Michael M. is the creator of "Bass Dogs": a collection of photographs of rock bassists doctored to replace their instruments with dogs of various sizes, shapes, and breeds. Mr. M. is also the creator of "Ignore Hitler." "Ignore Hitler," inaugurated in 2012, charts Michael's attempts to succeed at once-popular mobile game Draw Something while using Adolf Hitler as his central image.
When asked why he created "Bass Dogs" and his other projects, Michael states simply, "There is no why. After Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center he was asked why he did it and that was his answer."
"Myself and Philippe," he says, "are quite similar, in that we're both humans."
You could call Michael M. a visionary. You could say his latest project, "Slug Solos," sees him juxtapose art and horror in a way that explores the human psyche and distaste for slimy things with weird eyes. He probes his subject matter by photoshopping slugs the size of an adult human's leg onto photos of grimacing guitarists. As some paint, some draw, and some sculpt, Michael M. hastily photoshops animals onto musicians' crotches. It's an approach that's worked for him in the past with "Bass Dogs," but he believes "Slug Solos" digs deeper.
Slug Solos was quickly picked up by Buzzfeed, io9, and The AV Club
"I'm not sure there's a guitarist among us who hasn't been afraid that they're unknowingly shredding on a slug," he says, justifying his creative process. "I mean, they might not have consciously thought it, or even subconsciously thought it — but they've definitely thought it." Michael sees his project as a way to face his own fears. "I'm a bit terrified of slugs," he admits, but even he, a modern champion of the maligned mollusc, wonders if his creations are too provocative. "I know they say facing your fears is a good thing, but I've voluntarily made myself stare at slugs all day. I think it's some sort of self-flagellation."
No matter the psychological toll it has on the creator, it's obvious "Slug Solos" has been an internet phenomenon. News aggregators and culture sites jumped on it: BuzzFeed, io9, and The AV Club quickly hosted the best images. The Verge's own Casey Newton extolled its virtues. And the appeal of slug-toting guitarists is apparently global: "Slug Solos" reached Japanese site Tokyo Backyard late last week.
Like Henry Ford if he made memes
Where other memes have their moments, Michael has found a way to build a meme factory. Like Henry Ford — if Henry Ford were focused on the commodification of throwaway visual gags rather than the redefinition of global industry — Michael has found a way to give people the things they didn't know they wanted. In meme form.
His other projects have been more provocative. "Ignore Hitler," which was the subject of two separate BuzzFeed articles and thousands of Reddit upvotes, drew a backlash from some who felt crude pictures of a pants-less Hitler bending over coquettishly to expose a red thong were in poor taste. "I had hate mail from people on the left who thought I was encouraging ignoring fascism," Michael says, "and hate mail from people on the right who thought mocking Hitler was a crime punishable by badly spelled emails." He received threats on his life. "I had no idea drawing Hitler waiting on some toast to pop up from a toaster would one day merit my own death."
I ask if "Ignore Hitler" was a comment on Edmund Burke's statement that "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing"? Michael ponders for a while. "If we want to retrofit some rationale, this would definitely be it."
Strangely, Michael found "Slightly Wrong Quotes", one of his projects that didn't explicitly feature pictures of one of history's greatest monsters, to draw almost as much outrage as "Ignore Hitler." "Slightly Wrong Quotes" is, as the name suggests, a catalog of slightly wrong quotes written on stock T-shirt photos. A smiling woman wears a black shirt with a picture of the Karate Kid, with the words "Wax it off, wax it off," emblazoned underneath. Bill Cosby appears on a man's chest as "Ghost Dude."
Wax it off, wax it off
Michael says these tiny changes could provoke a physical reaction. "It's terrifying that you know a quote from a film or a song so intimately that the slightest deviation from the text makes you feel nauseous." Contemporaries such as Twitter account @kurtquote, which attributes phrases to deceased Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain, have used the same method to prod at the internet. Quotations include, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth," "Papa don't preach," and "Jumanji!"
Michael understands this kind of mischievous urge. "Being a wee bit wrong on purpose is really satisfying. Being a prick must be something everyone enjoys."
So you could call Michael M. a visionary. And when he's playing around on the internet in a turtleneck, he might pretend to agree with you. But underneath he's not convinced. "I never really think I'm creating memes, I don't even think I understand the term any more." As for "Slug Solos": "In all honesty, I just saw a photo of someone caught in that face-gurning moment of a solo and thought that they looked terrified of their guitar."
He doesn't know how his creations keep striking a chord with the internet, or how he has established a near-perfect hit rate of jokes that result in widespread social shares. "I wish there was some sort of formula I could tell to people, but I just make things that I find amusing and sometimes people share it."
"I have managed to perfect the art of annoying and boring a lot of people at the same time. I'm sorry, everybody."
Why slugs? Why solos? Why dogs? Why basses? Why Hitler?
There is no why. After Philippe Petit walked on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center he was asked why he did it and that was his answer. Myself and Philippe are quite similar in that we're both humans. What I do in creating an endless stream of pointless blogs to amuse people for, I don't know, eight or nine seconds is pretty much the same thing as walking on a tightrope between the twin towers of the World Trade Center, except marginally better.
In reality, I have no idea — they just seemed like interesting and funny things to do. It really is as simple as going, "Wow, that guitarist is pulling some mad facial expression in that photo. He / she looks genuinely terrified. It's as if they've just realized they're holding a horrible slug." I can't defend anything I've done from accusations of stupidity and ridiculousness, but I think that's why I like them. If I were some artist or even one of those successful, evil marketing-guru freaks, there'd at least be a rudimentary justification behind that, but it's hard to explain or flesh out the general idiocy that leads me to the things I do. I just really enjoy the absurdity of it. It's stupid — high fives, everyone!
