Trash is treasure, creativity is abundant, and Empress Trash, the self-proclaimed Matriarch of Mistakes, clearly seems ecstatic doing the work as a full-time artist. After toiling for years as a barista and in a warehouse moving art, while also painting canvases in her spare time, the mixed media artist is grateful to have AI as another creative outlet to express herself while finally giving her body time to heal. Her work often incorporates trash, glitch, AI, illustration, and animation all at once, with a punk spirit and a political streak that cuts gleefully through power structures. A journey of self-discovery on surging waves of DIY technology. No rules, just pure expression.
She speaks with me from Mexico City, where she currently lives with her rottweiler Glitch. In this conversation, she shares her foraging trash art origins, how blockchains and money are forms of energy, and how being prolific is better than forcing a scarcity mindset.
Chris Kokiousis: Hey Empress, how’s life going in Mexico City?
Empress Trash: It’s awesome! For the last few weeks, I haven’t been doing much of anything. But I love it here because it’s cheap, and I have friends here, but they’re all weird introverts too. But it’s fine because we still hang out sometimes. It’s the fifth biggest city in the world. It’s massive, but I wake up in the morning and I hear birds. Everyone is super nice and I feel mostly safe, and more safe than I did in any American city or any place in America that I’ve been…Yeah, there’s so many layers of history here. There’s ancient Aztec all the way to the conquistador stuff and then even modern art.
Chris Kokiousis: What’s the art community like there right now? I know that there’s a big crypto scene.
Empress Trash: Yeah, there’s just art everywhere. So, the huge cultural difference that I’ve found out coming to Mexico is artists are treated very differently here. Just on a societal level, like on a day-to-day level. Very rarely do I say “I’m an artist” and then people are like, but what do you really do…like what’s your day job?… Here, Frida Kahlo is on their money, Diego Rivera is on their money. Artists are considered leaders of the people, and they’re really revered here by a lot of people. And so, being an artist and trying to do that is actually very fondly looked upon here. And I can feel that.
Chris Kokiousis: Yeah that’s amazing. That makes such a difference that they value artists and revere them and it’s just core to society.
Empress Trash: And it’s not saying everyone is like that. It’s not as dismissed, if that makes sense. And when I’m out at parties, even if I’m talking to non-artists, they get it.
Chris Kokiousis: Can you tell me the origin story of Empress Trash? Was it related to discovering the trash art scene or is it an entirely separate thing?
Empress Trash: Totally separate thing. I came up with the name pre-crypto, because I lived in a house in West Oakland and we would have art shows in it and stuff. And previous to that I had the concept of Empress Trash, but I didn’t call myself it. It took me a while to take it on as my name, and it was in the house in Oakland that I really took it on because we would have these huge art parties. And then I lived in Oakland right near the interchange of I-80 and 580, which is a huge major interchange at the base of the Bay Bridge. But I lived right off an exit on that, and people would come and just dump their trash and then take off. And so, there was constantly piles of trash on the street…And what I would do is go pick through the trash and try to find things to make art with. I’d make art installations and incorporate it into mixed media paintings and I would find stuff for friends. I just would pick through the trash all the time.
At the same time I was kind of the life of the party but it’s like, I’m literally living in trash. And so, I just think I just became Empress Trash. Like I did a huge installation where I made my throne, but it had nails on the seat sticking up and barbed wire, and broken glass and it was just a statement against power structures and stuff like that. But I was like “Oh that’s my throne.”
How I came to be Empress Trash was outside of how the trash art movement was developed. It was just convergence at some point. And also, people misinterpreted me calling myself Empress, in thinking that it was me saying I was ruling over trash, when my name is a play on power dynamics. How people have these titles and how I’m giving myself the title. Therefore giving myself my own power and giving myself autonomy. It has nothing to do with wanting to boss other people around. But that’s how other people perceive it because that’s how we perceive these titles.
But then I just think trash art as a whole is antagonistic.
Chris Kokiousis: Yeah, it’s punk.
Empress Trash: It is, and not all punks like each other. And I’ve been in the punk scene a long time. There’s different facets of punk. Also it’s like I’m coming in and some people are perceiving me antagonistically to the OG trash art movement. And then all the posh collectors, who already don’t like trash art, they view me as being antagonistic to them. So for the first year I was in this weird [gestures in a small space], pushed on both sides.
So the original people who were in [the trash art movement], I’m never gonna dismiss everything that they did. I appreciate it. But there’s also people who’ve been doing trash art outside of crypto and there’s a way that we can all live together. And then on top of it, us coming in in 2021, the few of us trash artists that did, we lended energy to the movement that made it grow even more. And you can’t dismiss that. Me inherently calling myself Empress Trash — every accomplishment that I’ve done, it validates trash art. When I was in TED talks, it validates trash art. When I was in Sotheby’s, it validates trash art on a systematic level. And that’s what my thing is…I want to elevate trash but then also bring down the power structures.
