Ira Lupu

Meet Siobhan Meow, transgender artist and cat savior from Manhattan

Text and photography: IRA LUPU
September 2017
Read in Russian

Video: Ira Lupu. Edit:

Siobhan is 61 years old; her birth name is Bill, and she had gender reassignment surgery in 2003. In 2006, Siobhan’s friend and controversial radio and TV personality Howard Stern had talked her into losing her “brand new” female virginity on air. It took two shows and two “fiances” to make the tender thing happen. Siobhan became one of the first transgender women who appeared before broad audience. But that’s not why we write about her.

Even if she continued living as Bill, she would still be worth attention. From 80’s onwards, she’s an iconic art character of East Village, NYC. She took part in establishing the famous local Umbrella House squat and created transsexual punk band PeP GirlZ, she acted in short films and drew comics. Her paintings cost thousands of dollars, and some of them were made with cat hair and excrements (The New York Times and Huffington Post journalists were thrilled about it).

And it’s sinful to assume it’s a kind of mediocre art provocation. No — this is an act of great love, because no one loves cats more than Siobhan does.

It’s many years that she keeps her Furry Love Kitten Kat Farm in Umbrella House. It’s same time shelter, hospital and hospice where Siobhan cures sick and bereaved cats. It’s not that she just lives with cats and takes care of them: together they are family. Siobhan has human family too. As Bill, she got two daughters and she says it was nearly by chance, but she still maintains the most cordial relations with them.

— Siobhan, when we first met, you told me that you have two zodiac signs, the second one being Aquarius. Why so?

I had gender reassignment surgery in February, and I became Aquarius in a sense.

— So you felt like you became a completely different person?

— Oh totally. I believe what happened to me in my life, is that I developed multiple personalities from the child abuse. Such split happens when a person’s ego is destroyed from a very early age. The part of the brain called limbic system develops properly if the child is raised with care at that time, but in other cases, it may become damaged to such an extent that it can’t be repaired. So a certain ‘soul death’ appears and a person no longer exists. Then, the child could develop multiple personalities as a way to cope with the damage. 

With me, it got to the point where I had to either do the gender reassignment, or just die.

I can tell you, I was quite asexual throughout my life. I never ever had a wet dream normally boys have them when they hit puberty. But I started having them only after the surgery, after I hit 50. My first weird wet dream wasn’t pornographic, it happened with me and one of my cats on some telepathic level, and it have filled me with real electric excitement. Me and Kiwi, we always sleep together in a hammock. And once, I started waking up from a dream because I was having an orgasm. Full-blown, real physical orgasm. In the dream, me and Kiwi were melding into each other, becoming something of a human-cat, cat-human creature of both genders… Some time after, this case happened again. It was so weird, I’m still figuring that out like, how the hell did it all happen. It was after Kiwi had his radiation treatment from cancer, so I’m wondering if gamma rays have done something that opened up his mind.

— Before we go deep into the exciting cat stuff, could you please tell about this place, the now-legalized squat.

It was November 1988 that we found and occupied this abandoned city-owned building. In New York City, if you prove that you’ve been living in a building for a month, they have to go to court to evict you. But before they tried to evict us, they waited for us to be in here for the 4th year. Cops blocked Avenue C, and we barricaded ourselves in here, just like squatters in Germany and Amsterdam and all that. After a third day of our stand-off, the cops stopped and laughed. We held the building, and started fixing it up for ourselves.

It was a lot of back-breaking work, actually. We brought sand and concrete from construction sites. Back then, there were many new constructions and a lot of scrap building materials. I once found a beam-bean in one of the dumpsters and I carried it on my bare shoulder all the way down here from Broadway.  There used to be holes in the roof and the floor so anytime it would start to rain or snow, we would get all the way down to the first floor and that was beautiful to see, like we were in a cave. There’s a harmony to a ruined building that’s hard to describe verbally, you have to pretty much experience it with your five senses. In my apartment, I’ve left a lot of the remnants of the old rotting building, because there was a beauty to it that I miss.

— You’ve seen that wild and decadent New York City before the mayor Rudy Giuliani had started his sterilization in 1994. How do you feel the city changed throughout the years?

When I go to that vegetable garden on the roof of our house and watch the Alphabet City and further, I see the corruption in actual design that’s going on right now. 

The buildings, high-rises, apartment buildings, they charge ridiculous rents for them and don’t fix the infrastructure to support people. They are over-crowding the city and it really bugs me out.