How annoyed did people get about the incorrect quotes?
People seemed to get equal amounts of irritated and amused. On one hand it's terrifying that you know a quote from a film or a song so intimately that the slightest deviation from the text makes you feel nauseous, but being able to trigger that just by being a wee bit wrong on purpose is really satisfying. And people seemed to respond to that, so being a prick must be something everyone enjoys. I've had people telling me my T-shirts made their brains itch just by looking at the quotes, but that they couldn't look away. Imagine being that person! That really worries and excites me.
What does that say about society?
That people are pedants and other people like poking pendants. Sorry, pedants. I think, especially for me, there's value in failure. I quite enjoy getting things wrong, or things going wrong. I think you can learn a lot about how joylessly and seriously people approach things if you just embrace failure with gusto. People love seeing you fail.
Do you think slugs appeal to something primal and subconscious in the human psyche?
I'm not sure there's a guitarist among us who hasn't been afraid that they're unknowingly shredding on a slug. I mean, they might not have consciously thought it, or even subconsciously, but they've definitely thought it. In honesty, I just saw a photo of someone caught in that face-gurning moment of a solo and thought that they looked terrified of their guitar. I'm a bit terrified of slugs. It was just a natural combo for me, at least. I know they say facing your fears is a good thing, but I've voluntarily made myself stare at slugs all day. I think it's some sort of self-flagellation.
Was "Ignore Hitler" a comment on Edmund Burke's statement that "all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing?"
I can't pretend there was that much thought behind it, but if we want to retrofit some rationale, this'd definitely be it. The Hitlers in my drawings were completely irrelevant to the point, but impossible to ignore since they were pretty much the central focus. I think that can echo a sort of see-no-evil attitude that's often prevalent when handling injustices that aren't necessarily happening to us personally.
Hitler was king of the dicks. I think anything that reduces him to a figure of ridicule can only be a good thing. On top of that, he's really really easy to draw. I think someone started a blog that included other dictators, and they were great, but they didn't have that same cultural punch. Hitler's been this terrible image of evil that's hung over most of our lives in the West and, as a result, he's become a kind of caricature of himself. Because he's been so absorbed into culture, there's always a worry that it removes the reality of the fact, yes, a prick like him did exist and that we should do everything to not let something like that happen again. Everyone can draw a Hitler — bad or good, it's a recognizable Hitler.
What do you do when you’re not photoshopping slugs onto people?
Apart from brainstorming, blue-sky thinking, creating high-level content for customers, brand exercises, tutoring, lecturing, scuba diving, tank-punching, screaming at the mirror over and over again, having existential crises and SEO, I like to do music in a band and spend some time sitting on chairs, perhaps moving to the sofa in my lavish think-space (a toilet cubicle) and staring at those water cooler things until they do some bubbles. I used to do music full time until a combination of Spotify and being rubbish at music meant I had to earn money doing something more than just driving to cities and shouting at strangers. I used to write about video games too, but I got made redundant so instead I drew characters from Friends whose faces had melted until I felt better about myself. Now I'm paying bills by doing some digital things for a technology company.
Does your background in music help you create memes?
I have managed to perfect the art of annoying and boring a lot of people at the same time which, essentially, is what putting content on the internet is. I never really think I'm creating memes, I don't even think I understand the term anymore. I just make things that I enjoy and find amusing and hope other people do as well.
How do you know what people want every time?
I really don't. I wish there was some sort of formula I could tell to people, but I just make things and sometimes people share it. The intention isn't mass sharing, I just can't stop making stuff. I'm usually the first to apologize and I feel really bad for everyone who follows me on Twitter because they have to put up with the power of piss that I make before I do something they think is good. I'm sorry, everybody.
Generally people will see something I do online then start following me on Twitter and then, within about three days, they're diving for the unfollow button. I can't blame them for that, I suck! The stuff I do doesn't please everybody, naturally — it's the internet, where bile comes from. The most vitriol I got was from "Ignore Hitler," where I had hate mail from people on the left who thought I was encouraging ignoring fascism and hate mail from people on the right who thought mocking Hitler was a crime punishable by badly spelled emails. I had some death threats too and that got a bit creepy. I had no idea drawing Hitler waiting on some toast to pop up from the toaster would one day merit my own death.
Where will memes and these kinds of throwaway theme jokes go next?
I resent that you call them throwaway theme jokes — my "Slug Solos" are here to stay, just like "Bass Dogs" and whatever the other ones I did before which nobody cares about anymore are called. I think the best collections of this ilk do one thing and do it right. I'm not great with Photoshop, but I kind of like that it's makeshift and daft. With "Bass Dogs," I always wanted a wee bit of the original bass remaining in the photo because that tickled me more than the one-note dog joke. Perfect photoshops lose a bit of shine for me and there's an element of trying to provoke those people who want to make it known that you've done something wrong. No matter what you do, there's someone out there on the bottom half of the internet desperately wanting to tell you how awful you are. I quite like baiting those people. I'm sorry, those people!
What's next for you? What kind of visionary combination can we expect?
I'm happy to announce my next project will be Photoshopping Photoshop into Photoshopped Photos of Photo Shops. I've received funding from the arts council and notable benefactors. You can check out my exhibition in NY this October. It's screencaps of the Photoshop UI pasted on to slightly altered photographs of Snappy Snaps.
Which is your favorite slug solo, and why?
I couldn't possibly choose a favorite, they're like childr... the Haim one. Basically, I'm sorry for all these slugs people keep sharing. I'm sorry, everybody.