Chris Kokiousis: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I kind of want to go back to what you’ve said about not seeing yourself as a money person, but seeing the value in NFTs, even though it’s so tied to financialization. And it’s a reason that a lot of people don’t participate in this space, because they’re like “that’s not for me.” From the perspective of trying to get more artists involved and to see the value in what this technology can do, how would you approach it?
Empress Trash: How I came to understand it, and I think how a lot of us artists understand it, it’s like, the blockchain is energy. It’s just a massive interconnected network of energy. So, when you create something, you’re putting intention and energy into the world. And when you mint something on the blockchain, inherently it’s amplifying that energy, because you’re putting it on this vast network of energy. And that energy is also tied to money.
Money is just another energy in the world whether people want to accept it or not. And that is something I figured out through crypto too because it has inherently just changed my relationship with money. And not only that I make money from selling my art, but it’s giving me more financial literacy than I’ve probably ever had in my past, just by trying to understand everything going on and trying to stay relevant. And sometimes I get really pissy about it and sometimes I get really annoyed with it all, because the last thing I care about is learning about how coins work or anything like that. But at some point, if you’re open to it—it took me a while—but you learn why these are important and the inherent artistry in it and the inherent valuable impact that it will have on humanity as a whole, as long as people of good conscience are the ones continuing to propagate on it…
Chris Kokiousis: Right, 100%.
Empress Trash: So 2021 for my understanding was this weird shift of this overvaluation of 1/1s and scarcity in art. 1/1s are cool. I do a ton of 1/1s, don’t get me wrong. But we’re trying to manifest abundance here and not inherent scarcity, and forcing that is gonna artificially inflate prices for a while. And so an artist may seem more successful than they actually are, when it’s just they’re forcing scarcity. They’re not necessarily doing anything inherently different besides that.
And I’ve been saying this because I understand art sales and art business enough. Like I say I don’t get money, but I understand art business. That isn’t sustainable to me. If you are forcing some sort of scarcity that shouldn’t be there, eventually that’s gonna burst. That little bubble you’re creating is gonna burst and that’s kind of what we saw. And I’m over here, surviving the bear because throughout all that I was pumping out editions. There was a point in time I was putting out work daily during 2021 just to try to build up and survive and get my name out there. And by the time I got to the bear market, I had thousands of pieces minted between [Ethereum and Tezos]. I had 1000 to 2000 different collectors on both chains. And that keeps growing, instead of relying on one or two collectors. I mean, this is just basic, but if I rely on one or two collectors, what if I make one of them mad? What if we have a fallout? What if it’s a toxic situation?
I don’t want to rely on one or two people to be that, so I approached it like, how can I get as many collectors as possible? And it’s like, well I’m going to release low-priced editions and then keep putting them out there and keep proliferating. And it got to the point that by the time the bear hit, like I definitely took a financial hit with that. I’m not saying that. But I still kept selling work. Even after that. And like some 1/1s are still unsold. But I was still selling editions and still selling editions and still selling editions and it kept building on itself.
And then it’s to the point — I haven’t tweeted this or said it publicly — but this month, where so many people are struggling who were prescribing the scarcity mindset, I’ve made the most in art sales in my whole career in crypto art.
Chris Kokiousis: In the depths of a bear market.
Empress Trash: And it’s because I’ve been manifesting that abundance. I’ve been living in that abundance mindset. I’m gonna keep putting myself out there. Don’t give a fuck if someone gets mad at me, because they feel like I’m oversaturating the market. I’m just gonna keep doing it, and it got me to where I am now. And I did that, to go back to trash art, because of Rob [ROBNESS]. Because of the trash artists. Because they never subscribed to that scarcity. Rob became who he was because he constantly put work out there. And I believed in that. And I’m like, well you’re still here and you’ve been here five, six, seven years now. It’s like, obviously you have something figured out, so I’m gonna listen to you.
Chris Kokiousis: Yeah it’s more decentralized too, having a big collector base and not just selling art to rich people, you know?
Empress Trash: Yeah, and hopefully, the long game for me — and I can’t make promises on this because I have no idea how my art will be valued in the future — but all I can do is keep trying to be culturally relevant, keep trying to get my work exhibited, keep making connections with more wealthy people, and hopefully eventually all of my art just goes up inherently in value. And all these people who believe in me and threw five, ten bucks at me here and there every month, who got me through all of it, hopefully they have payouts from it…
And I’m hoping that it pays off in the end for them. And if it’s not for them, it’s for their kids. Because there’s a lot of people who buy my work and they actually are buying it for their daughters and putting it in their daughters’ wallets. Because they view my work as really important feminist work and they don’t necessarily see it in their lifetime, maybe being something that they want to sell, but it’s something that they want to support now. Because they will tell me I want a better future for my daughter and I want to support you and what you do and the gates that you bring down, and the things that you highlight and the things that you criticize. I want to support that now, but I want to give that to my daughter, so that’s why they literally are putting it in wallets for their daughter.