The world may have “Banksy,” but Sitka now has its own anonymous artist, who uses the internet — rather than buildings — as a canvas for a satirical take on local news and events. KCAW recently discovered the person who runs the “Sitka Memes” account on Instagram — but the identity of the “memester” remains a mystery.
Walk the streets of Los Angeles, London or Paris, and you may be fortunate enough to stumble across a Banksy original. The provocative street artist satirizes society, pop culture, and politics with distinctive graffiti, stencils, and 3D installations. He’s perhaps one of the most well known, prolific street artists, and he’s remained anonymous for years, adding to his allure.
Sitka doesn’t have that many streets, but it may now have its “Banksy,” in the virtual space anyway. On Instagram, where one particular combination of art, satire, and imagery takes shape. It’s not just art — it’s the language of the internet.
I’m talking about memes, and if you don’t know what a “meme” is, here’s Michael Mausbach, Sitka’s resident web culture critic, to explain.
“I feel like a meme is generally an image taken from somewhere in popular culture or in art that usually has some kind of caption or series of text to accompany it, and kind of places it into a different context,” Mausbach says. “Really kind of a form of satire.”
Mausbach is always in-the-know about what’s happening in Sitka’s online scene. A few months ago, they noticed a relatively new account, Sitka Memes, showing up on Instagram. The humor was expertly scaled to small-town Sitka, touching everything from local politics, to lost and found pets, to the agony of buying avocados in Southeast Alaska. One meme, in particular, really resonated with Mausbach.
“I was scrolling through Instagram, and I about broke the “like” button, because on October 10, they posted a meme,” Mausbach recalls. “I can only describe it as like a Goosebumps cover. Two roller coaster carts cruising by one another, and you’ve got two groups of people high fiving. In one cart, coming back into the start of the ride, you’ve got a bunch of corpses. In the other cart about to embark on the ride, you have a bunch of young fresh faced people.”
Let me interrupt here to say that it’s really hard to describe a meme and not suck the humor right out of it, but bear with me. The spooky skeletons are labeled “young people living in Sitka on Tinder.” They’re desperately reaching for the passengers on the other rollercoaster, who represent Americorps volunteers, Alaska Fellows and other young people who move to Sitka in the fall and log onto the popular dating app that doesn’t quite work the same in a small town as it does in bigger cities.
“And I think as a millennial living in Sitka who has had to navigate the dating scene on a small island in the North Pacific, that resonated so strongly,” Mausbach says. “I think that ability to take satire and speak to social dynamics like dating in a small rural Alaska town, I just really see a lot of value in that, and it definitely has been my favorite thus far.”
The scope of Sitka Memes is so broad, that Mausbach wonders if the memester isn’t a single artist, but a collaborative.
“You know, I have theorized as to who it might be, there’s been several people in my immediate orbit, that I’m like, ‘It has to be them,'” Mausbach says. “It’s someone approaching it from a curatorial place, who I think clearly has a good sense of humor and read. And I’m wondering if it’s a collection of people or an individual, and at this point, it’s still to be determined.”
“Sitka Memes is kind of a brainchild of a friend group. There’s a group of us and we’re all buddies,” says Alex Tratuf. She runs the Sitka Memes account.
“I’m really just the thumb that decides what goes up when,” she says. She agreed to this interview as long as she could use a pseudonym. I’ve also altered her voice to protect her anonymity.
“We all love Sitka. And you know, good jest of the crazy headlines, the things that make news, the things that go on in town,” she says. “And it started with us just texting in our group chat memes back and forth. And eventually, I was like, ‘Someone else might enjoy this too. You know, let’s, let’s make an account. Let’s do it.'”
Back in March of 2021, she posted the first “Sitka Meme.” It’s a picture of the infamous Tiger King, Joe Exotic, saying he’ll never recover financially from building Sitka’s Blue Lake Dam. It’s pop culture meeting local politics. And what makes the memes even more special, is you won’t get that joke if you’re not a Sitkan.
“In college I actually took a folklore class, and we had a textbook that was full of memes, which I thought was funny at first,” says Alex Tratuf. “And then we kind of explored like, the reason that memes resonate with people so much is because it’s a format that you recognize, but it’s a situation that’s tailored to you.”
“It just makes you feel like a part of something and like you really get the joke,” she continues.
Some of the memes have gotten pretty niche- if you’re not paying attention to the local paper or Sitka’s virtual town hall, the facebook group “Sitka Chatters,” the content can be harder to interpret.
Take the “Spaghetti Joyride” meme for example.
“I was actually out of town camping out of service and someone inReach texted me and said, ‘You will not believe what happened this weekend while you were gone,'” Alex says. “And when I got back I got to see screenshots, and it was just hilarious.”
A Sitkan’s car had been taken for a joyride over the weekend– since many Sitkans leave their keys in their cars this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. But the carjacker left a surprise- a container of spaghetti red sauce smeared all over the interior of the car. Sitka Memes “memefied” the incident that generated a lot of conversation online, but it still warranted some explanation.
“What is it, you can only get a misdemeanor for a joyride instead of like actual car theft unless a ferry is in town because then you can’t prove that they’re actually trying to like leave with a car?” Alex says. “So there’s like a couple layers I guess to that one…current events and and just the knowledge that being on an island and only having 14 miles of road, a joyride is basically the worst penalty you can get for something like that.”
Sitka isn’t the only Alaska community to spawn its own meme page in the last year. Alex Tratuf says she drew inspiration for Sitka Memes from even more niche meme pages in Yakutat and Cordova — but that’s all she’ll divulge about her background. Sitka Memes works because it’s a mystery. Anywhere you go in Sitka, there could be a memester in your midst.
“I think it’s kind of fun for the community. It could be anybody, you know, anything you do– your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers,” she says. “I will say I do have co workers that follow my account, which is crazy.”
“Here’s a group of people who just agree that Sitka is funny and quirky,” she says of the people who follow the account and the minds behind it. “And we’ve got a really unique crowd, and things that happen here that wouldn’t happen anywhere else.”