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.
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.
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.
Those diagnosed with type 1 diabetes after 1965, like Brian Bradley, can have a life expectancy that's nearly that of the average American, according to a 2011 study by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. But only about 10 percent of type 1 diabetics receive the level of care necessary to achieve the average 68.8-year life expectancy the Pitt study reports, says Margaret Eagan, an endocrinologist at Canterbury Wellness Center, a Denver clinic affiliated with Rose Medical Center.
There is no known cure for type 1 diabetes, which is also known as juvenile diabetes because it usually presents itself before or during adolescence. When a person has the disease, his pancreas produces little to no insulin, the hormone that allows sugars to turn into energy. Injecting manufactured insulin helps patients control the condition.
"We have Olympic athletes who are type 1, we have professional football players here on the Broncos who are type 1, so it shouldn't inhibit their life at all if they follow a good diet, exercise, keep up on all the doctors visits," Eagan says. "It's asking them to do a lot."
Not only does treatment involve regular insulin injections and multiple blood-sugar tests daily, but also frequent doctor visits — not easy under today's health-care system. "Unless you're living somewhere really close to the Mayo Clinic or somewhere like that, you're not going to get the individual care or time you need as a type 1," notes Eagan. "We're held to fifteen to twenty minutes an appointment, and that's tough."
If type 1 diabetes is not managed properly, side effects can include an inability to concentrate, kidney failure, loss of limbs and loss of eyesight. There are many emotional consequences, as well. More than half of all type 1 diabetics deal with depression at some point in their lives, according to Eagan, and anger is also common. "I usually tell them as a doc, 'It sucks, we can't cure it and I've just told you that you have to deal with this for the rest of your life,'" Eagan says. "[Elisabeth] Kübler-Ross wrote about the five stages of dying. We now call them the 'five stages of grieving,' and we see diabetics go through that."
The stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. "If you can take them through the stages as a doc," Eagan notes, "then you have a great, compliant type 1."
Bradley is not one of those.
In one of his pieces, two skeletal figures sit inside an insulin bottle surrounded by syringes; "$100" is written around their heads. That's his estimate of how much a bottle of insulin costs without insurance. Bradley averages two bottles a month.
Bradley works at a Capitol Hill high-rise as a janitor. He doesn't have health insurance.
He gets almost all of his supplies from medical studies. The studies provide supplies for the duration of the study, and when he tells the doctors and nurses involved about his financial situation, they'll usually help him out — providing him with extra test strips, insulin and other items that he saves for when the study is over. The last study he participated in ended in April; he's now waiting to hear back from the Barbara Davis Center for Childhood Diabetes about a study beginning in September — and he's getting antsy. The Davis Center, part of the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is one of the largest centers for type 1 diabetic research in the country and the only major center focusing on type 1 in Colorado, providing care for 80 percent of the state's children with diabetes and 2,000 adults.
Colorado has one of the lowest rates of diabetes in the country, but it is on the rise, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In 2007, one in nineteen adults in the state had either type 1 or type 2. Type 2, the more common form, tends to occur later in life and is caused when cells either ignore insulin or the pancreas does not produce enough insulin. Like Type 1, it is chronic and incurable.
Bradley doesn't know the specifics of the upcoming study. He just knows that he needs more test strips, since he goes through five to seven a day. His current stash is large enough to last three more months; while he has a prescription, he doubts he'd be able to afford them at a pharmacy.
Where his shoulder and left arm meet is a tattoo of a rat holding a syringe. "Lab rat," Bradley explains. "Because I am one."
Bradley likes to think of himself as a "good diabetic" who "does things right" — even though outside of studies, he never sees doctors. Every morning he wakes up at 5 a.m. and checks his blood sugar with a blood-sugar meter, then injects himself with both a shot of slow-release and a shot of fast-acting insulin so that he can eat breakfast. The slow-release insulin he's using expired in February. After breakfast, he goes to work. Because his job is labor-intensive, his blood sugar tends to go down, so he keeps a pack of Smarties candies on hand. He usually knows when his blood sugar is low because he begins feeling dizzy.
He takes another injection of fast-acting insulin over lunch, and another during his post-work snack. At 7 p.m., he injects a final shot of fast-acting insulin and eats dinner. Just before he goes to bed, he takes a shot of slow-release insulin.
