Tiny Respite: Meet Tiny Fellas, the Littlest Street Art Team in DC
Art at ground level.
At the base of Capitol Hill, looking about the grounds of the Ulysses S. Grant Memorial, the standard fare of Washington, DC, tourists are milling about pointing fingers and cameras at things both near and far across the National Mall. Next to me, Jason Campos is taking his own batch of photos in the direction of the Capitol itself. Looking at the viewfinder on the screen of his iPhone, he puts the massive government building in a soft relief, focusing instead on the true subject and focal point of his photographs: a tiny figurine of a man lifting a woman in a loving embrace. Placed on the wide marble railing, the statuettes are no taller than the length of a thumbnail, looking as if they’ve somehow been infused with the miniaturizing Pym Particles from Marvel’s Ant-Man comic books. If you weren’t actively looking for the carefully curated scene, chances are you’d walk right by it.
Close by, Campos’s creative partner Becky Nissel is walking around, pacing with her face in her phone working out the caption that will eventually accompany the picture they will post on Instagram. Nissel wanders over and looks at one of Campos’s shots. “That’s beautiful,” she says. “Even if it’s not super centered, I actually dig that a lot.”
Feeling satisfied, Campos replies, “Alright, I’ll edit it and send it to you. How close are you?”
Feeling less than satisfied with her caption options, Nissel answers, “I’ve got a couple I’m working with. It’s usually not this hard.”
For the past few months, this is how Campos and Nissel have been spending their weekends. The two have made DC their own oversized diorama with what they’ve dubbed Tiny Fellas. Though still in its infancy, Campos and Nissel’s unique, semi-found-art installations have become a wonderfully welcome and alleviating escape for a town forced to share the same space with an increasingly toxic political scene. Embracing a love of the random and unexpected, and even providing a bit of commentary in the process, the project has developed a devoted online community through its geotagging, scavenger hunt playfulness on social media.
“DC’s not known—at least in my opinion—for being out there and being weird and having a huge art scene,” says Nissel. “I feel that’s changing. People live here who want to make things and do things and who get excited about this kind of stuff, and I think DC is ripe for something small and weird to come in and excite people, because it’s so not ‘DC,’ traditionally.”
The idea for Tiny Fellas was first conceived by Campos several years ago. “I used to live out in Vienna, [Virginia,] and I would go out on runs,” says Campos. “And there was this one spot on the trails where there would be loads of bees.” Having on a lark purchased figurines of tiny beekeepers and their honey-collecting supers, Campos grabbed some glue and placed them along the trail where the bees were located. For Campos, something stuck with him in “that wondering of what happens when someone finds it.”
At a Halloween party in 2015, Campos met Nissel. After they ran into each other again and again among their overlapping group of friends, Campos eventually approached Nissel about partnering on his diminutive art idea. “I was like, ‘Oh my god Jason is a closet weirdo,’” recalls Nissel. “But I was so excited.” Campos, of course, had his own ulterior motives for approaching Nissel—it was a great excuse to spend even more time with her. Luckily for Campos, Nissel had her own unspoken crush on him, and the two have since become more than just friends and collaborators.
Campos and Nissel officially launched Tiny Fellas on October 30 of last year—almost a year to the day after they first met—and their first installation featured a man sleeping on a bench getting poked by a nightstick-wielding policeman at the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument left blurred in the distance. In the time since, Campos and Nissel have left a growing number of their miniscule population around the city, including a guitar-playing busker at the Lincoln Memorial, two nuns getting flashed at Meridian Hill Park, a Hazmat containment unit surrounding massive cigarette butt at the 9:30 Club, and a man holding a sign saying “Thanks Obama” on the South Lawn of the White House. Nissel says those first installation set-ups made her nervous. “It was kind of scary,” says she. “Like, ‘Are we vandalizing? Are we going to get caught? Are we going to get in trouble?’” Much more self-assured now, she says, “If I ever get arrested, may it be for Tiny Fellas.” Campos laughs at such a hypothetical. “I would love to go before a judge. That would be so weird.”
“I don’t know what we were expecting,” says Nissel. “We talked about how it would be awesome if people saw this and played along with us and we turned it into a game with the city, but those were high hopes and pipe dreams. We were always just going to be having fun setting these things up and knowing that they were there and somebody else saw them. But people are tagging their friends, saying, ‘Check this out. You would be so into this.’
Barack & Michelle, These past 8 years have been nothing short of remarkable. And what a joy it has been to live in this city knowing your family was in that house. #DC is our home—a place we love filled with brilliant minds who make it truly wonderful. So please know that no matter what happens in the times ahead, we'll be doing our #tinypart to keep it that way. From all of us, big and small, thank you for showing the world what it means to be proper human beings. #thanksobama #tinyfellas #igdc #potus #weethepeople
Things are winding down for the setup of their Grant Memorial installation. Nissel has settled on her caption: “Love trumps hate. Whatever takes place in this town and however much it upsets you, never lose sight of that which cannot be banned or belittled.”
With Campos and Nissel almost ready to announce that their latest Tiny Fella is ready to be found, a massive group of sightseers suddenly descends on our spot, looking to capture some photos of their own from the same vantage point looking up at the Capitol. At one point a woman stands directly next to Campos and Nissel’s artwork, smiling for the camera. The three of us—Campos, Nissel, and I—wait patiently for the couple to take their pictures, all the while smiling ourselves at the fact that the woman is experiencing the tiniest of photobombs. FL