8 March 2021
Amid a Devastating Year and Bleak Future for Live Music,
Photographer Muhstee Stays Afloat with a Modern DIY Approach
The noise artist Jehovah’s Princess was scheduled to open the event followed by Posterboy 2000 and Not Amused. The show’s headliner, Brooklyn-based musician Dreamcrusher, would be performing their mix of industrial, noise, punk, and hardcore music best described by the artist’s motto, Nihilist Queer Revolt Musik. With an eight dollar cover charge, the show was slated to take place at Superchief Gallery in Ridgewood, New York, where the artists could hypothetically make as much noise as possible.
This was to be a big day for Johan Bonilla, the photographer better known by his artist moniker and Instagram handle, Muhstee. The twenty-six year old photographer had organized the event as a premier for his self-titled zine that documents the New York City underground music scene, dominated largely by Brooklyn and Queens based musicians and bands.
The show was initially scheduled for March 21st, 2020 but was postponed on March 12th as the pandemic disrupted life in New York and cancelled all live shows with it. Johan found himself scrambling to find a way to release his zine to the world and get some attention. Johan had only recently given up his job as a phone salesman for T-Mobile, a post he held for five years, to try to make a full-time living as a photographer. Adept at photographing the underground music scene, he initially tried to sell his framed photos for $50 each. After only selling ten or so photographs, Johan found more success when he switched to selling his photographs on cheaper paper for $8 to $10, finding financial stability and an online following exceeding 10,000 followers on Instagram in doing so.
“Let’s just say that I’m pretty comfortable,” says Johan, declining to reveal how much money he makes from his zines and posters. His posters are consistently sold out on his website and editions of his zine have been reprinted multiple times due to their popularity. Despite his apparent success, Johan was depending on his zine launch at Superchief to push his career to the next level, establishing him as a photographer who shows in galleries.
Johan’s rapid success is impressive considering his relatively late introduction to music photography. Born in Cali, Colombia, Johan moved with his mother, aunt, and cousin to Woodhaven, New York when he was six-years old, following his grandmother’s earlier immigration and marriage in the US. She had fled her home due to a lack of jobs and poor economy in Colombia. He now resides with his mother in Kew Gardens, Queens. Johan, a musician at heart, played guitar for his church’s band as a child, claiming it was his first hobby. When applying a ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario to Johan’s artistic practice as a photographer, it is clear that music came before cameras.
“The first ever show I actually went to ever in my life was a hardcore punk show” Johan, who sports a bleached buzz cut and mustache, says over zoom, while he giggles at a friend playing a practical joke behind him. Johan regained his composure as the friend left the scene and clarified that his first exposure to a live show was a surf punk show by The Waves that his girlfriend at the time took him to in Central Park. Johan, fifteen years old at the time, fell in love with the energy that he could expel and receive in a mosh pit.
The same year, at a Flatbush Zombies show, he recognized Lauren Lapore—a photographer he followed on Instagram (@35mm.mistress) and who he says is a major influence on his photography to this day—outside of the venue, which Johan and Lauren both fail to put a name to. “I have shot so many concerts in my life that I barely remember this Flatbush Zombies concert. But I do remember meeting Johan because he was so excited to meet me in person,” says Lauren. Lauren later sold Johan his first camera for twelve dollars. “It definitely had to be a point and shoot because those are his favorites,” Lauren says.
When Johan began working on his zine, he reached out to Lauren for help. She gave him tips on how to use InDesign, the bookmaking software used by most photographers, and connected him with the company that prints her zines. “Now, I've even started to just send people my templates to work off of and an actual physical copy of the zine,” she explains.
“I know that Johan does own a lot of my work, and I think that it was a big help for him to get him started on his own zine work. Just being able to see mine and being able to be like, ‘Oh, I like this, maybe I want to add something like this,’ … or this is a great categorization of photos.’ All the little details matter so much in a zine,” says Lauren. “I was so proud to see the outcome of his first zine. I actually have it hanging on my wall still, to this day.”.
Initially interested in taking pictures of his friends at home or hanging out in the city, Johan eventually brought his camera to a hardcore show that a friend was putting on. Even though there was a crowd of about “five people,” Johan recalls, he took pictures as a sign of support. Since that night, he says that bringing a camera with him “just snowballed into me doing it at every show.” But it wasn’t until early 2018 that Johan began taking photos of shows consistently and posting them on instagram.
Johan claims to have broken at least ten cameras in mosh pits, a testament to his dedication to dive deep into crowds to capture the raw energy of the show. One of the greatest advantages of photographing with a point and shoot film camera is their affordability, interchangeability, and abundance on the internet.
