Did you know that broccoli is gay? And that aliens are too? Even Peppa Pig is gay! Don’t pinch yourself: you’re not dreaming of the best place on Earth [or a leftist-controlled dystopia if you stink of homophobia]. This is Pepo Moreno’s universe, and we’re all just living in it.
Interview tak­en from METAL Magazine issue 48. Adapted for the online version. Order your copy here.
His illustrations have taken the world by storm. And by taking them, I mean gay-ifying them. But it’d be unfair to reduce the Spanish artist’s work to only a series of illustrations where he mocks heteronormativity. His paintings go beyond that: he transforms the walls hanging his pieces into happy places. Juggling humour, political discourse, and self- healing, Pepo is finding in art a way to know himself better and also enjoy. Which, at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all here for? As he says below, “This is coming to an end for all of us.”
After spinning the globe in his twenties, he settled down in Paris eight years ago, where he takes my video call from. And he does so in very good company: Dylan, his boyfriend, and his newfound love, Poto, the puppy they just got together. Cuteness overload, right? Just wait until you discover he’s also had donkeys, chickens, and is currently working hand-in-hand with his dad to renovate their family farmhouse. A joy shared among all living beings.
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You’ve been living in Paris for over eight years now, but after stalking you a bit on Instagram, I see you spend a lot of time in a sort of farmhouse. Can you tell me more about this place and what it brings to you?
Yes, I’ve been living in Paris for eight years, but for the last two or three I’ve been spending long periods of time in a farmhouse that belongs to my family. For me, it’s a process of returning to my roots but also of reclaiming a territory that’s always been very important to me but from which I fled as an LGBTQ+ person. But it’s nothing new, I mean, queer people from rural areas often flee their homes thinking that the city is the solution to all their problems. And it’s true to some extent: you find a community, you feel much freer, etc. But many people also end up shunning certain things that are part of their essence, and I’m also reclaiming that space for myself. It’s important both for my life and my creativity. I have come to realise that to do certain things, I need to be more in touch with nature, with a less sophisticated or wilder part of myself in a sense. It’s also a matter of physical space. I live in Paris, and I don’t have a place as big as the farmhouse to be able to create and experiment. I’m privileged to have such a space to work and live in, and I go there a lot. In addition, I’m renovating it, it’s a project that I’m starting with my father. It’s a bit of an act of love.
So, you’re getting your hands dirty?
I help here and there. My father is much more skilled and much more into this type of thing. But I’m learning to do things that I never thought of, from repairing a wall to making Roman concrete, to cleaning the field of weeds, or cutting firewood. And that’s cool, really, I’m enjoying it more than I thought. Now I’m in Paris and I already miss it.
I love that you're connecting with your father while doing tasks that many of us in the LGBTQ+ community reject from a very young age because it’s guy stuff that we don’t want to be involved in. But in the end, they are survival skills – building, repairing, etc. We shy away from this knowledge because of who holds its power.
And it gives you freedom also. When you live in a city, it seems like you have to ask for help to do anything: from repairing a tile that fell off the bathroom to changing a window. These are things that I have done now, and it’s fascinating. It has to do with independence and maybe, psychologically, with reclaiming that part that may seem to belong only to straight guys. We’re afraid because we’ve felt rejected, so we don’t want to be involved in these activities.
The other day, wondering about this, I also thought about sports. We haven’t rejected these things because we don’t want to do them but because, many times, it’s such a toxic environment that our vulnerability is impacted and we are much more visible. If in a ‘normal’ context you already emit a certain visibility, that light that you have [because I consider it a light] seems to be in a cave and shines even brighter.
You are absolutely right, with sports this also happens. They are spaces highly dominated by straight men in which you are included from a young age for being a man too, but you feel rejected from the very beginning.
Yes, true.
You’ve lived in very different places: Tortosa [your hometown], Barcelona, Berlin, New York, and now Paris. Is home where your heart is?
I think it is. I consider home to be a place where the people I care about are. I’m in Paris a little bit out of deference to the fact that I’ve lived here for eight years, but also because my partner is here. In the end, I think that what attaches you to places is the people. And of course my heart is here. If it weren’t for him, I would probably have left Paris by now. Since the pandemic, probably.
Do you ever feel nostalgic or homesick?
Yes, I do. I’m very nostalgic. And I think I also build my universe from that. To me, nostalgia isn’t negative, I think it’s super enriching.
Back to that sweet donkey – sorry, I’m obsessed!
I have some bad news...
Please, don’t tell me he died.
He passed away, yes. I’ve had several donkeys in my life, he isn’t the last one. He died not long ago, at the end of the summer.
