Understanding more than just about anyone else on the planet that drag queens are comic book superheroes, David Ayllon is thus one of nightlife’s most renown and in-demand professionals in photography and graphic design. Local queens and Drag Race All-Stars alike have him on speed dial. Married to drag divinity Pissi Myles, David is about to make his gallery exhibition debut in Long Island, and the opening featuring performances by Pissi and a bunch of other incredible queens shall be the epic out-of-the-city event of the season!
Thotyssey: David, hello and thanks for talking to us! I imagine you must be pretty busy preparing for the gallery show next Saturday. How’s it all going?
David Ayllon: I wish I could say it’s more or less ready, but there’s definitely more to be done! The pieces just got finished printing yesterday, so I’ll need to bring them to the gallery, plus I’ll need to name them… which will be another stressful activity!
I can imagine! This would be the first gallery showing of your work, right?
Congrats and wow!
Before we delve into this incredible career and event of yours, let’s get into some background tidbits for the children! I understand you’re a Long Island native who grew up in Jersey?
Yeah! Well, I’ve probably spent half my life in both places at this point. I grew up on Long Island in Freeport until I was about 15, and then I moved right before junior year of high school with my family to New Jersey. I went to undergrad in Jersey as well, so I ended up sticking around.
The show is actually in Baldwin, a town over from Freeport. I also actually went to Catholic school in Baldwin (a short walk from the gallery!)
Perfect symmetry! So James Michael Avance just won a GLAM for Best Photographer this past weekend, and I recall when I interviewed him a few months ago that he cited your work as a big inspiration and influence on his own.
I love James! He’s such a sweetheart, and I was so happy when I heard he won.
He described your work as being very comic book-oriented and larger than life, and I definitely see that. Have comics been a strong influence on your photography and other art?
Yes, comics are a HUGE inspiration in my entire life. When I was a kid, I just wanted to be an artist, so I would constantly draw using comic books as reference (especially Batman). The big personalities, alter-egos, and spandex are a lot of the same reasons I used to love wrestling as a kid as wel–and now why I love drag.
It’s kind of funny how all of those characteristics transfer over from hyper-masculine art forms into hyper-feminine artforms. It’s all very performative, which is the fun part. I never liked who I was growing up. I was shy, chubby, and weird. But the idea that you can create a better version of you from scratch was very appealing.
I agree with the whole “drag queens are superheroes dynamic.” Particularly the X-Men… champions of the outcasts! Storm is basically an actual drag queen. I wish the movies got her right!
I KNOW! I remember a long time before the first X-Men movie came out, some magazine made some cast speculations and picked Storm to be played by Angela Basset. I STILL think she would be the best Storm of all time.
That would have been perfect!
So, did you begin with drawing and painting before you found photography and graphic design?
Yeah, illustration was my first love. I stumbled across a copy of Photoshop in high school and it blew my mind! There’s just so much you can do. I’m STILL learning new tricks. I went to school for graphic design, and that’s been pretty much my entire career before three years ago–including teaching as an adjunct design professor.
Photography came into the picture thanks to graduate school, which I’m still currently in. We had a project where we weren’t allowed to use stock photography, so I got a cheap lighting kit off Amazon and did my best. My now-husband Pissi Myles was just starting drag at the time, and I used him as my model. I fell in love with it very quickly. It’s not something I ever considered before that, because cameras always intimidated me. “So many buttons! So many settings! What’s an F-stop!?”
How did you ultimately start shooting other queens?
It all came very naturally. I had been so laser-focused and career driven when it came to graphic design. I was like, “SCHOOL. CAREER. SKILLS. MONEY.” So it was a very conscious decision to pursue photography as something fun and organic. After shooting Pissi for a long time for show flyers and promos, our other performer friends asked for some photos…and then more friends, and so on.
