The day before Election Day in Times Square, the sunlight faded in a canyon of skyscrapers, and a few locals moved along the sidewalks. With wind gusts above 40 mph, Tootsie Warhol couldn’t feel his orange-tinged fingers as he handed out flyers that read “MAKE AMERICA SMART AGAIN!” along with his Instagram handle.
A construction worker shouted, “Loser! Get a job!” Warhol pivoted to hand flyers to pair of masked women. “How much to take a picture?” one asked “No money,” Warhol replied, as he waved them into the frame. “Just tag me on Instagram. And TikTok! I am beating Trump on TikTok That’s why he’s trying to ban it!”
How did a former civil-rights attorney and prosecutor of domestic-violence crimes, with degrees from University of Virginia and Brooklyn Law School, wind up spending months in public wearing a pillow, an extra-long red tie, a blonde wig and orange face paint?
“I had a meeting with President Trump in 2017,” says Warhol, 35. “And it changed my life.”
That meeting is well chronicled: It took place the week of Trump’s inauguration, when Warhol, whose legal name is Theodore Mukamal, visited Trump Tower along with such civil-rights leaders as Martin Luther King III. At the meeting, which Warhol secretly tape recorded, Trump discussed how he had benefited from lower turnout among Black voters. “Many Blacks didn’t go out to vote for Hillary because they liked me,” Trump said then. “That was almost as good as getting their vote, you know, and it was great.” Warhol attended the meeting as the chief of staff for the Drum Major Institute, a pro-democracy group led by Martin Luther King III.
Warhol was appalled. “My father fled religious persecution in Iraq and came to America in 1950,” he recalls. His father, a lifelong advocate for immigrant rights, testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 1978. “Immigration is the story of my family, and that’s why it hurt me so personally when Donald Trump launched his campaign infamously saying, ‘They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.’”
A Hillary Clinton voter in 2016, he “sat back and watched our country melt down,” he remembers. “After coming face to face with the man who openly bragged about sexually assaulting women and who calls global warming ‘an expensive hoax,’ I had to hit the streets and do something.” He left the law career to pursue his passion as an artist. He chose the name “Tootsie” because of his love for Tootsie Rolls, and “Warhol” because he admires the artist, Andy Warhol.
He debuted his anti-Trump satirical alter-ego at the Whitney Museum of American Art, after becoming frustrated when the museum included no works about Trump in its 2017 Biennial, although the museum’s marquee show regularly displays contemporary political artwork. (The museum declined to comment.)
In August 2019, having surveyed the next Biennial and calculated that less than 1% of the show directly addressed Trump, Warhol began a two-month performance that he staged inside the building. “Making the Biennial Great Again.”
He respects Whitney’s curators, he says, “but not including Donald Trump was like having a contemporary art show during the Vietnam War without mentioning the Vietnam War.”
Warhol was spending his days working at a Midtown law firm and his nights and weekends moonlighting as a satirical Trump at the Whitney, first in the galleries, then outside.
His law firm didn’t know about his art performance.
“August and September are no picnic in New York City,” Warhol noted. “The humidity and heat are brutal, especially when you’re in a wool suit with a cheap wig on your head and a pillow attached to your chest.”
“Tootsie brought in an arsenal of research from hours of painstakingly studying the character whose persona he would take on,” said Monica King, whose Tribeca gallery, Monica King Contemporary, has represented a broad roster of artists, including Tootsie Warhol. “He would become someone else to make the world confront that figure, via an immediate and shockingly one-on-one context.”
Soon after ending his performances at the Whitney, Warhol, a bachelor living in Queens, left the practice of law, bent on becoming a performance artist. He acknowledges the challenges, especially during a pandemic.
He has since launched another counter-Trump campaign. Though he supported and voted for Joe Biden, he filed with the FEC to run for president in a satirical candidacy meant to engage voters on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok and also through performances in Central Park and at Black Lives Matter protests.
Having joined social media in August 2019, Tootsie has a modest following of around 547 on TikTok and 1,188 on Instagram; some of his YouTube videos have very few views. Tootsie says that he is focused on building his online audiences to surpass that of Donald Trump. Even though his followers are few, he is proud of the engagement.
His months-long performance “MAKE AMERICA SMART AGAIN!” culminated with daily performances in Times Square this fall.
“People shout things at me as if I really were Donald Trump,” he recounts. “I get the F-word a lot.”
And with Trump on his way out, Tootsie says he will keep trying to improve his craft and staging performances about climate change, while living on savings he earned as an attorney and selling his physical art for a living.
About the author(s)
Remmy Bahati is a multimedia journalist covering Brooklyn for NY City Lens and a graduate student at Columbia Journalism School in New York City. Prior to Joining Columbia, she served as a United States Correspondent for television stations in Africa. She also served as a political and investigative reporter for NBS Television attached to the Ugandan Parliament. A television producer, video editor and writer, she has contributed to Columbia News Service, New York Times, TRT World and Citizen TV. In 2017, she was nominated to be a youth delegate to the United Nations. Twitter: @BahatiRemmy