Early last November, after Johan broke his camera at a Halloween show and posted about it on his Instagram story, Mei Mei McComb, a New School fine arts student at the time, reached out to Johan and said, “Yo, pull up. I got you, come get this camera.” A photographer since she was thirteen, Mei Mei, who goes by @porkfatbaby on instagram, let him borrow her camera, remarking, “it took him a long time to give me that camera back.”
Following multiple failed attempts to return the camera, Johan eventually got it back to Mei Mei after driving her home to Bushwick from her job at Colorhouse photo lab in Manhattan. “I think I was probably showing him zines that I've made, and I think he was just like, ‘I'm gonna make one!’,” says Mei Mei.
At the time, Mei Mei and a friend were splitting the hefty annual fee for the Adobe Suite subscription necessary to use InDesign on her computer. Mei Mei gave Johan further InDesign instructions and the space to work on his zine with her laptop. Following Johan’s introduction to InDesign, Mei Mei says that he would often come over to her house to work on his zine, hang out, watch TV, smoke weed, and play with her dog, Daisy.
Mei Mei speaks highly of Johan, saying, “it's no surprise he can get people to pose for him in the photos. You know, he's a sweet person,” and “I would trust him to pick up the phone if I called and needed something.”
Speaking of Johan’s process, Mei Mei says “I think that the zine was really straightforward in his head.” She says that he already knew that he wanted the photographs to appear chronologically and in full bleed with the page. While he bounced ideas off Mei Mei in the process of laying out the zine, she feels that she had very little to do with the editing process, saying that “he'd already had a folder of pre-selected photos and obviously he'd be like, ‘which one is better?’ It'd be like two photos of the same person, different angle or something, you know, stuff like that.”
While Mei Mei does not see herself as having had a big influence on the zine, Johan brings her up as someone who has helped him progress as a photographer. Though photography has been Johan’s main source of income since departing from his job at T-Mobile, Mei Mei says, “It's not for money, he makes these photos because he wants to, and he wants people to see them.”
During the last two years, Johan has persistently shot the most important shows and bands in the New York underground scene. He has constructed his own style in doing so. Johan has connected with musicians, visual artists, and photographers alike to collaborate and make some of the most in-your-face images documenting the scene today. The colors in his photographs are almost as explosive as the personalities that he captures. The crowds illustrated by his images are as interesting as the musicians commanding their bodies and ears. Johan’s zine, Muhstee, is a collection of the faces, places, and movements that define the soul of the New York underground music community.
Johan chose the name Muhstee, a stylization of musty, because he says, “It's nasty. I guess it just kind of describes the shit that I be shooting. Ugly shit sometimes, but beautiful at the same time.” Johan planned to release the first edition of his zine to his show at Superchief Gallery back in march. The space would allow the musicians to use their abrasive and scientifically engineered sounds to coerce the audience’s bodies into forming a crowd resembling a contained riot, while simultaneously acting as the location of one of the most important events in the career of a young, up-and-coming photographer.
Johan began his relationship with Superchief Gallery around June of 2019 when he covered a fashion, music, and performance art show there organized by the multimedia artist Christian Anger (@angertv). Johan had connected with Christian earlier in October of 2018 when he attended and photographed a show put on by Christian’s band, Crystal Martyr. One of Johan’s photos from the show briefly went up in a gallery and while Christian was unable to go see it, he expressed his excitement at his appearance in a photograph at a gallery.
Christian says that when he was planning his show at Superchief Gallery, Johan was the first person he contacted to cover the event. Christian told Johan that, “if you want, you could be backstage with us and just take pictures of everything and do whatever. And he was like, ‘For real? I’m in there!’.” Christian continued, “We had him shoot the whole show. I had met him before, but we didn't get that cool till Superchief. I just felt like he'd be the perfect person to shoot that.”
Christian knows how much Johan loves music and the underground scene and sees the value in an image maker who is so connected to the scene that he documents. Christian says that Johan “really gets into it. He's really into the music. He's in the pit. If his camera is not there, he's still in the pit. That's why he's able to capture people with that light, because he's able to just go in there.”
Christian thinks that Johan’s zine and poster making are inspiring because he says, they remind him of “when you were young. Your whole wall was full of posters.” After Christian’s event at Superchief Gallery, Johan was on the venue’s radar, which lined him up for his zine release show.
When Johan’s March show was cancelled due to the pandemic, he worked the phones to create an even better online version of the event. He changed the name (from Muhstee Zine Release Show to Muhstee Quarantine Live Stream), its format, line-up, and date. Foreshadowing what would become the only form of live musical performance intended for an audience larger than a brunch crowd for the following nine months, the show took place on March 27th on the Post World Radio Instagram account’s livestream from 1 PM to 1 AM.
