Catch ‘Em All: Can A Pokémon Tournament Be An Artwork?


A Los Angeles artist named Johnnie JungleGuts lounged on a folding chair in the middle of a tent last Saturday at the tail end of the Great Summer Pokémon Festival. He had just stepped off stage after performing “This Charmander,” a cover version of the 1984 song “This Charming Man,” by English cult favorite The Smiths. The title of his cover refers to one of the Pokémon characters. DJs from pirate radio station KCHUNG—which was included in the Made in L.A. biennial at the Hammer Museum and in which JungleGuts is a very active member—continued to provide the soundtrack for the afternoon. It all happened in the backyard of the alternative art space Chin’s Push, in L.A.’s Highland Park neighborhood.

Pokémon is first and foremost a Japanese video game, originally released for Nintendo’s Game Boy in 1996, and, at one point in the day, the backyard was full of “trainers”—mostly but not exclusively children—silently staring into their wirelessly linked Nintendo 3DS handheld gaming systems, battling one another, their thumbs twiddling at absurd rates. In the game, a sentient washing machine named Wash Rotom, for instance, sends thunderbolts at Slurpuff, who looks like a cupcake, to try to make it “faint” (the euphemism for Poké death). Players wore Pikachu T-shirts and traded rare playing cards. Decorating all the walls of the cramped, carpeted space were JungleGuts’s quickly brushed but very accurate depictions of the 700-plus Pokémon characters. Paintings were $5 a pop.

JungleGuts (given name John Martin) has organized this kind of thing many times before—cracked, inclusive versions of what are usually highly produced competitions organized strictly for kids, and which don’t usually feature rap music. The recent World Championships in mid-August in Washington, D.C., was a classy affair, complete with TV announcers. The D.I.Y. Pokémon tournaments JungleGuts started while a student at CalArts in 2010—as a guerilla addendum to another student’s project—are more likely to have buckets of beer for the adults and concerned parents watching over their kids as they partake in the chaotic festivities. A few parents have even asked for their money back.

Since the early CalArts tourneys, JungleGuts has hosted unsanctioned competitions among the Chris Burden streetlamps at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and in the Robert Irwin-designed garden at Malibu’s Getty Museum, where 200 people showed up. The museum staff happened upon the tournament but let it carry on. “Both of those spaces look like Pokémon environments!” JungleGuts exclaimed. The Hammer Museum even gave him permission to host a tournament last year, complete with panel discussions.

Back at Chin’s Push, to the left of JungleGuts was a spent juicer, surrounded by the scattered remnants of “Hyper Potion” and “Max Potion” juices. Behind him, Feed Us Fund Us (FUFU), a culinary nonprofit, had set up a station for serving the Japanese rice foodstuff known as onigiri. More vendors lined the backyard area—21-year-old Cindy Flores worked hard designing custom Pokémon keychains from Perler beads (the kind you iron to fuse together) for her entrepreneurial Pika Shop (“We have a Hotmail,” she told A.i.A.); a wild-eyed and even-wilder-haired middle-aged woman named Tina Belmont looked out from behind a stand selling her Pokémon-game-and-Japanese-culture-inspired chiptune music; a father-daughter duo sold handmade Pokémon and Sailor Moon bottle openers.

Fergus, 11, stood nearby with his family. His favorite Pokémon is Empoleon, a character that looks like a penguin warlord. “It’s emperor mixed with Napoleon,” he said when asked how to spell it. Well, of course.

What is it about Pokémon that entices the Ferguses of the world to stick it out at the sweltering gallery in furthest Northeast Los Angeles? “It’s unique,” he said. “You catch the animals and then you fight them.” It’s the same way they’ve been doing for nearly 20 years.

JungleGuts is on to something. “I love the intersection of scenes,” he said, pointing out young artists like Michael Dopp, Aaron Wrinkle and Michael Decker standing next to 11-year-olds.

JungleGuts says he never stopped playing Pokémon, but he did stop making art until recently. “I was paralyzed,” he said about entering the world after CalArts as an artist. “Then my boyfriend said, ‘Just draw every Pokémon.'” JungleGuts’s career trajectory has partly resulted from childhood exposure to the environmentalist politics that characterize the game and that are also a common thread in Japanese manga and animé. He’s volunteered as a big cat handler at an animal refuge in Bolivia, worked with marine biologists on a tracking system for bottle-nosed dolphins in the Bahamas and had an artist’s residency at Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary in Idaho.

But above all, JungleGuts said he does the tournaments to bring people together.

“I’m mostly into the fans,” said JungleGuts. “They have a sense of wonder about something that exists.”

But aren’t Pokémon something that doesn’t actually exist?

“While Pokémon may be digital,” JungleGuts argues, “you use them to interact with other people, so they’re still real, and that’s confusing in a way that’s really exciting and scary to me.”