Fun

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Kitsch

If it’s velvet or it lights up, I want it.

Illustration by Leanna

Last year, I was in a gas station an hour outside of Madison, Wisconsin, clutching my road trip staples of beef jerky and ginger ale in the aisle with the magnets and key chains, when suddenly I saw It, shimmering seductively against the wall. I…I…I couldn’t move. I stood transfixed in front of a giant, light-up tableau of the Last Supper. LED lights placed behind the heads of Jesus and his prophets made glittering, pinprick halos, and they slowly turned different colors, from gold to red to purple. It was the length of my arms outstretched, and it was the most magnificent thing I had ever seen. It was $200.

Gently, gently, like a hesitant child reaching up to pet a horse’s nose for the first time, I stroked the picture with my finger. It was warm to the touch. Jesus’s robe turned a piercing robin’s egg blue. I got out my wallet.

“No.”

CJ, my girlfriend, was standing right behind me. She’d seen me staring at the tableau when she came out of the bathroom and was completely comfortable in her role as Life-Ruiner.

I grew up Mormon, a religion where church decoration and crucifixes are a serious no-no. This might be why I love the creepy/meaningful symbolism of tasteless Christian figurines and pictures, and if there is a terrifyingly graphic crucifix or a plastic Virgin Mary statue within my vicinity, I must, must have it. So, needless to say, I begged loudly for that Light-Up Last Supper in front of a lot of burly truckers. I wasn’t asking for much! Wouldn’t it look amazing in the living room? What if I never bought anything ever again and just bought this? What was $200 in the face of something Truly Beautiful we’d have forever? Why didn’t CJ want me to be happy?

In the end, I didn’t get it, because it was 200 dollars, and the truth is, I think about it almost every day. I’m not kidding. Because can I just go ahead and say it? American roadside kitsch is literally the best thing ever, and by that I mean the weirdest, most wonderful thing in the world. We the people create enough of a market for unbelievably tacky objects that they continue to be manufactured and sold. The stuff you find when you’re on a road trip in America is some of the strangest, most unnecessary stuff on the planet. And it is my serious goal in life to own and display all of it. I may die alone, surrounded by shelves of seashell art, like the kind you’d find in beachside souvenir stores in southern Florida. It’s OK. I will die happy.

Ceramic thimbles with tiny painted pictures of vacation destinations on them, like a quarter-inch painting of Abraham Lincoln to commemorate Springfield, Illinois? Yes! Actually, I gave this away to the lucky friend who watched my pet rabbit when I went out of town. Lady Liberty foam hats? Don’t mind if I do! What better chapeau for taking the ferry to Ellis Island? Actually, any kind of foam hat at all stuns me, particularly an oversized Texas cowboy hat. Style. Sophistication. Elegance. (Loud. Mass produced. Brashly memorable.) And it’s all within reach. What could be better than having a T-shirt with an American flag being struck by lightning while an eagle soars triumphantly overhead? I’ll tell you what: NOTHING.

Who wouldn’t want an exquisite black velvet painting of a mysterious tiger sitting quietly in the tall grass underneath a moonlit sky? Because you can admire and buy black velvet paintings next to the highway at shifty, tented swap meets all over the country. Really! Look for the words “swap meet” on big florescent signs along the road, and you will enter a whole new world of terribly wonderful souvenirs. From the Pacific Northwest, where the black velvet “art” leans heavily on wolves and pine forests, to Scottsdale, Arizona, which favors coyotes and scantily-clad “Native American” women holding pots, to New England, where you will find more wolves, some bears, and lighthouses sending their beams into the inky velvet murk, there are swap meets, and all I ever want to do is go to them. (When I was traveling for a living and sometimes driving from city to city for weeks on end, I would pull over so fast if I saw a sign for one.)

You simply cannot find this level of kitsch in your average airport gift shop. Keychains with spinning dice in them? Pssh, please. What if you found an old guy with eight fingers outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, who makes pocketknives with handles carved from the antlers of the buck he shot last fall, and then he gives you a mini-lesson in knife-fighting when you buy one? He’s out there, folks. There are memories to be made. But you have to be on the ground, doing real reconnaissance work, enjoying the road along the way to your destination. A TRUE LONE WOLF needs a souvenir of her lone wolf travels through, um, a big box store in Phoenix. (Keep your eyes peeled! Even if you can’t make it to swap meets or flea markets or tiny souvenir stands, there are often region-specific treasures to be found in big chain stores.)

