People

Meet The Queer Alchemist Who Transforms Waste Into Emotional Pieces Of Art

February 18, 2021 By Francisco Solís

Have you noticed all the little paper propaganda that turns up on light posts and street signs in cities all around the world? It’s often a perfect peek into the city’s cultural scene.

Well, one artist is taking those local paper advertisements on the walls and streets of Mexico City and turning them into incredible pieces of art. Micheal Swank – aka the Queer Alchemist – gives life to this underused and often tossed aside waste. 

Swank is a cluttered mind in a cluttered world. 

Swank had spent years traveling to the Mexican capital and photographing its surreal street scenes – street advertisements are next level in Mexico City – before deciding to move there. As an artist, he uses recyclable materials and paper waste through a mix of techniques that makes his pieces stand out. He hopes his work helps to raise awareness about the buildup of waste and trash, while giving life to things that would end up in a landfill.

But his artform also helped him regain his own way back to life. 

“I displayed my art as a narrative for other paintings and interventions. But then one day working in the streets after my diagnosis with HIV, I lost my mind.” He discovered he had survivor’s guilt 30 years after watching his friends fade away during the AIDS pandemic. “I began tearing the paper from the walls. The HIV medicines I’d started were making me insane. I was shedding weight and I was hearing voices.” 

It took several months for Micheal’s physical and mental health to regain balance but as soon as it did he got back into the studio, working on new methods to bring his art to life. 

Then the papers and advertisements disappeared.

An unexpected side effect of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the disappearance of viral advertisements for cultural events. Paper waste is no longer available to Swank like it used to be. A year without cultural events has left only a small layer of advertisements for KN95 masks and posters warning of Covid-19 dangers. 

Despite there being fewer street ads, the world is seeing a major uptick in waste thanks to the pandemic. With hundreds of millions of face masks, takeout containers, plastic gloves and other recyclable goods pouring into our oceans and landfills. 

For the Queer Alchemist, the shortage of material to work with has meant that he’s had to pull from the archives of paper stored in his studio. As part of the isolation and inability to work safely in the streets, Micheal began to work on smaller series like Qscapes – Quarantine Landscapes, reflecting on memories of places he could not visit – a sentiment so many of us can relate to. 

To see more of the Queer Alchemist’s work follow him on Instagram.