I’m sorry for your loss.
Thank you. I loved him very much, I was very upset.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I feel that people who have grown up surrounded by animals in the countryside have a different kind of relationship with their life and death.
Yes, totally. But imagine, the donkey died on my father’s birthday.
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Jeans LEVI'S 501, Racer tank top LEVI'S.
Oh, shit.
Speaking of animals, look what I have [he shows a baby puppy].
OMG, I’m dying, how cute!
Back to the donkey. He died on my father’s birthday, and that made me think a lot. And yes, the relationship with animals, their life and death, is different. I’ve had animals of all kinds: a rabbit that weighed 25kg [it was killed by a dog that came into the house], ponies and horses, and bats that we would find so we could heal them. I remember my father, who is a doctor, once took a bat that had a broken wing and sewed it up to heal it. I’ve also had goats, chickens... you name it.
I just wanted to talk about your relationship with animals. Almost everyone has asked their parents for a pet as a child. The arrival of an animal in the family is always very joyful. But you have a new one now, tell me about him.
His name is Poto. It’s a French slang thing.
What does it mean?
Pot means something like bro. And Poto is the super badass version of saying bro. We thought it was very musical and my boyfriend really liked it. [Pepo asks him if this is the first time he’s had a dog]. It’s the first time Dylan has had a dog. I wasn’t very sure about it because I know that the moment I have an animal, I pour all of my emotional responsibility into it. So, I think Dylan wasn’t really aware of how intense it is to have an animal. We have a tiny dog because our apartment is not so big, and in Paris you should have small animals. We think it’s a chihuahua but we’re not 100% sure.
He’s so beautiful, I’m sure he’ll bring you a lot of joy. But let’s change the subject or I’ll spend the day talking about Poto. You worked in marketing for different luxury brands for many years, and then the pandemic came. It’s been more than three years now, how do you remember those anxiety-inducing, chaotic months?
Like hell. I was very anxious because of the general uncertainty. In fact, today I was working out and I was thinking about the horror that we lived through. From time to time it comes back to me as a shadow. For me it was the uncertainty of thinking that that was the end of the world – I’m very dramatic and I’m very empathetic to the things around me. But it was also very dramatic for people who worked in corporate and in businesses that were so dependent on the extraordinary, like luxury, which is where I was working at the time. People would immediately stop buying unnecessary things, and luxury is the first thing you don’t need. So the working environment turned more demanding but nobody knew where all of this was going.
Because of the pandemic, you quit your job and since then you have committed to your artistic practice. Do you believe in destiny? I mean, do you think you were destined to be an artist?
I’m not sure, but I don’t know if I’m going to be one forever either. I don’t think you should commit to anything forever. I quit my job, yes, but I’d been painting for some time already and had participated in some group exhibitions. I knew that creatively I was much more satisfied doing this [what I’m doing now] than working in corporate, especially in that context. The pandemic really changed my perspective on work. And everyone else’s, which is why the dynamics have changed so much since then and people have become disenchanted, and so on.
I think what the pandemic helped me with was mostly having the time and space to be able to paint. And being able to express that darkness into something positive. That’s when I began to make a collection of pieces that ended up resulting in my first exhibition, called Dimoni, which was about those moments of darkness that everyone has.
You’ve confessed to feeling uncomfortable with defining yourself as an artist, especially in the beginning. How has this perception changed and how do you feel about it now?
I used to say that I painted, which is super undefined. I feel much more comfortable with the term now because I see it as much more generic. Before, I used to think of it as something more elevated. I had this image of the artist that was a bit old-fashioned or very arrogant. I didn’t see myself that way. That image was based on mental clichés that I created for myself. In reality, it doesn’t have to be that way. I feel more comfortable because I believe that an artist is a doer, you know, someone who does things, no matter what.
It’s true. Many times, pop culture presents artists as people who work in a very conceptual way, only exhibit in prestigious galleries...
Or that are hard to understand. But my messages are very clear. In the end, I’ve learnt to be this. You can learn to be an artist. There is also this conception that you have to be born an artist. And you know, maybe not, everyone has a path. Maybe you’re an artist and you never know it simply because of the context in which you live, your personal circumstances or your economic conditions. Maybe you can never allow yourself to be one.
It’s Ok to Cry is the title of your exhibition at Maison Kitsuné in New York. Do you cry often?
A lot, yes.
What’s your relationship with your feelings like? How do you connect with yourself?
