Paper Frank’s beautiful dark twisted reality

Atlanta’s young visual arts phenom adds pastels to dreadful past

In the short and narrow basement of an old converted Baptist church on Atlanta’s Westside, Paper Frank stares religiously at his reflection. It’s not a mirror that hangs on the wall before him but an alternate universe of the artist’s own invention, where a snotty-nosed 6-year-old named Damien and his snaggle-toothed sister Jessica take turns unpacking the emotional baggage of their creator.

The 23 acrylic paintings are from Frank “Paper Frank” Dunson’s latest exhibition of neo-pop/anime-influenced works, Pink Lemonade, which he unveiled to a huge and unexpected crowd of more than 3,000 on July 11. Besides a concerned fire marshal, the other few thousand fans, friends, peers, and curiosity seekers — who stood in double lines snaking around the building and congregated en masse outside the steepled entrance — were a testament to the cult-like following he’s nurtured within Atlanta over the past two years.

For the 22-year-old self-trained artist, it felt like the moment his dreams for the future might finally begin to outweigh his nightmares from the past.

Though his paintbrush drips with pastel colors and childlike playfulness, Paper Frank’s palette is haunted by life’s darker undertones.

“I’m a fucked-up person because I spent my whole life in my room,” Dunson declares with such a point-blank stare from beneath the brim of his bucket hat that it’s hard to tell if he’s saying it for shock or catharsis.

It’s that kind of absurd sense of humor that makes him, and his work, so relatable. “Frank is one of the funniest people in the world. He’s just a goofy kid, man,” says Suliman “Suli” Chillis, founder of Atlanta’s Gen Y cultural generator Creative Revolution Union. “You always know when Frank is in the room, kind of like the life of the party.”

But behind his disarming smile lies an internal conflict that has transformed a kid convinced he had little to live for into a leader among Atlanta’s next wave of young creatives.

Despite his growing stature within the subculture, his state of mind seems right in line with Damien in “Head First,” the first piece in Pink Lemonade, which features Dunson’s alter-ego flying through the air as a reluctant superhero. His underwear is on his head, Revenge of the Nerds style, and a makeshift cape is tied around his neck while a continuous stream of green mucus oozes from his right nostril. “It’s pretty self-explanatory,” Dunson says of the painting as we tour the collection one month later. “It’s how I jumped into all of this; I’m still young as hell.”

Dunson initially created the character Damien and his alias, Paper Frank, for his former T-shirt and hat line. But the name ended up outlasting the clothing line, and Damien got upgraded from T-shirts to canvas. Today, Dunson often refers to the kid with the devilish name in the first- and third-person because “it’s an extension of me,” Dunson admits. “I didn’t have a childhood. I had to be an adult my whole life, so I never really got to be a kid.”

When Dunson was 7, his parents separated. His mother, a full-time nurse, fell into a depression as a result. Though she kept her nursing job, she became a functioning alcoholic, according to Dunson, leaving him to be the caretaker for a younger sister who would inspire the character Jessica because of her fierce protection of him.

Together the siblings took refuge in school. Extracurricular programs became a way to avoid what awaited them at home. “It was a monster at home,” says Dunson, who still talks about his mother in fearful terms.

“She would fight me like a man,” he says, recounting the time she threw a vase at him and it shattered on his head. “I knew what it was like to get hit with a bottle in a bar when that happened.”

Worse than the physical abuse was the inattentiveness. Dunson learned to tend to himself by living behind his locked bedroom door, where he’d draw and play video games for hours. For most kids, monsters are figments of their imagination that they learn to tame by anchoring themselves in the real world. But when the monster is real, imagination becomes one’s only means of escape. It wasn’t just his physical self that Dunson was hiding inside his room, he was also burying his emotions, not knowing that one day he would use paint to translate his pain.

Throughout the paintings in Pink Lemonade, Damien progressively undergoes a transformation from helpless and cuddly to hopelessly crazed. In the aptly titled “Internal Conflict,” his cute bunny rabbit suit seems to overtake him, while “emotional ghosts,” as Dunson calls them, circle about in fear and fury. By the time Damien reaches the “Maniacal” state, he’s become a different character altogether, with a menacing glare and a smile that reveals a mouth full of canines where his toothless gums had been. “When he can’t beat his inner demon, he becomes Kurupt, with no emotion and sharp-ass teeth,” says Dunson. “Just a fucking demon, all trippy and shit.”

