Nothing Compares 2 U: Artist Troy Gua’s complicated relationship with Prince

"Raspberry Beret" by Troy Gua.
“Raspberry Beret” by Troy Gua.

Seattle artist Troy Gua doesn’t hesitate to name Prince as his biggest influence.

Gua’s photo series “Le Petit Prince,” which features a miniature Prince doll replicating iconic images from the singer’s career, went viral in 2012, counting Questlove among its many fans. But then Gua was served with a cease and desist by The Artist himself.

Wrestling with how to respond to his idol, Gua made “Le Petit Troy,” a “fantasy fulfillment” doll of himself portraying Prince — and eventually more of Gua’s heroes, like David Bowie, Frida Kahlo, and even Bob Ross.

Shortly after The Purple One’s death last month, Gua spoke with the Seattle Globalist about how he’s been affected by the loss, his complicated relationship with the musician stemming from the LPP project, and his plans for the future.

You’ve said Prince has been your biggest influence. How have the last few days been for you?

I’m tripping out. Since I was 13 years old I looked to this guy as inspiration. It’s heartbreaking. I figured he would outlive me and live forever — he was magical! It was really a shock. It’s been really cool to see so much love and appreciation of Prince, but it’s a weird time — it’s like losing a loved relative or a chunk of me. I’m still processing.

Any new reflections on how Prince has impacted your work, or on The Artist’s efforts to shut your LPP project down?

When the whole LPP project started, it was just for myself, and taking pictures of this doll I made. After I posted them, people started flipping out and asking for different outfits – I saw it as a challenge for myself. Over time it turned into staged images and lighting effects and a fog machine and creating a feeling, not just a picture of an object – it became art.

It started as a doll, then turned into memorializing these moments we experience that meant a lot to us Prince fans.

Then the cease and desist happened. It kind of crushed me at the time. I didn’t want to fight my hero, so I backed off and I didn’t do anything for a while. Then Le Petit Troy series was my answer to that: I will use my face and be you.

"Purple Rain" by Troy Gua, featuring Le Petit Troy, who replaced Le Petit Prince after the cease and desist letter.
“Purple Rain” by Troy Gua, featuring Le Petit Troy, who replaced Le Petit Prince after the cease and desist letter.

I felt a little bitter about him for a while.

Reading about him, it seemed at times like we didn’t share belief systems at all. When I first discovered Prince, he was a dude that checked “other” in everything – race, sexuality, man, woman — I’m ambiguous and I’m a little bit of all of you. That was so inclusive. I grew up a lower middle class white kid in suburbia — I’m aware of how much entitlement that gives me, but I still felt like I was an outsider — I always related to that.

Over the decades, he seemed to change the way he looked at the world, and perhaps became more judgmental and close-minded. That was kind of a disappointment, but I couldn’t turn away and I’m still an avid fan — so that’s the other part I’m mixed up about.

I also feel like over the last few years Prince and I had this back and forth thing without actually having any contact. After the cease and desist Prince started using other fans’ artwork for promotional use and album covers – almost as if it was a thumbed nose at me.Fans wore shirts with my Prince artwork on them to concerts and he probably saw it — after that he had other fan’s art printed for him to wear.

We also went to see him play the Showbox in 2013. It was an intimate space and we were pretty close. Prince kept bending down to adjust his pedals and it seemed like every time he’d look up and give me the stink eye. I didn’t want to say anything and seem paranoid, but my wife noticed it, and other people saw it too — plus I was wearing one of the LPP shirts.

I’ve talked with some people that used to work with him, and they said, “Oh that’s totally a Prince move,” like he was messing with me. In a weird way I take it as a compliment.

I’m torn over whether or not it would have been a good idea to meet him – it’s this open-ended story, that I’ll never really know what he felt.It’s like a dysfunctional older brother relationship, but it’s crushing that the relationship is gone. It’s a bummer Prince never embraced it, but the way people have responded to it has been amazing.

Have you been tuned into what the local response has been to his passing?

Not too much, I’ve been holed up and isolated and I haven’t wanted to be around people.  This is a big part of me, like, I don’t feel like talking about it at the gym. This is really the first time I’ve talked about it since he died.

The whole LPP project has been kind of ignored, for whatever reason, by the local arts scene. I kind of feel like I lost credibility with local art scenesters, and I’m not sure why that is — I do all kinds of different art. Prince’s ability to jump from one style to another and make it his own — that’s another inspiration for me.

Has “Le Petit Prince” connected with people worldwide? How has reception been internationally?

