JoJo Baby :: Chicago’s queerest dollmaker poised for prominence

by Joseph Erbentraut

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 30, 2011

While Chicago-based queer performance artist and dollmaker JoJo Baby is a household name on the Windy City nightlife scene, known for his elaborately dark and bizarre costumes and creations, his profile has, to date, been somewhat restricted to the Midwest.

But when horror filmmaker Clive Barker met JoJo Baby (nee Joe Arguellas) in late 2006 in his studio space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building, at the corner of North and Milwaukee, one of queer Chicago's best-kept secrets appeared destined to go global. Barker expressed interest in producing a documentary centered on the artist's life and creations and JoJo Baby obliged. The filming by co-directors Mark Danforth and Dana Buning began shortly after and the feature-length film eventually debuted, last fall, at Reeling 2010, the 29th Chicago Lesbian and Gay International Film Festival.

Though the film was a hit there, placing second in the festival competition's documentary category, JoJo Baby, the film, has yet to go global. The film's promoters have reportedly struggled to gain entry into other festivals or a distribution deal. And meanwhile, JoJo Baby, the artist, continues to take queer Chicago by storm with his outlandishly ornate creations that can be seen regularly at Berlin Nightclub, the Green Dolphin Street club and often on stage when performers like Peaches come into town.

Prior to a screening at the Chicago Cultural Center of the doc, EDGE caught up with the nightlife legend, still in the midst of choosing an outfit to don for the event, about how his life and his art have changed since the Barker-directed feature premiered.

Why no distributor?

EDGE: When your documentary debuted at the Reeling Film Festival last fall, it was well-received, placing second in the documentary category. Was that response vindicating for you? Were you surprised?

JoJo Baby: It was amazing because you never think when you meet one of your heroes [Barker] they're going to like you and want to share you with the world. That is still too much to contemplate.

EDGE: Taking a look at the film's Facebook page, it has fans from all over the world commenting, including someone in Cologne, Germany who says you're "all the rage" there. That must be a bit surreal to hear.

JB: I didn't know that, that's kind of funny. My mentor Greer Lankton said that when she did a show in Vienna once, she had no idea she was as popular as she was. She got off the train and people were there holding up banners and screaming for her like she was a rock star. I was hoping I would get to tour with the movie, but that has not happened.

EDGE: Why do you think the film hasn't been picked up by more festivals or gotten a distributor interested as of yet, even with Clive's participation?

JB: I think it all has to deal with the penis. People are afraid. It's shocking that in this day and time a penis can hold things back, but it's not going to stop me from doing erotic art. I love it. I'm really just sharing parts of my friends that don't get to be admired on a daily basis.

Much more to say

EDGE: Do you keep in touch with Clive?

JB: I haven't spoken to him in a little over a year now, which is kind of sad. I haven't spoken to anybody really from the whole film crew.

EDGE: Do you think you'll work with him again?

JB: I don't know. I'm only a phone call away and this all started because of him. I gave him a shirt made by the Hmong people of Indonesia and told him I thought this was the closest I would ever get to his body. He loved the shirt and asked if I would do costumes for his movie. After seeing my gallery, he decided he wanted to do the documentary. There's a chance he still might work with me for costumes some day.

EDGE: Was it difficult for you to open up to the filmmaking process? Were there any times you had to tell the camera people to turn away?

JB: I didn't want to hold back and wanted to be an open book. Now that it's over, though, I feel like there's so much more that I want to say. The producers said that can be for a sequel.

EDGE: It does sound like you've gotten to take on a few new project, perhaps aided by the additional exposure the film has given you.

JB: Yes, I just got a phone call yesterday from the Revolting Cocks who want me to dance on stage when they perform here in April. I've already danced on stage for Peaches and recently did something for Lords of Acid when they played the Cubby Bear. There have been weird little things like that.

EDGE: When you watch the film, how does it make you feel? Do you enjoy seeing it?