All told, Bradley injects himself six times a day — assuming he doesn't have any reactions over the course of the day. Before each injection, he also pricks his finger to test his blood sugar (one test suffices for the first two injections of the morning).
Eagan estimates that the average diabetic spends thirty minutes a day managing the disease.
Bradley compares managing diabetes to an addiction. He calls art his "lifeline."
Art spills out of Bradley's kitchen into the rest of his one-bedroom apartment. A large, stained white table covered with prints dominates the living room; a fifty-pound tube of paper stands beside it. A wire-framed futon in the corner is also covered with prints and templates, as are the walls.
"If art is an organ, he lives inside of it. It's just everywhere — all over the walls, the fixtures, the bathtub," says Frank Serrano, manager of the Denver Book Fair and a former neighbor.
Bradley came up with his traffic-cone template technique after taking a week-long workshop on linocutting at Naropa University in the summer of 1998. Although the workshop focused on traditional materials like linoleum, after it was over, Bradley got creative. He looked for materials in dumpsters and at construction sites. He tried cutting baseboards and rubber fragments. While walking home one day in 1999, he came across a traffic cone. He touched the material, which was flexible but durable. It had to be: The cone sat out in the sun and dirt every day. It was perfect.
As a kid, Bradley enjoyed doodling — but his mother discouraged him from pursuing art. "I just drew in class, but it was very hush-hush," he remembers. "My mother just didn't see the point of that." It didn't help that Bradley was drawing naked people in late grade school, after he was diagnosed. He even got called into the principal's office.
It wasn't until 2005 that Bradley started taking his art seriously — very seriously. "It became compulsive that I draw, carve, press prints. It became really compulsive from that point on," he says. "It's as important as my insulin in keeping me here."
Even so, it wasn't until two years ago that he started posting his art. Though the website for the Kwiatkowski Press uses "we," it's definitely the royal "we." Bradley works by himself, often starting on his art as soon as he gets off his job in the afternoon and going until he gets tired, usually around 8 or 9 p.m. He's often awake by 1 or 2 a.m. — the best time to hit the streets, he says. The quiet solitude makes it his favorite time to post.
He has a long list of ethical guidelines for where to post — basically, he favors major health-care institutions over mom-and-pop operations. When a particularly juicy piece of real estate presents itself, though, he sometimes can't resist. There's one locally owned pharmacy on 18th Avenue that's particularly alluring. "I have nothing against this mom-and-pop pharmacy, but it had the right signage," he says. "Looks like it was made in the '60s and just said 'Pharmacy.'"
He has no ethical compulsions that prevent him from helping himself to cones — and he once got a ticket and a $110 fine for doing so. "Cutting down cones is a massacre on the material world," he says, "and putting them up on the structures of the gatekeepers are acts of defiance even though they are very small and subtle acts."
Except for his paint, Bradley gets all of his art materials for free. The cones come off the streets. A guy he knows who works for an architectural firm supplies him with rolls of paper. He even stole time for his art from his job at the Penwood Place Apartments, where a supervisor caught him carving traffic-cone templates. He wound up losing his job, but got it back last month when the older woman hired to replace him was unable to do the labor-intensive work.
"He's a joy to work with," says Tiffany Martelli, the Penwood's community manager. Although she hasn't seen much of his artwork, a friend tells her "he's brilliant."
"Within ten minutes of meeting him, you think, 'You're on something different,'" says Shores, who organized a show for Bradley at Newspeak. Bradley showed up with so much art that even after the walls were covered, there were still stacks in the back.
Fellow Newspeak artist Moeh Haywood describes Bradley's art as being deeply personal, but with a playful spin. "You talk to him and hear his stories, and you understand why he uses — maybe overuses — things like syringes," he says.
"It's kind of like guerrilla printmaking," Haywood adds, "and I like that aspect."
Bradley lets his art speak for itself — and himself.
Serrano and Bradley have known each other nearly three years. He'll "be the first to say, 'I don't know anything about you.' I'll say, 'Yeah, even though I've known my dad for 36 years, I still don't know anything about him,'" Bradley says. "And that's just the nature of our existence, I think. You never really know somebody. You do and you don't."
