Miley Cyrus is a fan. So is Chief Justice
John Roberts. Mister E, Instagram’s newest art star, is quickly gaining currency.
“Art seemed like a way to make a lot of money, and I always wanted to do something where I could make a lot of money,” the artist Mister E was telling InsideHook a few weekends ago at the Model Volleyball event in the Hamptons, a benefit for the Jack Brewer Foundation. Wearing an American flag tank-top, blue mirrored sunglasses, a backward-turned baseball cap, red shorts, and a Rolex wristwatch, he was sprawled out on the rear lawn of a lavishly appointed estate, as “Famous” thumped from the sound system and upwards of 100 professional models milled around in skimpy swimwear.
Mister E definitely makes money these days, in more ways than one. His art is money. It’s derived from money. It’s about money, from his exuberantly colorful large-scale silk screens of greenbacks to his rainbow stacks of $100 bills. Sometimes he even uses the bills as his own personal form of currency, trading the stuff for a Ferrari rental, say, or an extravagant dinner at Nobu, or an ounce of weed.
“You should see the car we’re driving,” said his manager and best friend Marcel, sometimes known as Monsieur Marcel, who was sitting with us. “R8 drop top, blood interior.”
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MISTER E
Marcel, who wore a white baseball cap, low-riding shorts and large 70s-style shades, was shirtless, and strung around his neck was a 24-carat gold Dorito pendant, which drew stares and envious comments throughout the day. “Everybody loves food,” he explained.
Mister E, who asked that I not reveal his given name (ditto Monsieur Marcel), had flown in to take part in the benefit, which had been organized by some fellow Miamians and was cohosted by Instagram star Yesjulz. As one of the day's activities, attendees could purchase his printed bills, customize them with a Sharpie, and pin them to a large piece of FoamCore.
The house was massive, 10,000-square-feet on a three-acre lot, with a good size pool as well as tennis, volleyball and basketball courts. Mister E, who has a degree in real estate, said he wouldn’t mind owning it someday. “I’d have a studio in the back and do whatever the fuck I wanted,” he said, leaning back in the grass. “Maybe in ten years…” he added, before revising his estimate. “Nah, say five years. I’ll be 33.”
It seemed like an ambitious timeline, but Mister E knows success can happen overnight. It had been just three years, maybe less, since he ditched a career as a general contractor to devote himself to art full time. Now collectors of his work include Floyd Mayweather, Miley Cyrus, Lionel Richie, Adam Sandler, Flo Rida and John Roberts. Yes. Chief Justice John Roberts. (Mister E has locked down the Surpeme demo, and we don’t just mean streetwear fanatics.)
Mister Egot his start painting acrylic portraits from photographs. Back in 2013, he made a painting of Floyd Mayweather and managed to get it to one of the championship boxer's associates. Mayweather gratefully accepted the gift, but a member of his posse made a comment that Mister E couldn’t get out of his head. “He said, ‘Oh, another picture of himself,’” the artist recalls. “I realized then that I needed to do my own thing. That’s when I started working on the money.”
He also realized that while painting from iconic photographs was legally dicey, nobody owns money. Money's in the public domain.
Naturally Mister E made sure to show the new work to Mayweather, and perhaps unsurprisingly, given that his nickname is “Money,” the boxer loved it, snapping up two seven-foot canvasses.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MISTER E
Soon, Mister E was cranking out his money silk-screens, marketing himself mostly by word of mouth and via Instagram. (The pieces, which range in price from $10,000 up to $100,000 for large-scale commissions, can be purchased through a variety of galleries and at mistereart.com.) Real estate uber-agent Josh Altman bought a few paintings, and they wound up on “Million Dollar Listing.” Finance guys were especially drawn to the work. Stock brokers, hedge fund managers. One foursome of startup cofounders celebrated their big exit by getting a whole set of original Mister Es, a different color for each partner.
“It became kind of a thing,” Mister E said.
“Motivation!” Marcel added.
