Dog tales: Mysterious public art series uses frankfurters to make a point

Sketches of humanlike hot dogs making cultural commentary have been popping up around the City of Charlottesville since last summer. Image courtesy @stilts_walker Sketches of humanlike hot dogs making cultural commentary have been popping up around the City of Charlottesville since last summer. Image courtesy @stilts_walker

They appeared over the summer, three identical wheatpaste posters of anthropomorphic hot dogs in buns, wearing sneakers and pedaling unicycles as they exclaimed in speech bubbles, “Hot dog!”

One, pasted to the side of the raised parking lot between Market and South Streets, was gone after about a week, but the others—on Cherry Avenue and West Main Street, stuck around. And then more started to pop up.

“A hard rain’s gonna fall,” warns a hot dog holding an umbrella on the Dewberry hotel skeleton. “Lockheed Martin stock increased 3.6% today,” its twin hollers from the side of another downtown building. “Rise up,” insists one standing atop a pair of stilts. “Shred the gnar,” “no war but class war,” say two others on skateboards.

A few weeks ago, the images appeared on Instagram under the handle @stilts_walker, and this reporter saw it as an opportunity to catch up with the artist, Charlottesville’s hot dog Banksy, if you will.

I slid into @stilts_walker’s DMs, expecting the wurst (“no way, you weenie”). But the artist agreed to an interview on three conditions: One, that we link up in the old Chili’s parking lot. Two, that I mention the location of our meeting in this story. And three, that their identity remain anonymous.

Image courtesy @stilts_walker

As we sit in my car on a chilly January day, the artist is frank about how the sausage was made. “People should do the things they wish were happening. I wanted to see this happening, so I did it,” the artist says. “I thought a hot dog on a unicycle sounded fun. It’s ubiquitous…everyone can inherently understand the humor in an animated hot dog. And it’s easy to draw, fast.”

“I initially didn’t plan on doing more than one,” @stilts_walker continues. “I had some supplies and a few free hours, so I threw it together and didn’t give much thought to continuing the project or doing new things, new adaptations.”

At the same time, the artist understands the influence art and culture can have in shaping movements, particularly progressive movements. Could an anthropomorphic hot dog help shape a movement, even in a small way? The artist believes it can. The character can be adapted into a variety of situations, and more than one dimension (at least conceptually speaking…the posters are 2-D), and it can say just about anything. “The things that are being expressed in these speech bubbles are things that a lot of people are thinking about all the time, so why wouldn’t the hot dog also be thinking about them? It seemed like a way to, in a fairly non-aggressive manner, communicate some pretty blunt ideas and ideologies,” says the artist, who’s incorporated social and political commentary into some of the posters (i.e., “Rise up”).

A couple weeks ago, the artist pasted up a hot dog riding a hobby horse in the CAT bus shelter on Market Street directly across from the Robert E. Lee statue in Market Street Park. The illustration humorously mocks the statue, but the speech bubble’s no joke: “That’s racist,” this hot dog said.

This particular poster, pasted in the CAT bus shelter on Market Street directly across from the Robert E. Lee statue, was removed within hours of its appearance. Image courtesy @stilts_walker

That particular poster disappeared only a few hours after it went up, but the artist isn’t jumping to conclusions about why it was removed. It may or may not have been a statue supporter who took it down, the artist says. “It could very well just be the reality that a bus driver sees something and reports it, and perhaps Charlottesville Area Transit has a reputation for quickly addressing graffiti concerns on their property.”

The artist (or artists…there may be more than one hot dogger out there) hopes the wheatpaste posters can inspire, or at least pique the curiosity of Charlottesville’s citizens. “It’s no earth-shattering or groundbreaking act,” the artist says of the work. “But I do strongly believe that culture, and having a vibrant, creative underbelly in a city is critical to maintaining [that city’s] cultural identity. And I would like that identity to be progressive and welcoming and friendly, and fun.”

And by doing this anonymously, @stilts_walker isn’t just watching their buns. That anonymity injects a much-needed element of curiosity into the city. People (including some Charlottesville city councilors) regularly post their own pics of the hot dog posters to social media, expressing surprise and delight over the project that began on a playful whim and has evolved into something quite engaging. Some folks have even sent the artist fan art.

Image courtesy @stilts_walker

Going forward, the series creator plans to play around with the poster illustrations, text, and context in order to keep Charlottesville on its toes and in conversation with whatever these hot dogs have to say.

“In a small-ish town like Charlottesville, where it’s easy to feel like you know everything about everything, having a little mysterious whimsy enter your day, enter your life, is exciting,” says the artist. The hot dogs give us something to relish.

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