Illboard: A diabetic artist takes to the streets

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.

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jenny An
Contact: Jenny An