Chattering Class

Molly Crabapple Draws Blood, Dancers and Detainees

The illustrator and activist, who just released a memoir, reflects on her craft and what she learned from testing herself in "the naked girl business."

(Photo Credit: Clayton Cubitt)

Molly Crabapple is an illustrator and activist whose work has appeared in Marvel comics… and on protest posters for the Occupy movement. She also traveled to Guantanamo to sketch the military hearings there.

She just released a memoir called, “Drawing Blood.” It documents her coming of age, her work as a nude model and burlesque dancer, and her current work as a columnist for Vice Media — where she covers everything from Occupy to indentured servitude in Dubai.

At the beginning of her book she writes, “This is a story about a girl and her sketchbook.” When Brendan met with her, he asked why a sketchbook instead of a camera, or a guitar?


Molly Crabapple: Well, I’ve been drawing since I was four years old. I have always drawn, and I’ve always been obsessed with drawing. I drew before I was good at it. I drew before I knew what I was doing. I just think it was what I was born to do. Even if I was in a jail cell or on a desert island, I would be drawing every moment that I could.

DrawingBlood HC CBrendan Francis Newnam: Is that something you still do? Like, if you’re on an airplane, or you’re in-between interviews or doing something, do you find yourself still doodling, non-professionally?

Molly Crabapple: Oh, God, yeah. All the time, especially if I’m in a scenario like, waiting for something bureaucratic. There’s just something evil inside of me that wants to do mean caricatures of people who have undeserved power. I think it’s one of my vices.

I remember one time, I was with Matt Taibbi, the journalist. I was working on a book with him. We were in the Manhattan misdemeanor court. It’s this place where almost entirely black and brown guys are being charged for petty or nonexistent crimes.

They’re just sitting there, and it’s so boring, and it takes so long. I’m supposed to be drawing the judge, but then I start drawing this sort of porcine court officer who’s presiding over the whole thing. And he goes up to me because he sees that I’m drawing him, and he storms up, he looks in my sketchbook, and he says, “You’re not supposed to be doing that!”

And I say, “I’m allowed to draw in a court. It’s a well-established right.” And he sort of sulks off. Then I pass the sketchbook around to all of the other guys, and they just burst out laughing at this picture that I had done of him.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Which was a caricature, I’m assuming, making him look a little ridiculous?

Molly Crabapple: I mean, I think I captured his soul, shall I say?

(Image Credit: Molly Crabapple)

Brendan Francis Newnam: At one point, you write in your book, “Art is intrinsic and unfakeable as handwriting.” And so, I was wondering if you could describe the qualities that make up your art.

Molly Crabapple: I think that, in general, I’m a jittery, impatient, and sarcastic person who also loves beautiful things. My art embraces all of that, and there’s also a lot of ink splatter. I usually use a pen and ink. Crow quill. Old school dip pen. I do hyper-hyper-detailed things with lots and lots of splashes, and lots and lots of little line. Sometimes when I’m making all of the lines, I get into this fugue state. I feel like I’m picking scabs or something. It’s like, very compulsive and visceral, and I just have to do it.

Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, to support your compulsion to sketch, you’ve done many things. You briefly went to college before dropping out to focus on simply being an artist. But to support yourself, you did what you call, “the naked girl business.”

You were a nude model for artists, for people you call “GWCs” — which are guys with cameras that would place ads on craigslist. At one point you say it was money that drove you into the naked girl business, but you also wanted to test yourself. What did you want to test?

Molly Crabapple: I think I wanted to burn off the innocence of childhood. I wanted to get rid of that limiting idea that a lot of girls have that the most important thing about us is our unscathedness by the world.

Because it’s very limiting. It’s like, if you constantly live expecting for the world to be this big, scary rape trap, you can’t go out, or travel, or have adventures or do all sorts of things. You can’t live as a free and equal person. While we should all work for a world where no one is in fear of violence, by the same token, sometimes the fear of violence itself is used as a chain against women.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You talk a lot about this. Not only were you on a very popular website posing nude, but you also did burlesque shows and other things. And throughout this part of the book, though, aside from a few creepy guys, it doesn’t really come off as super-tawdry or super-frightening.

Do you think you’re lucky, or is the world of sex work, as you describe it, not as exploitative and crippling to the ego as maybe people think?

(Image Credit: Molly Crabapple)
(Image Credit: Molly Crabapple)

Molly Crabapple: I mean, everyone has a very, very different experience, and I can only speak for my own experience. I had, definitely, photographers that got off on telling me horrible things about my body. I definitely had photographers where I was scared at shoots, though I certainly was lucky enough that nothing happened to me.

But listen, we live in a country where one out of five American women experiences sexual assault. It’s just a dangerous country for women. Most of those assaults come from women’s friends, acquaintances, loved ones, partners, and men that they’re dating. So, I think all sorts of worlds can be good and bad. All sorts of jobs in capitalism can be exploitative sometimes and things that you enjoy other times. Sometimes both at the same moment. My God!

But for me, no, it was not the worst thing on earth. It’s actually something I’m always very glad I did because I met the women who would always be my muses. These tough, smart, sharp, independent women.

Brendan Francis Newnam: You are probably the only person in the world who’s drawn a naked, tattooed, burlesque rebel in America, as well as a Guantanamo detainee. Did you find that your craft was any different? That you were drawing differently while you were looking at these humans in very different circumstances?

Molly Crabapple: Not for a second. I just try to do the best, truest image that I possibly can. Because, in either of those cases, it is so easy to resort to cliché, right? It’s so easy to think, “Oh, I know everything about this. I don’t have to look at this person.”But the moment that you do that, that’s when you create really bad art. And so, I think just looking sharply and drawing truly… it doesn’t matter what you’re drawing. It’s just a way of seeing.

(Image Credit: Molly Crabapple)
(Image Credit: Molly Crabapple)

Brendan Francis Newnam: Is there a through line from all these parts? What’s the connection?

Molly Crabapple: I think that the skills that I honed drawing dancers at nightclubs are the same skills that I use if I’m drawing occupation soldiers or if I’m drawing people in a courtroom. It’s the same knack for capturing detail. The same way of drawing really, really fast, holding your extra markers in your mouth so they don’t fall all over the place.

It’s all of the same craft, the same techniques, and all of the same sort of skepticism and cynical eye. It’s just one thing is in a realm that many people don’t think is intelligent, which is the realm of sexy girls, performance, and glamour. Then the other one is in a box that people do think is intelligent.

Brendan Francis Newnam: The current events, the foreign affairs reporting that you’re doing now.

Molly Crabapple: Yeah, exactly. You know, the man box as opposed to the little woman box, which isn’t important, obviously.