In time, Mister E began zeroing in on various aspects of U.S. currency, like the “In God We Trust” motto. “Most people look at money the wrong way, like it’s bad,” he said. “You know, Money’s the root of all evil... Rich people are terrible... And my whole thing is, money is whatever you want to make it. You can do a lot of good with money, too. Money is power, and that doesn’t have to be seen as a negative thing.”
Another big turning point came at last year’s Ultra, the massive EDM festival in Miami. In a collaboration with DJ Snake, Mister E arranged to have $100,000,000 in his signature C-notes blast out of a “cash cannon” and rain down during the hit “Get Low.”
“Picture that,” Marcel put in. “‘Get low, get, get, get…’ Then boom, all this money came out. The whole crowd covered in the fucking money.”
“One hundred thousand bills,” Mister E said.
“Pretty much one for every individual in the main stage area,” Marcel pointed out.
Shortly thereafter, Cyrus — who on her Bangerz tour showered crowds in “Miley Money” — somehow ran across Mister E’s Instagram page and recognized a kindred spirit. She reached out to see about commissioning an installation, and within weeks, Mister E and Marcel were bunking at her Malibu compound and covering the walls with those candy-colored banknotes. The resulting piece also includes an antique safe—“like something that came off the Titanic,” Mister E says — lined inside and out in gold leaf. The work is interactive: Guests are invited to put an actual $100 bill in the safe (proceeds go to Cyrus’s Happy Hippie Foundation), take out a Miser E bill, sign it, and put it up on the wall with a golden vintage stapler.
There’s also a money-themed bathroom with money toilet paper.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MILEY CYRUS / INSTAGRAM
Cyrus posted pictures of the finished piece on Instagram, and “that was the breakthrough,” Marcel said. “The shit just hit the fan.” Before either one of them knew what had happened, their phones were blowing up with likes and comments — and commissions. More important, Mister E says: that was when the work itself went from being a kind of Wall Street trophy to something deeper, from a decorative emblem of greed to a commentary on capitalism itself, albeit one that costs real money.
Well, sort of. “Money isn’t real,” Marcel points out.
“It only seems like it is,” Mister E adds. “To me it’s a big fucking joke.”
As well it might, given how quickly he’s acquired it.
But this is how it works in the newly disrupted art world. Like everything else, the industry is changing. That’s not to say the hushed Chelsea galleries are going anywhere — except maybe across the river to Brooklyn. The Thursday-night openings will start up again in the fall, drawing the usual collection of nerdy curatorial types, wealthy collectors, chin-stroking grad students, maybe an occasional would-be Basquiat clad in paint-crusted denim and toting a longboard. But the internet has opened up other avenues to fame and fortune for artists, and Mister E seems to have cruised on to an especially fast-moving onramp.
PHOTO BY AARON GELL
“Instagram allows artists to cut out the middle man,” explained Bucky Turco, an authority on street art and editor for Mass Appeal, who noted that while galleries still hold some allure for the new generation of street artists, the “real badge of honor” is landing a big commission from a major corporate brand.
“The artist’s actual artistic skill,” he added, “is basically secondary to their social media skill.”
Mister E didn’t disagree with that assessment. “When Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel, he got that because he was a skilled painter,” he said. “But it’s not like that anymore. Does Avicii even know how to play an instrument? I used to be really impressed by people who could sit here with a canvas and draw you perfectly. Not anymore. A lot of people are doing that and aren’t making any money.”
Mister E also takes issue with the notion of art as a refined spiritual calling that is somehow tainted by its association with commerce. “That’s bullshit,” he said. “Art’s for the money. Art is money. Money is art. It’s the same thing.”
Or as Andy Warhol once put it, “Making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
“Artists have to be more than artists,” Mister E went on. “You have to be your own marketing company and brand.”
“That’s what we do,” Marcel said. “We brand.”
Marcel has considerable experience of his own in this area. Several years ago, he was working as a club promoter in Miami when he had the idea to create an adult-size onesie printed with an image of a pepperoni pizza. After finding a company, Beloved Shirts, to make him one, he began wearing it around.
Before long, it, too, became kind of a thing. Pizzaman.