But appreciating terribly wonderful tokens of Americana does not have to be about buying things. (Although Amurrika needs you to buy things! Do your duty!) No. You can love and adulate tackiness without pulling out your wallet and dragging home gorgeously obnoxious knickknacks. American kitsch extends to Giant Roadside Attractions, preferably shaped like an animal, preferably made out of plaster and hollow inside, so you can walk through it. Ever been to Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey? How about the Big Duck in New York? If you have, you know a secret: they’re not that great. You look up from the window of your car and go, “That’s a big duck,” and you go inside for a second. Sometimes there’s a gift shop. And that’s it. So what exactly makes these ridiculous roadside attractions special? Why would anyone in their right mind drive out of their way to see the World’s Largest Beagle?

Because it’s there. One of the great glories of America is that it is so unfathomably large, so unbelievably vast and relatively empty, that anything–-anything!–that can provide even a few minutes of boredom-relief on long stretches of highway in the middle of nowhere is thrilling. If you build it, families will drive up with cameras to pose next to it.

Now I know what you’re thinking: wouldn’t it be great if there was a place where I could go to see these wonders without having to spend five days in the car? There is! It’s called Wall Drug, and it’s in South Dakota, and it is paradise for the true kitsch-lover. What was once a humble drugstore is now almost an entire Western-themed town, and you can see the mystical jackalope and drink strawberry milkshakes and look for belt buckles made out of glass with scorpions floating inside them while rubbing shoulders with hundreds of other thrilled, like-minded travelers! WHEN ARE WE GOING?

I get that a lot of people like this stuff because they find it ironic, like an inside joke that we can share as we laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. I, too, love tacky crap because it’s hilarious. But please understand: I am not just ironically interested in kitsch. It’s gone beyond that now. I genuinely love it and appreciate it and want to marry it. It used to be that I would see a black velvet painting and go, “Oooh that’s so baaaad,” and then love it, but now I can see the same painting and love it without even acknowledging its hideousness. My ironic taste has warped into my actual taste. See the painting below?

Those majestic wild stallions standing at rest under a stormy sky gallop through my dreams at night. The painting hangs over my bed, the culmination of a years-long search through every side-of-the-road swap meet I ever went to. I remember the sweet, sweet moment I found it leaning up against the side of a tent at a flea market outside of Cincinnati. I knew–KNEW!–this was my dream painting. It was magic, and the guy only wanted $50 for it (translation: he actually wanted $20 for it), and I had enough trunk space, and I was headed home. In that moment, my kitsch universe came together. I’ve had it for over a year now, and still, every morning when I wake up, I have to pinch myself and wonder: “How did I get so lucky? How did someone ever think to make something so tacky, and then frame it in a giant gold gilt frame?”

Folks, being on the road, happily heading somewhere with a little extra time for wandering, is an extremely diverting place to be. America is a weird and very proud country, and there is nothing like a coffee mug from Dollywood–an extremely weird country-glam theme park dedicated to Dolly Parton and proof that dreams really do come true–to help us remember that. We still have marvelous things here, like old-fashioned diners where the employees wear paper hats, and restaurants, like Cozy Noodle in Chicago (go!), where every possible surface in the bathroom is covered with glued-down Pez dispensers. All this crap–all of it!–is a reminder that the strange and even ugly things in life can be beautiful to the truly discerning eye. ♦

45 Comments

  • Blythe August 15th, 2012 11:21 PM

    This reminds me SO MUCH of the book American Gods, by Neil Gaiman. Especially the roadside attraction bit. If you’ve read the book, you know that they’re PLACES OF POWER.

  • kendallkh August 15th, 2012 11:54 PM

    Oh my gosh. Dollywood is the best theme park ever. I have so many Dolly Parton and pastel-Old-West-painting coffee mugs thanks to that place.

  • allier August 16th, 2012 12:00 AM

    Lucy the Elephant in New Jersey! My Aunt’s beach house is a street down from her, and I love getting to tour her. My favorite memory is when I was on a tour with a family who had a young boy, and walking out you see Lucy’s “stomach” were they store giant peanuts as Lucy’s lunch. Upon seeing them, the little boy screamed so everyone can hear “WOW! Those are some huge elephant nuts!” The entire elephant was shaking with laughter!

  • birthdaypunching August 16th, 2012 12:03 AM

    You understand everything that I have ever truly been about

  • Taffy August 16th, 2012 12:08 AM

    I feel like this is about me. I LOVE kitch and no one understands.

  • kirsten August 16th, 2012 12:38 AM

    If you love kitsch, you HAVE to go to Winthrop in Washington State.

  • Mia Desperado August 16th, 2012 1:39 AM

    You need to pick up a copy of the book Kitsch:

    http://www.amazon.com/Kitsch-The-World-Bad-Taste/dp/0517163403/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top

    I found not one but two free copies from garage sale leftovers in my neighborhood. Did the neighbors who both owned this book ever know that about the other ? I wonder…

    It was published in the late 60′s/early 70′s and is a somewhat high falutin’ look at the subject. After you have read the book then you can have some upstanding academic’s opinions to support your aesthetic vice.