The big turning point was when Bob the Drag Queen asked me to take some photos, which resulted in the drippy neon photo in the upcoming gallery show. Pissi and I had known Bob for a while before Drag Race, so it really didn’t occur to me that the photo would get SO much visibility. From there it really gave me the opportunity to reach out to other queens I’d wanted to work with.
Your stagings are highly creative–and sometimes a little bonkers–but always so fun.
BONKERS! Best compliment ever.
Praise of the highest order! Is your subject’s personality usually the basis for your ideas, or do some ideas pre-exist and your just looking for the right match to see your vision through?
It’s a mix of both. A lot of times the queens themselves have built such fully realized personas, that it becomes very easy to just build a world around them that works well. Sometimes I’ll have the inkling for an idea, but it won’t really come together until I have a queen that matches. For example, I had access to a coffin, but I didn’t have any queens that felt right to use it for until Sasha Velour and I began discussing working together for the first time. Then it clicked, and a bunch of ideas spiraled from there. It eventually led to another idea with a broke down hearse with her and Lee VaLone!
Trixie Mattel on the phone lying that pile toys is probably one of your best known images.
Yes! That one is absolutely one of my favorites, and one of the most terrifying, hahaha!
In general, what’s been your all-time favorite shooting experience?
Whenever I shoot with my husband Pissi, it’s always fun because we’re completely ridiculous. I also love shooting with Peaches Christ because she’s so much fun to work with. Our relationship started by me doing design work for her and now I’m able to do photography for her as well (when she’s on the East Coast). And she has the BEST stories.
Pissi works all over the tri-state area and is a high demand entertainer… is it difficult to keep your schedules from conflicting? Especially when you throw your grad student workload into the mix.
It can be very difficult sometimes. It’s so cheesy, but it helps to plan “date nights” so we can be SURE to keep everything on the calendar. He inspires my work so much, and I’m lucky to be part of all the exciting projects he’s doing, too. I can go into “crazy stage mom” mode though, so sometimes I have to check myself, hahaha!
It was so stressful thinking of a name, haha! I ended up calling it “Guise” because of it’s double meaning. Like we were saying earlier about comic book heroes: the idea of living a double life and having a secret identity is something I’ve always identified with as a queer person. I see a lot of these drag queens and kings as the closest thing to real-life superheroes. But instead of their alter-ego being their drag personas, I often consider their “normal” selves as the disguise. In the same way Superman had to invent Clark Kent just to fit into the world. Through these self-made creations, they can become a truer representation of themselves.
Also, the double-meaning if you say it out loud (GUYS! Get it? Sometimes I think I’m clever)/
OMG genius! And these pieces are from your entire study of shooting drag queens?
Yeah! Since I’ve never done a show before, and a lot of these photos mean so much to me, I wanted to have a chance to show them off first. But now that I’m putting this show together, I’ve had SO many ideas for future shows in the past couple of weeks!
That’s probably the power of seeing all the pieces in one room!
And I understand there will be some huge performers there at the gallery for opening night?
I’m contractually obligated to say that Pissi Myles is the biggest. But there’ll also be our friends Kari Kerning, Sherry Pie and Jiggly Caliente.
An amazing cast! How long will the exhibit run for?
It’ll run from February 3 through March 10.
Anything else to discuss?
This show is definitely taking up a good chunk of my days, so if I survive February 3rd I’ll keep you posted on my next project!
Yazzz! Okay, so okay, in closing: if Pissi and yourself had superpowers, what would they be? And would you be heroes or villains?
I think we’d be villains because it’s just more fun. And Pissi says she’d have a hightened sense of smell, so she’d able to detect a food truck from a mile away. I would probably want super-speed so I have more time to make cool stuff!
Watch out for these fabulous evildoers, world! Thanks again David, and have a great opening!
David Ayllon’s exhibit “GUISE” opens at the PO’P Gallery in Baldwin, NY on February 3rd, and shows there through March 10th. Follow David on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and check out his website which includes a store.