Brooklyn artists are giving the rainbow a makeover.
To celebrate the LGBTQ+ community, the iconic candy brand Skittles reached out to five artists, including two Brooklyn-based creators, to commission the design of its 2023 Pride edition.
One of the selected artists was Art Director and illustrator Shanée Benjamin from Crown Heights, whose art style is about shining a light on Black queer joy as she portrays real people in her life in her pieces.
The brand also asked Creative Director, entrepreneur and designer Zipeng Zhu based in Bushwick, who describes himself as an artist who wants to make every day a razzle-dazzle musical.
“I’ve been putting out lots of artistic content that reflects my identity, how I identify, and also my journey as a queer person and an immigrant, so I feel like some of those messages resonated with the Skittles team and therefore they reached out,” said Zhu.
The creative was born and raised in China, before moving to New York 14 years ago to attend the School of Visual Arts. He is the co-founder of Dazzle Studio, a multidisciplinary art-developing space in Bushwick that specializes in creating visuals. His soon-to-launch project, Asset, is a butt wellness brand.
Apart from the artists’ compensation, $1 from each candy pack sold —up to $100,000— will go to GLAAD, a non-governmental media and business monitoring organization that safeguard LGBTQ+ rights and the community’s interests and integrity.
Every year, through June, many brands dress their products up with the LGBTQ+ community flag. Some of them use the symbol to indicate part of their proceeds from sales of those products will be used to support queer people or organizations, but others are blamed by their consumers for “rainbow washing” or “rainbow capitalism,” using rainbow flag imagery to sell their products to queer customers without using their power to advocate for LGBTQ+ equity in a sustained way.
An article by the BBC reported that upwards of 90% of gay people support businesses that appear supportive of the community, but many don’t know if it’s all fake advertising. Some brands even stop rebranding after facing heat from anti-gay consumers.
GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation, Alex Schmider, describes rainbow washing as “a disconnect between what is being conveyed or indicated about a company’s values and what that company is actually instituting in practice.”
“One way to help is to continue hiring queer artists,” said Benjamin. “Continue to pay us our worth and put your money where your mouth is. Honestly speaking, if you wanna support us, then genuinely support us. Just slapping a rainbow on a logo doesn’t really help at all. [With the packaging] they gave us the path to tell our story and we told our story loudly and boldly and unapologetically, and I love that I was given the space to do that with such a brand that I’ve literally loved since I was a child.”
Benjamin dropped out of corporate life in 2018 and took a leap into illustrating the day after. For her collaboration, she chose to use the candy’s motto, “Taste the rainbow,” as the inspiration. Red lips and a row of teeth including a gold one, bite into a rainbow over a pink background covered in different colored happy faces, a heart with “Pride” written on it and a sun displaying the acronym of LGBTQ+.
“One thing about being a part of the queer community is that we have a chosen family and I truly love the chosen family that I have,” said Benjamin. “I can connect with people that love me for me authentically. We share growth together, we have experiences that we can talk about, that we can share together, we can help each other navigate, and so, my favorite thing about queerness is how strong we hold our community to us.”
In Bushwick, Zhu experiments similar feelings.
“Brooklyn has been so accepting,” said Zhu, who with his art, wants to “bring a little bit of bright sunshine,” he said. “I wanna bring a little bit of colorful rainbow, and I wanna bring energy to everyone who looked at my work.”
Zhu says his art can be described as colorful, relentless, and exuberant. He took that principle to design the Skittles wrapper with a heart-eyes smiling emoji and different color waves behind it. Over the background, the phrase “Express Urself” is highlighted.
“Pride is a simple expression of love,” said Zhu. “It means the love that you have for yourself, for the way you are, the love that you have for other people, the love that you have for the community and the love that you have for simply existing among all of this.”
The limited-edition Pride packs will be available to purchase in 4oz Share Size Packs and 15.6oz Stand Up Pouches at select retailers nationwide starting in May through mid-July.