Illboard: A diabetic artist takes to the streets

Brian Bradley's artwork reflects his struggles with diabetes and the health-care system

Illboard: A diabetic artist takes to the streets
Photograph by Eric Magnussen; art by Brian Bradley

Brian Bradley's kitchen is a shrine to illness and art.

Hanging from a hook on the refrigerator are two photographs, glued side by side, of a diabetic girl in the 1920s. In the "before" photograph, the girl's bones protrude violently, sinews connecting one joint to the next. She's been starved — a standard treatment for diabetes before insulin was introduced in 1922. In the "after" photograph, she appears thin but healthy, with shallow mounds of fat clinging to her abdomen, hips and thighs.

Above those pictures are four of Antonin Artaud, a French playwright, actor and director who died in a psychiatric ward in 1948. Artaud believed that pain was necessary for existence and that imagination could be just as real as reality. He's the major philosophical force in Bradley's life. "Curing an illness is a crime," he says, quoting Artaud. For Bradley, illness drives art.

Brian Bradley often feels that he's only kept alive through science and his art, which focuses on his struggles treating type 1 diabetes without insurance in today's health-care system. See a sampling of Bradley's work in our slide show.
eric magnussen
Brian Bradley often feels that he's only kept alive through science and his art, which focuses on his struggles treating type 1 diabetes without insurance in today's health-care system. See a sampling of Bradley's work in our slide show.
Bradley posts his street art under the name Frank Kwiatkowski. See a sampling of Bradley's work in our slide show.
Bradley posts his street art under the name Frank Kwiatkowski. See a sampling of Bradley's work in our slide show.

Inside the fridge is a loaf of white bread, milk, packaged sausage, and other foods "with chemicals," as Bradley describes them. In the crisper drawer, bottles of insulin have replaced vegetables. Bradley doesn't care for food, doesn't much care what he eats. In fact, due to the reactions it creates with his type 1 diabetes, food often feels like the enemy. He heats soup from cans in one of his two saucepans; a baking pan is lined with tinfoil and filled with crumbs left by breaded and fried prepared foods.

A sunburst of black paint explodes out of the sink, an accidental result of his artwork. The paint stains the sides of the sink, extending to the wall and both sides of the counters around it. Bradley uses glass panels as palettes, and he makes cleaning them a violent task, scrubbing with the full force of his calloused fingers as water splays out of the faucet.

Bradley is a street artist who works under the name Frank Kwiatkowski. The last name is an homage to his Polish grandmother; Poles have been oppressed throughout history, and he thinks of himself as oppressed because of his disease. And he chose "Frank" because it rhymed with "prank."

"I have made myself into a cartoon," he says.

Photos: See a sampling of Bradley's work in our slide show.

In 2008, he decided to grow an eccentric beard as part of his artist persona. Today, hair shoots out of his chin in a partial mane. His daily wardrobe is a screen-printed shirt and a pair of cargo pants or shorts, depending on the weather. He learned how to screen-print six months ago; since then, almost all of the shirts he wears bear images of his work. The art is often printed over older messages. On a large orange T-shirt, for example, the words "Geological Services Corp." peek out from underneath an image of a Bradley look-alike holding a syringe.

Bradley's art centers on his diabetes. As an eight-year-old growing up in Arvada, he was diagnosed with type 1. Today, at the age of 36, the illness defines him.

"I think if they found a cure, he'd be lost without it," says his sister, Monica Bradley. "He's put so much of his focus and energy into it."

On Bradley's right arm is a tattoo of an oversized syringe with the words "Isletin addict." Isletin is his play on the word "insulin," which evokes "Iletin" — the name of a now-discontinued insulin line that Eli Lilly and Company produced. It was his first tattoo.

All of Bradley's tattoos deal with diabetes. On his left arm is the picture from his refrigerator door of the intentionally starved girl; on his right forearm is the image of a caduceus, a staff with two snakes wrapped around it and wings on top, which is often used as a symbol for health in the United States. But this is actually the Greek symbol for Hermes and represents commerce; the proper Greek symbol for medicine is the rod of Asclepius, a staff with a single snake and no wings.

The medical system has been co-opted by money, Bradley states both in conversation and in his art; that's why he can't get the care he needs. "I can't rely on the system," he says. "The system failed me a long time ago. I think it's failed everyone because it's based on money."

Art is his way to "bark at the power."

