SocietyApril 2, 2024

The sanitary pad painter saga that’s dividing the online art community


A prolific local painter has sparked heated debate among New Zealand amateur artists about what is ‘real’ art, and whether their paintings are all one big prank. Gabi Lardies investigates.

Editor’s note: The subject of this story chose not to comment on the events outlined in this article. We’ve chosen not to identify them by name, and have redacted their name from the comments reproduced below.

A Facebook group feed largely filled with drawings of cats, paintings of flowers and watercolour beach scenes was interrupted in early March by a 1,069 word post. It was a diatribe about how one artist in the group had been treated, and a manifesto on art and creativity. “Art, by its very definition, should surprise, shock, challenge, delight, disgust, unsettle, create discussion, and if you are very lucky, create heated debate!”, it read. The hashtags at the bottom included #fkthoseguys, #shakeuptheboringbastards and #morepadart.

The post was in response to negative comments about the artist in question that were posted in another, larger Facebook group. It said that “the verbal attacks she has received from fellow artists who should know better is unacceptable and cannot be ignored”. As of publication, the post has 39 comments – about 39 more than an average post in the group. Some of the comments are multiple paragraphs long, but none of them are from the artist whose paintings inspired the post.

That person has stayed quiet, and simply kept posting her acrylic paintings prolifically; a new one appears every few days. There’s Brad Pitt in loose peach and purple strokes; an octopus with pale suckers over a tangle of colours; a New Zealand coastal landscape, its hills a dusky pink. 

But it’s not the painting technique or the artist’s choice of subject that has people up in arms. It’s what’s beneath the paint itself. Behind the brush strokes, on every canvas, unfolded and stuck squarely in the centre, is a winged sanitary pad.

Two masterful acrylic paintings, complete with sanitary pads.

It’s been half a century since American artist Judy Chicago installed the groundbreaking Menstruation Bathroom, in which bloody pads hung from a clothes line and overflowed from a rubbish bin. Since then, other feminist artists have used materials thought by some to be obscene, including  Tracey Emin and her infamous installation My Bed, complete with used condoms, which she exhibited at the Tate Gallery in 1999. The same year, New Zealand artist Judy Darragh covered posters in semen-like white drips in her show Lovesongs ’till Midnight. 

The latest saga of art vs decency began in March last year, when an artist started sharing her art in NZ art-specific Facebook groups. Her subjects were people, flowers, rubbish skips, Wellington’s cable car, dancing fruit. The posts would often have no likes or comments (not unusual for anyone posting in the art groups). One of her most popular posts had a grand total of eight likes. 

Then, on January 31, 2024, sanitary pads made their first appearance. Not yet actual pads, but artistic representations of them. In the middle of one painting is a pad, its wings unfolded but still bent. It’s giant – about the same height as the woman who is sitting on it as if it were a recliner. The pad’s wings hug her in a soft embrace. She’s in her undies and holding a tampon in her left hand. Around the edges of the painting, angel-like, more women float in their own pads; a few roughly painted flowers are also dotted around.

The first pad appearances in January 2024.

Another painting was posted on the same day: this time, women kneeled to embrace their giant pads as if they were lovers. The giant-pad paintings continued the next day. One pad had its wings stuck onto a figure’s breasts, attached almost like a cape. There were no comments on the posts, and for 12 days the artist painted other subjects – a teapot, a red lingerie set, an elephant. Then, on February 13, came a portrait of Taylor Swift. In the middle of the canvas, on Swift’s face, was a pad. A real one, unfolded and stuck down under the paint. 

The artist’s first true pad painting exploded with 23 reactions (11 likes, eight hahas and three loves) and 23 comments. “I’m sorry, it’s gross,” read one. Another commented, “I LOVE your choice of materials”. One simply read, “ew why?” It’s a question that remains unanswered. All through February, the artist continued to paint and post paintings with pads stuck onto the canvas. She was badgered to explain why she had used the pads, even by people who claimed to like the works. She politely and succinctly interacted with the positive comments, and mostly ignored the negative ones.

As time wore on, the pads kept appearing under all manner of painted subjects in dozens of paintings. In the comments, a divide grew between those who loved the pads and those who hated them. One detractor wrote: “Personally I find it disgusting, offensive and totally unnecessary. I guess the admins just don’t have the balls to block her. To be perfectly honest, she should take the money she’s wasting on sanitary products and go get some art lessons…” When someone came to the defence of the art and artist, he told them to calm down or risk suffering a heart attack. Tensions were high. 

One of many discussions about the pads.

In the anti-pad camp, theories began to circulate. People were suspicious. Something was not quite right about the pad paintings, and maybe it wasn’t the pads themselves. Longstanding group members began to chat with each other. The anti-padders were concerned that the pads weren’t an authentic artistic expression but instead a ploy to belittle and humiliate their online community. In other words, the pad painter was a troll in disguise. 

