SOCAL MUSIC/SOCAL CULTURE
NOVEMBER 2005 ISSUE
WRITTEN BY JEN HILBERT
REPRINTED BY PERMISSION©
San Diego’s' art pimp relishes vice
The art pimp is, ahem, a little-shall we say - controversial. For starters, he believes drug dealers make excellent art patrons. He loves to glorify vice. And he thinks that in some cases Mickey Mouse is more powerful than Jesus. A figure that’s both loathed and loved, the art pimp works hard to cause a stir. But just who is the art pimp? And why does he have such unorthodox beliefs? Well, once you know the art pimp's history you may find that, while he's eccentric, his beliefs may not be as far-fetched as they seem.
In order to understand the Art Pimp you must first learn the story of Ron Wharton. Ron Wharton is a jovial, soft spoken, self admittedly shy guy who came to California from the East coast- Maryland to be exact. After years of “doing everything there was to do" in his hometown, which included a proposed bid for mayor, Wharton winged his way to the west coast. A self-taught artist, Wharton has been paint-ing for years. His artwork is like candy. It’s brightly colored, cartoon- like characters instantly draw you in. But upon further inspection, the cheery veneer reveals a more serious message. Wharton’s paintings mock life's ironies and explore its vices. They are a political and social commentary on today's pop culture and society's obsession with it. "Sunday Drive" depicts a 50's housewife daydreaming of liquor, drugs, and gambling, while "The Manifestation of Pop Culture in the form of Saint Elvis" touts Elvis as saint complete with a Santa Claus-emblazoned cross, Pepsi and Coke buttons attached to his robe, and a halo of drugs. But what does all this have to do with the Art Pimp?
The Art Pimp is to Ron Wharton what Tony Clifton was to Andy Kaufman. A brash and nervy alter ego, the Art Pimp promotes Wharton’s paintings to the public and answers his critics. On Wharton’s web page (www.Rwharton.illequipped.com) the Art Pimp responds to questions like, “ Is the Art Pimp anti-American?” with an answer like, “Hell no. The Art Pimp loves the fruitcake country.”
I met with Wharton aka the Art Pimp one September evening at Seth’s Chop Shop, a retro hair salon where many of Wharton’s colorful works are on display. Sitting in vintage barbershop chairs, Wharton, the Art Pimp, and I discussed Disney, the devil, and drug dealers while happy-go-lucky 50’s tunes served as a perfectly surreal soundtrack.
You’re originally from Maryland. What brought you out here?
RW: I had done everything there was to do in the town I lived in. I was to a point where my friends and I were considering running for mayor. And we would have won ‘ cause we checked out the registry and there’s only 1, 000 people that vote, and at that time we’d have 1, 000 friends. You know, we wanted to change the government and then we wised up and said, “ My God. Why do we want to be mayor? That’s not really fun.” It would be a novelty, but then we’d have to do stuff.
Perhaps Wharton should have considered a run for San Diego mayor. But alas, he bid farewell to his political aspirations and instead focused on his art-both crating it and enjoying the very vices it portrays.
paintings deal with vices. How did you decide to make that your focus?
What are your personal vices?
(Laughs) I have a real big cigarette problem. That’s one of ‘em. I just started drinking like ayear ago. That’s a nice one. I’m not too comfortable saying it but I like almost all of the drugs, but I don’t have a problem with any of it. But I like’em. (Laughs again.)
You mentioned churchgoing. What are your thoughts on organized religion?
I have a serious problem with organized religion. Spirituality within oneself is perfectly fine, but as soon as it becomes an organization and there’s money involved and there’s rules-I don’t necessarily think that rules should be applied to your own personal spirituality. It’s a touchy subject.
It’s true. Religion is always a touchy subject. So touchy, in fact, that Wharton and the Art Pimp have received quite a few messages about the role religion plays in his art, specifically in regards to use of the devil’s image.
I saw that you had answers about the devil on your website. Have you had any religious people contact you?
RW: Yeah. I come across that quite a bit. I mean, if you’re brought up in a really religious environment, that devil symbol is awful. It’s quite taboo. People don’t like playing around with it at all. But if you haven’t grown up in that environment, it’s nothing. And I kinda look at it like a cartoon. I mean, I have a devil tattoo on my leg and I’ve had large debates about that.
What are these debates like?
They’re like, “ Dude, what’s up with the tattoo? Don’t you fear God?” And I’m like, “ I guess…but you fear my tattoo- that’s kinda weird.” I don’t think it’s a legitimate conversation if you’re talking about my tattoo.
Whether or not Wharton thinks the arguments are legitimate, his art is provocative. And he provokes more than just the religious. There are also the hardcore Disney enthusiasts that take issue with his work, like his piece entitled. “ The Dark Side of Disney,” which displays Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and friends partaking in the standard vices.
The painting “ The Dark Side of Disney,” what’s been the response to that?
seems to like it. I’ve encountered a few people who have a problem
with that because they love Disney so much. Unbelievably, some people
are practically religious about Disney- I didn’t know –who
knew? And then you encounter them and you’re like, “Wow!
This is like a church- dude we’re talking about Mickey Mouse,
you know? Like, what the hell.” I did this one painting of Mickey
Mouse nailed to the cross- so okay, you’re thinking, who’s
gonna attack you for that” Is it gonna be the religious person
because you’re mocking religion or is I gonna be some Disney person?
On a day-to-day level Mickey Mouse is far more powerful than Jesus.
They’ll (Disney) sue me and take everything I have… I mean,
that’s somebody I actually have to contend with right here, right
Your “Aggression” collection that you made while you were living with drug dealers, what was that experience like and how did it impact the art?
It impacted the art, for one, because I had a lot of free drugs at hand, so that had its own influence, and one of the guys I was living with I couldn’t stand, so that brought out a lot of aggression. But on the subject of drug dealers, I do find that they buy a lot of very expensive, weird art. At one time a lot of my patrons were drug dealers. I did a portrait of this guy-he wanted a portrait of his head in space-like he was in space and the planet behind him was all drugs. And you know, he was very pleased with it. He eventually went into rehab and he called me and said he can’t even take it out anymore. It stays under his bed. He says when he pulls it out he gets sweaty palms. But they have extravagant tastes and lots of cash. And I’m not gonna be prejudice about who wants to buy a painting.
What are some of your influences, not just in terms of art, but people that you look up to?
That changes constantly, but a few people I like…and usually it’s not for good reasons…they’re usually just because they are still alive-like Burroughs is one like that just ‘cause he made it to 80. It’s pretty commendable that you can be a junkie and make it to 80, where you’re prescribed what you have a problem with. I just recently got into Johnny Cash. Really just anybody who sticks to their guns and is totally committed against all odds. They just stay true to themselves-sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but when it does work out for a person like that it’s a much sweeter success I think.
Kind of like Larry Flynt…
Exactly. You know it’s not normal to say Larry Flynt is my hero, but he is ‘cause he’s still there. He’ll still fight ya - I probably wouldn’t fight him.