Located off Route 90, roughly 25 miles from Marfa, Texas, sits Prada Marfa, a permanent art installation constructed in 2005 by artists Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset. Fashioned after a Prada boutique, the interior of the structure displays shoes and handbags from Prada’s 2005 fall collection. Even though it sits in the middle of nowhere, and its doors are always locked, Prada Marfa has become a pop culture landmark. People from all over the world stop to get a look at the fake store and take pictures in front of it.
On March 18, 2014, artist Joseph Magnano was arrested on vandalism charges by Texas officials after he coated Prada Marfa with blue paint and plastered the TOMS® shoes logo on its windows. Joseph also left a manifesto at the scene accusing TOMS of using sweatshop labor while touting philanthropic principles.
On April 17, 2014, a grand jury indicted Joseph with two counts of felony criminal mischief. Each count could have carried a penalty of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine. One week before his case was set to go to trial, on November 12, 2014, he pleaded guilty to two counts of misdemeanor criminal mischief for defacing the Prada Marfa installation.
Joseph paid his fines and his probation period ended early. He now resides in Austin, Texas and earns a living painting images of cows.
Joyce Brown: How do you define art?
Joseph Magnano: I’ve been doing art since childhood, so my definition of what art is, and what it means to me, has changed many times over the years. My definition today is that art happens when you react and express yourself in your surroundings. It’s a place to heal. It's communicating and connecting with others. It's a way to inspire and to be inspired. It's human. Art is constant movement— a constant ebb and flow.
Joyce: Why did you choose the Prada Marfa structure as the location to create your statement about TOMS?
Joseph: I was helping a friend with her store in Waco, Texas and we decided to take a road trip out to Marfa to see what all the fuss was about because Prada Marfa had been getting a lot of attention. I don't know if you've ever been in that part of Texas, but the landscape is powerful. It’s beautiful. We finally stumbled upon the structure out there on the highway, and it stuck out like a sore thumb.
We were like, ‘This is it? This is what the hype is about?’. We didn’t appreciate the structure and decided to do something to it. The TOMS idea didn't come to the table right away. We talked about painting rainbows all over it, or making it a bait shop. It was also around the same time George W. Bush started showing his paintings, so we considered turning into another George W. Bush exhibit.
My friend sold TOMS in her retail store and sometimes we’d talk about the controversy behind the brand. Then everything started falling into place. We decided to play with the TOMS One for One® campaign and switch out Prada for TOMS. We felt it was the perfect canvas to challenge TOMS and how its sweatshop manufacturing hurts people and negatively impacts the environment.
I began doing research on Prada Marfa, and I learned that it was considered an illegal roadside advertisement in 2013. The Texas Department of Transportation wanted it removed. I read the original explainer of the structure by Elmgreen & Dragset, and they said that it would never be touched up. They intended to leave it alone and let nature take its course. I decided I was part of nature and wanted to challenge that idea, too.
I did it in the name of art. I stand by it.
Joyce: Tell me about your arrest. What was the outcome?
Joseph: After I had installed my project, I went to Las Vegas with my friend. I considered staying there and not coming back to Texas because I knew something was going to happen. I'm going to be honest with you; I set myself up to be arrested because I left little clues. If someone were smart enough to Google something, they could find my mission statement on my website at the time. I just didn't know I’d be getting calls from people so quickly. I didn't know it would be all over the art world that fast.
I ended up driving back to Texas to face the music. I had taken the front plates off my vehicle when we drove to Prada Marfa to install my project, but then I never put them back on. A highway patrol officer pulled us over because the plates were missing. When he called in my name the warrant on me showed up. I was arrested on the spot.
If I didn't have the bail money, and if I didn't meet the people who put in contact with the right attorney, I would still be in jail right now.
Joyce: Do you have any regrets?
Joseph: No. Well, the only regret I have is that I talked about what I did to Prada Marfa in the police car the night of my arrest. The prosecution was going to use the recording against me if we were going to take it to trial.
The other thing I wish I could change was the amount of time I had to put up my installation. It was supposed to look apocalyptic and crazy, but all the haters out there on social media said things about how terrible it looked. I only had 30 minutes, and it was raining that night. Also, border patrol kept driving up and down the highway.
Joyce: In one of your emails to me, you said 2015 was a year of transformation for you. How have you changed?
Joseph: It was hard dealing with the fact I was guilty for something I believed in, and on top of it, I had all these fines to pay. It was stressful. My voice as an artist had been stunted. The art world was calling me a vandal. It made me feel like I couldn’t play in the art world anymore.
Last year, I focused on identifying myself as an artist. I was taking it seriously and went through some major growth after the arrest. Through meditation, empathy groups, and other transformational work, I was able to let go of my ego. The TOMS Marfa installation was a complete ego project.
Joyce: What artwork projects are you working on now?
Joseph: I take a lot of pictures of cows at different ranches all over Texas. When I get back to the studio, I go through all of the photos and look for unusual compositions to use for my paintings. Through these paintings, I’m connecting with kids who love cows, and people who like farming. I’m enjoying connecting with nature. I’ve been doing my cow paintings since 2014, but now I’m finding a lot of meaning in them. I’m creating an art movement at a fundamental level rather than attacking the high art world in a rebellious way. Also, I’ve been selling paintings for a long time, but last year was the first year I made an actual living, a real living.
I’m working on my personal series, too, called, Returning from Autonomy. The paintings are playful and whimsical, but explore adult subject matter and themes. The goal with these paintings is to elevate conversations about compassion, empathy, love, and kindness.
Joyce: It sounds like you're earning money from your art and everything's working out for you. Have you received a positive response from the art community?
Joseph: I recently showed some paintings from Returning from Autonomy in Austin and got a very positive reaction. I’ve sold a lot of my cow paintings, and people seem to love and appreciate them, so, yeah, the response has been great.
It’s been a wild ride since I quit my job in 2011 and started doing art full time. I'm building on positive momentum and handling this year calmly because last year was just insane.