I became a fan of Squiggles and Sluts shortly after meeting them in 2018. From time to time I joke around about building a huge collection of their artwork, but there's a kernel of truth hidden under the joking tone. Simply put, their work speaks to me. You may have stumbled across a Squiggles and Sluts original on your way to this article; they've created over 40 illustrations for the Tryst Blog with more to come. But other platforms for displaying their art are much less reliable and accepting.
Though largely known for their illustrations, Squiggles works in a variety of mediums that span the digital and physical. Over the years, they have crafted a body of work that explores the sex industry through the lens of their personal experiences and perspective. When they first entered the industry they lacked many of the connections and resources they rely on now.
“I started doing sex work when I was still in high school... It was very isolated. It was very sloppy. It was very unsafe. I started out like on Craigslist doing random shit, I don't really know what to call it. It wasn't escorting, it wasn't sugaring, it was just random gigs.”
In 2015 Squiggles was accepted to an arts college and moved across the country, from Albuquerque to Baltimore. Once at school they shifted to online sex work, doing camming and phone sex operating. From their very first semester onwards, sexual imagery was integral to the work they were turning in. When that evolved into exploring sexual labor, however, the difference in how people reacted to their art was dramatic.
“[T]he sex work artwork was a whole other level of ‘We do not want to talk about this or deal with it’. There was one professor who really got me and was like, ‘I want you to improve, do well, express yourself. Let's follow this vision all the way through.’ But, I had some really weird ass reactions from people. Lots of stigma and shame and judgment. [...] [T]here were a lot of people who had no interest in me before all of a sudden asking me invasive questions."
You could tell that the way I was perceived was suddenly very warped, from being private about being a sex worker to being public about it. It was weird, and I felt very uncomfortable. [There were] a lot of silent critiques. [H]onestly, I did not give a fuck what these people had to say about my work. I was like, ‘Your opinion is so irrelevant to me.’ Hilarious, but some of those people who were able to give me feedback, like actually good feedback, are now sex workers.”
Despite their previous involvement in the industry, Squiggles didn’t self-identify as a sex worker until they started stripping in 2017. This was their first time returning to in-person work since they moved to Baltimore, and the club environment was nothing like the piecemeal gigs they had done as a teen.
“I found the experience of becoming a stripper really, really overwhelming and overstimulating. All I wanted to do was think about it, talk about it, make work about it. It was just so much for me. It took up almost all of my brain space.
I was becoming really connected and invested in the community. I was still in art school, and I was like, ‘Okay, well, how can I make my assignments about this shit?’ I started to make work about my personal experience as a stripper who had done other forms of sex work while I was still in art school, and I made like a zine in 2017, right before I dropped out [...], about SESTA/FOSTA for one of my classes.
All We Have Is Each Other was just an informational zine. I printed out copies and I posted on my Instagram that I would mail them out to anyone who wanted a copy for free. I was just trying to get information out there, I was like, ‘You can print it yourself.’ I was just trying to distribute it far and wide.”
Squiggles was feeling more socially connected, both through their deepening involvement with Baltimore SWOP as well as the relationships they built with their fellow dancers. As SESTA/FOSTA barrelled through the U.S. Congress, they continued making work that drew attention to the dangers of expanding surveillance and censorship. The bill’s passage kicked off a wave of repression that we are still fighting to the current day. Subsequent legislation, such as the EARN x’s IT Act, threatens to further dismantle digital privacy and cause more harm to those pushed to the margins of society.
Burned out on Baltimore clubs, Squiggles entered 2020 dancing in Philadelphia. They were constantly traveling, driving between Baltimore, the Philly club, and dates with their sugar daddy in New Jersey. On top of a demanding work schedule, they were pursuing more opportunities to show and share their art. In February 2020 they displayed a collection of their animations on an embellished TV for a Valentine’s Day benefit show, with a number of other shows on the horizon. Squiggles was expanding their practice, and even beginning to learn tattooing. All of that came to a screeching halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the US in March of 2020.
“I had to stop dancing, the club closed down. […] They called me and they were like, ‘So, you don't have a job anymore.’ And we're like, ‘Oh, fuck, okay.’”
Clubs were closed, travel was difficult, and money was tight. Artistic projects were changed or canceled altogether, compounding the financial stress of losing their main source of income. In-person encounters suddenly had a new layer of risk, and Squiggles, like many others, poured their energy into online sex work. Despite finding the style of working to be draining and difficult, they focused on putting out content on OnlyFans. They were lucky enough to get on unemployment, and could occasionally rely on their sugar daddy for income. The path to move forward in their career no longer looked as clear as it once had.
“I was starting to work with some big names, and was going to be in a very public place. I feel like if that had actually happened, shit, that would have been really good for my career. [I]t didn't happen. Once [it] kind of sunk in that my in-person opportunities were gone, I started doing some work for mutual aid in Baltimore and I made these graphics for a [fundraiser] for Baltimore based sex workers in need of aid.”
