Mingering Mike will be the subject of a 2015 retrospective at the Smithsonian American Art Gallery, which is planning to display over 100 artifacts of superstar soul artist, the result of a major acquisition made by the institute this year. If the name ‘Mingering Mike’ isn’t ringing a bell for you, you’re not alone – although he produced a prolific catalog between 1968 and 1979, Mingering Mike remained unknown to the world until about a decade ago. No, we are not trying to spit some pretentious hipsterisms to you – you’ve probably never heard of him because he doesn’t actually exist, except in the mind of the self-taught artist who created him – a man known simply to the public as Mike Stevens. As a teenager, Stevens (who still wishes to retain a level of anonymity for his job’s sake) created a massive catalog of colorful hand-painted album covers, cardboard records and 45s, and film soundtracks for his famous soul-singing alter ego, Mingering Mike. Over the span of his (imagined) career, Mingering Mike recorded albums for record labels such as Fake Records, Sex, and Mother Goose – and even a live benefit concert for Sickle Cell Anemia research. The only thing is most of the music – and the fame that came with it – didn’t actually exist, and the majority of the catalog remained locked in a storage unit for the decades to come. The Smithsonian writes,
The lines between reality and fantasy are fluid in this body of work—commercially produced tapes with Mingering Mike’s fabricated labels mingle with tapes and demo records holding his original music; made–up reviews supposedly written by real musicians (such as James Brown) dot the covers, and recordings are stamped with claims of having been made live in D.C. venues such as the Howard Theatre.
Fast forward to 2003, when cratedigger and writer Doni Hagar happened to stumble upon a few pieces of Mingering Mike’s work at a D.C. flea market. After realizing the albums were created by the same artist – the works contained intricately layered references to each other, all essential pieces to the imaginary career built by Stevens – Hagar decided to track down Mingering Mike, and now manages the artist’s collection. Over the past decade, the Mingering Mike collection of folk art has been a part of several group installations, including the 2010 exhibition The Record: Contemporary Art and VINYL that made its way from the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University to several other major institutions across the country. In the meantime, Hagar has released a book of Mingering Mike’s work and the story of the two finding each other. Despite (or perhaps, because of) being a work of fiction, the resulting reclaimed body of art and recorded music is a fascinating and heartfelt look at one teenager’s experience growing up in a centerpoint of black soul music at the height of its popular reign.
On a personal level, the work of Mingering Mike reveals the fantasies and concerns of any young man of his circumstance: broken hearts; life in the ghetto; kung fu flicks. But as hip-hop artists and fans are well aware, the questions raised by the work of marginalized people becoming accepted and celebrated by the mainstream are many. In the world of outsider art, to be recognized by an institution as venerable as the Smithsonian represents not only a major coup for the underdog, but also a challenge to one’s status as an “outsider” once the establishment takes notice. As a young black man growing up in the ghettos of Washington, DC in the 60s and 70s, the life a young Mike Stevens wished for himself may not have seemed so readily accessible. Through his work as Mingering Mike, Stevens was able to create a parallel universe where he achieved the success imagined by the countless black youth like himself across hood America. So how does his status as an “outsider” change, now that his work has become the celebration of one of the biggest art institutions of the world? And what does it mean for an artist whose work emerges from the poor, urban black experience in America to make it big – when that same artist can’t fully celebrate his own success for fear of losing his job?
We’ll let you ponder on that while you take a look at our gallery of Mingering Mike’s greatest hits – and be sure to view the full collection at The Smithsonian in 2015, where it will run from February 6 – July 26.