    Plus — be sure to look up Allee Willis’ museum of kitsch (online). She is a songwriter who wrote many giant smash hits(like ones with gold records like “Boogie Wonderland”) and she LOVES and collects kitsch in all its spectacular forms. Honestly, the Kojak socks did me in:

    http://www.alleewillis.com/awmok/kitschenette/2011/10/28/kojak-socks/

  • Jessica W August 16th, 2012 1:45 AM

    So. Much. Crap. I. Never. Knew. I. Wanted.
    HNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG
    0_______0

    I was exactly the same. It all begun as joke. A sick little secret I kept to myself. Now it’s a full blowen lovefest. I’m the weirdo who has a schoolbag decorated to look like lacey underwear at school.
    The Lovelorn

  • ivoire August 16th, 2012 1:57 AM

    i loooooove kitsch, especially tacky barrettes and things. virgin mary LEDs are also awesome. and YOUR RABBIT!!!!!!!!

    • Krista August 16th, 2012 2:46 PM

      Ha he was SO displeased to be in this picture. He hates adding scale:)

  • AwesomeFrances August 16th, 2012 2:44 AM

    YESSSSSSS! You should visit Australia; we love big tourist attractions. We’ve got the Big Banana, the Big Prawn, the Golden Guitar…. look, here’s a handy wiki page on all of our big things: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Australia's_big_things

    I’m really looking forward to the day I go to the US for the first time because I KNOW I will buy piles of tacky shit. No one does kitsch like you guys. It’s amazing.

  • lylsoy August 16th, 2012 2:59 AM

    I LOVE KITSCH .. gosh, everything pink, glittery, small and cute turns me on. I have a secret hello kitty collection..
    http://gossipgonzesse.blogspot.com.au/

  • tankgrrrl August 16th, 2012 3:39 AM

    FINALLY SOMEONE UNDERSTANDS

  • Lillypod August 16th, 2012 4:45 AM

    The best ever house I’ve ever seen was a dolphin themed house I stayed in on vacation in Florida once. It was beautiful and I still dream about it.

  • Loca Motion August 16th, 2012 5:18 AM

    This is my religion!

  • laurenniee August 16th, 2012 6:23 AM

    Ahhhhh so much kitsch I want and I’m on the other side of the pond!
    Still, English charity shops have provided a happy release for all my bad-taste needs. When I moved to uni I trawled them and managed to find: an awful Hummel remake ornament, a ceramic mouse popping out of an apple, a black and white photograph in a frame of two monkeys dressed up dancing by a grammarphone.
    Luckily next year I am living with two guys who are just as attracted to kitschy decoration and spend hours with me wandering round the Oxford Antiques Fair buying terrible ornaments and portraits. We are now the proud owners of a framed picture of a teddy bear sat on the toilet with his kilt round his ankles playing the bagpipes which says “Och aye the loo!”

  • Tawsie August 16th, 2012 6:36 AM

    Good to know I finally have an ally with kitsch! If it’s glittery or just hopelessly tacky, I NEED IT IN MY LIFE.

  • mwong1025 August 16th, 2012 9:30 AM

    Oh my god you understand my weird obsession with kitsch! Even though I secretly laugh at them inside my head, I always end up with something by the end of a trip. Whenever I go to, say, Las Vegas or Boston, I always get those stupid flashing keychains just for the heck of it. And it’s not just America, either. I recently went to Australia and got these obnoxious bookmarks with half a kangaroo sticking out on the top. When I was little I had this friend whose mum’s obsessed with Japanese kitsch, and she gave me all these sets of toys like refrigerators with an ice box and bowl of noodles with mini wooden chopsticks. And it probably sparked my obsession with kitsch.

    http://www.style-abuse.blogspot.com

    • Ben August 16th, 2012 3:34 PM

      OMG! I love japanese kitsch! I have a shrine to japan full of it! I got fruit shaped earsers and sushi bandaids and hello kitty stuff! It’s so kawaii!!!

  • Impybat August 16th, 2012 10:19 AM

    I have a holographic print of a Pegasus, majestically flying through swirly blue and purple clouds. Bought proudly at a dollar store at Salisbury Beach, Massachusetts.

    • neon_rattail August 16th, 2012 1:47 PM

      That’s crazy – I grew up in Salisbury Beach! It’s so weird to see someone mention it here! There is SO MUCH great kitschy stuff there and your pegasus sounds fantastic.

    • Krista August 16th, 2012 2:45 PM

      gimmeeeeee

  • AnguaMarten August 16th, 2012 10:58 AM

    this reminds me of “american gods” by neil gaiman. fantastic book. one of the ideas in it is that roadside attractions are actually the most holy places in america, and that the visitors are just pilgrims, and it is so cool.