This sudden uncertainty took a toll on Squiggles’ mental health. Their artistic output slowed to a trickle. The constant demands of online sex work wore them down, leaving little energy for anything else in their life.
“Trying to film yourself masturbating in a new and exciting way and being like, ‘I can't even nut.’ […]When I find old videos of myself trying to look sexual during my OnlyFans stint [...], I can't even enjoy [it]. I just know what's happening in my brain and I know that it's TV static.”
Though they were producing less artwork at this time, the pieces they were able to produce were about issues close to their heart. With so many people flocking to online spaces, Squiggles began to see increased engagement with their work. The Black Lives Matter movement and ongoing actions for racial justice were dominating the US media cycle by the summer of 2020. Squiggles, inspired by a post from @sequinmicrobikini, drew an illustration of a Black dancer on a pole which read “Black sex workers invented modern stripping and pole dance.” The timing of this simple, factual statement meant that image gained massive traction. While grateful for the feedback and expanded audience, Squiggles still felt conflicted about personally benefiting from the struggle for Black liberation.
“[T]hat's the thing about Instagram. If you make a very easy, repostable message that a certain amount of people fuck with, that can shit can go viral. [...] So that’s what went viral for me, and I got a lot of followers and a lot of reach from that post. The most likes I've ever gotten on anything was from that post, in like, my whole internet footprint. It's also something that Black folks have been saying for a long time. They don't even need me to say it, obviously. So, yeah. That was a little weird.
But it was happening to a lot of artists, I think, at that time. Anyone who made a statement about Black Lives Matter in an aesthetically pleasing way on Instagram could get follows and likes and reposts. I definitely saw some backlash to that happening. Like, ‘Don't use this shit for clout,’ which is very legit and a valid critique.”
Black sex workers, especially those at the intersection of multiple marginalized identities, must face racism, stigma, and a slew of other challenges. Even with the odds stacked against them, Black sex workers are innovators and pillars within their communities. Squiggles has listed some organizations working towards Black liberation on their site, but encourages everyone to pay more attention and money to Black sex workers.
As Squiggles' audience and reach expanded, new artistic opportunities opened up to them. In August 2020 they were invited to perform for E-Viction, an experience that deeply impacted the artist. Curated by Veil Machine, E-Viction was “a virtual arthouse/whore gallery event that existed for 12 hours before self-destructing.”
“I'm telling you, I poured my soul into that performance. I was preparing for weeks, if not months. [...] I had nothing else to do every night, and every day too. I was just sitting in bed, working on visuals to project behind me. I made three hours of visuals to project. I made three hours of audio. I was writing songs. [...] So it was a combination of my own animations, IMVU gameplay, I think some video that I had taken as well. Lots of layered singing, very dreamlike stuff. Very, very dreamlike. Very emotional.
I like to think about it like a combination of camming, stripping, drag, musical theater, […] performance art, video, and music.
Yeah, and illustration.
And illustration, animation, and flirting. Yeah. And being hot. It was everything I had, all of my skills. Literally all my skills from stripping and being a sex worker, from being an artist, I poured into that. I gave it everything I could. It was amazing. And it was exhausting. After that, I was like, I don't even know what to make anymore. I just gave everything I had, I emptied myself into it.[...] I was literally just on a zoom call, but I felt like I was in a room full of people. I felt like I was in front of an audience. I could feel all of the performers as if they were next to me. Then all of a sudden I hang up the Zoom call and it's just you [Sam] and me in my living room, and it was like, ’What the fuck is this?’
Honestly, when I look at the footage I have from just the background visuals and the background audio, I'm like, ‘Oh my god, I'm gonna cry.’ It was me baring my soul and my sadness and my weirdness as a queer sex worker experiencing a really hard time. And I really wanted people to see it and connect with it.”
I played a supportive role in Squiggles' performance, running the technical side of things and playing a mask-clad strip club DJ character. We had collaborated on some small projects here and there, but this event carried a different weight. They performed for two hours, interacting with the audience and dancing on their pole. We took a brief break before the final hour of performances and breakdown of the platform itself. As we watched the site self-destructing – error messages popping up with escalating frequency and our fellow performers glitching before ultimately going dark – we cried. The clock struck midnight and it was gone. All of the labor, creativity, love, rage, pain, and hope that the participants poured into E-Viction had been wiped off the digital landscape.
“We got to deplatform ourselves, and everyone else had to experience that jarring feeling. It was really fucking emotional.”
It felt cathartic to be in control of a process that’s all too familiar for sex workers online. Deplatforming, and the more hotly debated shadowbanning, is a violent erasure of those deemed undesirable by society. Those of us that exist at the intersections of marginalized identities tend to bear the brunt of these algorithmic attacks: fatness, Blackness, queerness, disability, and more etch a target into our online presence.