I don’t have a strategy to connect with my feelings, they are very present all the time, now more than ever. This journey I’m making of returning to the origin implies seeing yourself from the outside and picking up relationships that maybe you had left a little neglected, or simply seeing relationships that you already had from another point of view, from total honesty. And also from a feeling of memento mori, that hey, this is coming to an end for all of us. I don’t have any kind of strategy but I am super aware of the things that happen to me.
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Trucker jacket LEVI'S and jeans LEVI'S 501.
We all have our go-to songs, books, and films to enjoy when we’re sad – listening to Adele when you’re heartbroken, for example. But it can go the other way around as well. Could you tell me about some films, songs, or books that bring you joy and cheer you up?
Yes, of course. Look, I remember the first time I went to New York, in 2008, I was there for five or six months, and I went to study English and do an internship with METAL. I was working with Ángela Esteban Librero at the time, and I helped her on two or three shootings. I remember the first time I landed, I left my suitcase at the hostel where I was staying, in Harlem or wherever, and I put on my iPod – at that time we still had iPods – and the first song that came on was Heartbeat by Annie.
I went to the subway, listened to it, and all of a sudden that song, which is amazing [it’s been around for a while and it’s still a very Y2K anthem], continues to have big importance to me. It talks about the excitement of coming to a new place where everything is still to be done, and that’s super nice, especially when you’re just getting started. That was really cool.
In your universe, everything is gay: donuts, ketamine, Björk’s swan dress, tabasco, aliens, Vatican city, Peppa Pig, and even homophobia. Can you list three things that aren’t gay?
Three things that aren’t gay... I don’t know, I think you can mock anything. Like, something’s so un-gay that we’re going to make it gay just to fuck with it. So no, I think everything is gay. Everything is gay depending on the gaze and the intention with which you look at it.
I love how the word gay is so fitted for this issue, where we explore the concept of joy. Apparently, the term comes from the Old French word gai, which originally meant something like joyful, carefree or bright and showy. Did you know that?
Yes, I did.
Growing up gay is often difficult. You once wrote: “When you’re gay there are many demons and they all talk to you and the truth is that it’s a mess sometimes.” How did you manage to come to terms with those demons, and how do you handle them when they speak to you now?
First, by getting to know myself and going to therapy. And then, by learning to forgive myself as well. Often times, since we come from environments that underestimate or undermine us, we try to be our best precisely to avoid that rejection. We think that, hey, since they won’t love me because of who I am, at least they’ll love me because I’m the best at this, this, and that. I won’t cause any trouble. And I believe that creates a lot of monsters.
You’re right, I had never thought of it that way. But we indeed feel the urge to excel so that others accept us.
Also out of fear. Since I feel so bad because I’m going to give you trouble for being who I am, I’m going to try to be the best version of myself, and you end up forgetting who you are. And you have no idea why you’ve been doing things for others instead of for yourself. You have to try to forgive yourself and know that the person you’ve built, maybe, you’ve built it on the desires of others and it’s not your truth. So, take the time to get to know yourself and build yourself back up. And don’t be so hard on yourself. We forgive others a lot but we don’t forgive ourselves at all.
Was there a specific moment when you realised that it’s ok to be gay?
I think it was when I left high school, although I think it was more about freeing myself from certain chains I had at home. Well, not in my household because I never had many problems, almost none, but in my environment. And at that moment I allowed myself to say, hey, that’s it, free Willy [laughs]. You calm down. That’s where you start the process. I also have the theory that, especially our generation - wait, I don’t know how old you are.
 I’m 29.
Ok, you’re a bit younger than me, eight or nine years. But I remember that when I started going out when I was 18 or 19, it was the boom of the whole pink capitalism, especially in Barcelona. There was a super gay reality. I think that the glitter that existed at the time, that context with so much colour, so much liberation, so much enthusiasm, and so many drugs, made you forget the traumas and problems you came from. We have also used these smokescreens, at least in my generation.
Yes, totally. I also think it’s a process in which we experience a second adolescence. I’m from Mataró, which has a heavy nightclub scene, so I’ve been going out since I was 15, but everything that my straight female friends experienced between 14 and 16, I couldn’t begin to experience until I moved to Barcelona when I was 19. And that’s when you explore desire, love, and so on. We generate a world of escapism because the trauma goes back to an early age.
Yes, it has to do with that and with the creation of tailor- made, safe environments. That context often helps you find your community. But in reality, your community is falling apart, it doesn’t have any stability. So this serves its purpose for a while, but then you have to be very honest with yourself. And above all, I think it’s super important to know where we come from and to claim the origins of sexual liberation movements. It’s something I’m becoming more and more informed about in order to understand and respect them. It seems that the gays popped out in the middle of the Eixample all of a sudden, you know? And no, not at all. We come from the public baths, the Raval neighbourhood, the cinemas in Paralelo, and cruising areas in Montjuïc.