  • cinnamonanemone August 16th, 2012 11:11 AM

    I grew up about 90 minutes away from Dollywood, on the NC side of the Great Smoky Mtns National Park. We had season passes for several years, which meant I spent EVERY SATURDAY wandering around the rides and shops and attractions. It is the best theme park every, you are completely right :)

  • Lulli August 16th, 2012 11:24 AM

    I cannot believe there are other people in the world like me.

    http://www.shehadtogetout.tumblr.com

  • Ellen August 16th, 2012 1:31 PM

    @Krista! You can buy that light-up last supper at the Seven Mile Fair in Racine, Wisconsin. How do I know? Because my mom bought the exact same thing for her friends who loves kitch. And it was definitely less than $200. Hope I can help make your dreams come true.

  • erin August 16th, 2012 2:08 PM

    I feel this so hard! Whenever I go exploring around in this grand western land, I always love going into gift shops. There are so much fun things! I haven’t bought anything for a long time, but I do have a soft spot in my heart for any native american paraphernalia , especially snazzy dream catcher earrings. And I have had my fair share of experiences with natives pedaling their beauteous goods roadside.

  • karastarr32 August 16th, 2012 2:11 PM

    Still have my mug from Dollywood!! I went when I was two and I got a butterfly shaped mug, a pink wig, and the memory of singing “I’m a Little Teapot” onstage. :)

  • Ophelia August 16th, 2012 2:28 PM

    Please, someone start a kitsch fan club where we can share our finds. I’ve got a velvet painting of light and dark unicorns flying through space, and no one to share it with!

  • Ben August 16th, 2012 3:27 PM

    I was on a road trip with my family once and I found a flier for wall drug and I was like! We have to go there! So we did and saw the jackalope and dino and got a tee shirt and I bought some ring msde out of something. And they have all those signs! I alos saw a giant buffalo anf almost bought a picture of the last supper a goodwill that was like glued to this peice of wood that was all sanded and cool looking on the sides like this one clock my dad had! I also like those roadside blanket things with outer space and wolves and whales and stuff!

  • caro nation August 16th, 2012 4:38 PM

    HAVE YOU GUYS BEEN TO THE THING? IN ARIZONA?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thing%3F

    http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/2023

    WORTH. THE. STOP.

  • rootsrockweirdo August 17th, 2012 12:48 AM

    There is a bar in Bushwick Brooklyn called Anchored Inn that only has velvet paintings as artwork: http://cdn.partyearth.com/photos/b0422a931747e16f7b22c94496081851/the-anchored-inn_s334.jpg?1319646956

  • Taylor WM August 17th, 2012 5:00 PM

    Thank God for this post. I feel so normal now knowing I’m not the only one who did things like force my parents to drive everyday to the big Popeye attraction in Malta and lusting after little sleeping cats in baskets and fans with the Virgin Mary printed on it.
    Thank you! Hahaha

    whitemoth.blogspot.co.uk

  • all-art-is-quite-useless August 17th, 2012 5:30 PM

    you have seen into my soul, and written down what you saw

  • atticus August 18th, 2012 4:27 PM

    i totally appreciate your everyday use of kitsch, making a fellow yiddish user like me kvell

  • Hanne August 19th, 2012 1:47 PM

    Oh this post had to happen sooner or later!! The last supper gone psychedelic with shifting colored lights sounds aaaamaaaazing..! I hope your dream comes true some day. I don’t live in the US so I can’t go on the road and expect to find some kitschy gold, but I’ve managed to score my pieces from tourist resorts in Spain and a local thrift shop. It’s really good to know I’m not the only one out there appreciating weird shit.

    My friend got me this A3-sized postcard from the canary islands featuring a holographic Jesus. I keep him inside my bathroom on the door. Nothing like a little Jesus grooving in the morning. She also gave me a smaller postcard from the same place with four men in small leather panties and some chains, with the word “Superholidays” under them. Pretty much the greatest wall decour I own. My personal favourite item de kitsch is this childrens light lamp from Western Germany(!) probably made in the 60′s or 70′s. It has a pretty big lamp foot, and drilled next to the lamp is a small dog with an Einstein haircut and Harry Potter glasses. As if he wasn’t crazy looking enough in the first place he also has an antenna on the top of his head. That lamp is my religion <3

  • Katherine20 August 20th, 2012 9:59 PM

    Love it!!!
    http://kimkatfunspot.blogspot.com/

  • guiltfreedonut August 20th, 2012 10:10 PM

    BUNNNNNNYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY. can’t focus. petting my screen.

    http://www.guiltfreedonut.com

  • Hedwig August 23rd, 2012 6:50 PM

    I feel the same way about anime eyes. They are just so beautifully unreal

  • queenofthedinosaurs August 24th, 2012 4:09 PM

    I’m so happy that you mentioned wall drug! I found it when I was visiting the badlands and I FELL IN LOVE. It is a magical place