Once the diatribe in defence of the pad painter and her paintings was posted, the commenters aired their theory in the open. “This person isn’t young and I’m pretty sure [REDACTED] is a pseudonym. If it’s who I think it is. This person is Elam educated and has been painting for donkeys years. They changed their name recently. They used to get flack previously for painting turds.” On a couple of the paintings, some commented, “Hey [REDACTED]”. 

The troll theory didn’t emerge from absolutely nowhere. The clues the commenters followed were:

  1. There was another (male) painter whose paintings and subject matter were not unlike the pad paintings. Both artists show a masterful looseness. The paintings are impressionistic but capture likeness, with unusual and rich colour schemes. 
  2. The male artist, once prolific, stopped posting his paintings in late February of this year, and has not replied to some messages.
  3. He too stuck objects on his paintings, like cigarette butts.
  4. Both paint over their paintings, reusing canvases. They are not precious about their previous work.
  5. The pad painter’s Facebook profile, at least to non-friends, is rather minimal. 
  6. The male painter apparently got “flack” for some of his previous work.
  7. The pads are unused so perhaps the artist does not have a period.
  8. The pad painter’s name seems common and generic.
  9. Both the pad painter and the suspected troll are based in, or claim to be based in, Wellington. 
  10. The studio the paintings are photographed in appears to be the same.

After The Spinoff received an anonymous tip about the pad painter’s alleged identity, we followed them around Facebook, and all the clues were there. Opening the pad and non-pad paintings in different windows and placing them side by side revealed stylistic similarities. Could the same hands have painted those gestures and the same eyes chosen those colours? Yes. Could someone drawn to cigarette butts also be drawn to sanitary pads? Also yes. Does the door in the background with the diagonal beam appear to be the same in both images? Yes. Would someone who went to Elam be drawn to creating drama among amateur artists? Definitely.

We asked an art world connoisseur familiar with Elam about the troll rumour. He said he hadn’t heard about the drama and the allegations surrounding it, but “it wouldn’t surprise me at all”. Other ex-Elam students shared similar sentiments. Yet no one could confirm or deny the rumour’s veracity. 

The pad painter has only one photo of herself visible on Facebook, sitting on a flight of stairs and looking away from the camera through rectangular glasses. Despite sending it to three people who live in Wellington and reverse-image searching it on Google Lens, we couldn’t pinpoint the steps she is sitting on. It is possible that the photo is an AI creation, the location not Wellington at all, but just Wellington-esque. 

Everything on Facebook was pointing to the pad-painter being a man. It seemed that his purpose was to be an edgelord, hiding behind a femme pseudonym and using the pads to provoke other artists. A friend request sent to the pad painter profile has been left on read, neither accepted or rejected. Meanwhile, she kept posting more pad paintings. 

Giraffe paintings posted by two different accounts suspected to be the same person. Note the pad underneath the baby giraffe.

But then, a breakthrough: after an in-depth investigation, The Spinoff can confidently state that the pad painter is indeed a woman. The proof: an art blog under the same name. It hasn’t been touched since January 2019, but dates back to 2012. In that first year of blogging, years before publicly available AI would have been able to generate a convincing fake photo, there’s a photo of her. She’s wearing similar rectangle glasses to the ones in her current Facebook profile. She has the same colour hair, and is standing next to an artwork painted in loose brush strokes and rich colours. It is her, and she is real. Coincidentally, she went to Elam.

As for the male painter who was the alleged hoaxer, there is no evidence that he’s an actual person. His profile photo is of a painting, not a person. And he appears never to have made a blog post, posted a photo of himself on the internet, or have been active on Facebook before 2019.

So the pad painter appears to be exactly who she says she is. But does that mean she’s not herself a troll?  

She has been asked many times about the pads. When she replies to those comments, she focuses on the material and formal qualities of the pads rather than their meaning or symbolism. If we take her at her word, she’s interested in the pads’ texture, and the “3 dimensional effect” of using them. Whatever her motivations, she has certainly inspired heated dialogue about the nature and purpose of art. One comment reads: “I used [pads] as a teenager and they were embarrassing and gross, which is why I changed to tampons. Menstrual pads are an intimate and private thing, not for public display. That’s just my opinion, but I was a teen in the 1970’s.” The painting that inspired this comment is the first one, of Taylor Swift, her lips, nose and mouth softened by the absorbent qualities of the pad. Others simply commented “ew”.

The pad painter is unperturbed. She continues to post her art, more often than any other artist in the group. Recently she painted an elephant, a barn owl, and a German shepherd. “Acrylic and pad on canvas,” she writes on each. “$100.”

Keep going!