Brian Bradley's life is defined by his disease. He grew up in Arvada with a single mom and five siblings. Finances were tight. His father lived in west Denver, and the kids would see him regularly. He worked at Keebler and would bring them free treats he'd gotten from his job, Monica Bradley remembers, but Bradley couldn't eat them because of his disease.
"You don't really process something like that," he says. "You're told what to do and you just do it, or people do it for you. If you need an injection, they inject you with insulin. If you need sugar, they feed you sugar. It's kind of like an animal on a farm."
His sister remembers the change more starkly. "As a little kid, before he had diabetes, we would make mud pies together. We were just two years apart, so we were pretty good little buddies," Monica says. "When he got diabetes and was angry all the time, we'd get along to some degree, but him and I would just battle it out. And by battle, I mean I'd just beat the crap out of him." The fights stopped when she was sixteen and realized her brother was getting a little too big to fight.
Bradley got into fights with his mother, too. "It was a nightly ritual where, when my mom came home from work, you pretty much knew there would be a battle between the two," Monica says.
Most of those fights were over Bradley's diabetes: whether he was eating properly, if he was taking his insulin. Like many kids and teens diagnosed with type 1, Bradley refused to follow the steps necessary to manage his disease. That ended when he was sixteen and a serious reaction landed him in the hospital.
After that, Bradley began taking care of himself. He began watching what he ate, taking insulin shots and checking his blood sugar regularly. "I was trained this way, and I can't untrain myself," he says.
Bradley attended three high schools in the metro area but spent the most time at Abraham Lincoln, on South Federal Boulevard. "I didn't like the math, the science, the all-around eduction. I thought I should have been put into a trade school, something useful," he says.
After working odd jobs and taking classes at Front Range Community College, he enrolled in the creative writing program at Naropa University in 1998, and then signed up for the visual art program too. He left a year later without graduating from either program. "Higher education, as I see it, is pretty worthless," he says, adding that he was working on a book and "didn't see the point in being a student anymore."
He made money with labor-intensive jobs, such as groundskeeping and working as a fish processor in Alaska for a summer, a stint he describes as "constant misery."
In December 2001, Bradley met the woman he'd eventually marry, Mary Papp. They were living in the same apartment complex near Sloan's Lake. She had a big physical presence and a personality to match. Bradley calls her a performance artist because of her fondness for the dramatic.
She was also addicted to heroin, but that was part of her attraction. "I like being around sick people. I like being around drug addicts. I like being around fucked-up people," Bradley says. "There are characteristics of sick people that aren't in people who think they're healthy."
About a year later, Papp moved to be with her family in Florida — but Bradley kept talking to her on the phone, and she soon returned. "She just came here and kind of claimed me," he remembers. "She just claimed me."
They moved in together in December 2002.
"We were really happy when he had his girlfriend," Monica says. "She had her health problems as well, but she had also been a nurse. She was the first person that I ever saw who could get him to eat good food on a regular basis. And we all just really saw her as a blessing since he wasn't alone."
Bradley never gave her money for her habit, he says. Instead, she'd call her mother, who'd mail her a check.
They got married on September 16, 2005, so that Papp could take advantage of the insurance Bradley had through his maintenance job at the Denver Botanic Gardens. (He lost that job in 2009 after he reportedly threatened another employee.)
They divorced in 2007 when Papp realized that his insurance wouldn't cover treatment for the symptoms she experienced when coming down. Divorced, she could qualify for the Colorado Indigent Care Program.
But on July 10, 2008, Papp died of a heroin overdose.
"I think I love her more now than I did then," Bradley says.
Much of his art features her image. One piece shows a snarling woman with two syringes jutting into her face, one just above her brow and one just below, and the words "Saint Mary's Sink" written above her face. Papp died leaning in their kitchen sink. After she died, Bradley gave away the pots and pans she'd bought. "She never used them, of course, but she had this idea in her mind that they'd be there, just in case," he says.
Bradley began posting his art on July 10, 2009, on the one-year anniversary of Papp's death.
Today he lives alone in a Capitol Hill apartment with a six-month lease."I think we're all worried about him," Monica says.
Bradley's worried, too.
At his last meal of the day, he often eats more than he should, he says, because he fears his blood sugar might fall too low during the night. While high blood sugar is dangerous — and he has been waking up with higher-than-recommended sugar levels lately — low blood sugar is even worse. If he wakes up with high sugar, he can give himself an insulin injection. If his blood sugar falls too low, he might suffer a violent seizure.
