Eric Yahnker’s left forearm is permanently marked by what he calls his “Heebraham” tattoo—a portrait of Abraham Lincoln with a Star of David resting just below the beard. “Whenever a gentile asks me what it takes to convert to Judaism, I slip them a VHS copy of The Eddie Cantor Story and say, â€˜It was good enough for Sammy Davis, Jr.!'”
Yahnker’s multimedia imagery explores the humor and absurdity in familiar subjects. Pop culture icons, rock stars, presidents and those who most consider off-limits make appearances throughout his work. This summer, the L.A. artist will debut a new series at Seattle’s Ambach & Rice gallery, where Tom Cruise, Helen Keller, Superman and swastikas will be infused with the artist’s playful wit. Heeb caught up with Yahnker to ask a few questions about life in Hollywood, Obama and his musical influences.
How do you develop your ideas/concepts?
I’ve always tried to find a point at which things bend but don’t break.
Helen Keller Joke, #1, 2008
Why you gotta pick on blind girls?
Exploitation just makes sense as an art strategy.
How were the swastika images chosen–was it random?
I listed a few words/names that rhymed or sounded like the first syllable in ‘swastika’ and could visually be shaped into one. Michelle Kwan becoming Michelle Kwanstika is a fair example.
Light Reading, 2008
You have a piece called ‘Light Reading’ where a Native American chief is reading Woody Allen’s Getting Even. Is this a glorified self-portrait?
I believe everything any artist does is self-portraiture.
Pop culture is obviously an influence–do you spend a lot of time pouring over US Weekly?
Oddly enough, I don’t pour over pop culture rags or watch entertainment news. In fact, I make a point to avoid it. I must catch just enough through osmosis. I figure if celebrity news reaches me, there must be a lot of tongues wagging.
Tell me about your Heebraham tattoo.
Every group has claimed Abe as their own, but one piece of evidence that can’t be refuted is his biblically Jewish namesake, and I’m pretty sure he never walked four cubits without his kippah.
You’re not worried about being allowed burial in a Jewish cemetery?
As Tevye sings: “TRADITION!” Spielberg is working on a Fiddler sequel where Lazar Wolf operates a successful tattoo parlor and gives Tzeitel a wicked tribal piece on her lower back.
I love your L.A. series. Who is the biggest douche bag in Hollywood?
Hollywood breeds incredible douchebaggery, but nothing tops the Bible Belt of America.
If you were Angelina, what country would you try to adopt kids from?
Sarah Palin Country.
George Bush makes a great cameo in ‘Thanksgiving.’ Does Obama have to do something really stupid to end up in one of your drawings?
His name may just have to rhyme with something interesting, and I’ll appoint him to my cabinet.
Music is referenced a lot in your pieces. Who do you listen to while making work?
I’m a sensitive boy. Lots of Mark Kozelek, Grizzly Bear, Fleet Foxes, Jim Croce and the delicate sound of my gentle tears.
Piano Man (For Guitar), 2008
Tell me more about your Piano Man series. Would Billy Joel approve?
‘Piano Man’ should’ve never been composed on a piano. Billy Joel missed out on a piece of divine, conceptually critical irony. Next I’d like to hear ‘Piano Man’ composed for rainmakers–or, better yet, slapped out on Billy’s ass.
East Coast or West Coast?
West Coast from 12-6 p.m., East Coast from 12-6 a.m.
Who would have won in a fight, Sammy Davis or Michael Jackson?
I love Michael, but Jews are the ultimate survivors.
What’s coming up next?
After I towel off? My next solo show opens on June 6 at Ambach & Rice in Seattle. It’s bound to be a doozy.
Check out more of Eric Yahnker’s work here.