The Street Art of You Killed Me First Is a Veritable Pop Culture Education

Brush daily: Shawn Gatlin goes on a wheatpaste run. | Photo by Krystal Ramirez.

Brush daily: Shawn Gatlin goes on a wheatpaste run. | Photo by Krystal Ramirez.

I had no idea who Lung Leg was until Shawn Gatlin told me. Born Elisabeth Carr, Lung Leg is an actress who emerged from New York’s “Cinema of Transgression” movement of the 1980s. She starred in one of the better-known films of that movement, Richard Kern’s 1985 short You Killed Me First—a dysfunctional family drama that ends with Lung Leg’s character, a teenaged punk named Cassandra, crying “You killed me first” as she shoots her parents and sister.

“It’s kind of a low-budget epic,” Gatlin says, chuckling.

That it is. You Killed Me First is so loudly acted and poorly shot that it’s kind of brilliant, really. And I wouldn’t have known of the existence of Kern’s film—or Lung Leg, whose face will probably haunt my nightmares well into November—if I hadn’t asked Gatlin where he got the weird name he uses to make street art. He calls himself “You Killed Me First.” And good old Lung Leg is one of his muses.

You Killed Me First—the artist, not the movie—is an inexhaustible pop culture jukebox. Gatlin’s art draws on a raft of influences that I could easily devote the rest of this article to calling out. Everything from KISS to Ouija boards is fodder for YKMF, and Gatlin tweaks them in ways that both court and subvert nostalgia in one swipe: Creem magazine’s milk-bottle mascot becomes a spray paint can, while the droogs of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange are outfitted with brushes and paste buckets.

Gatlin posts his work on metal utility boxes using a wheat-based paste, a form of street art fittingly known as wheatpaste. And remarkably, considering how polished and confident he is in his style, he’s still relatively new to it.

YKMF_008“I first started doing street art in 2010,” Gatlin says. At the time the Fresno-born musician and graphic artist was living in Los Angeles, playing in punk and thrash bands such as I, Madman and the Napoleon Blownaparts, and was growing increasingly weary of the grind. “I just started focusing more on the art. That was way more interesting than playing in clubs and not getting paid.”

Talking to Gatlin is as enjoyable as looking at his art. He’s nearly always smiling and bursting with enthusiasm, as if every single thing that happens to him is the most exciting thing ever. His attitude comes across in his wheatpaste; even when his subject matter is dark (hello, Lung Leg), the art is whimsical, witty and just plain fun. It’s almost as if he can’t quite believe he’s getting away with doing this—not the twilight legality of street art, but making art in a field where he plainly admires nearly all of the players, including one of its most well known.

“I remember when I first moved to L.A. and saw Shepard Fairey’s Andre the Giant Has a Posse (street art sticker campaign). I knew him because we watched wrestling on TV ’cause we were a bunch of idiot rockers, and we were all like, ‘That’s Andre the Giant!’”

Before long, however, Gatlin became more attuned to the medium than the message: “I started noticing all the different street artists, and I got so deep into it that I just started putting up my own stuff.”

Soon enough, Gatlin and his co-conspirator Sage—a terrifically talented artist in her own right who works under the name There She Is—realized that L.A. couldn’t fulfill the scope of their aspirations. The cost of living was too high—their apartment was so small, they had to deflate and roll up their air mattress to work on their larger art pieces—and competition was fierce. They needed a new frontier, preferably one with lower rents and lots and lots of untouched gray utility boxes.

“When I was playing music we kept coming out to Vegas to play shows, and I would bring my wheatpaste and my art with me,” Gatlin says. “We liked it here. We researched the 18b [Arts District] and realized that this is a big city with a small-town vibe to it. We wanted to get in on the ground floor as it started exploding.”

You Killed Me First and There She Is relocated to Las Vegas two years ago and promptly got down to late-night wheatpaste bombing runs on Downtown. “We get up around 4 a.m., and then we go cruising around. We already have our spots picked,” Gatlin says.  (One of You Killed Me First’s taglines, from a Haunted Mansion-themed poster Gatlin made for YKMF’s appearance in Life Is Beautiful’s Art Motel, proudly declares, “By night we sneak, at dawn we sleep.”)

They soon discovered that this town is a bit more kind to street art than L.A. has been:

“We freaked out, because we did a run and then we were like, ‘OK, let’s do another run,’ but everything was still up,” Gatlin says. “In L.A., we’ve seen wheatpaste ripped down within 10 to 20 minutes. There, we’re just fighting for space, trying not to cap someone, you know? Just trying to get up. But here, the electrical boxes are way bigger, and it’s just so clean. It’s amazing.”

The only conflict Gatlin has seen in Las Vegas is with other street artists pasting their art over his, but he isn’t much bothered by it.

“I’ve gotten capped by different artists, but whatever,” Gatlin says. “I don’t want to cover someone’s art, then they cover me up, then I cover them. … I’m 45. I’m too old to play that game.”

Besides, that’s not what You Killed Me First is about. Gatlin makes wheatpaste to share his pop culture enthusiasms, no matter how obscure, because people have got to know about this stuff. And if he can make You Killed Me First into a Shepard Fairey-size name in the process … well, he’d be cool with that.

“I just want to focus on making better art and trying to grow within myself. Hopefully, once that starts happening, maybe You Killed Me First will catch,” Gatlin says. “Like a disease.”

One way or another, a poster at a time, Shawn Gatlin will show the world that Lung Leg has a posse.

See more by You Killed Me First and There She Is at