This conversation is also available as a podcast.
Mark Wilson: What did the preparation look like for this? Maybe microdosing a lot of Heineken 0.0s, or perhaps a couple BuzzBallz?
Erin Bailey: Peach BuzzBallz.
EB: I am halfway done with your book, An Eye for an Eye and Your Other Eye and the Rest of Your Family (2020). I think the repeated, subtle reference to the Earth being 6,000 years old is hilarious.
MW: Thank you. It’s something that seems to have been prevalent in both of our upbringings. But you know, it’s funny, that particular book was inspired originally by my dad. I found this book on his bookshelf called Monday Night Jihad (2007), which was absolutely horrific, reprehensible. So I got into the mindset of making a satire of that book and just absolutely destroying it. Because it was so comical that it had been published. I’m like, “Maybe I could write this and then start hiding it around Hudson News around the country” so that when somebody gets on a flight, they think it’s a best-selling psychological crime thriller, and they would start it and be like, “Oh, this is pretty good!” And then it would eventually ruin their flight. It’d be really funny.
EB: You’ve said, “I create for the sake of creation. I used to put all this stuff out on Instagram, and porn spam bots would be the only ones liking it.” But when did people start liking your stuff?
MW: It was first on Twitter, for sure. I still don’t really have an Instagram following at all. I think I have like 1,000 followers on there, mostly porn bots. It started picking up with Hic et Nunc, the Tezos-based platform. That was crazy and punk and nuts.
I always describe it to people as a kind of shared psychedelic porta-potty where a bunch of artists all vomited, which then overflowed into the wider digital art consciousness. People were forced to reckon with what we were making, which wasn’t celebrity paperweight art.
EB: Your Twitter name is “die with the most likes” and your handle is @toadswiback. Can you clear up the discrepancy?
MW: So my Twitter name was always toadswiback — a reference to Under Siege (1992), the legendary Steven Seagal movie. And there’s a piece that I made five or six years ago that has always been really meaningful to me. It was a bunch of people connected to respirators dying in hospital beds and having their digital adoration fueling the last pathetic moments of their lives.
In many ways, that piece was my creative awakening and really embodies who I am. It’s about the absurdity of our nature and existence, as well as the devolution of humanity into what is essentially an insect toil only capable of ripping spoiled flesh from sun-baked carrion. I became obsessed with that idea and so I used it as my name.
EB: A lot of people don’t realize that you’re a writer and poet as well as an artist. In fact, you’ve said that it’s 50:50 visual art and writing. When I’m scrolling through Twitter and come across your work, it’s jarring. It can make one feel disgusted or sad, but often I find joy in the disturbing images that you create. I don’t know what that says about me. Were you an artist or a writer first?
MW: A little bit of both, really. The writing part started, I had taken this German absurdist literature class, and we read this story by Franz Kafka called The Cares of a Family Man (1919), which was examining this little creature that, essentially, didn’t have a purpose, or not a purpose that the narrator could determine. There was this insane frustration about why this creature was allotted the right or the ability to live forever and even outlive the narrator, who perceived himself as having purpose.
And that’s another big part of the way I create, too, is the forgotten legacies and the psychotic obsession with living forever on the lips of strangers, and why that pursuit is both idiotic and necessary. So after I read that story, I was like, “Holy fuck. I want to send people spiraling like this story sent me.” I’m a super avid reader already, so I just started hammering out this blog that I have on my site, one tie all tie. Someone once described it as “The Onion if you were huffing DMT behind a dumpster in a Cracker Barrel in northern Indiana.”
I had already been accumulating all these paintings, too, because I just paint all the time. I think it’s really an avenue for my anxiety. After a certain point, we had nearly 300 paintings suffocating us. And my wife was finally like, “Hey, we gotta do something about this.” So I got an iPad, and even at the time I was like, “Oh fuck, this iPad is like 300 bucks, I don’t know if it’s worth the investment,” but I ended up getting it. The rest is history, because whenever I’d have an idea, it was easier to not have to get the paint out. Now, I can just hammer out an idea and just brain dump it.
Another part of the creative process that I love is seeing something and just instantly firing off a reaction, then working to evacuate my insides on-screen. There is freedom in the onslaught. To let creations of varying states of finality be ripped to shreds in the highway median strip of life.
EB: So what were you like in high school? Did you get along with everybody? Was everybody like, “Oh, you know, it’s just Mark: He’s a weirdo, whatever.”
MW: My high school class was small — 400-odd students. It was right next to a dog food factory, too, which provided so much inspiration. I wrote a poem about it one time where that scent would be impregnating the entirety of the high school, and you would just be sitting there listening to the screams of animals being shoved into these grinders, and it would just fuel the misery of being taught that, yeah, Earth was 6,000 years old or that you were going to die alone because of your sins, or whatever it was. It was like the perfect environment to really fester our minds. It was very, very funny.