A printmaker, Bradley cuts his templates out of traffic cones — a technique he invented and has shared with other artists in town. "The DIY nature, you don't see a lot of people thinking outside the box," says Zez Shores, an artist and tattooist at Newspeak Tattoo who has done most of Bradley's ink.

From the wedge-shaped cuts in the cones, Bradley carves graphic images that look medieval in style. Syringes, skulls and insulin bottles are frequent motifs. He also often carves a version of himself, complete with a scraggly chin beard.

Working as the Kwiatkowski Press, Bradley posts his prints with a staple gun or wheat paste around Denver — on phone poles, utility boxes and walls. But his favorite locations are wherever his art will be in full view of a hospital, pharmacy or other institution involved with health care.

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21 comments
Cancer Treatment
Cancer Treatment

Well written article.You have done great job by sharing this informative post with us.I like this post.Keep sharing with us in future too.

coolzGirl
coolzGirl

I just paíd $20.87 for an íPad 2.64GB and my boyfriend loves his Panasoníc Lumíx GF 1 Cámera that we got for $38.79 there arriving tomorrow by UP S.I will never pay such expensive retail príces in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LCD T V to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62.81 to buy. Here is the website we use to get it all from : BidsBit.com

londoncar
londoncar

I just paíd $20.87 for an íPad 2.64GB and my boyfriend loves his Panasoníc Lumíx GF 1 Cámera that we got for $38.79 there arriving tomorrow by UP S.I will never pay such expensive retail príces in stores again. Especially when I also sold a 40 inch LCD T V to my boss for $657 which only cost me $62.81 to buy.Here is the website we use to get it all from : http://BidsBit.com

Woahphoto
Woahphoto

Boo Hiss Westword! What is up with the shitty journalism and tasteless articles? I couldn't even finish reading the article because I felt like none of this was any of my business. Why do I need to know about his wife's passing and why are they calling his sister? Why are they going into such deep personal things about someone and steering away from the whole point of the article. Why are they making him out to be this poor pathetic sap when I know otherwise. He is a very kind , caring, intelligent person who struggles with something while creating beautiful art. This wasn't about his art at all and isn't that the whole point? Why did they use his real name, when he is a street artist? Westword do you have any respect for people and the things they do at all? You are becoming the tmz of denver and its disgusting. All I know is that if I ever deal with you ill be sure to give you as little information so you don't twist everything into something so negative and trashy.

Byby
Byby

how many laws has he broken?

Christy
Christy

This guy really needs to get over himself. There is more to him than just being diabetic. While it is expensive and a drag, it doesn't need to consume his entire being. I get that everybody expresses themselves differently, but I don't think we really needed to hear about it. By the way, I am a type 2 diabetic, so I'm not inconsiderate to his disease and fully realize the problems it can cause.

Bornazen
Bornazen

I have been living with Diabetes for almost 20 years and can totally relate to the problems in this article, except Bradley's treatment regimine is outdated and completely naive. I will only say that I changed from a roller coaster Insilin treatment that is no longer needed to one that involves a 24hr. dosed Insilin that if taken properly with diet and exercise can make your life change from night to day, and this Insilin has been around for over a decade... It saddens me when I hear about people who do not know how to find a better alternatives to their health and no one teaches them, including the media and Doctors. BTW I am self reliant when it comes to my medical decisions and have suggested most of my choices to my Doctors over the years that make my control tollerable, but lets be honest it is still a terrible Disease.

AWE Collective
AWE Collective

See Bradley's art in a solo show tonight at Crash 45 - located at 321 E. 45th Avenue, Denver, CO 80216. Curated by AWE Collective.

anthony
anthony

If the guy wasn't diabetic ... would we even hear about him ???.... just another starving, and sick artist in the World... Join the Club !! ... now paint some pain and suffering pictures to add to the collection ... and then people will relate... what it is that you... the artist ... is going thru !!

calhounp
calhounp

i'd love to publish some of these comments in our print edition (especially yours, Yvonne!), ideally with your full name/town. Let me know if that's okay by e-mailing patricia.calhoun@westword.com. Or feel free to send a different letter for publication.

