Imagine being greeted by a man sporting a pink floral blazer over a sea foam green graphic tee, paired with cerulean khakis and hot pink Nikes. He leads you up a set of stairs. The railing is bright yellow and the steps practically match his khakis.
Before reading any further, shippers please be advised that this article is not a Wes Anderson-Sophia Coppola-Spike Jonze three-way smut fanfic—though it’s probably a pretty good start to one.
The man described above is, in fact, a real person.
His name is Kii Arens. In a previous lifetime he was in a glam rock band called Flipp. He also did a brief stint as a rapper in Philadelphia—opening for Gang Starr, EPMD and DJ Quik. Since moving to Los Angeles in 2004, he mostly designs tour and album artwork for some of the biggest names in music, including Queens of the Stone Age, Dolly Parton, Beck, Liza Minnelli, Kanye West, Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake.
When I met Arens for the first time last month, it was during a sale at his gallery in Hollywood—appropriately, though not intentionally named La-La Land…but we will get into that later. He was, indeed, wearing “a pink floral blazer over a sea foam green graphic tee, paired with cerulean khakis and hot pink Nikes.”
Arens’ dad built the set of stairs with the bright yellow railing and the cerulean steps. They lead up to a platform that doubles as a workspace and a throne. An iMac sits on a desk, perpendicular to the front of the gallery, so that even when Arens sits down to work, he can still see everything down below. Directly above the desk, there is a baroque-style mirror, mounted at such an angle that when guests like myself are sitting directly behind him, all Arens has to do is to look up in order to make eye contact during a conversation. Instead of a crown and a velvet cape lined with Ermine, Arens has guitars mounted on the wall adjacent to the desk—four in total, one of which is strangely shaped like a moon and another that is signed by Glen Campbell.
I followed Kii up the stairs because he wanted to show me “The Vampyre of Time and Memory”—an interactive music video that he directed for Queens of the Stone Age. Released in November 2013, the music video for this haunting ballad basks in grotesque and gothic imagery—black velvet portraits, taxidermy, French maids, Queens lead singer Josh Homme’s perfectly manicured nails painted a stark white, and, of course, the casting of a mysterious woman who emanates the aura of a fading starlet. Under the Rader likens her to Norma Desmond, but I can’t help but notice how the eye makeup and teased hair are reminiscent of Endora, Agnes Moorhead’s character on Bewitched.
As I sat with Arens on his throne, watching the Queens music video while he meticulously painted his nails to match his khakis, I felt like Alice in Wonderland. It’s as if I had fallen down a rabbit hole. But instead of landing in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland—a place filled with nasty, vengeful characters that constantly play tricks on one other—I had literally landed in Arens’ imagination.
Between the artwork, toys, apparel, guitar collection and vintage issues of Penthouse on display in the bathroom, La-La Land is a pop culture kingdom that would make the Queen of Hearts quiver with jealousy. Arens replaces Carroll’s White Rabbit with a mysterious recurring character that resembles an ink blob. Now found in many of Arens’ designs, the ink blob character was born by accident, out of a spinel painting called ‘La La Land’ that Arens made back in 2001, before he even considered moving to Los Angeles. When Arens did his first art show a year or two later, the newspaper printed the spinel painting at a 90-degree angle, revealing, in Arens’ own words, “this walking character.”
He named the character La-La and just as Alice followed the White Rabbit into Wonderland, Arens followed La-La into the depths of his own imagination. But unlike Alice, whose ultimate goal is to escape Wonderland, Arens’ imagination, his La-Land, is, as the Cheshire Cat puts it, “where [he, and by extension we] wants to end up.”