Somehow, with 128,934 (current) followers since his first post 10 months ago, Joel Strong, creator of the ever-popular mydaywithleo Instagram, is a bit of a mystery. You can’t find him on Facebook; Google his name and you’re sure to scroll over thousands of “lil Leo” images until you’re suddenly in the weird corner of the Internet where Mike Tyson is nuzzling a dove, dogs are dressed in pantsuits, and there’s an endless vacuum of anime. What I did discover via our phone interview is that he may be the nicest guy on Instagram, as well as an unbeknownst genius.
The art project—although it has since developed from his first post—is simple: hold tiny cut-outs of Leonardo DiCaprio stills from the 90s over strangers’ faces and Instagram it—“A sort Humans of New York meets BOP Magazine,” as he puts it. His love for everything social—social media, human interaction, celebrity, and fashion—is evident in each post, but there’s also something refreshingly intriguing about the canvas of the art project itself. While most are posting photos of their gourmet meal at wherever (who cares?), or masturbatory (and borderline sociopathic) selfies, Joel Strong’s mydaywithleo unwittingly advises you to retire your narcissistic ploys and start thinking deeper—but not too deep. It’s also a great way to make friends. Real friends.
What are your tools for creating?
It mostly starts with old magazines. Flipping through those, I look for a picture, preferably one with an expression I like. Then I use an X-Acto knife and a cutting board to extract the image from the publication. All the pictures I’ve taken so far have been with my phone.
Well, I think it’d be easy to say, why not Leo? I was in constant competition with him for the affection of the girls that were around me, and my earliest memories of me making it into a girl’s bedroom usually involved a poster of him on the wall. So I guess in some ways he was like a religious image or the Jesus of the 90s.
Most celebrity Instagrams—when you look at them—they’re pretty glamorous and the stuff they post of their wonderful, amazing lives. I like the idea of taking a junky, little smartphone and taking pictures of Leonardo DiCaprio walking around East Village, or Heidi Klum in a liquor store. I like blending celebrities with ordinary places.
Your first mydaywithleo Instagram shows the famous black and white Polaroid of “Leonardo DiCaprio With A Swan” shot by Annie Leibovitz in 1997 for Vanity Fair. What came first, the idea or the Polaroid?
Honestly, that first picture was just sort of an accident. I bought that post card to send to a friend on the West Coast. Something about the image made me laugh. I started taking pictures of it around different locations of New York. I started going through my old magazines and stuff and looking for other pictures. She never received [the postcard].
Social media as a canvas is something you really seem to grasp, where as others might see it as mostly a way to showcase their portfolio or their next meal.
I just think that it’s an amazing time to be an artist because you’re not creating in a vacuum. You have the opportunity to put yourself out there, interact with people around your work, and that itself can be somewhat performance. You could take it further to where your projects are how you interact on the Internet or with Instagram or Tinder. If people become parts of your project then it gives them a chance to be a part of something.
How did you begin your collaboration with @subwaybookreview? What other collaborations are on the horizon?
Uli [Beutter Cohen] reached out to me and, you know, I read books sometimes [laughs]. I liked the idea of talking to strangers on subways—a taboo in New York. I felt like she was really embracing the city. We met for coffee and I was like, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we had Oprah giving a book review?” and so we spent about four hours walking around. It was great to see her process. I was happy to work with her and so we might keep doing stuff together.
I just collaborated with Jason Polan. I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time. I approached him and he thinks mydawithleo is funny so he drew a picture of Lukas Haas and David Blaine and he wrote “I heart my friends.” I think more and more I’m gonna try and approach different artists. I’d like to reach out to typographers who write really well and have beautiful penmanship.
The MDWL tinder project seems like a great mydaywithleo opportunity AND a brilliant way to meet girls on the side. Did anyone fall for your scheme?
The project was completely plutonic. My goal was 14 [dates], and I thought that was going to take several months, but the response was pretty overwhelming. I ended up going on 14 dates in 14 days, which is crazy and tiring. I’m kind of an extroverted introvert in that I like being around people, but it wears me out pretty quickly and I kind of need recovery time. But it was a lot of fun. I was really pleasantly surprised. I feel like I made a lot of good friends. New York can be a lonely place sometimes and to realize that suddenly I have ten people I can call to go get a drink or hang out with—it makes New York a more palatable place to be.
What are your plans for mydaywithleo?
I have a lit agent who is shopping a book right now. I think there’s a lot of concepts and themes that I could explore in a book format.
“I guess in some ways he was like a religious image or the Jesus of the 90s.”
Do you take your cut-out heads everywhere with you? I envision a leather-bound book containing pages with square, plastic pockets—something like a photo album, but filled with hundreds of lil celebrity heads.
[laughs] Yeah, I’m lying in bed right now with a 100 cut-out heads everywhere [laughs]. I take days off, for sure. There’s days I leave the house and don’t wanna bring it with me because then I’ll be tempted. But then there’s other times, like I saw a marriage proposal and I was so mad that I didn’t make it look like Leo was on his knees proposing to this girl. It’s kind of a bummer, but it’s probably for the best that I didn’t desecrate a beautiful moment.
Do you know Photoshop?
No, I’m terrible at it. I’m always forgetting shortcuts and I’m like why is it not selecting this selection of the image? And I get frustrated. Unfortunately I’m getting to that age where modern technology is getting beyond me [laughs].
I feel like that’s part of the attraction. It’s a real, tangible art project instead of something Photoshopped.
Yeah! Like at my art show last night [at Northern Bell] I had a large frame of different cutouts I’ve used and I think people got a kick out of seeing them. I think people like interacting with physical objects.
Who should we interview next?
Jason [Polan] @JasonPolan is an artist that I think is brilliant. He explores different canvases. He did a series where he would cut fruit open and paint. He has a really hilarious project called “Everyone In New York”—his goal is to draw every human in New York. The label though is, like, “Guy At Grand Central Sitting On Bench”. [laughs] He also does this amazing thing called Taco Bell Drawing Club, which is where I met him. He hosts the drawing club at Taco Bell and anybody can come. He’s been doing that for 9 years and it’s surprising that Taco Bell has never reached out to him [laughs], and nobody’s ever asked him why he’s there every Wednesday, it’s the same Taco Bell [laughs].
Would a “lil Leo” cutout over Leonardo DiCaprio the person be the ultimate post? Or would Instagram implode from the overwhelming metaphysical implications that could occur?
[laughs] I feel like I would receive death threats if I covered Leo’s face. I think in some ways if that were to ever happen, that would be my last Leonardo DiCaprio post.
What are you going to do after this interview?
Go buy my mom a birthday gift.
Joel Strong is an artist living and breathing in New York City. His work has been featured in Nylon, Elle, and Fortune magazine. He has held an exhibition at Northern Bell in NYC. You can follow his projects with “lil Leo,” and a plethora of other celebrity heartthrobs, on Instragram @mydaywithleo and visit him at www.mydaywithleo.com.