Shriiimp on the Barbie

Allston-based graffiti artists are giving new meaning to objets d’art
By CAITLIN E. CURRAN  |  October 3, 2007

Shrimp, the edible crustaceans commonly dipped in tart, tangy cocktail sauce, don’t usually carry overtly sexual connotations. That association is saved for more aphrodisiacal mollusks, such as oysters. But Shriiimp, the Allston and Montreal–based Web site and graffiti-artists’ collective, is superabundantly sexual. By painting graffiti on women’s bodies, Shriiimp (yes, with three i’s) conceptually entwines urban art and sexuality until the two are virtually indistinguishable.

Shriiimp artists are graffiti adventurers who occasionally trade cans of spray paint and city walls (their most common canvases) for non-toxic paint markers and the (preferably naked) female form. But their work doesn’t end there. In an important development for artists who continually battle ephemerality, they’ve taken to photographing semi-nude-ladies-cum-canvases and posting the images on the Web site shriiimp.com. A meeting ground and artistic outlet, it’s become a place to offer praise, criticism, and the occasionally troubling misogynistic comment. (While you’re there, you can also purchase paint markers and underwear from the online boutique.) But Shriiimp hasn’t forsaken the streets for cyber space; it hosts live-art shows — pastiches of gallery openings, performance art, and dance parties — where artists paint volunteer models before an audience. Their most recent local show was in July. Another is tentatively scheduled for early November.

Curtis McMillan, an Allstonian, part-time art teacher, and one of Shriiimp’s four masterminds, refers to the Web site as a gallery and views the posted photos as art — a characterization with which most graffiti enthusiasts would agree. Still, not everyone who stumbles across the site will see it that way. Shriiimp photos, after all, are always at least semi-nude, often explicit, and always of women. To some, it can seem like porn for graffiti fetishists.

But the Shriiimp creators swear that’s not what it’s about. “It’s more about the artwork than it is about the girl,” says McMillan. In fact, he claims, Shriiimp can make women feel more beautiful. “No matter how you feel about your body on an everyday basis, when you’re the canvas for a beautiful piece of work, that’s got to make you feel good.”

On a recent Saturday afternoon, a group of Shriiimp artists and models gather in the back of LAB, an urban-themed clothing store/art gallery near Allston Village, to demonstrate the process of “shriiimping” (Shriiimpers also use the word as a verb). As wandering shoppers thumb through racks of sale-price shorts and tank tops, and LAB co-owner Todd MacLeod blasts remixes of ’80s pop hits from his Mac at the front of the shop, the Shriiimp crew throws down a white sheet, plastic-covered crates, and several chairs in the back. McMillan, tall and tattooed with black glasses, alternates between calling late-to-the-party artists on his cell phone and rolling cigarettes, then heading outside to smoke them. Angel Buckley of Brockton, a go-go dancer with blonde and pink hair extensions, peruses LAB’s collection of electronic music on vinyl. Lyndsey Almon, 24, a tall interior designer from Cambridge, mills around in plaid shorts, a cropped hoodie, and blood-red heels, eagerly awaiting her turn to get shriiimped. Almon has been a model in two Shriiimp shows, one in Boston and one in Connecticut. “Graffiti is such an awesome art form,” she says. “But it’s illegal to tag anything in the city. So why not tag us?”

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