JB: It's very sad to me. Now everybody knows the pain that I don't show on a daily basis. I still mourn the loss of my mother and Greer. Greer has been dead for 14 years now and I still miss her like it was yesterday. I was just watching the documentary on Nan Goldin, "I'll Be Your Mirror," and getting to hear Greer's voice in that is almost too much. I'm sorry this isn't the happiest of interviews.

EDGE: It's fine! Do you know what you'll be wearing for the screening yet?

JB: I still don't know what I'll be wearing, it'll be a shock. A lot of times when I'm out now, people call me Lady Gaga. It's like every time you're a little weird people have to put you in a box and label you whereas before I was Dennis Rodman's girlfriend.

A favorite doll?

EDGE: Really? How did you meet Dennis? You did his hair, right?

JB: I met him at Shelter Nightclub and asked him if I could do his hair. He said, "What does a white boy like you know about hair?" and I just walked away from him. He came up to me at another event later on and knew me at this point. He asked who had done the hair for the show, I had and he asked if I could do that to him.

He sent a car for me when I was working at Milio's [Hair Studio] and we drove out to Deerfield where he was living then. I walked in the door, he stripped completely nude and I said, "I'm here to do your hair!" That man is a horse in every manner of the word. It was fun to do his hair -- there was many a time where I had his ass up in the air and his head down in a bathtub rinsing color out of his head.

EDGE: Out of all the dolls and toys you've created, do you have any particular favorites?

JB: I wouldn't say it out loud inside the gallery in front of another doll!

EDGE: I understand you use a lot of found items in your creations -- what have been some of the perhaps stranger sources of material that you've used?

JB: I know this is going to sound funny, but the homeless people outside are always asking for money and I ask them to give me something I can use since I know a lot of them go dumpster diving. So I've bought human teeth off of the homeless, baby teeth, peoples' pubic hair and beards for various projects. Usually everything that's come to my door has been worthwhile for incorporating into my dolls.

I used horse teeth in one doll that I got from a pow-wow. My mother is Lakota Sioux and I got a whole tray of teeth there. I had been using cardboard for that before, but I put those teeth in and ended up with a better smile. Everything can have a second or third life.

EDGE: Another article recently compared you to Miss Havisham from 'Great Expectations' -- do you go out too much without getting fully dressed up as you so often are on the nightlife circuit?

JB: I think people have gotten so used to me dressing up that it's hard to go out and not be dressed up. A lot of friends try to get me to go out to clubs just dressed normally and it's hard for me because I don't feel like I look interesting enough to hold anyone's attention. I know that sounds weird, but that's me.

EDGE: Was it difficult to make the move from your more prominent space in the front of the Flat Iron building to a less visible space recently? I understand your landlord was bumping up the rent.

JB: My landlord said my work was not commercially viable for the front corner anymore so I was forced to the back end of the third floor. Not that many people come up to see me anymore which is kind of funny as I'm just trying to put the gallery back together now. I have only been up here maybe five months and people are shocked at the amount of work I've already done to try and make the gallery survive. The Art Institute brings students up here to show students an example of how people collect art which is pretty crazy.

EDGE: Beyond the documentary, what are your goals for the coming months?

JB: I've put it out into the universe that I would like to have a house donated to me. I know that sounds kind of weird, but I'd love to be able to not only have art on the inside but make the house a piece of art as well to have something to give back to the community if something was to happen to me.

But I still work on a lot of different pieces. I'm working on a zombie right now and an outfit that's going to be made solely of found objects. I can't work on just one piece at a time because I don't want to have to force the work. I want there to always be love that I put into my art and if I start to feel like I'm slacking or forcing it, I let the project rest.

To find out if JoJo Baby is scheduled to screen in your area or to learn more about JoJo, visit the film's website for more information.

Joseph covers news, arts and entertainment and lives in Chicago. He is the assistant Chicago editor for The Huffington Post. Log on to to read more of his work.