I’ve made friends with folks all over the world because of Le Petit Prince — it kind of blew me away. During the first wave in 2012, I got emails and friend requests from all over Europe and South America and Japan. LPP has been a conduit for me to get in touch with like-minded folks and Prince fans around the world. LPP has become globally recognized by the Prince community. From North Beacon Hill…to the world!

"The Ladder" by Troy Gua.
“The Ladder” by Troy Gua.
So did you make the Prince doll yourself? What about all the different outfits?

I’d messed around with Sculpey before, and as a kid was always fascinated with Gerry Anderson marionettes from the ‘60s and ‘70s — these odd cute sci-fi and space age creatures…the movie Team America was based on that look. Even back then, I wanted to create a Prince doll.

I tried to find someone to make an outfit for me, the classic Purple Rain raincoat outfit. I couldn’t find anyone to do it for a reasonable price, so my wife found me a sewing machine and I taught myself how to sew for this. I make all the clothes and stage props, the guitars, the piano…the whole project was about invention, including how do I recreate that stage setup.

Sometimes people ask me, “How come you never put Sheila E. or Vanity in there?” Because Prince was singular. There’s a conceptual element to his autonomy — it was all about Prince.

Yeah, Prince did write and arrange everything in his songs and could play all the instruments…

It seemed other people were playing the roles he really could do all by himself — that’s why he’s alone in my images — there’s only one Prince! It also speaks to this loneliness he seemed to have. He didn’t ever really let anyone know him — he was so obsessed with making music — at least that’s my feeling as an outsider, watching all these people go in and out of his life, especially after The Revolution. At the end of day it’s just him and his music.

"Controversy" by Troy Gua.
“Controversy” by Troy Gua.
Are you planning to do anything soon in tribute? Art or otherwise?

I’m going to continue the LPP series. I started from the beginning of his career through the ‘80s and now I want to go back and do the ‘90s. I don’t know how this will end or if it will end. It got kind of out of hand for a while. I got so obsessed with it. I left work that paid the bills to the side.

The last piece I posted on Instagram – of Prince climbing a ladder to heaven… reading the comments people are leaving — it’s been moving.  It’s too soon to think about this, but maybe I’d make prints of that available for folks. I don’t want to capitalize on it, but there’s a desire for them and I do want to provide that. Fans are saying that Prince still lives through this art – how could I not continue this?

Troy Gua’s Le Petit Prince series and other artwork can be found at his website www.troygua.com,on Instagram @troygua and Twitter at #LPPisART.

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4 Comments

  1. The doll is quite adorable. It’s too bad you two couldn’t have collaborated on them.
    I wish the 2 of you had been able to talk, that you could have told him what you said here. I’m sad for you sad about him. 💜

  2. Your artwork touched me across the miles, albeit only in New Jersey…Of all the amazing artwork you have produced: LPP amazes me the most. We’ll never know how he could NOT love LPP, but be certain that fans of YOUR art DO.

  3. Troy, my Prince brother…you are a very talented individual & I’ve seen countless numbers of your fascinating artwork collections of our beloved Prince! What you do is not only amazing, but it is inspiring as well. We are all truly sad from his passing and it hurts so bad, but; please continue to do what you are gifted at doing! :-)

  4. I have been a huge fan of Prince since I was 17 years old,he and I being the same age ,truly believe that Prince undoubtably loved Le Petit Prince and was honored that you took so much time and dedication to produce such a phenomenal piece of art.If you watch him with Jay Leno ,comedian Sinbad ,and his concert audience on You Tube ,you will see that he had an incredibly hilarious sense of humor of which he shared late at night on their shows unlike the mysterious persona created in his earlier career in an effort at being taken seriously .Most of us ,his fans also felt that he was so serious that one would not dare allow him to think that he was to be taken lightly. I think as he matured he finally came to the realization that we all loved,admired, and most of all respected his genius and as a result he finally allowed himself to relax and enjoy “his fam” as he referred to us.this is why I feel he genuinely loved your LPP Mr. Gua but I feel he thought a good thing such as your art could probably get out of control in the wrong hands so he probably had to weigh things out and chose to protect his image as a result. I miss him so so much and I have cried so much at the loss of this great, talented ,wonderful,and generous humanitarian. Your LPP ,so painstakingly created and crafted makes me happy deep down in my soul and I am certain that I speak for countless others. I do hope that your are able to publish your book ,Le Petit Prince . I love all of your LPP’s especially the chain hat with his cute little face peering through the chain mail .I hope his family allows this for his “fam” meaning us of course to enjoy and in the process allow you to receive the worldwide acknowledgement and respect that you and your art so richly deserve !! Respectfully yours, Ms. Judy Hendrix RN,BSN

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