Yvonne
Yvonne

Which editor assigned this article and which one edited it? There is just something about the way this story is written that makes me not care at all about an issue that I really care about a lot. Most offensive this story appears to be written by someone who, instead of doing the background research necessary to understand and write a story about the emotional effect of Type 1 diabetes, used information obtained from a diabetic who has never resolved those issues. A good place to start would have been to read the book, Breakthrough: Elizabeth Hughes, the Discovery of Insulin, and the Making of a Medical Cure” by Thea Cooper and Arthur Ainsberg. The statement made about Type 2 diabetes, “Like Type 1 it is chronic and incurable” is not correct. Type 2 can be cured in the beginning with proper diet and exercise. I know because had Type 2, and I don’t now. For the last 45 years my artist mom has had Type 1. She is 85 years old. So I can speak or maybe write from a place of experience on that too. I have no argument that there is a lack of proper, affordable medical care, especially for chronic conditions, for all of us that don’t have an insurance plan provided through work or meet the requirements of social and charity funded programs. To use Bradley as a poster boy for this issue is just plain wrong. He is non-compliant to the dietary and other requirements that it takes to manage diabetes and minimize its effects. He is right about the supplies to treat diabetes being expensive. That $110 fine he paid or didn’t was enough to purchase a bottle of insulin. Maybe Bradley should spend more time on managing the disease than on creating art about …what I am not sure.

Jeff Meese
Jeff Meese

As a person who has lived with diabetes and insulin injections for over 25 years, may I suggest that the artist is NOT a diabetic artist, he is an artist who has diabetes. I refuse to be labeled by my disease!

Sandy in Denver
Sandy in Denver

Again (as I did after Amy Winehouse's death) I think, there needs to be a book: "Genius and Madness: What to do When your Muse is also a Demon."

Kdhoodlamb
Kdhoodlamb

Cant wait for his art show at crash 45 this friday, should be amazing! the address is 321 E 45th ave if you want to come down to get some of his art work!

YogaO
YogaO

A sadly fascinating story about a troubled young man.

The photographs of the starving young woman are pictures of the first (or one of the first) people to be given insulin. Prior to the discovery of insulin and a way to extract it from cow and pig pancreases, there was no treatment. The "therapy" was not starvation as reported here, but starvation was a symptom of the disease.

Frank Kwiatkowski
Frank Kwiatkowski

I agree a hundred percent. I have lost all respect for journalists. They aren't real writers. They're paid career people who suck ass.

dejahthoris
dejahthoris

A type 2 diabetic does not know the life of a type 1. It is a constant tightrope walk. You really have no idea. One one side, you never know when you will go low. If you ride a little high, then there is looming over you the eventuality of the horrible side effects. If ART helps him to cope with his condition, it is none of your business.

Jenny An
Jenny An

While I'm thrilled that your case of type 2 seemingly resolved itself, I'd like the state that according to the American Diabetes Association, there is no cure for diabetes types 1 or 2.

The story mentions how Bradley does not follow all the recommendations given to diabetics by doctors. I'm sorry if you feel he's been made into a "poster boy" for the issue.

dejahthoris
dejahthoris

Do a just a little research. Before the invention of insulin by Banting and Best, starvation was the only treatment for type 1 diabetes. And where do you get off saying this man is troubled? It sounds conscending. You don't know what it it like to have type 1.

christine2
christine2

Actually, many of the early doctors did use starvation as a treatment. You're right in saying that weight loss was a symptom of the disease as well. Look up "Novo Story of Insulin" on youtube and there's an excellent program about insulin and the history of diabetes treatment before that. Elliot P. Joslin was one of the people who pioneered starvation as a treatment for type 1 before insulin was invented.

Flgirl8
Flgirl8

I read the article just yesterday since I don't always get Westword. Being Type 1 for 33 years now and unemployed without insurance, I totally relate to your frustration with the US healthcare system. It is really expensive to pay for the necessary supplies & doctor visits- I calculate near $6000/year without insurance! Recent healthcare reform finally made it possible for Type 1s to get medical insurance on our own, but who can afford it for $310/month? That would be more than if I paid for everything on my own without insurance! Luckily my diabetes doctor has reduced the cost of an office visit to him and it includes the usual A1C blood test & results. Instead of the usual $400-$500 that would go through an employee's healthcare plan of which I used to pay about $30, the total charge to me is about $100. Those test strips that we depend on so much are the major portion of our expense. They can cost anywhere from $0.50-$0.80 each. If you use 6 a day as many of us should, that's $3-$5! It is a vicious system we live with- healthcare in the US! No one can understand the frustration without having the costs to deal with. I was glad to see that you can get some aid via the Barbara Davis Center; I probably should contact them also to get into a study for the free care & test strips you get!

 
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