EB: It reminds me of the smell of shepherd’s pie from elementary school, which at one point made me vomit. You’ve also said that you consider yourself more of a documentarian than anything, which I found fascinating because the subject matter of the visual pieces — Mattress Firm, Cracker Barrel, and Crate & Barrel [all large US corporations] — reflects the waste and consumption of corporate America. It’s definitely Americana. And that was a fascinating concept to me, the idea of documenting this moment in American history, or rather, “Middle America.” You talk a lot about hometown regret. Is that what you’re documenting?
MW: The documentation is about remembering some of the states I’ve been in in my life through an absurdist lens that never fully settles for reality. So when I’m out and about and I’m looking at things, I’m always peering into the abyss of our wrinkles.
I’m a huge fan of misery tourism, and subjecting yourself to the things you despise to fuel or inspire you. I’ve said that one of my main goals is to subject myself to a Disney cruise.
I think in a couple of weeks, we have the state fair coming to town in Indiana, and I’m going to go to it, and I’m bringing a notepad, really trying to figure out what is going on at the state fair. I can’t wait to witness a prized hog meet its demise to a round of lifeless applause.
Someone once asked Jesse Draxler how long it took him to make a piece, and he said, “Every single second of my life up until this exact moment.” I feel that, too. The documentation happens in the moment, but it also has to do with this skewed perception of what it took to get up to that moment. Once I can get my head around what I’ve seen, that’s when the creative process takes place. And it’s funny. In a lot of ways, some of the saddest pieces that I make, I don’t feel like they are that far from our own reality that we live in.
EB: That’s probably what makes them so sad.
MW: Exactly. Take today’s piece for example — this crazed influencer head that’s bleeding ground beef, and there’s everyone out there, just kind of doing what they will with that.
But then the other piece, regarding the inhalation of failing dreams (2022), where it’s these two old men sitting in an IHOP Express: one scratching off a lottery ticket, and the other snorting up the failed dreams of a lottery ticket that didn’t win.
We are all looking at this stuff, and everyone wants to make these digital versions of Xanax that soothe our own reality. But I really love examining those super sad moments that we see in our everyday life, where it’s unendurable grief and regret. Microwaveable dinners are something that I’ve always been obsessed with. Just the thought of somebody getting enough heat to make this thing edible, and then going back to the La-Z-Boy that they’ll eventually die in. I find that stuff really fascinating. I’m obviously fascinated by death, but not really in a morbid way. It’s more of an exploration.
We’re conditioned to be these insects that punch a clock every morning, sit and watch our vertebrae collapse in an ergonomically correct desk chair, and accumulate enough wealth to finally do nothing. So when you can have a little bit of madness in your life, I think it’s something that you should cherish and hold on to because it’s a deviation from the horrific mundanity that we are all subjected to every day.
EB: I feel like a lot of people who have struggled with mental health issues, whether it’s anxiety or depression or whatever, are very in tune with the more disturbing, sad aspects of life. Your work treads a very fine line between absolute misery and hilarity.
MW: The humor is another defense mechanism. It’s not fun feeling miserable all the time. The funniest part has been meeting all these internet strangers that I’ve been talking to forever. I think the perception was that I was going to come up and be super miserable and sad and unable to talk or anything. Then I’m like, “Hey, what’s up! I’m Mark from Indiana!” I’m this Midwestern dude wearing a TJ Maxx flannel shirt tucked into a pair of freakin’ whitewashed jeans or whatever. And I was just so happy to be there.
I consider myself, although anxious — severely anxious — to be a fairly happy person overall. So I think that by imprinting some of that happiness onto the sad moments through my art only contributes to how disturbing it is. The funniest thing for me, that I love exploring, is creating with the lens of indifference, because that’s really what it is in most of the pieces. Take, for example, the huge pie eyes that are only capable of consumption, where everyone has this dumb grin on their face that’s either prescription or they’re just too stupid to know any better. That’s the part that I think is the most comical to explore — being indifferent or comfortable with the fact that we’re probably going to be living in some kind of Idiocracy in ten years or so.
Another thing that I love is ridiculing CBS original sitcoms and dramas — this is the flavorless slop that we’re being fed, and this is what people are laughing at. And again, there’s not really any judgment there. Sometimes, flavorless slop tastes great. Sometimes a wing from Buffalo Wild Wings is the best thing you’ll have on that day, and a Mountain Dew-soaked wing the best kind of food you’ll ever have. And then there are days when you crave something else.
EB: What has it been like to have the name “die with the most likes” getting very few likes, and now getting a ton of likes from people who have been touched by your work?
