I See You: Padhia on Learning to Unfuk Yourself [California Summer Series]

Story by TK Mills. Photos By Padhia - Unfuk Yourself


Padhia at work

Unfuk Yourself is not easily described. An ethos that fluctuates between punk-rock rebellion and deep meditative self-reflections, Unfuk Yourself began in 2012 as a blog and grew into a viral trend, a brand, a philosophy, an art style, and an identity – or in the words Padhia, the creator:

“It’s about the triumph of the human spirit and what we’re actually capable of, if we have the right perspectives and hope.”

I first heard of Unfuk Yourself when BorneBackCeaselessly showed me some of her prints. When I flew into LA late August 2018, I tracked down Padhia (Pa-DEE-yah) only to find she was far out in the hills. Out there in a cabin, Padhia was half-way through writing a book.

We were able to digitally connect. Padhia took some time out of her intensive writing scheduled to answer some questions about her life, her work, and being who she was before the stuff that dimmed her shine.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision. 

TK Mills: What is Unfuk Yourself?

Padhia: That’s a long story… let’s see where to start. I apologize, I’ve been writing 14 hours a day, for 8 days straight. So I’m a little tired. 

I had this secret blog, which was about different constructs of depression, anxiety, and PTSD, in terms of it being an operating system rather than a mental illness. It broke down the mechanisms of it, so people can feel hope. The blog started getting a lot of traction. I had just moved to LA. This was 7-8 years ago and I started to see street art everywhere. It’s such a part of the culture here. I thought, ‘wow! What an incredible way to put a message out there.’

I was like, okay maybe I can make something of this. So I changed the blog name to Unfuk Yourself. I didn’t like that name as a street art pseudonym, because I’m a soft person. I’m really gentle, and Unfuk Yourself has a hard edge to it. It turned out to be hilarious! Because everyone that meets me is shocked. They don’t even know I’m a chick — it’s hysterical seeing some people’s reactions.

What happened was, I started making these t-shirts that said ‘Love Me Anyways’ and a sticker to go with the shirts. For the sticker, I dug down, trying to think ‘what’s truest thing I can write?’ I came up with this phrase: Unfuk Yourself – Be who you were before the stuff that dimmed your shine.’ I thought it was clunky, over-wordy, I had all these doubts. But I was like whatever, I’m just gonna go with it. 

So I sent these stickers out, and the phrase ends up going stupid viral — it’s still going viral, for years now. It’s been posted by celebrities, by every community — Hip-Hop, Yoga, the tattoo community, Moms, people getting divorced, teenagers… Every aspect of society had embraced this idea. So I was like, I’m just gonna go with it. It’s resonating with people.

Padhia Creator of Unfuk Yourself
So how did it evolve?
I was mesmerized by taking these ideas I had on the blog, and putting it out on the streets. It was around that time I stumbled across Exit Through the Gift Shop. I felt so alive after watching that. But later, I kinda beat myself back into submission. ‘You’re a girl! This is not age appropriate. You moved to LA to go to school and get a stable job and a paycheck and live a normal life for once.’ I settled back down into total misery. 

But within a couple days, a crazy thing happened. I had a friend I met at CrossFit… this was six or seven years ago. He was a news photographer. We carpooled to the gym, so he picked me up one morning. And he’s like, ‘Hey I think I’m going to become a street artist.’ And I was like, I’ve been thinking about that too! [The artist now works under the name Plastic Jesus.]

[Plastic Jesus] started to build this 6-foot big sculpture, the Gay Love Missile. I helped him install it in front of the Chic-Fil-A on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. With all the concrete and jackhammers around it, it looked like it had just crash landed!

It was a statement and it became this big thing in the news. We did that at 3 in the morning… He started going out every night and I would help him. Either putting stuff up, or being a look out. I was like, why am I not doing my own stuff too? I’m out here anyway. So I just started doing it. And it was incredible.

With your street art, what mediums do you usually use for promoting your message?

I do a really broad range of things. I do sidewalk stencils, stencils on walls, murals, and giant images, like big paint roller pieces, billboard takeovers, large-scale wheat pastes… It’s evolved to the point where I only really want to do large and shocking. 

The way that I think about my work is in these different concepts I call ‘Thought Initiatives.’ It’ll start with an idea, and then I’ll make an image that translates that idea. I’ll do something with it whether it’s a small thing on the street or a something big and shocking. I also do canvases and apparel for collectors, prints, sculptural pieces… All the different versions of it, the message and layers of the thought initiative are communicated.

The idea being that by the time someone experiences the concept in all these different layers, it can create a shift in their perception. 

Padhia after a billboard takeover

Some of the themes in your art relate to mental illness. Why does that subject matter interest you?

Let me see, how should I explain this. So I have struggled most of my life with a severe, complex form of PTSD. The depression and anxiety that comes with that… can be really debilitating. at times. Because of my experience and the limitations it placed on me… [Art] allowed me to move past the idea that something was wrong with me and the stigma around it. I had all these experiences, and I thought, ‘if I can cleanse them of the pain, I can take them and plug them back into my life and use them to create something.’

Reworking your experiences and turning it into something positive seems like a healthy coping mechanism.

