Cam Parker unrolls the painting against the wall, just enough to see a bright red pair of lips coaxed into the subtlest of smiles. Above them is the face of singer Janelle Monae, who happens to be standing just around the corner.
Parker spent 3 1/2 hours on this piece, a 36-by-48-inch portrait of Monae surrounded by lyrics like “DON’T JUDGE ME” and “BLACK GIRL MAGIC.” Now, at this backstage meet-and-greet following Monae’s concert at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg, he’s about to show her.
“The second I knew meet-and-greets were a thing, I was like, I can’t go in without giving her something,” he said. “I wanted to do song lyrics and song titles and all that stuff that was really important to me, that I know is going to be important to her, too.”
For creative, committed fans, such grand, personal gestures remain a tried-and-true way to cut through a noisy culture and connect with a favorite artist. Ask Justin Timberlake to a military ball. Beg Foo Fighters to play your hometown by posting a video of 1,000 musicians playing Learn to Fly. Tweet at Weezer to cover Toto’s Africa.
Or, if you’re an artist like Parker, paint a painting. If it’s good enough, the celebrity might even spin the spotlight on you.
“I know for a fact that if I got a present, whether it was art or whatever, that was specific to me and thoughtful and well thought out, I would cry,” Parker said. “That appreciation of appreciating is a really cool circle of love. It sounds corny, but it is what it is.”
He uncaps a silver Sharpie and signs the painting in big, swoopy letters, right where Monae will see it.
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Fans have been giving their favorite pop stars lovingly handmade fan art since the days of Elvis and the Beatles. Social media, however, has changed the dynamics of the transaction in one important way: The art is no longer necessarily for the recipient’s eyes only.
When muralist Derek Donnelly brought a painting of Run the Jewels to Jannus Live in 2017, the rap duo pulled him up to watch the rest of the show from the stage in front of his hometown crowd. When Reyna Parks brought a hand-painted quilt to a Lorde show in Tampa in April, the singer waved it on stage and later tweeted to Parks: “thankyou for my incredible quilt I LOVE IT.”
And when Parker painted a mural of Lady Gaga in Tampa before her December concert at Amalie Arena, he signed it with his Instagram handle, knowing that if fans — or maybe even Gaga herself — came by for a selfie, the promotional value would be through the roof.
“It’s a nod to them,” Donnelly said, “but definitely, the hopes of getting them to Instagram it is always the dream come true.”
It would be crass to suggest it’s all calculated, that artists are investing their time and talent into a piece only in hopes of a little boost from the stars. But it’s no small part of it.
Geary “Rasta” Taylor has been on this game for years, hustling his artwork and custom-painted shoes into the hands of artists like the Weeknd, Nas and Chuck D. It’s led to commissions for venues and companies on behalf of everyone from Bob Dylan to Kendrick Lamar to Mike Tyson.
“I’m a professional sneak-in artist,” said Taylor, who owns 1 of 1 Customs in St. Petersburg. “I’m the fan who stands too close to the stage. I finagle.”
But to him, the appeal isn’t not about the potential gigs or publicity. It’s about the experience of getting to meet your heroes.
“I do love the photo of me with the person with my artwork, and boom, we get that moment,” he said. “That’s a cool show-off moment to prove it actually happened, for my own personal memorabilia and my kids. And then something bigger than that is I actually get to talk to my heroes, the people I’ve idolized for 100 or 200 hours of my time, blaring their music in my car.”
For artists, creating such pieces can be intensely personal. Donnelly said he spent 48 hours on the Run the Jewels painting, one of the few he’s actually given away. He generally prefers only to show his work — and therefore commitment as a fan — to the artist, and maybe walk off with an autograph.
“These are million-dollar rappers,” he said. “Am I just sending the artwork off to them when I’m starving in Pinellas County?”
For Parker, the Gaga mural paid enormous dividends. While she didn’t stop by for a selfie, Amalie Arena placed photos of it in her dressing room, which she posted on Instagram Stories. During the show, someone passed her a print of the mural to admire on stage.
“That’s a real artist right there,” she said. “Look at that beautiful art.”
Since then, Parker has been hired to work on murals for Metropolitan Ministries and Dr. BBQ in St. Petersburg. He can’t say if Gaga’s co-sign was the direct reason, but noted, “these things happened after that.”
Since her Lorde quilt, Parks, a 20-year-old University of Florida senior, has received several commissions, starting around $300 apiece, to create custom quilts for other fans and admirers. She’s offered aspiring artists tips on creating quilts of their own, and documented her latest project — a quilt she hopes to give Taylor Swift on Aug. 14 at Raymond James Stadium — on YouTube.
“The Lorde experience amplified it,” she said. “Being able to make it and then have other people like it so much just made me enjoy it even more. You can like something that you do all day, but you like it more when other people enjoy it, too.”
That goes for the stars themselves, especially when fan-artists cross the digital divide and present their work in person. As Taylor says: “Sometimes I think they look for people who are into them like they’re into the music.”
“I think they really do appreciate it,” Donnelly said. “There’s a camaraderie there, even if it’s unspoken — creative minds meeting for that first time, even if it’s fan and artist. There’s still an unspoken bond there.”
• • •
Backstage at Jannus Live, the line gets shorter as midnight closes in. Fans round the corner, high off their moment with Monae.
“She smells amazing,” one sighs to Parker.
Finally she’s eight feet away. Here come the butterflies. Parker fidgets with his phone, trying to decide who he should trust to take photos, as the fan in front hugs Monae one more time and leaves. Parker takes the painting from the tube.
“I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” he coos, unrolling the art.
“Oh my goodness,” Monae says. “Oh. My. Oh my god. That is incredible!”
“Oh my god, you’re so short and pretty and cute!”
“Oh my goodness, this is amazing!”
“No, it’s you! You’re amazing!”
“You made this?”
“Yeah! Thank you! All my information’s on the back!”
“I got you. I am honored.”
They hug and beam and fawn a moment longer. There’s a flurry of photos of Parker, his boyfriend and Monae, the painting draped between them.
“Just, like, put it somewhere safe,” Parker tells her.
An assistant takes the painting as the next group steps forward. Parker turns back, accepting kudos from the other fans in line. He grabs his longneck Bud and walks off into the balmy night, down one painting, but giddy from the moment it got him.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.