MW: Unbelievably heartwarming is really the only word to describe it. I continue to be completely overwhelmed, and I don’t think it’s really set in, to be honest. That said, there’s not a ton of change in how I look at things. I’d like to think that I’m still indifferent to the accumulation of [responses to] whatever post I make. I want to make something, I’m making it and I’m putting it out, and you can have it or not. It’s cool if you do and it’s cool if you don't. I don’t really care. I think that by being bludgeoned into obscurity for so long, the mindset of expecting absolutely nothing has been ingrained in me. So I find it completely perplexing when, on a daily basis, someone will reach out to say they’ve read one of my books, or simply comment on a post that shifted their day in some small way. My ultimate goal is not dying alone doing something that I hate, because I still work a nine-to-five job creating digital waste.
I think that the dream is to become a sustainable artist and to be able to do this for a living. So when you’re in that mindset, it becomes an addiction to be in that constant cycle of creation and engagement and acknowledgement.
Somebody reached out and said, “When you make a happy piece, it’s going to go for 500 ETH,” or something like that. But it’s difficult for me to create happiness or describe happiness or write about happiness. I don’t know why that is. All of my stories are really sad examinations of physical or mental decline, or just flat-out absurdity. I always say that I create sad and live happy. It’s kind of my mantra.
EB: Talking to you right now, you’re not talking in the way that you tweet. Is your artist persona an alter ego?
MW: There’s no part of me on Twitter that is somehow watered down. In many ways, I find it the perfect place to offload some of the most depraved shit that I’m thinking about at any time, especially now that I’ve connected with so many people who relate to it. We’re all just anonymous internet people on there. But there is so much disingenuous shit in our world, and people who are doing things in weird, manufactured, and pedicured modes of delivery. Twitter is the one place that I feel like one can be whoever the fuck one wants to be. And that’s who I want to be. I would never want to craft something that was not me. I absolutely dread the day when I become a cheap imitation of myself. I think that’s the biggest nightmare for any person.
EB: You told me that you majored in political science and German, having wanted to be a defense attorney. If you were going to be a public defender, that is not a lucrative career. It takes a special kind of person to want to be a defense attorney, whether civil or criminal. I’m fascinated that this was one of your goals.
MW: I think it was just aimlessness, really. I was in college and I had no idea what I wanted to do. I did intern at a defense firm for a while. But, as someone who’s very sensitive, seeing those cases was horrific and traumatizing and something that I wouldn’t wish on anybody. It’s a completely necessary part of the law, because everybody should have the right to a defense. But there was also some sick shit going on that we were having to defend. After that, I ended up working in the lukewarm Jacuzzi of idiotic, corporate America.
EB: I remember you saying you wrote your book [An Eye for an Eye and Your Other Eye and the Rest of Your Family] before the pandemic?
MW: Yeah, written in an alter ego which I just developed as I was writing. It was a funny mechanism to escape whatever was going on at the time.
EB: There’s one part where you describe toxic masculinity from the perspective of an outside observer:
And though they were genetically engineered elite, murderous psychopaths, they still possessed the conventional fragile masculinity that accompanied all men who are incapable of getting laid. Each of them struggled to internally justify the failure at hand, each making excuses, overcompensating, posturing, and using irrational blame as a mechanism to cope with their own shortcomings. Fortunately enough, when male confidence is challenged, the direct product is uncontrollable and misdirected rage.¹
MW: When I was writing that, it definitely was a kind of a documentation of past experiences — observing different people who did exist in the world with that mindset. But I think that we exist in these tiny little bubbles. And this goes back to every piece of art that I make. We have this constant drip coming out of a hamster bottle: things that we perceive as facts or information that is being mainlined into our retreating veins.
We’re sitting in our chairs, just having this shit slammed into us on a daily basis by other people who are making decisions for us. And I think that that’s created a lot of really delusional people on all sides of the political spectrum. And when you try to pull your head out of that shitstream of content, there’s always something to pull you back in and waterboard you with whatever it is that you want to be fed. So that’s the part that is really frustrating and sad. What do I know? I’m a mere artist cog in an office that creates digital waste. My fantasy is a digital world that is shittier than the real one.
Mark Wilson, better known as “die with the most likes,” is an Indiana-based artist and author driven by the same crippling monotony experienced while watching a piss-soaked snow mound melt into the pavement at a strip mall parking lot in Northern Indiana. He has exhibited globally at museums in Milan, Venice, and New York. He has four published books with Orbis Tertius Press and Fly On the Wall Press, with a fifth book due for release in December.
Erin Bailey was Editor-in-Chief at Artnome.com. Her background is in capturing the spoken word as a verbatim court reporter for the Trial Court of Massachusetts and later as the transcription specialist for the Amazon Echo. She is the wife of Jason Bailey, CEO and co-founder of ClubNFT, which is how she got this gig. She plans on going back to community college to explore interests in neuropsychology and astrophysics.
¹ M Baldacci, An Eye for an Eye and Your Other Eye and the Rest of Your Family, Seattle, WA: Kindle Direct Publishing, 2020, 97.