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Mask-Tootfish - birdYou may have spot­ted the posters around town. There’s the sheep that looks down, imper­i­ously, from beneath a ban­ner pro­claim­ing the news, “The war against nature is over!” There’s the unset­tling large-breasted cat-woman, who tells us all: “You are an anim­al”. And then there’s the sign say­ing, “Wanted to buy now!!!: human child”.

These pro­voc­at­ive posters are all the work of Tooth­fish, the alter ego of an anonym­ous Wel­ling­ton street artist turned envir­on­ment­al act­iv­ist. Tooth­fish takes its name from the deep­wa­ter fish that are cur­rently – and con­tro­ver­sially – being har­ves­ted in the Ross Sea. But it main­tains its anonym­ity by wear­ing some­thing that closely, and unnerv­ingly, resembles a mum­mi­fied horse’s head. (Don’t ask why it’s not, well, a fish head. It’s a long story.)

Toothfish’s essen­tial nature is not easy to pin down. The word from the horse’s mouth (as it were) is that Tooth­fish “prefers to think of itself not as a per­son or a group but as a thing. Tooth­fish can be every­where or nowhere. Per­haps no one is Tooth­fish or every­body will be tomorrow?”

For­tu­nately, Tooth­fish is, for the pur­poses of this inter­view at least, a per­son, and one who has for the last three years been on what you might call a mis­sion against God. “What promp­ted me was the Pope, the last Pope,” Tooth­fish says. “He con­demned the movie Avatar, say­ing he thought it encour­aged nature wor­ship. Tooth­fish thought, ‘That’s [pre­cisely] what we need.’” And so Tooth­fish, who was already “rabidly anti-cap­it­al­ist”, set about mak­ing posters that would shock people into think­ing about the envir­on­ment­al and polit­ic­al issues they had until then been bliss­fully ignoring.

The posters it cre­ated are full of con­front­ing mes­sages, per­plex­ing images, or simply “the right­eous gods of nature judging us,” Tooth­fish says. They urge us not to “set ourselves apart from nature”, and to “try to step up to being an animal”.

The posters are delib­er­ately ellipt­ic, a kind of teas­er cam­paign for a more expli­cit mes­sage that will nev­er come. And Tooth­fish knows how to tease your atten­tion. Its latest effort is an online essay fea­tur­ing semi-naked young things (wear­ing anim­al masks, nat­ur­ally) play­ing about with the plastic junk that bespoils our beaches. “If I wrote an art­icle about plastics, no one would read it,” Tooth­fish says. “It’s bor­ing. A lot of the con­ser­va­tion groups’ pro­pa­ganda is boring.”

The cause of con­ser­va­tion may, sadly, be a lost one. “We are so far gone. Part of me thinks there is no point.” But hope – or at least anger – springs etern­al. “I like to think I’m going down fight­ing. I’m going to res­ist – and you can res­ist as well… All you can do, a lot of the time, is say you are resisting.”

The res­ist­ance is now glob­al. Toothfish’s posters can be seen across cit­ies and con­tin­ents: in Lon­don, Par­is, Munich, Brook­lyn, the East, the West, the Pacific, Africa – even Ant­arc­tica. One has been snapped near St Basil’s Cathed­ral in Moscow; anoth­er has been pho­to­graphed sit­ting at the sandy bot­tom of the Hon­dur­an sea, lying beside a bikini-clad snorkeller.

Though the posters are quint­es­sen­tial street art, they have spread this far thanks to their sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship with the Inter­net, which allows the whole world to see them – and order cop­ies. Each poster has, how­ever, a print-run of just 700, Tooth­fish says. “After that, I try to stop send­ing it out. I say, ‘That’s it.’” Why 700? “Tooth­fish just likes that num­ber.” Not that there’s any­thing stop­ping people from print­ing their own, of course. But this policy does help keep down costs (an import­ant con­sid­er­a­tion, when you’re work­ing “on the smell of nothing”).

In the end, Tooth­fish is a net­work, an idea, as much as any­thing else. But it’s also the ulti­mate solo vehicle. “I don’t like to go on protest marches,” Tooth­fish says. “I’m not really a group per­son. I’m more of a lone wolf.” Or, indeed, a sole fish.

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