Bradley estimates that he has ten to twenty insulin reactions every year. One was at his mother's birthday dinner in mid-July, when he became moody — a recognized symptom. First he picked a fight because the conversation over the table was too much "talk of the weather," he remembers. Then he became dizzy and stumbled around until he eventually laid on the floor. He tried to put words together, but they just came out a slurred garble.
After some Smarties, though, Bradley recovered and returned to his place as "the village idiot, making wisecracks and making people laugh," he says.
Bradley always carries a bottle of water, because diabetes makes you thirsty; it also makes you go to the restroom frequently. This phenomenon is well documented; that's why one nickname for the illness is "the pissing devil." Bradley uses that for an e-mail address.
He's thinking about changing his permanent address. "This climate doesn't suit me," he says of Denver. "I need somewhere that doesn't make me so aware of my condition." Monica lives in Seattle and has invited him to stay with her. But while Colorado's dry climate aggravates his symptoms, it also cures his prints quickly.
Bradley's also considered moving to Canada. Insulin was discovered in Toronto, a fact he notes in a novella posted on the Kwiatkowski Press site about a diabetic named Barry Hoften. And the promise of free health care is also alluring. But he hasn't figured out the logistics — visas, where to go, how to get there — and without contacts and a college degree, he doubts he could make a decent living. "I think about it a lot, but I don't act on it," he says. "I think I lack conviction. I lack courage."
On a sunny afternoon, Brian Bradley bikes around Capitol Hill to check on the prints he's put up. The first three are gone, and he agonizes as he stares at a pole where a poster once hung. He'd only put it up a few days earlier, and he liked the fact that it was facing Colorado Pharmacy on East Colfax Avenue. He thumbs the staples that once held the print to the pole.
"It's like being erased," he mutters.
Haywood sees two primary themes in Bradley's work: the autobiographical images and those of Frank the Prank, a much jokier, less genuine force. "I think there is a separation," Haywood says. "I don't know if that's his intent, but I see that."
Bradley admits that Frank Kwiatkowski is a slightly different persona. "Frank's better than I am," he says. "He can do things that I can't. It's what you aspire to be. It's what keeps the gears going."
Through Frank Kwiatkowski, Bradley is able to jump out of the reality of managing diabetes. "I think reality is a really dangerous place for me," he says. "Frank keeps my own self safe from reality."
And reality can be grim. "I am Frankenstein's monster," Bradley says. "There's something very supernatural about the state that I'm in."
Only science is keeping him alive, he explains: "You want to die, but they're not going to let you die. And they're telling you that it's wrong to die. And that they're going to keep you here. And why are we going to keep you here? Because we have this medicine."
Shortly before his wife died, he remembers, she told him, "I want you to stay here." He took that to mean both the apartment complex where they lived — he stayed, but moved into a smaller unit — and to stay alive. "I think if I had known she was going, I would have joined her," he says. "When you have to survive something like that, it motivates you — but I think she's still in me."
Bradley talks about Mark Twain, and how he was born and died under Halley's Comet. It was a sign, he says, and he's waiting for his. "It takes a lot of faith to end yourself," he says. "Kurt Cobain had the decency to die. I do not have the decency to die."
He's constantly fatigued these days and doesn't think his condition will improve. "I don't want to know if there's anything wrong with me, because if there is, that's the course of nature," he says. "I'm supposed to go out."
He hasn't had a thorough physical since high school. At the studies in which he participates, nurses rush through the motions — not that he wants them to be more thorough. "I have head issues these days," he says. "There might be something going on there, but I don't want to know. I just don't want to know."
But he wants those who see his art to know that there are problems with our health-care system. He acknowledges that his concerns have been spoken by louder voices, name-checking Michael Moore's Sicko. But he still thinks his work could resonate with someone.
"I do believe that if this goes on," he concludes, "I will leave a trace, a lipstick trace, of my existence."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Westword's biggest stories.
- Meet the Five Richest Coloradans
- American Guns Reality TV Star Rich Wyatt Indicted for Conspiracy and More
- Anne Marie Hochhalter: Moving Letter to Dylan Klebold's Mom About Columbine