“I would just dress up in this onesie and run around and do ridiculous shit,” he told InsideHook later that afternoon. The three of us were sitting, appropriately enough, at World Pie, a pizza joint in Bridgehampton, having somehow made the trip without incident in the convertible R8, as I perched awkwardly above the two seats with my feet straddling the gear shift.
Pizzaman’s Instagram adventures included visiting an ATM, posing on a yacht and watching the Heat take on the Pacers, always accompanied by an array of humorous hashtags. Before long, the character went viral. The Kardashians reposted one of the images. (Due to the failure of some prominent ’Grammers to tag him, Pizzaman began watermarking his pictures.) Soon, people started hitting up Beloved, demanding pizza onesies of their own. Cara Delevigne rocked one. So did Katy Perry. It’s now the company’s signature item.
Marcel might well have gotten rich off the pizza onesie if only he’d thought to trademark the idea. He did reap certain other benefits, however. “Girls love pizza,” he said with a grin. “I would have sex with them in the suit. Dude, I swear on my life. But the best is when you get a pizza delivery and you answer the door as Pizzaman.”
All in all, he added, “It was a fun year.”
Beyond which, the experience clearly schooled him in the dark arts of social media marketing, which he is putting to good use on behalf of Mister E and other clients.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MISTER E
And yet, it must be said, Mister E has quite a bit more going for him than a solid gimmick, a ton of luck and a savvy manager. His art has drawn attention because it’s actually good. His production process is exacting — Marcel calls him “the Resin God” — while his disorienting use of scale, formal restraint and infallible color sense demonstrate a sophisticated eye. Meanwhile, his money paintings, while every bit as universally appealing as a gold Dorito, have an uncanny power, prompting us to look anew at those little green-tinted artworks we all carry around in our wallets — numbered prints on rag paper we tend to value more highly for what they can do for us than for their own mysterious beauty.
While Mister E has no interest whatsoever in cultivating the art world — “I hate the pretentiousness,” he said — he expresses admiration for business-minded art stars like Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. And his work fits squarely within the pop art tradition pioneered by Lichtenstein and Warhol. That said, he may have somewhat more in common with one of their contemporaries, a man named Robert Dowd.
In 1962, Dowd’s work was featured in the first-ever museum survey of pop art. He specialized in paintings of U.S. currency — that is, until he was visited by Secret Service agents, who suggested he could be arrested for counterfeiting if he kept it up. Unwilling to take the risk, Dowd decided to focus on postage stamps instead, and his renown gradually faded.
PHOTO COURTESY OF MISTER E
Chances are, Mister E will have better luck. Whereas Dowd’s work was taken as a mockery of an iconic national symbol — at a time of historical turmoil, no less — Mister E’s seems like a celebration, an almost hallucinatory rediscovery of money’s innate magic. Perhaps more important, he has John Roberts in his corner.
“He’s a normal guy,” said Mister E, who met the Chief Justice through mutual friends.
Roberts’ painting, which hangs in his summer home in Maine, was specially made for him. It depicts a $10,000 bill — an actual, if exceedingly rare, denomination. On its face is a portrait of Salmon Chase, the only Chief Justice to grace a U.S. banknote. And in place of the bill’s original serial number, Mister E painted the date of Roberts’ inauguration.
As it happens, Justice Chase was not yet on the court when his image first landed on the nation’s currency. As Secretary of the Treasury under President Abraham Lincoln, Chase was given the task of selecting an American hero whose portrait would grace the nation’s new $1 bill. Seizing the opportunity to enhance his own personal brand, he settled on himself.
His subsequent appointment to the high court was a clear affirmation of his proto-Kardashian knack for self-promotion. The man is largely forgotten now, but for a while there, it’s fair to say, Salmon Chase was kind of a thing.
As for Mister E, he plans to continue painting money for the foreseeable future, although he has quietly begun exploring related subject areas. For instance, he recently completed an eight-foot tall rendering of a nightclub receipt.
“Dude,” Marcel said. “It’s fucking dope.”