Despite slow growth due to an ongoing shadowban, Squiggles felt content with the roughly 5,000 followers on their @squiggles.and.sluts Instagram account. They had already had some posts deleted and they were lightly promoting their backup account. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be enough to prevent the gut punch of having their main account taken down in autumn of 2021.
“It feels deeply personal. I felt rejected. I felt like I had been messaged that my art is not worth seeing. That I'm not worthy of having a connection with my community. That my work is vile or profane. Not that I believe these things, but these are the messages I'm getting and it's really fucking hurtful. It's demoralizing. […] I'm demoralized.
It's been incredibly frustrating and hurtful. I'm not even over it. I feel like I've been processing it since it happened in October, and I'm like, ‘How do I even process this?’ This is years of my life and work, connections for my future, and a source of income. And just something I really cared about. I'm cut off from those things.
It's not like Instagram is the holder of my entire art career, but they sure as hell helped me make a lot of connections with my community. And they helped me sell things in my store. Which is not petty, because I'm trying to survive under capitalism. I'm trying to not strip anymore. I'm trying to have enough clients and income from art so that I don't have to take on shady clients.”
Instagram’s justification for removing posts was that the content violates their Terms of Service, specifically the section regarding “sexual solicitation.” This is just one of the ripples caused by the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, and an attempt by Instagram to skirt potential liability or loss of marketability for their platform.
“I’d get posts randomly taken down all the time. Lots of warnings, stories would be taken down all the time. The last thing that got taken down before I got deleted was literally a drawing of a woman's face next to very pretty lettering that said ‘Protect trans sex workers.” Literally face, not shoulders, even! [...] So that was gross! That made me so furious. Then when I appealed that, and they looked at the account, they were like, ‘Oh, this whole shit's gotta go.’ And then they deleted my account.”
Squiggles continued to post on Instagram on their former backup account, @squiggles_and_sluts, in an attempt to rebuild some of the connections that they lost. They were still bumping up against the limits of what is deemed "acceptable" on the platform, but in August 2020 the Tryst Blog reached out to commission illustrations from Squiggles. Being able to create illustrations for a platform uninterested in censoring sexuality or discussions of sex work opened up new possibilities for their art. The structure and consistency of these commissions challenged Squiggles to hone their workflow and further develop their craft. Creating work for Tryst meant that they were getting paid reliably and directly for their skills, something that social media platforms can't promise to artists.
“I get the title and the draft of the article sent to me, and then I get to do whatever I want. So I'm not censored at all, but I'm also commissioned to do very specific things. That being said, the things I'm commissioned to do are very up my alley. [E]very time, it's a subject I genuinely give a fuck about and it's subject matter I would want to comment on. It's been really cool to be able to be pushed like that.
It's been a good challenge to myself to be like, ‘You just have to do it, no matter what.’ You know? [...] It's also really cool to be getting paid for something like this. I have a consistent gig. I like that."
Squiggles feels they can't leave the sex industry any time soon, but they are devoting more of their energy to their artistic practice. One skill that they are growing in is tattooing. Though their plans were delayed by the start of the pandemic, they see developing a tattoo practice as a more sustainable long-term source of income.
I felt like since I started sex work, it has not been optional for me to continue doing it. It has been my main source of income for years. Six, seven, I don't even know, a long time. So I'm trying very much to give myself options because sex work burnout hits different than other industry burnout, and that is just true. Especially because I am an in person sex worker. I feel like that hits extra, extra hard.
“I can see myself eventually, once I have the skill set built, depending on tattooing full time if I wanted to. So I just want to give myself more opportunities.
Right now I feel like I'm very much just in the hunkering down and learning stage. [...] I think once I'm able to show that I have tattoo skills and a portfolio, my clients will find me. And I'm trying to prove to myself that I don't need Instagram in order to be a successful artist. [...] But right now, I feel like I'm a little bit more low key and just trying to put in the work now, so that I can set myself up to maintain this as a career.”
Sex workers are no strangers to adaptation. We are often early adopters of technology and platforms, but we also tend to be among the first who are refused access to the same tools we helped build up. It is exhausting to constantly stay ahead of all the doors that slam closed in our faces. Squiggles, like many sex workers, just wants some stability. They want to have enough money to live comfortably, maybe even to thrive. And they don't want to have to rely on bad clients in order to do that.
Please follow me on stuff . Please like, comment, subscribe, reshare, save, send to your mom. Buy my shit. Commission me to draw you as a furry. Ask me to be a part of your art show or your zine. Support sex workers.
Currently, the best place to see Squiggles' work is on their website. Their newest piece is a video project titled Yes, I Will Always Haunt This Place. You are greeted in the locker room by Squiggles, "a veteran stripper who haunts the club." She shares some friendly banter as the club around you both "slowly derail[s] into a surreal and cursed landscape." The project is being released in three sections on the Lips Zine Instagram.