acitivist, advocacy, Advocate, artist, culture, gang banging, gang members, hope, inspiration, mental health, mental illness, mentally ill, Pope Francis, stereotypes, stereotyping, street art, tattoo, writers, writing
There are a lot of young and beautiful women who have a mental illness and keep up a blog. I have read on some of those women’s sites that people have often said to them, “You can’t have a mental illness. You don’t look like you have a mental illness.” That statement bothers all of the women I have seen write about it, and it bothers me. What does someone with a mental illness look like? We all know we come in every shape, size, gender and color.
Although having an idea in your head of what people with mental illnesses look like bothers me, I was reminded this weekend that I do a similar thing to other people.
I am afraid of men who I think look like gang bangers. If a young man has tattoos on his neck and face, a shaved head, and wears long, baggy, hanging off the butt pants, my first inclination is to not catch his eyes and to move away from him. Why? Because of the stories I have heard from the media and from movies about what gang bangers do.
Do I know any gang members? I do not. Do I know any young men with tattoos on their faces and necks and that wear that type of clothing I described? I don’t.
This weekend at the resort casino my husband took me to we were sitting by the pool having a discussion about racism, discrimination, mentalism, and psychophobia. We were talking about the words and their meanings and how writers (who I call culture changers like all other artists) can change the words we use, and change how we see and perceive certain things – one thing we were talking about was how popular Pope Francis is but I know a writer who continually writes articles about his stance on gay marriage and women. While most of my social media is lit up with images of the Pope laughing with President Obama, this writer is taking swings at him because she doesn’t want us to forget that no matter how liberal and lovable the current Pope is, he still doesn’t completely include everyone as equals.
We also talked about book banning in our public schools and how sensitive kids are today with the fact that they need trigger warnings for almost all difficult topics – topics we read about in the classics we studied in school without any protection or warning. The classics were simply a part of our education. While we were talking my husband looked at two men sitting next to us, and asked one of the men, “Hey, are you an artist?”
He said, “Yes, and I have been listening to your conversation. I agree with you about artists changing culture.”
Then he proceeded to tell us about his life as a gang member in the 90’s in Los Angeles. He was a street artist and he told us the history of tagging streets and creating real pieces of art in public spaces (he said the only spaces you could paint on without getting beat up were abandoned buildings, trains, freeway overpasses, and a few others – it was a code you lived by, or possibly died by. Private property was off limits).
He was a lovely man, and we exchanged business cards. He got out of the gang world some years ago and became a manager at Home Depot and raised his girlfriend’s kids. Now that the kids are in college, he is back to doing art. He does tattoo work, and people commission him to do portraits of their loved ones and pets. He was an interesting, smart, talented, and nice person.
He used to be a gang banger, and I never would have known that unless he told me.
I need to take my own irritation at people for the stereotypes they have about people with mental illnesses and check that irritation at the door, because I have stereotypes floating around in my world about people too – stereotypes I picked up from the media and movies just like people do about schizophrenia.
Next time I see a young man with tattoos, a bald head, and baggy pants hanging off his butt, I’ll think about Luis, the artist, who was interested in our conversation about artists changing and influencing culture.
We can change and influence culture too. Write and speak your truth, it just may change the stereotypes someone is hanging on to, and that can change the world, one mind at a time.