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When 18-year-old Mike Diana returned home from Christmas shopping with his mom in 1990, two cops were waiting for him on the lawn of their home in Largo, near Tampa. One officer pulled from his briefcase the teenager's underground comic book Boiled Angel #6. He flipped through the pages, showing his mother the creatures inside: a woman with a pentagram on her chest and stubs for arms, saying, "Fuck you & yer big ass." On the cover, a man with an erection and a bloody knife ripped a mangled fetus from a dead woman's belly.
The policeman then informed him that he was a suspect in the Gainesville student murders.
"At first I felt offended," Diana remembers. "I said, 'What about freedom of speech?'"
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The cop responded like a television detective: "'I don't like your attitude.'"
The next day, police grilled Diana about his drawings. He gave a blood sample, at his mother's insistence, to prove his innocence in the killings.
But his troubles with Florida law enforcement didn't end there. Diana was eventually convicted on three misdemeanor counts of obscenity for publishing, distributing, and advertising his works Boiled Angel #7 and Boiled Angel #ATE. He became the first artist in U.S. history to be convicted on criminal charges of obscenity. He spent four days in jail and three years on probation.
"It was definitely a strange time," he says, reflecting upon those days. "I feel that one thing that upsets me, that I think is obscene, is the jail and prison system. A lot of people are put behind bars who don't need to be there."
The sawing of babies and penises in his art, he points out, is a critique of actual situations and power structures such as religion — particularly reports of child abuse. Boiled Angel #6 was, in fact, influenced by the murders in nearby Gainesville. The shock his art elicits allows Diana to communicate the gravity of real-life horrors.
Local nomadic arts collective the End/Spring Break and Miami Art Museum have invited Diana to speak in Miami. The speech this Thursday will make a statement about censorship and art. His controversial work will be shown nearby at Bas Fisher Invitational's "Mike Diana: Miami or Bust," alongside the art of those he has influenced, including Mike Taylor, Heather Benjamin, and Mat Brinkman.
"When I watched the news, read the newspaper, I couldn't ignore the reports of children being abused, and basically all the different ills of society." Diana says. "I felt like people were desensitized... I felt if I did comics that dealt with these issues, [it would] make people think about these things that are happening in their own communities."
Back then, he was a teenager who bought Blowfly records on sale. He drove to Orlando to see GG Allin smash a whiskey bottle on his head and bleed through a nude, diarrhea-and-urine-stained performance. At the time, he says, "I was harassed by the police a lot... curfew things. I had long hair, so I think I fit a certain type of profile that they like to stop."
Moving from upstate New York to the Tampa Bay area at age 9 was jarring for the artist. The heat was extreme, and his teachers paddled students. His artwork evolved from "just not liking Florida, feeling like I wanted to go against the system, and feeling like I was challenging Florida in a way, with religion, and reports of child abuse." He felt there was a battle going on between old and young here. His reaction to that and his love of horror films and horror comics resulted in art that is both brutal and surprising, yet also somehow beautiful and amusing.
But the literal trial he endured here was not funny. He remembers seeing the final jury selection. "I figured I was in trouble." It was, he says, "definitely not a jury of my peers. It was all elderly people." In court, Diana wasn't allowed to show other underground comic books as evidence that his work wasn't an anomaly. They were trying to prove, he says, that the Boiled Angel series wasn't "artwork anymore; it's just something that can turn people into serial killers."
Now, though, he says, "I just try to make the best of everything that happened." He's working on a graphic novel about what he calls the "whole Florida ordeal.
"All these years later, I think I'm able to think about it without getting as stressed out as I used to."
Today he lives in an exile of sorts in New York, where he moved when his 1994 case went into appeal. The conviction was eventually upheld, but he was granted permission to complete his probation remotely — which, among other things, forbade him from making art for three years. What's prevented him from returning to the Sunshine State, where his parents still live, isn't a hatred for the place, but lingering unpaid legal fees and a subsequent warrant for his arrest.
About a year ago, a conversation with Miami artist Kathryn Marks set some wheels in motion, wheels that would eventually send him back to Florida for an exhibition and talk. She'd bought one of Diana's paintings to use as the cover of Miami beatmaker Otto von Schirach's unreleased album, appropriately titled Hermaphrodite Tampon Eater. Once she heard Diana's tale, she knew he had to come to Miami.
Asked about Diana's work, Marks says, "On the most basic level, obscenity is rooted in maliciousness. Most important, it must be lacking a sense of humor, rooted in parody with a critical eye... What we find obscene today is very different from what it was in the early '90s. It's pretty interesting that around the time Mike went to trial, Judas Priest was taken to court for subliminal messages in their music and 2 Live Crew was convicted of obscenity." Censorship now isn't as much of an issue as it once was. "Today the cesspools of the internet have had a desensitizing effect," Marks points out. "You can find anything if you look hard enough."
As part of MAM's New Work Miami 2013 exhibition, curated by the End/Spring Break, the museum paid Diana's fines in an honorarium so he could return to Florida. "MAM is hosting this talk because of the questions Mike Diana's art and personal story raise about freedom of expression," MAM director Thom Collins says.
Diana hasn't let his legal tragedies bog him down. A two-volume box set of his art was recently published by Divus London, a gallery in the United Kingdom, where he's shown in the past. He'll also have a July solo show at Superchief Gallery in New York. Over the years, he's been interviewed by Playboy and defended by Neil Gaiman, illustrated for Wired magazine, and drawn show posters for Marilyn Manson and the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black.
Once a small-town kid photocopying his comics at the local police station, where his mom was a secretary, and selling them to nerds by mail, Diana is an exciting, effective artist with possibly the best story of our time. Also with kind of the worst, weirdest luck.