In the early 2000s, Jensen Karp almost made it as a rapper, under the name Hot Karl. Interscope gave him a huge advance, EMI gave him a publishing deal, but the debut album never materialized. “Back in the day, any white rapper had an effect on their voice that made them sound like other rappers,” Karp says. “I sound like a Muppet.” He eventually asked to be released from his contract. His recording career was coming to an end, but with the advance he never used, he was about to build an empire.
Along with a partner who had worked in the art business, Karp founded Gallery 1988, an art gallery in Los Angeles that exclusively shows pop culture fan art. Since 2004, the gallery has drawn rabid crowds with its prints, portraits, and sculptures dedicated to everything from Ghostbusters to Beastie Boys to Breaking Bad. And nearly every show is a hit online.
Fan art is not a new phenomenon, but Karp and his partner, Katie Cromwell, founded the gallery before anyone had created a business model for it. They tracked down talented artists online and at established galleries and asked if they would make art focused on pop culture. “We knew that we had imagery that people would like to see,” Karp says. “But neither of us predicted the success we would have.”
Before opening 1988 (they picked a good year for Los Angeles sports teams, he explains, and for rap records), Karp struggled to find space for fan art. He’s undeterred by snubs from people in the art world. “I love it when people tell us we’re not art. They’re the reason we created what we did. I’m stoked when people doubt the ability of pop culture to be hung in people’s homes.”