone, and we put a fist inside the phone that said "Bro-Home." That one was more subtle and stayed up for a while.

"With every piece, you have to raise the bar a little bit. This one had its own Reddit thread with more than 400 comments on it. It really stirred people up."

Basher-Meister—referring to gay bashers?

Exactly. I also made a poster later that just had a fist on bright, queer pink that said "We Bash Back," in response to the increased violence on Capitol Hill. You know, it's funny that my posters are getting so much attention, because I've only lived in Seattle four and a half years. I come from a perspective of only four years, but I've never seen such RAPID gentrification anywhere. It's not gradual—it's on EVERY corner. Boom! Boom! Boom! Like Dresden, Germany—A BOMBING! Boom! Boom! Boom! Cranes! Cranes! Cranes! There are so many buildings that are still empty. And all those empty units represent people—and only the people who can afford a $2,300-a-month apartment. This can't NOT change the demographic of a neighborhood.

You're from New York—did you do this kind of protest art there?

Not in my most recent history in New York, but way back in the day—in the '80s, I did all kinds of postering, more geared around bands, events, all-ages shows. My best friend Jamie just recently went back, and he found one of our posters that was still glued up—a little eight-and-a-half-by-eleven-inch flyer. It's been there 20 years, on the window of an old dilapidated building. Back then, it was more about a punk sort of idea, and free speech. I've been a painter and an artist now for a long, long time. I do paintings and film. I've been self-employed for more than 25 years. To do that, I maintain an art studio that's multifunctional, that I can do all sorts of different kinds of work in. Right now, I'm very fortunate—it took me three long years to find, but I have a great art studio on Capitol Hill. It's a struggle, though, don't get me wrong! It's not like I'm ever going to be able to move into the Sunset Electric! The other part of this late-stage gentrification is that it creates a particular malaise. It makes people feel displaced and uncertain of their futures. It's also pretty obvious, when these fancy new buildings come in, that there's no way you, or I, or most people who were already living here could open up a new business—especially a business like a record or used clothing store or, heaven forbid, a new art gallery. In these new buildings, it's like $60 a square foot.


What places have you seen disappear that you miss?

Remember across from Northwest Film Forum, there used to be a little secondhand store, the Trading Post? That's long gone. Or around the corner in that big, yellow building—which I understand had a long history in the neighborhood, including being, at one point, a gay rooming house in the late '70s and early '80s? Also in that yellow building there was the classic staple of any good gayborhood, the antique store owned by the old, queeny gay couple. Those two guys had that little store for 40 YEARS. And where are they now? Gone. Never to return. And one by one, all the places where people of modest income can shop will be gone. And eating? Forget it. That Japanese place on 12th—a bowl of ramen is $16. Maybe eventually it will reach a critical mass. Every single new business in these new buildings can't be an expensive restaurant or a fancy bar or a bank. Who even goes to a brick-and-mortar bank anymore, anyway? Don't people just do banking online? You ever notice when you walk by these banks in the bottom of all these brand-new buildings, that there's NOBODY but employees in the lobby?

Yeah, it's weird.

I think the most interesting story would be to ask some of the new people who live in these expensive new apartments how THEY see the neighborhood. Why did they choose to live here? How was it pitched to them? Was it the nightlife? Was it that it was queer-friendly? Because if you can afford a $2,300 apartment, you could easily afford to live anywhere in Seattle—you could live in Queen Anne, Ballard, downtown, you could rent a beautiful house in the CD with a yard and everything. So what was their attraction to Capitol Hill? A lot of those new buildings are microcosms unto themselves—they have parking underneath, so a person could leave their apartment, go down to their car, and go off to their job or wherever they go without ever setting foot on the actual street. A person could get Amazon Fresh to deliver their food, and they never have to go inside a local store. These people aren't leaving any sort of footprint in the neighborhood. They're never actually the person on the street. That's not what a city is about—a city like New York is about the streets. What's happening here is a suburban enclave happening on top of an urban core. People want all the amenities of living in a suburb in the ground floor of their condo—a Panera, a coffee shop, a boutique gym, a dry cleaner, a Bank of America. But they're not participating, they're not giving anything back. They underestimate urban living.

Suburbs are kind of soulless, with strip malls everywhere...

They're soul-killing—so much repetition of corporate retail. Everything's sanitized. You never arrive anywhere and there's no history. And the way Capitol Hill is becoming a sanitized suburb is wiping its history away. And even as a resident of only four years, I think this sanitation is worthy of protesting.

"Anybody who has spent a night out walking around the hill has had an encounter with drunk, underdressed, shivering young girls wobbling around in heels. If they only knew that every queen is reading them to filth."

You just had a show at Vermillion and you sold 12 pieces. Wow! Did you make some money? Do you sell the original pieces or do you make copies?

We had a great turnout, and the show nearly sold out, with only a few silk-screen prints left. Yes, the studio made some money, which is great because we can continue making more work, bigger work. Everything you see on the street is painted onto paper—nothing is xeroxed or photocopied. Also, once there's interest in a piece, after it's out on the street, then I can sell the work. I make another hand-painted edition of it, on nicer, better quality paper. I never win grants and don't do good on paper or have representation, so as an independent artist, it's really uplifting to have substantial sales. It keeps the machine oiled. recommended