Also, you and I are in Paris and Barcelona, where we are accepted, but think of smaller towns. For example, when I lived in Galicia I remember taking a bus to Porto and stopping at the stations of the towns in between, the public toilets were full of old men doing cruising. Because they probably had their wives at home, there wasn’t a gay bar for miles around, etc. There is still a very underground reality, either because of family and cultural context or because of the generation gap.
Yes, there is a noticeable generation gap. There is a chasm, and many people stayed on the other side of the chasm, whether they wanted to or not. But I feel that we deny our origin as a community. I noticed that all of a sudden in the 2000s, boom! We appear. Pollinated. And no, this has a background, a history. We often forget that the first Gay Pride demonstration in Spain was held in Barcelona. And it seems that now Madrid Pride is the biggest thing.
Because they have capitalised on it more. They’ve commodified it.
Exactly. But we come from the underground, from that history, which starts in Barcelona, and we should all be very proud and very grateful to the crossdressers, the gays, and the lesbians that stood there in front. By the way, they were beaten up by the police afterwards.
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Jeans LEVI'S 501, t-shirt and boots Pepo's own.
Well, of course. They could still put us in jail! And at the end of the day, we mostly have each other. In the wise words of RuPaul: “We, as gay people, get to choose our family and the people we’re around.” It’s so important for LGBTQ+ people to surround ourselves with others within our community. Tell me more about your chosen family and how you’ve managed to build it throughout the places you’ve lived in.
I met my first gay friends in college. Although the first time I fell in love was in high school. That’s when I started to have a sort of relationship, but it was dark. And then my chosen family, where you can feel and do as you want, was during college. I think that’s the big difference between high school and college: you decide who you go with.
For me it’s very important and I continue to have it [that group of friends]. I have people all over the place. I lived in Berlin for four years, my first boyfriend is from there, and I continue to have many friends in the city. In the end you spread, you sow and you reap.
Love is so important, especially now that hate seems to rule the world. What is your love language? How do you love?
It’s very complicated to love, in general. I’m a bit intense, I can be a bit too much. And I’m very aware of that, I often ask for forgiveness from the people around me, especially my partner, because I can be a bit overwhelming. Also, we both work from home so we spend many hours together. We try to separate it, but I can become a bit suffocating. But I’m very conscious of that. And it doesn’t come from being controlling or trying to dominate someone; it’s in an honest way, and I think it’s not toxic, or so I’d like to think. It comes from the positive. But I understand that people want to take a rest from me at some point.
[Laughs]. Speaking of which, I loved the work you did for a couple, Pablo and Nico, who’re friends we have in common. Could you tell me more about it?
Nico contacted me and all he said was that he wanted the words ‘You and I,’ and that he got a specific reference. And that was it. I’m very open creatively. I like to do things that excite people, I think that’s the best thing. The commissions serve this purpose, they have to be a collaborative work. It’s not about my opinion as a creator. It’s about you, you explain the story to me. I also did it because I thought it was cool because they are people I love.
In recent years, your career has skyrocketed: you’ve exhibited in art capitals like Paris and NYC, published a book, collaborated with several brands, how do you stay grounded?
Knowing that everything can end from one day to the next. And this decision does not depend only on me [I can obviously decide to stop if I want to], but also on the context. Everything has its ups and downs, its cycles. It’s something I’ve had to get used to as well.
I know that there will be very busy months and others where there’ll be less work, which is something you don’t really experience when you work in corporate. You always have a steady level of work [with peaks and troughs, of course], but hey, you always have a job and you know you’re going to get paid at the end of the month.
That’s what I was going to say: no matter what, you know that every month you’re going to get a fixed salary.
And this is not the case, so I had to make myself aware of that.
Do you feel you’re busier during Pride month, work-wise?
Yes, I do.
It’s something I’ve talked about with other artists as well. Pride is the equivalent of Christmas for queer creatives.
It’s happened to me in the last two years. Although I feel I worked a bit less last year. The first one was super busy, I worked so much for Pride. Well, and last year too, I’m not going to lie [laughs]. At the end of the day, if my message is aligned with what they are going to communicate, I’m delighted. As long as they are projects that make sense to me.
Back to keeping your feet on the ground. For ACERO magazine you wrote: “It’s horrible to be an artist. Everything goes through you, and you try not to be such a jerk and say it speaks of someone else or a shared feeling, but it really speaks all about you.” Are artists inherently egomaniacal?