Rather than the originally scheduled three hour show at Superchief Gallery, the show hosted twelve hours of live performances from more than fifteen musicians. The performers included Da Pop, Channel 63, Noble Spell, Posterboy 2000, Not Amused, Aes Vissle, The Lo-Fi’s, Machine Girl, Jehovah’s Princess, Deli Girls, Wiki, Nascar Aloe (who was unable to make the show), and Oddly Shrugs with Kids Next Door and Fo55il. The instagram live performance conveyed that in the age of closed music venues, digital reproduction and experience making, the role of imagemaker is more important than ever.
While most musicians and music photographers have had an objectively terrible year for their careers due to an absence of live performances, the connections that Johan made in the underground music scene before the pandemic have helped him continue to create content. In November of 2019, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic put a hold on much of the New York underground scene, Johan was looking for new artists to photograph. He came across the Los Angeles based hardcore-rapper, Nascar Aloe. “This guy's perfect, like, I need to shoot this guy,” Johan said, after seeing Nascar Aloe’s massive liberty spikes (which he has since cut) and bombastic music (which continues to be loud as hell).
Nascar Aloe “ended up coming out here to do a show with one of my friends. And I was like, ‘it's perfect.’ So I got introduced to him through that homie of mine,” Johan says. The musician liked Johan’s photos so much that he posted them on his social media accounts where he received positive responses. Through this, Johan says he became close with “NASCAR and his manager Fo55il, and his other manager, Myagi.”
Nascar Aloe, Fo55il, and Myagi are all part of Deathproof Inc. an L.A. based artist collective and indie record label curated by Myagi, which represents Kids Next Door, Oddly Shrugs, Malice K, and Bob Vylan, alongside their most famous artist, Nascar Aloe. From December 2019 to the end of January 2020, Deathproof went on tour and Johan joined them for a week-long leg of the trip, after which, they invited him to come out to California to work with them there. “Muhstee took a bunch of the most iconic pictures that we had on that tour. We just loved his style and the way he captured things,” says Myagi. “On top of that we were just friends. This dude is cool as shit. It just made sense,” he continued.
“He really just sees the scene, and the crowd, and the people around him. He sees them as art. He sees everything differently than everyone else. He really loves to, capture people who are different, who represent things with their style and look. He has a really good eye for that. When he was taking a lot of pictures with us, obviously he thought we looked cool, and we were looking at the pictures being like ‘Man, these pictures make us look really fucking cool!’ He just has that eye. He can make anyone look cool,” says Myagi. When COVID-19 shut down much of the New York City underground scene, Johan saw an opportunity out West to continue his post-zine photography work. He packed his bags and left his home in Kew Gardens for Los Angeles.
Myagi says that Johan’s contributions to Deathproof have been important during the pandemic. Putting out images, videos, and music are the only way for fans to connect with musicians at this time. Johan has needed to adapt his photography practice to the times we live in as well. “I had to shift my content because mostly I was shooting people at shows but now that's not around. I've taken more to lifestyle shooting and portraits,” he says.
Until December of 2020, Johan stayed with the Deathproof crew in Los Angeles at one of their three music headquarters in the city and feels they have helped widen his work with other West coast artists, saying that the members of the group “have their own connections so they put me onto people like Prayers.” And while live shows aren’t in the cards for Johan or any musicians with a conscience in the near future, Johan still has dreams of travelling the world.
Johan wants to document the hardcore and punk scenes of Chile, the UK, and Japan, while showing a special interest for Bogota, Colombia and its punk scene as well as Atlanta’s hip-hop scene. “I'm a very spontaneous person so I’ve just been kind of going along with the flow. I didn't think I was gonna be in L.A. a couple months ago,” Johan says. “In three years I would like to see myself shooting some more people that I'm into,” he says, assuring that he will push his practice forward regardless of his spontaneity. “I'm trying to shoot with Alice Glass or people I have looked up to,” says Johan, listing Dorian Electra as another artist that he would like to work with.
While it may be months, if not years, before venues can open fully back up for live shows, in the meantime Johan plans to hone his craft of portrait photography. “I definitely want to start getting into more galleries,” he says.
Having returned to New York just before Christmas, Johan has begun work on a new zine for the year of 2020. He also plans to shoot more photos with ZillaKami and SosMula of the Hip-Hop duo, City Morgue, whom he has worked with previously. Though he just sold out the most recent edition of his zine, he plans on printing another edition for a pop-up show at Superchief Gallery that will happen at some point in 2021. While Johan’s pivot to portraiture and lifestyle photography has been successful, he will be the first in line to attend and photograph live shows once cities and venues open back up. Look for him in the middle of the mosh pit.