Exactly! We live in such a victim culture. What I like to do in all of my work is to present a different option. Trying to create a different culture. 

If I may ask, what triggered the PTSD?

That’s what’s complicated. There wasn’t exactly one specific event I could pinpoint. It was the entire first 14 years of my life. I lived with my mother, who was chronically physically and mentally ill and had a severe drug addiction.

She withdrew and cut herself off from her family and society and descended into this unimaginably toxic state. So, it’s all a function of being in that environment. Being cut-off from the world is a little bit of an exaggeration, because I did go to school, but I didn’t have the capacity to plug in, the way a normal kid did. I felt very isolated. I had limited exposure to TV or books or music, it was just me and my mother. And all of her crazy — I didn’t even have a sense of personhood, in being a separate person from her, because she didn’t understand that. It was mental and physical torture… but what was hardest to heal from was the energetic injury.

I was 15 when I escaped and got out. I left home. 

That sounds intense. Thanks for sharing.

My only real concern is that about how this article portrays my work, is that it’s not about mental illness. It’s not about depression. It’s not about any of that. It’s about the triumph of the human spirit and what we’re actually capable of, if we have the empowering perspectives and hope.

Tell me about how people can manifest their energy and find hope. 

I’m about 40,000 words into the book I’m writing that answers that question. [Padhia Laughs]

Can you explain what the book’s about?

It’s about all my philosophies. I have some ideas for the title, but it’s tentative now. I don’t know if you saw the Instagram post, but there was this guy who tried to steal my whole brand. He wrote a book and called it ‘Unfuk Yourself.’

He sucks, but I love him because it motivated me to work toward finishing my own book. What am I going to do? Just rage about it? Instead I’m holed up in a cabin for a few weeks and I’m finally writing it all out. 

The book is about reconnecting to your inner light. Your spirit. The essence of who you are. And realizing all the ways you were conditioned and shaped and disconnected from that light. How all the circumstances in your life can be used to discover that connection more deeply. 

Did you first begin writing with your blog?

I first started writing in 2009. I wrote sporadically, until it turned into a clearer voice with ‘Unfuk Yourself’ in 2012. Before that I was just writing about what it felt like to detox off 12 years of anti-depressants. Having your world fall apart and needing to rebuild. 

How did you end up in Los Angeles?

I always had this sense that if I could just make it to LA, I would be ok.

I always had this vision of my creations on a massive scale out in the world. To be able to touch people in a special way — my mind translated that to, ‘I want to work in film.’ 

So I finally moved to LA.

Padhia is not your typical… Anglo-Saxon name. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your family background? Or rather, where does the name come from?

[Padhia Laughs] That was very tactful. It’s okay. Everyone thinks I’m Indian. My mom’s first name was Patti, and her middle name was Diane. She just mixed them together and stuck an ‘h’ in it like Buddha, for some reason. So she just made it up. 

On your website I see several Thought Initiatives. In addition to Unfuk Yourself, there’s Love Me Anyways, Glitter Finger, and Gangsta B. Can you tell me about each of them?

Love Me Anyways is a thought initiative that’s meant to inspire the way we feel about ourselves. We hide aspects of ourselves, whether that’s our story or what we think are our flaws, out of shame. Not realizing [our faults are] the things that actually connect us and make us the most human. The only way people can actually connect to you and love you beyond just the surface, is through your truth.

Basically it’s this idea of radical acceptance. It’s like challenging the voice in your head, telling you all these bad things about yourself, and being like so what? Love Me Anyways. It’s a feeling within yourself, but also between people.

Glitter Finger has two ideas to it. One is that we have these circumstances in life… that call us to feel a certain way… It’s a ‘fuck you’ attitude to the bad feelings and experiences, and plugging into the energy underneath the story, what it has done for you. . The other is a rebellion against identity. Your mind constructs this identity, and identity can be a cage. It’s about reaching beyond that. Glitter Finger is the balance. ‘Fuck You’ is a really hard energy, while glitter is about beauty.

Gangsta B came about because a collector wanted to commission a giant 9-foot canvas of the Buddha. I have this problem, that no matter how much someone pays me, I can’t do a project unless it resonates with me. I’m not Buddhist, but of all the religions, I think the philosophies of Buddhism are the most helpful in easing human suffering. However, I didn’t want to just paint a regular Buddha.

So I was like, ‘what if we made him a modern day Buddha?’ Tattoos, gold chain, make him like a gangster. And I was like, you know he kinda was a gangster. There’s no greater rebellion than being like ‘okay, shitty life. I see you, but I’m not going to suffer.’ So, I got lit up by that whole idea of what he embodies. So I came up with this image of him smiling with the middle finger up, deflecting all the bullshit. On his arm — are you familiar with the story of Buddha?

I read Siddhartha in High School, but honestly I’m not as well versed as I should be. 

Well, I’m not an expert either, but I know a couple snippets. There’s this story that the Buddha was sitting under his tree on the path to enlightenment when this demon named Mara shows up. Mara would do things like shoot arrows at Buddha, to distract him from enlightenment.

