For most couples, living in a cramped studio apartment is a challenge in and of itself. But Patricia “Pacolli” Colli and David “Mildred” Heinbokel have other concerns: making art.
The married artists behind High In The Bay live and work just north of San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood, in a studio apartment that’s part Pee-Wee’s playhouse, part second-hand punk shop. Nearly every square inch is adorned with knick knacks, from RuPaul memorabilia and vintage Care Bear toys to plush dolls from Daniel Clowes’ Ghost World. A signed photograph of John Waters hangs under a canvas that reads “Fuck Art Let’s Rock.” Shelves are crammed with art supplies, Mildred’s video games, Pacolli’s comic book collection, and a stable of vintage animal figurines, like creepy-cute rabbits and a powder pink dog.
Photos provided by High In The Bay.
It’s a composite of their influences for High In The Bay, a montage of cutely psychedelic and slightly deranged characters the couple hand prints onto T-shirts, blankets, and canvases. As their name suggests, it evokes the sensation of being less than sober.
The couple’s process for making work out of their apartment is an exercise in economy. It’s “some sort of miracle working and living in such a small apartment and creating things together,” says Pacolli, stressing the importance of being patient and organized, particularly when prepping for art shows. “It can get really messy,” she says. During low points, they’re buoyed by a shared philosophy: “Everything revolves around art.”
The couple screen and block print their illustrations on their small kitchen table, opting to eat meals on TV trays. “We’d rather keep our dining table for printing,” says Pacolli, with a laugh. “So in that way it’s good we found each other.” Screens immediately get washed in the bathtub and get stored under the table, while garments and canvases dry near an open window in the kitchen, the area in the apartment that receives the most light and wind. Because there are no blank walls, photographing their products presents another challenge. They’ve settled on a nearby park, timing their visits earlier in the day when it’s less windy.
Despite the lack of space, Pacolli and Mildred say collaborating is a fluid, organic process, one that feels embedded into the fabric of their relationship. “The ideas come as you go,” says Pacolli. “I feel like each [piece] tells a different story.” The self-taught artists started collaborating regularly after they moved in together, over eight years ago. “It’s definitely easier to bounce ideas off each other and collab because sometimes it’s harder to start a piece,” says Mildred. “But if Pacolli starts something ideas just start bouncing around.” Pacolli, upon receiving a private commision, recalls feeling overwhelmed: “I have to do all this? By myself?”
They met through Flickr, after Mildred posted photos from a group show they were both in. Pacolli, then based in São Paulo, couldn’t attend, and asked Mildred to send her photos. The pair quickly became art friends, mailing each other homemade zines and stickers. “I didn’t know how he looked until he posted a selfie in a shirt that I sent him,” she says. “I was like ‘Oh, he’s cute.’” Before they started dating, Pacolli would visit San Francisco and meet Mildred at coffee shops, where they’d doodle on each other’s cups. Mildred calls these their first collaborations.
Their pairing is both unlikely and obvious. Mildred, 32, grew up in a small suburb of Michigan and was introduced to street art at Barnes & Noble, where he studied the work of graffiti artists like Barry McGee. His nickname started as a joke; when he moved to San Francisco shortly after high school, he wanted a graffiti name that sounded like an old woman’s. Pacolli, 36, grew up immersed in São Paulo’s street art and soaked up its energy. But she gravitated more heavily towards American cartoonists like Robert Crumb and Daniel Clowes. Artistically, they bonded over vintage video games, old school cartoons like DuckTales and Muppet Babies, and Fecal Face, the now defunct San Francisco-based skater-art website.
They launched High In The Bay in 2010, inspired by a roving house party Pacolli used to throw in São Paulo, called Bendgy. Because there were few spaces in Brazil where her art really fit, in 2006 she started a little Saturday afternoon shindig that was part concert, part art fair. “It was a way of putting people who made cool things together,” she says. Along with vegan sandwiches and beer, Pacolli sold her zines and screen printed T-shirts. Then a producer for MTV news, she booked bands like the Argentinian hardcore group Boom Boom Kid, who attracted a line of street artists, straight-edge kids, and stoners. She usually hosted the musicians from out of town, who’d crash in her spare bedroom. When she moved to San Francisco a few years later, throwing a party like Bendgy was out of the question; there wasn’t a spare bedroom, let alone a single one.
When living and working in such a small space starts feeling claustrophobic, the couple lets off steam by improvising at a nearby music studio. Pacolli, who played in bands in Brazil, usually bangs on the drums, while Mildred plucks his guitar or tickles his keyboard.
Does that mean they agree on music while working?
“Uh-oh,” says Pacolli, with a laugh. “The music can get tricky sometimes.”
“We don’t always agree but I’m always down to hear what she has to play,” says Mildred. “I pretty much know all of RuPaul’s songs by now.”
You can see their latest artwork and buy a piece of it in their online store.