We’ve stared into the glow of the future for generations. In movies, art, and music, visions of what may come have been fed to us since childhood, before we could even comprehend the notion of time. A lot of those concepts have come true, whether it be a double-life lived in the virtual matrix, big brother constantly peering over our shoulder, or machines that learn on their own. These ideas were accepted long before they came to be a part of everyday life.
The cyberpunk concept of inequality, where grime lives up close and personal with the technology of the gods, is increasingly the way of the world. Ubiquitous and blinding LEDs cast stark shadows on the squalor around them; greasy ATMs that threaten to scam your card glow on every street corner; and new chemical drugs bought online can be copped at the deli. It’s not just a theme of struggle with inequality and crime, but with the power of technology itself and the danger that lurks so closely beneath its promise. Oppressive governments monitor their citizens with unrivaled access and hacked corporate data on entire populations is sold on the black market. As an artist, reproducing these things isn’t simply self-referential of a genre, it’s a reflection of reality.
Enter Mad Dog Jones, Instagram artist extraordinaire. His work is part collage, part illustration, and 100 percent designed for social media. The Toronto-based artist creates vivid imagery with bright colors and fine linework, combining hectic environments with serene portraiture. Akira bikes and Gundam bots are paired with Asian cityscapes and signage, then overlaid with characters pulled straight from the app store. There’s also a heavy focus on clothing brands and style. His work could be described as illustrated sci-fi fashion editorials.
There’s a fluency in the existing visual language, a battle with the pull to unplug, and the cultivation of walled internet gardens to grow a following. While it all goes unspoken and is only communicated through the work itself, it’s intentional. “This style was developed specifically for Instagram,” Mad Dog, also known as Michah Dowbak, says over Skype from a snowy northern Ontario. “There’s no way I could be reaching this level of [a following] while simultaneously doing my other stuff. I prefer Instagram, because words can hurt someone a lot more than images.”
But the pressures of constantly being plugged in takes its toll. He’s turned off his notifications to make space for himself, and the characters with wires hanging out of them are a comment on the tethers that bind us to this virtual second life. “A lot of my art is about the human connection with the digital world and it being overwhelming and destructive. But you can’t look at technology as good or bad. There’s so much of both, it’s hard to judge on a macro scale.”
He finds his balance through creation. Constant scrolling with no output is unhealthy, and he encourages everyone to add their own voice to the feed. Just don’t do it for the fame and try not to compare yourself to others. Do it for the fun of it. “Even if you don’t get a ton of followers, being creative will make you feel so much better,” Dowbak urges. “Theodore Roosevelt said something like, ‘Comparison is the thief of joy.’ Just do your thing and you’ll find happiness.” As we dedicate an increasing amount of time on social media—despite studies showing how bad it can be for your mental health—this may actually be good advice.
A collaboration with photographer @MontyKaplan.
His means of creating also hint at liberation in the near future. While we were once limited to connecting through an immobile box in our homes or libraries, we now have devices that can be taken everywhere. It’s not a choice between the IRL world and the internet, the two are becoming one, and this will continue to blur. When Dowbak draws, he uses a tablet. Wherever he is, he can get to work.
On an iPad pro with the Pro Create program and an Apple pen, he combs through piles of collected images, creating collages that he then strips down and rebuilds. Outlines are redrawn, colors are replaced, and it’s all thrown back together as a new whole. Even though he repurposes these elements into fresh creations, he still credits the photographers and models where he can.
As a white guy from Canada, his fascination with Asian motifs may raise some questions. The Japanese characters prominent throughout most of his work is, in fact, due to the “otherness” of the lettering. Their unintelligibility adds a layer of satisfaction for him and his like-minded followers. But it could also be interpreted aesthetically as a continuation of the cyberpunk theme in the tradition of Blade Runner and an honest appreciation for the form of lettering.
“Any type of dystopian future always has that Asian-centric world. I also like that I can’t read the characters, it’s not about the words,” he admits. “Russian letters look cool, but Japanese letters look cooler.”
Despite the complexities of being a digital interloper, Dowbak has created an irresistible world that hangs in the balance of the present and the future. In many ways it’s a fantasy, the creation of a world that’s unattainable, but increasingly becoming a representation of our truths. Urban creep, globalization, pervasive technology, and the blurring of digital and physical spaces are all here already. Who’s to say that our present isn’t the future?
Follow Mad Dog Jones on Instagram @mad.dog.jones.