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Santa Rosa artist The Velvet Bandit sees similarities with her work, AOC’s Met Gala dress

More of The Velvet Bandit’s work

To see more of The Velvet Bandit’s work and to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dress, go to thevelvetbandit.com and www.facebook.com/thevelvetbandit.

The Velvet Bandit isn’t mad. In fact, she sounds a little flattered and a touch nervous.

The Santa Rosa-based street artist, who has asked her name not be used and never identifies herself publicly in any way other than as The Velvet Bandit, said her phone started buzzing Tuesday.

By Wednesday, it was in full blowup mode.

The reason?

A dress.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), center, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala in New York, Sept. 13, 2021. While some championed the provocation, the congresswoman’s “Tax the Rich” gown drew sharp statements from across the political spectrum. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), center, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala in New York, Sept. 13, 2021. While some championed the provocation, the congresswoman’s “Tax the Rich” gown drew sharp statements from across the political spectrum. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

The gown worn to Monday’s ultra-chic Met Gala in New York City by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic leader of “The Squad” and the voice of the new left, bore striking resemblance to art created by The Velvet Bandit.

The dress, which AOC said on social media was made by Aurora James, founder of design house Brother Vellies, was a white gown emblazoned with the nearly ubiquitous “Tax the Rich” slogan in bright red letters.

But the font, the lettering color and the style, bore likeness to The Velvet Bandit’s work — in particular a piece she featured in a recent TikTok video that went viral, snagging more than nearly 380,000 views.

The Velvet Bandit’s piece is of a masked Abraham Lincoln. On the mask, in striking red letters, is a handwritten message: “Tax the Rich.”

Santa Rosa-based street artist, The Velvet Bandit, a single mother of two children, displays a Tax the Rich painting, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. The font and the style of the wording resembles Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala on Sept. 13. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021
Santa Rosa-based street artist, The Velvet Bandit, a single mother of two children, displays a Tax the Rich painting, Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. The font and the style of the wording resembles Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) dress at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala on Sept. 13. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat) 2021

“My phone just blew up with all kinds of people sharing the picture of her dress,” she said. “People were like, ‘No, this is your artwork.’”

“It’s not just me saying, ‘That looks familiar,’” she said. “I have had a ton of people write to me, saying, ‘No, this is yours. It’s your handwriting.’"

Her social media accounts, where she posts much of her street art, is going bananas. She has reposted side by side images of her art next to AOC in the dress.

An Instagram post put up Wednesday asks her followers (she now has more than 6,800 after a recent surge) to tag the Congresswoman from New York’s 14th district and James for a possible collaboration.

“I'm a full-time lunch lady and single mom, which doesn't leave me much time in my day to try and reach famous people to hit me up,” The Velvet Bandit wrote. “They need a female street artist working on their team, don’tcha think? It would be an honor. Obviously they have fabulous taste.”

The Velvet Bandit also been contacted by lawyers.

But she doesn’t want to sue.

She’s not even mad.

However, a public tip of the hat from one of the most high-profile, progressive politicians in the nation would be nice, she said.

And a collaboration — The Velvet Bandit’s politics and humor lean left — would be even better. If she doesn’t already, The Velvet Bandit is convinced AOC would likely appreciate her work and her sensibilities.

The Congresswoman, who is a frequent target of her conservative colleagues and pundits, has an entire line of “Tax the Rich” merchandise on her “Official AOC Team Shop.” But that, too, has raised eyebrows, what with sweatshirts going for $58 and “Tax the Rich” mugs selling for $27.

(The Velvet Bandit’s “Tax the Rich” hoodie sells for $32).

Even with a history of using the phrase, the font, styling and coloring on that merchandise doesn’t resemble The Velvet Bandit’s piece like the dress did.

“Maybe it’s coincidental,” The Velvet Bandit said of resemblance between the dress and the art.

“But anyway, they should want to work with me.”

