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In 1999, a bunny named Oolong balanced a dorayaki on his head. His proud owner snapped a photo of Oolong's feat and posted it to the web. Since no one knew what a dorayaki was, everybody just assumed it was a pancake (a dorayaki is a pancake-like Japanese confection). And because pancakes are normally found drenched in syrup instead of on the head of a bunny, the odd photo spread from Hokkaido, Japan, across the world, even getting mentioned in The New York Times. It was quite a moment for the little bunny. He became a cultural phenomenon, an internet meme. Unfortunately, Oolong didn't live to enjoy his fame, dying at the age of eight.
Years after his death, Oolong and the pancake resurfaced in a different form. A humble painter named Dan Lacey from the tiny Minnesota town of Elko created a portrait of then-Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, adding one subtle homage to Oolong: a pancake perched atop the senator's head.
"I made sure his eyes looked just like Oolong's," Lacey recalls, impersonating the blank stare. "You know, just like that."
Sarah Palin with Pancakes torched through the blogosphere. In New York City, Hamilton Nolan was busy writing his dozen daily posts for Gawker.com, the hyper-popular gossip blog. He needed a photo to accompany a post about Sarah Palin's future. That's when he came across Lacey's pancake image on Google. It was random, bizarre, and hilarious: a perfect complement.
"After I posted it, I looked at his other stuff on his site and found out how much of a genius he is," Nolan says of Lacey. "I'm not an art critic, but the power of seeing a pancake on someone's head is just, well, there is something hypnotic about it. It never gets old."
Nolan soon posted another Lacey masterpiece depicting a nude President Obama hurling himself off a white unicorn to wrestle a bear. For a gag, Nolan encouraged Lacey to paint a picture of Gawker founder Nick Denton with pancakes on his head. The portrait sold for $560. Lacey had become a celebrated artist.
But among the thousands watching Lacey's sudden rise to fame was local liberal cartoonist Ken Avidor. Initially, Avidor didn't give his colleague's success much thought. It came out around election time, a period when Avidor's chief aim was preventing Michele Bachmann's re-election to Congress through his blog dumpbachman.com.
But then Lacey's luck continued. Soon, Lacey was being cheered for a picture depicting a bare-assed Michelle Obama in a banana skirt, entangled with a pink dolphin, an homage to Josephine Baker. Avidor thought it was disrespectful, bordering on racist, and it reminded him about a hunch: that this Dan Lacey was the same guy behind an antiabortion, right-wing comic strip called Faithmouse.
A Google search confirmed it. Lacey's Faithmouse strip was featured on conservative websites like Stop the ACLU, M.O.B., and Shot in the Dark. (City Pages even named it best conservative blog in 2007.)
"Everyone thinks Lacey is an 'outsider' artist, not some theocratic, suburban right-wing comic," says Avidor. "He isn't a liberal and I suspect his support of Obama is a lie. This leopard never lost his spots."
The leopard in question lives in a modest Tudor within earshot of the Elko motor speedway. Inside, the house resembles any other suburban home: bills stacked on the kitchen counter, framed photos of family and friends on the coffee table, the smell of popcorn in the air. Then Lacey opens the door to his upstairs bathroom. On the walls are framed paintings of Kim Jong-Il, Oprah, and Daniel Radcliff—all with pancakes on their heads.
As Lacey gives the tour, he talks about his work, pausing only to take quick gasps of air between thoughts. After showing the bathroom, he makes his way to his study to display his masterpiece of controversy and seduction: nearly nude Michelle Obama in a banana skirt.
"Look, I like big black butts and wanted to paint a booty," says Lacey, taking a quick puff of air. "I hadn't painted a female black butt before. I think black people, as a figure painter, are attractive. I'd rather work with raw sienna and black to get cool reflections. You can't get that with white. I like working with color."
He places the booty painting down gently and picks up an unfinished painting of Rush Limbaugh as Jabba the Hutt eating Sarah Palin in a Princess Leia outfit while Michael Steele as C3PO pisses himself in horror. The painting is the first in a series of 10 dreamed up by Gawker readers. One will feature Hoda Kotb maple-syrup-wresting Kathy Lee on top of a giant pancake.
"I'm finally having fun with art," says Lacey. "It's getting back to the very first art any artists draw. It's the stuff I did back in grade school when my friends would be like, 'Hey, Dan, can you draw me a giant joint with Indians dancing around it? Maybe with some supertrucks?' Just cool stuff."
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