As Dunson’s own anger built up from the neglect and abuse, he too became a bully. “I fought in school a lot. And I won a lot,” he says. “I just liked trouble. I would talk shit to kids. “After moving around to multiple high schools in metro Atlanta, he found temporary stability when he, his mother, and sister relocated to Asheville, N.C. But the quiet town had a bad side, too. A friend got shot in the stomach one day while Dunson was with him. Still, not everyone was ready to consider Dunson a casualty. “I know you’re going to be famous, Frank,” the teacher in the only art class he ever took would tell him. “Everybody always thought I had ‘a beautiful mind,’ some shit. That’s what they always said. I never got it.”

A high school counselor who refused to let him graduate without a plan put him in touch with Miya Bailey, a former Asheville classmate of hers who co-owned City of Ink Tattoo and Art Gallery in Atlanta. When Dunson marched across the stage that spring, his mother stayed home and missed the ceremony. But his father drove all the way from Atlanta to see his son get his diploma. Dunson eventually returned to join him in Atlanta with the hopes of scoring an apprenticeship under Bailey. But it didn’t happen when Dunson failed to impress Bailey by presenting some leftover school assignments instead of a professional portfolio.

After a few months spent sleeping on a cold concrete floor at his dad’s place, Dunson was at a loss. “I remember thinking, ‘I hate life.’ I didn’t know what to do.” He kept the suicidal thoughts from his dad by going mute for six months. “I didn’t say nothing.”

The emotions he kept bottled up for years tend to come out in a rush now. It’s the reason why a blank canvas seems to ignite his stream of consciousness. He eventually scored the apprenticeship with Bailey after creating his own buzz as Bailey had encouraged him to do.

Today, his art hustle is so strong that he’s cut his tattooing time at City of Ink down to a day or two a week to give himself more time to paint in his bedroom studio, just like he used to draw in his room as a kid. His commissioned murals cover walls from Little Five Points and East Atlanta Village to Asheville, N.C., and Orlando, Fla. And he’s already in search of potential partners to help bring an eventual toy line and animated series to fruition.

The hardest thing for Dunson now is balancing the public image he maximizes via social media with his old impulses to shut people out. He admits to being both talkative and antisocial. But he also wants to help usher a return to the era when visual artists were superstars and fixtures at all the right parties. It’s partly why he pays homage to Jean-Michel Basquiat, Andy Warhol, and Keith Haring with playful portraits featuring Damien and Jessica.

In a sense, Dunson is already playing a similar role on a smaller scale in Atlanta, where’s he considered the glue between the art, music, and fashion scenes sprouting among the city’s New Atlanta vanguard. His former art teacher would be proud to know her prediction came true. “We joke around and call him Famous Frank,” says Chillis. “He’s famous, man.”

Dunson recalls his dad getting a little emotional when he came to the opening. But few of his other family members have seen it, including his younger sister or his mother, who he hasn’t seen since he graduated high school.

Betsi,” an older painting featured in the current series, is actually named for his mother, with a slight change in spelling. In it, a raging red dragon towers over a pea-sized Damien armed with a wooden shield and a bunny-rabbit sword.

“This is how I saw my mom,” Dunson says, “a giant dragon I can’t defeat.”

But he’s stamping out his own sense of hopelessness. He’s formed a team, including his friend of three years and manager Kareem Thompson, along with creative director and documentarian Angie Luvara. And he’s gone from selling “Dragon Ball Z” drawings for $5 a pop in middle school to pricing pieces between $350 and $1,750 today. Last weekend, Paper Frank threw a rooftop showing in Brooklyn and sold every painting he brought with him.

As for his inner demons, it seems even they’ve become worthy of display since the success of Pink Lemonade. “He’s gotten more comfortable with the fact that that’s a part of his past and it made him who he is,” says Luvara, regarding his willingness to share his story.

But mostly, he’s doing it for the kids who’ve become a big part of his following.

“I feel like kids are the most important,” says Dunson. “You have to listen to them to know what’s going on in their minds because their minds are still developing. And they can develop into some fucked-up shit when you ignore them.”

Not to mention they tend to come up with the richest interpretations of his paintings. Dunson’s favorite was the 7-year-old at Pink Lemonade staring intensely at an image of Damien before asking: “Does he have diarrhea?”

For Dunson, that shit makes life worth living.