‘I know I don’t own the phrase’

The last few days have been a bit disorienting for an artist who has labored to maintain her anonymity. There has been attention on social media. She was the lead item on the celebrity gossip website TMZ for a stretch Wednesday. The British tabloid Daily Mail picked up the story.

The tale seemingly has all of the elements — a super left-leaning, outspoken politician tries to poke at the very people she’s mingling with at the uber-exclusive Met Gala, only to (inadvertently) steal from a single mom who works as a lunch lady and does street art on the side.

But that’s not really what the story feels like to The Velvet Bandit.

“A lot of the headlines are so cringy, ‘AOC ripped off a lunch lady …’ painting her in this bad light or saying I’m accusing her,” she said. “I hope they are not mad at me.”

More of The Velvet Bandit’s work

To see more of The Velvet Bandit’s work and to see Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dress, go to thevelvetbandit.com and www.facebook.com/thevelvetbandit.

She doesn’t expect to answer any of those attorney inquiries.

“I know I don’t own the phrase, ‘Tax the rich,’” she said. “But I would love to work with AOC. I would love to spread her message through street art.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s press office did not respond to an email request for comment.

‘A middle-aged mom with some paintings’

The Velvet Bandit has been an artist her whole life. But the pandemic turned it up a notch.

When the coronavirus shut down life in March 2020, The Velvet Bandit was suddenly no longer needed for the 20 hours a week she had been working as a lunch lady at her kids’ school.

“The pandemic hit and I was stuck at home, without a job, with just my paint and paintbrushes,” she said. “So, I decided to try street art.”

The Velvet Bandit uses word play and puns. When she nails an idea, she paints an image by hand onto newsprint and adheres it to surfaces with wallpaper paste.

In the beginning, she cooked her own paste with flour and water on the stove, adding sugar for sheen and a dash of essential oil because she’s “hippie like that.”

She’s irreverent: “Send noods” over an image of a bowl of noodles. Or an image of a casket with the message, “Mask it or casket.”

But she’s also wry and clever: “Take me to your leader” over an image of a virus, or three women standing with a sign with the words, “Thoughts and prayers” crossed out and replaced with “Policy & action.”

Among her favorites is one of a woman, wearing a mask and eyes downcast, holding a sign that reads: “All mothers were summoned when he called out for his mama.”

“I put that up and took a step back. I was moved to tears,” she said of the phrase that gained international attention after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis in 2020.

The images can be seen in Santa Rosa, throughout Sonoma County and beyond. For some, including me, they can be a little daily Easter egg, usually bringing laughter and light out of the blue.

But the Velvet Bandit hears criticism from some. They say her art is graffiti; that it shouldn’t be celebrated; and that it’s vandalism.

It goes without saying, but she disagrees.

“I know the definition of vandalism is to deface property with malicious intent,” she said. “My argument is I’m not malicious.”

She likens it to putting up a sign for a lost dog.

And she mostly avoids private property and leans toward surfaces that are less porous, so works can be removed if need be. Electrical boxes are perfect, she said.

She used to work in the dead of night, so as not to be seen and to avoid confrontation.

But that has only happened once. She was working one night and a man stopped her and angrily called her a nut job.

She returned to that spot the next day with a painting of a squirrel with the caption: “I’m a nut job.”

The Velvet Bandit no longer works exclusively at night. For one, she is back to work 40 hours a week and life is tiring.

But for another, she has come to learn that people don’t often see people right in front of them. Faces are cast downward, eyes are glued to screens. She retains her anonymity in broad daylight.

“They are not really looking at the middle-aged mom with some paintings in her purse and a paintbrush,” she said.

But that, too, may be changing. This kerfuffle around AOC’s dress may be the thing that brings The Velvet Bandit’s art, and perhaps the artist, into the light.

“I’m terrified,” she said. “But it’s also really exciting.”

“I’m just a mom. I’m just a lunch lady. I’m just an artist. I didn’t expect this.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @benefield.

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