Masked in mystique, in a tradition purportedly undertaken as a tribute to the indigenous peoples who helped fugitive slaves escape through Louisiana’s bayous, the Mardi Gras Indians are African-Americans who adorn themselves in colorfully beaded and elaborately feathered suits. Known to parade through the New Orleans streets on Fat Tuesday, the “Super Sunday” following St. Joseph’s Day, and the long weekends of Jazz Fest, onlookers may first encounter a “spy boy” or two, trusted members who scout ahead for tribal rivals. Having relayed his findings through “flag boys” to the “Big Chief” and his supporting hierarchy, “wild men” clear pedestrians to the sidelines, creating a path for the impending battle which — at least in modern times — is a bloodless confrontation done through boastful singing and ritual dancing.
Strutting the New Orleans streets every year there are between two and three dozen tribes, each comprised of fifteen to twenty members. Named after imaginary Plains Indian tribes such as the Golden Eagles, Flaming Arrows, Yellow Pocahontas, and Bayou Renegades, “I’ve been told,” artist Compton III says of his grandfather, “[that] he was a part of The Wild Magnolias,” one of the most well-known tribes. “I only have two photos of him from that time,” admits the New Orleans native, adding how he personally “never had the opportunity to [Indian] mask growing up.” Paying tribute to this cultural and familial heritage, the artist’s sophomore art toy effort merges the Mardi Gras Indian masking tradition with his own cartoon-oriented illustration roots.

A Brief History of Compton III

“I’d say cartoon art has always been my main area of interest,” admits Compton III, a direction that led “to me creating my own comic series, Off the Porch,” which was self-released through his Ohhh Stanley! Publishing. “Venturing into art toys partially came from wanting to bring my characters to life,” he reveals, but, in order to “get my feet wet” in this new field, Compton III began conducting an “experiment” titled Project Mario around 2015. Admittedly “to my surprise,” the artist said, “the first one was purchased by [the] NFL‘s 4x Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner of the Carolina Panthers and the second by Jet Life rapper Curren$y,” which shifted Compton III’s thinking towards being “that art toys would be the new lane I’d pave for myself.”

“Originally Mario was supposed to be dressed as” a Mardi Gras Indian, reveals Compton III, this concept being a seemingly ideal exploration of his own connection to the tribes as well as building off of his previous success. Similar to how the video game character donned Raccoon and Kappa costumes during his adventures, “after it was suggested I use imagery from the Mario games and incorporate that on his suit,” recalls Compton III, “I immediately hated the idea. I didn’t like the image in my head of commercializing the culture in that manner,” he continues, going as far as feeling “distaste for my own original idea at that point.” Almost completely abandoning this idea for his second art toy design, “as destiny would have it,” claims Compton III, “I drew the face for Spy Boy and knew I found Mario’s replacement.”

Compton III’s Spy Boy

Created as “an interpretation of the [Mardi Gras Indian] culture from my nostalgic perspective as that kid who missed out [on participating],” Compton III says of his Spy Boy design, the artist opted to title his piece after a tribal role rather than use “a specific name, because I want him to represent for the nation as a whole.” With the hand-painted sculpture having debuted in a Legacy Orange edition, its primarily burnt orange coloration “came from my grandfather wanting to make that color suit for my mother or me,” the artist explains, adding how he “made it as a way to honor him and make the suit he never got a chance to make.” And while “I hadn’t thought of it as semi-autobiographical,” he ponders, “it could very well be.”

Building upon the personal connection of his Spy Boy design, the backside features a three-finger “salute”, which is “a number that’s always around for me,” Compton III admits. Having been born as Stephen G. Compton, his alias doesn’t stem from a normal generational suffix but rather “is based on my grandfather, Leonard Compton, being the first Compton,” a lineage continued through the artist’s mother and then himself. While the number three has further familial and life-event relations for the artist, the inclusion on his Spy Boy design of the teardrop tattoo under its eye is another “real element attesting to my childhood view,” he discloses, as “seeing that tattoo and others was normal to me.” A common prison marking to denote murder, its appearance on Spy Boy was meant “to acknowledge that in order for him and us to exist and be here, ancestors were murdered, [both] black and Native American alike,” declares Compton III, “it’s more of a tattooed scar in remembrance for them.”
Having debuted at an event in the French Quarter on December 29th of 2018, the year of New Orleans’ 300th-anniversary celebration, the 9½-inch tall resin edition was aptly limited to 300 pieces worldwide, remaining copies of which can be acquired directly from the artist.

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