Penis Man: An Exclusive Interview with the Viral Tempe, AZ Graffiti Artist
Tempe, AZ has been abuzz with talk of a new graffiti artist. The name on everyone’s lips? Penis Man. A New Year’s Eve newscast from Phoenix’s ABC15 states that the moniker started showing up on traffic poles, dumpsters, and electricity boxes in November 2019, drawing the attention and ire of city managers. But whether or not you’re a fan of graffiti (I am), the art form is nothing novel. Tags are ubiquitous, adorning the walls of seemingly every city in the world. Tempe’s graffiti abatement specialists, overseen by the city’s Transportation Maintenance Division, cataloged 299,889 instances of graffiti last year, reports ABC15. But it’s the humorous simplicity of Penis Man’s name and style that seems to have set him apart and captured the public imagination.
With Penis Man’s true identity still anonymous, the artist has only enjoyed their own fame from the sidelines. They have watched, mouth agape, as ABC15’s news story about them reached over 1 million views on Facebook, as admirers have made bootleg t-shirts, as copycats and fans have picked up markers and rattlecans. Coverage of the story has appeared on websites like The Cut and eBaum’s World.
Through some minor investigative work, I was able to track down Penis Man and obtain this email interview with the artist.
Walk me through a day in the life of Penis Man.
I spend the morning feeling confident but desperate for validation. Around noon I start dwelling on bridges I burned in 2015. Nightfall, guilt drips down my spine. At this point I feel the need to communicate with the city and my fellow citizens.
Did you ever imagine that you would gain such notoriety?
Yes and no. I was aware that my moniker was different than most in a juvenile and obnoxious way, but nevertheless, easy to read. I assumed its legibility paired with its middle-school humor would draw attention within the community, but not to this extent.
What have been some of your most surreal anonymous experiences as Penis Man?
Walking into a dingy dive bar and seeing someone screen-printing t-shirts with my name on them, eight people at the bar already wearing them. That tops the charts, so far.
What was the first Penis Man tag you ever did?
It had to have been in an alley — probably on discarded furniture or other housewares. I went through a mattress phase in the beginning. Big white canvases that seemed to spawn in new alleys every night. After a couple weeks I started seeing some discarded a little too serendipitously against walls next to busy streets.
I became paranoid, thinking they were traps, and I moved on to walls.
How do you choose where you’re going to tag?
The opportunities present themselves, almost always unplanned. Half of the time I go out looking with intent on writing — the other half happen when I’m handling other business.
I also have my personal preferences. I try to be respectful…I mean, as much as a “vulgar graffiti vandal” can. I like trash — things discarded in alleys, abandoned by remorseful consumers, reclaimed by nature. Rotten old dressers, stained couches, cracked mirrors, grimy mattresses, vacant buildings. Dumpsters are common but feel lazy. Empty lots with tall, bare walls. Blank signs.
Also, things with other graffiti already on them. I like being the first, but I don’t mind being the last.
Is there any meaning behind the moniker? Why did you choose it?
One of my close friends loves to claim that he came up with the name and told me to write it, but no. (Had to include that for him).
The internet seems to be entertained by the crass absurdness of the name itself, which was a main purpose — grabbing the attention of the inner 12-year-old inside each of us. But new theories have been surfacing in comment threads and message boards among the web, and a few of them are spot on.
e.g.: “Penis Man” is a deliberate separation of genitalia and gender. It is a social commentary on fluidity — a person’s gender being nonequivalent to their sexual organs. In turn, there can be Penis Woman or Vagina Man, or any leading combination that suits a person and their own personal sexuality and gender, if any.
(Also, it’s been joked about online for people to start writing “Vagina Woman” or variants in opposition to me, which I gladly accept and encourage as allies, not enemies).
Did you write graffiti before adopting this moniker?
I sprayed “Satan is taking his” on the back wall of an abandoned grocery store when I was in high school — a lyric from a Mercyful Fate song. Years later I went back and did some politically charged graffiti on the same wall (long painted over) that’s pretty cringey to think about now. A few years after that (2013-ish) I started a two-man band with a best friend of mine and we tagged the name of the band every-fucking-where we went. So technically that was my first moniker, albeit shared. I continued writing it now and then over the following years until I went into labor with Penis Man.
As an artist, what are your biggest influences?
First and foremost: BEN STINKS in Minnesota had a major and significant influence on Penis Man. Plain, capital letters sprayed under every bridge on the Upper Mississippi. The similarities are blatant. It was the first time I’d ever seen consistent unconventional graffiti (no bubble letters, fills, contrast, etc), emphasizing getting up over getting down.
Honorable mentions — Sace and Earsnot. Barry McGee and Margaret Kilgallen. Neckface. Sez and Bagfry. Nose. Sluto. Et al.
How can you prove you’re actually Penis Man, and not just some imposter?
I do support the copycats, as well as encourage it. Sharing identity may be an antithesis of graffiti but some consider me the antihero. So it goes.
What would happen if you ever got caught? Are you worried?
At this point, considering it has shifted from a single culprit to a mass identity, all the folks saying “I am Penis Man” or “We’re all Penis Man,” I feel like I could walk into the Tempe Police Department to turn myself in and they wouldn’t believe me.
Some unfortunate supporter will likely get caught before I do and be subjected to the heat that I kindled. I apologize in advance.
You haven’t made any money from this project (not that you’re in it for the money). But is there any way that your fans can support you? A Venmo perhaps?
Money is of no interest to me. Unless of course I do get bagged, then I’ll be banking on one of my friends to start a GoFundMe for my legal expenses and you can find and donate to that when and if the time comes. But until then if you want to show support, go outside and write PENIS MAN on a dumpster.
What’s next for Penis Man?
Westboro Baptist Church. And a Vice article with a super cringey caption on Instagram.
Anything else you want to say. Shoutouts?
Thank you to all my fans. BQSK. MAFW. Leticia and her kids. And all the real writers out there who actually do good graffiti that still back me. Respect.
Nathaniel Kennon Perkins is the author of Cactus (Trident Press, 2018) and The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019). You can find him on Instagram, Twitter, and Patreon through the handle @nkperkins. www.nathanielkennonperkins.com