Some certainly are. I also think it comes from what I was telling you about how I was afraid to be called an artist because I thought I was going to be lumped in with histrionic, arrogant, or very intellectual people. When the message in what I do is so clear that there are no second readings or interpretations. The other day I read something where an artist said that artists shouldn’t talk about ourselves exclusively. It seems very complicated to me because, many times, the things I do start from an aspect of self-healing and having a conversation with myself. I try to understand myself. And I do all that with humour and a formula that I think is not at all complicated to understand.
The things I do, if they have had a certain repercussion or if they have touched someone emotionally, it’s because I believe that the form is not obscuring the message. That is to say, the form is quite simple, I paint in a quite simplistic way, but the message is what remains, and that message is engaging.
Absolutely. In the end, the illustrations are easy to get, they aren’t abstract works with super hermetic and complicated readings.
There are incredible interpretations though. But I won’t be that artist because I wouldn’t even know where to start. Anyway, I want to take my art to the next level. Now I’ve started to work on more corporeal things and I’m going to make sculptures as well. But always starting from the message and the gimmicky and simplicity. I would find it very strange to do symbolic impressionism all of a sudden. It would make me laugh at myself.
Joy, like any other feeling, is ephemeral. We go up and down the emotional rollercoaster of life. And sometimes it’s only when we look back that we realise we were happy. Where do you feel you stand now?
I’m happy, but alert. Watchful for what might happen.
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Trucker jacket LEVI'S.
Alert as in on your toes? On guard
A little on guard, yes, I’m a little tense. Unlike my dog, who is here sleeping in the most comfortable pose [He shows his dog sprawled on his lap].
He’s just adorable.
Yes, he is. I hope he’s cute and doesn’t have a bad temper. Well, I’m a little bit on guard because I see that what I’ve done so far has helped me to build certain bases and I want to evolve all that. I’m keeping my options open to see where I can go from there. But I’m happy!
Also, some feelings awaken differently as we go through life: some things that made us happy in the past but don’t as we get older, and vice versa. Can you tell me some things that bring you joy today?
It makes me super happy to get out of the city and connect with nature, to change scenery. Having visual and vital richness brings me so much joy, much more than before because I took it for granted. And it makes me happy to see beyond. I think it’s related to this, but having a horizon. Seeing the horizon brings me peace and tranquility. But I am content with very little. My most mundane joy can come from just going out for a coffee with my boyfriend. I don’t need much more than that. I used to be much more self-conscious about my existence. Also because I was more involved in social life – more fashion and art-related events, etc – and that made me self- conscious about my happiness because I thought I had to do certain things or be a certain way in order to be happy and meet certain expectations. And I’ve realised that I don’t; I just don’t care about that. The more I’ve lowered my expectations, the happier and more relaxed I am. I can’t wait to have the farmhouse I dream of and go there to spend longer periods of time.
To finish. Looking back, what moment or event in life has brought you the most joy?
Honestly, I think joy can be measured in comparison to difficulty. Like what you said about the rollercoaster: you go up, the excitement, and then the tranquility. Or when you go for a run, when you finish you have that explosion of endorphins where you feel super good about yourself. I think I had that moment, especially work-wise, when I set up my first exhibition in Paris. I arrived with all of my pieces in this white cube space, and I had never done anything like that before. I said yes to everything, but of course, it was all a lie, it was my first time.
You know what they say, fake it till you make it.
 I won an Oscar for Best Actress for that [laughs]. I was fucking clueless! But I had a bit of a magical moment of telling myself: well, you’re here by yourself with three hundred pieces, you have to make it happen – I don’t know how many pieces I had, but I made a huge mural. You’re just going to have to make it happen because you’ve convinced these people. That memory of seeing that I could do it, that I did it, and that people were convinced, I thought maybe I wasn’t conning anybody. And that was a pretty crucial moment.
The start of it all, somehow.
And in my case, it’s also the relief of saying, this guy who comes from working at Paco Rabanne, what’s he about? Also understanding it in the context of the art scene in Paris. It’s very complicated. It’s very statutory, very difficult to get into.
Very competitive?
I guess, I don’t know. I try to be a bit à-coté, on the side, because it scares me. I prefer not to open my mouth too much and I go step by step. And above all, to do it and that no alarm went off and the firemen came to extinguish the flame of the impostor syndrome was good. In the end, it’s the relief of thinking, tonight I can sleep. And from there we build.
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Jeans LEVI'S 501, Racer tank top LEVI'S, shoes Pepo's own.