Paul Chan and His Mom Crochet Criminals Together

Teresa Chan with Paul Chan, “Anna Delvey with Prison Ankle Bracelet” (2022) (all images courtesy the artists unless otherwise noted)

It started with a dare, New York-based artist and writer Paul Chan told me. Two years ago, his mom, Teresa, who was just getting into crocheting, asked him what she should make next. As Sam Bankman-Fried was then making headlines for the spectacular collapse of his crypto exchange FTX, Chan replied, “How about a portrait?”

“I thought she would enjoy the challenge of doing his hair,” he confided. Chan sketched out a draft, and a couple of days later, his mom texted him a picture of her creation. She rose to the challenge: Bankman-Fried’s unruly mop of dark brown hair, true to life, looks like a poodle latched to his scalp.

Teresa Chan with Paul Chan, “Sam Bankman-Fried” (2022)

“We’ve been doing it like this since,” Chan explained. He comes up with a sketch of an infamous figure he thinks would make an interesting subject, and then the two of them chat on the phone (or “game it out,” in Chan’s words). Sometimes his mom thinks the shape of the figure should change, or else she just wants a challenge, “like knitting high heels.” They settle on colors. When she’s done, she mails the approximately 9–to-14-inch figures to him from her home in Los Angeles and Chan adds the finishing touches: a face, hats, eyewear, prison ankle bracelets. 

That last accessory is key. SBF, as Bankman-Fried is often called, is not the exception to this line of crocheted figurines but the rule. Totaling around 15 to date, they’re much like Funko Pops!, except they’re plush, handmade, and exclusively depict morally questionable people.

Indeed, the lineup correlates closely with pop culture’s most wanted, with fraudsters being a particular favorite in the Chan household. There’s Elizabeth Holmes, who infamously convinced the entirety of Silicon Valley to bid on a mythical blood-testing machine, dressed in an all-black tech uniform and looking like she’d do it all over again in a heartbeat, if I read her beady little eyes correctly. And then there’s Anna Delvey, the fake heiress who some regard as a modern-day Robin Hood, looking exactly like she did during her infamous trial with an expression of victimized consternation and comically oversized glasses. 

Teresa Chan with Paul Chan, “Elizabeth Holmes with Prison Ankle Bracelet” (2022)

These figurines aren’t quite caricatures because they’re not exactly indictments, though many of the people they depict have racked up at least a couple of the legal variety. In fact, they can sometimes be oddly moving: The doll of George Santos in drag — dressed in a strapless red dress and a double-string of pearls — towers over his suit-wearing counterpart in a double portrait of sorts, as if highlighting a truer expression of his inner self. Chan pulls out a surprising amount of expression from the few strokes of fabric paint he applies to yarn faces, and his technical clumsiness grants the dolls a human touch. Though we know these fraudsters largely as their digitized avatars — Twitter, Instagram, streamed courtroom trials — here, they are soft things, like all of us.

Teresa Chan with Paul Chan, “Former Congressman George Santos and Drag Santos” (2023)

Chan’s turn toward crocheted doll-making shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, given his unpredictably eclectic body of work, which ranges from erotica publisher to AI self-portrait-maker. Chan attributes his taste for the difficult, esoteric, and philosophically bristly to his mother: “It’s a reflection of her anarchic spirit.” When I asked about their relationship, his response was, much like the series itself, alternately hilarious and sincere: “She hasn’t disowned me yet, so I’d say we’re good. I owe her my life. She’s relieved I’m not in jail.” 

Though “Jabba the Trump” (2017) is currently touring the country in Chan’s exhibition Breathers while its real-life counterpart is stuck in a criminal trial in New York, the whole entourage will be in an upcoming show at curator Olivia Shao’s Chinatown gallery Loong Mah.

“I told Mom I got her a show at one of the most interesting exhibition venues in New York,” Chan said. “Without missing a beat, she said, matter-of-factly, ‘That’s your problem.’”

Teresa Chan with Paul Chan, “Brian Johnson AKA The Liver King” (2024)

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