The arrows started turning into all kinds of things, things that would trigger him, forms of extreme temptation. He sees this illusion manifesting, and points to it saying, ‘I see you Mara.’ So he’s not relating to the circumstances of his life, but actually seeing the greater picture – that these demons are just a distraction from what’s important. So on the Gangsta B, there’s a heart on his arm that says Mara, as a reference to the story.

Your greatest enemy can lead you to enlightenment, when you learn to reject the idea that anything is your enemy. 

I vibe with that. Before you mentioned not subscribing to the idea of victim culture. Can you explain what you mean by that?

We romanticize or glorify the idea of being broken. Dysfunction, being depressed, being stuck, the culture that we live in is one of ‘shit, this is happening to me.’ To me… Not the attitude of, ‘okay, this sucks. This hurts. But ultimately I can use this to become a greater version of myself.’ What’s this calling me to do, or to become?

Our bad experiences are what shape us, and force us to grow the most. I want to see that as the understanding that’s foremost in our mind. That’s what culture is, the way you initially construct everything for yourself.

What happened with the guy that tried to steal your brand?

I don’t know him. About a year ago, maybe two, I started getting all these messages from fans. ‘Oh my god, you wrote a book.’ Or, ‘I can’t wait to read your book!’ Or what it came to, ‘hey, this guy stole your everything, do you know about this?’ I was pretty upset to be honest. 

It’s ironic, because on the cover it says something like, ‘no excuses.’ I had a sense of this book I wanted to write, for almost 10 years. I started a few times, but I never finished it, for two reasons. One, was because in hindsight I didn’t have the perspective to make it come out to the full extent I envisioned.

Second, was because I was struggling, going in and out of treatment. So it’s ironic — this guy steals my whole thing, but right on the cover no excuses. And the reason I’m not reaping all the rewards of what I built, is a huge excuse. [Laughing] It was like a giant fuck you.

His book was a hit. And suddenly people were doing, you know, Unfuck-Everything. There were classes and courses, memes… So the author claims that it was a slogan from the marines. His other claim is that what inspired him — he swears he knows nothing about what I had been doing, despite the viral phrase I started — was that it was a line in the movie from 30 years ago. So this old movie, inspired you to suddenly come up with this title however many years later? 

When I found out about it, I was so crushed. I was in a really bad place. But I didn’t do anything. Part of me was like, well he did it and I didn’t so good for him. So I left it alone. And for a year, I endured a barrage of messages from people — it was constant — nonstop, messages about this book. But then what happened, is someone told me he applied for a trademark for the phrase. And that’s what really got me angry.

Because I applied for the trademark beforehand it and it was left pending because technically it’s considered profanity. The Supreme Court is supposed to rule at some point on whether or not you can have profanity in a trademark. But when I found out he was trying to trademark this as his brand, that goes way beyond just writing a book and capitalizing off my momentum. That was when I wrote a whole thing on social media to let people know, ‘hey this isn’t my book, this guy is just capitalizing on something I created. ’ 

I was so angry and I had nothing to do with it. I had no outlet. But it turned out to be the greatest thing, because I needed something to channel it in to. So I decided to channel it into finishing my own book.  

Did you ever reach out to the author of the other book?

I tagged him in that Instagram post. His response was basically, ‘it’s a slogan for the marines’ and denying knowing anything about the thought initiative and how viral it had become. But that’s ridiculous. Also, there’s no way the publisher didn’t research the title and the idea.

You don’t publish unknown authors with no followers, unless you know there’s a market for it. I believe, they knew ‘UnFuk Yourself’ was a viral hit, which is why they were open to publishing. In my opinion, tt was the title that got published. Someone must have done due diligence and googled it, and there’s no way they didn’t see my stuff pop up. ‘Oh, you don’t know who I am?’ Give me a break. [Padhia Laughs]

One of life’s greatest pains is to feel invisible. However, in the months that followed our interview, the artist channeled her pain into motivation and action. This year the world will be seeing a lot of Padhia.

Her thought initiative ‘Love Me Anyways’ has grown into a full-fledged project with the newest layer developing this spring. Building off the initial concept, Padhia is launching LMA as a giant-mural exhibit. According to Padhia, the idea is that:

“Once you see all of the photos and stories in one giant collection, you realize that even though there are an infinite number of circumstances a human can face, there is a finite range of emotions. Emotionally, we can all relate to each other better than we think. The things we hide out of shame are often the things that make us the most lovable.”

Following the exhibit’s pop-up launch in Los Angeles, Love Me Anyways will travel first to Tokyo and then Miami Art Basel. In conjunction with the art, Padhia is releasing a new line of apparel to go along with the immersive experience.

Out of the darkness of 2018, Padhia’s future looks even brighter with the premier of her book, ‘Unfuk Your Shine.’ Finishing a manuscript is a major milestone in and of itself, but the expansive and introspective subject matter is its own accomplishment. Unfuk Your Shine articulates the ways we are conditioned to feel ashamed and guilty of ourselves, the fluctuations of energy in the universe, and how through the evolution of consciousness you can Unfuk Your Shine and attain freedom from the chains of life.

Padhia shared the book’s opener: “Welcome to the beginning of brighter days.”