I’ve been here for 30 years and it was possible to walk down the sidewalk without physically bumping into the people all the time.

— What about local art scene?

— Art in the galleries now is utter crap. We have the idiom here in the United States, “don’t drink the Kool-Aid”. It’s after Jim Jones, this crazy religious leader who took all people in Guyana and made them drink cyanide-infused beverage and commit suicide. It’s like, “don’t believe the lie”. And don’t follow the damaging ideas. That’s the best advice for exhibition visitors up here. And people of the art world now are just bubbling with that Kool-Aid. I keep going to Chelsea galleries every week in hope to see something that affects me, and I just see garbage. I always think of the Soviet art school where all the painters have been trained, first and foremost, classically that’s what artists lack now. The painter I worked for, Mark Kostabi, all of his paintings were made by Russians or Hungarians, because they were trained to paint properly. You’ll see some good work only if you go to Metropolitan Museum, to the ancient art halls.

— The last time I’ve been to the hall of Ancient Greek and Roman sculptures in Metropolitan, there was a food smell from cafeteria in the air.

— Ha-ha, you see? It all becomes a tourist thing up here. That’s capitalism at it’s finest. I would prefer the concept of socialism, it’s at least humane and has morals. I think one of the underlying reasons for this is over-population and damage to the climate. Eventually, people will be having wars over water and food. I’m not saying we should start socialism up here.

I just heard a really funny joke from Korean comedian from the 70’s: “Capitalism is men exploiting men. And communism is just the opposite. It’s men exploiting men”.

I’m just into the strong idea of supporting the weak, and helping them. The human race is really losing that attitude.

— So if to talk about supporting the weak, do you remember your first encounter with cats in life?

— Oh my God, the very first cat… I got a 100 at some point. I adored cats ever since I was tiny. But my parents were abusive to cats and they didn’t let me have one. Once, my friend had this really beautiful Siamese cat and I took care of him. He got old and sick and died in my loving hands. I wanted to get another Siamese, so I went to a cat rescuer and he helped me to adopt one. Someone poured lye on that cat’s face and beat it up badly. All of a sudden, the rescuer called me again: “Oh I have this other cat who needs a place really quick”. So that was a snowball and it started around 1994.

I’m keeping just about 20 cats now. When I look back at the times I had a 100 cats, I can’t believe what amount of work I used to do.

I’m older now. Also, I had operations on my back so I have chronic pain all the time. If I bend over, you can hear my vertebra clicking like an abacus. I’m lucky that now, I’m receiving free cat food from supporters. It’s always problematic to cure their diseases, of course. I own a lot of old cats, and like old people, when they get old, they often get cancer. Kiwi was given a $7000 grant for an operation treatment by a hospital. And I also spent additional $3000 from my own savings. 

— Wow, they don’t always support people like this.

Cats deserve it more. Look, here comes Kiwi, he’s the cancer and orgasm cat. He like my husband now, we’re very close. And he’s getting jealous, this guy. Here is Golden Paw, he’s on my Facebook. And here is Belly Buttons, we have special bond too.

— Do you have a lover cat?

All of the cats I own are my lovers, and children, and best friends. One painter had made a great portrait of me and one of the guys being my orange male, and I’m breastfeeding him. It’s a beautiful painting. So I treat them like real persons they are, and maybe that’s why they are so friendly. I consider cats to be more highly evolved than humans they’re one with the universe we are all in.

— I will. Holy cannoli, you also have a photograph of Vladimir Putin with kitties up here.

— You never know… He’s an asshole but it looks like he loves the kitties. There is something redeemable for him if he likes cats. If he’s not lying in that picture. But it seems like he’s sincere. I’ve seen him with the Siberian tigers too. He’s trying to keep them from going extinct. Actually, that’s my dream: to raise big cats on a ranch in Canada and let them run wild. But I’m not wealthy enough and of course, Canadian government would never let me do that.

— Tell me of your actual experiences with bigger cats.

— One of my cats has won the contest from a cat magazine. It was a cat who had lye poured on his head. So we were flown to Los Angeles and he had been given a big bronze Oscar, like Academy Awards. This actress, Tippi Hedren, who was in Alfred Hitchcock’s the Birds she has this big cat sanctuary on Soledad Canyon Road outside LA. I was donating to it, and so you can become an adopted parent of some of the cats. Then you get to go and visit it on Parents’ Day, and actually feed your cat through the cage. Feed them meat, he-heh. So I went to see that sanctuary and it was incredible. A commune with big cats: lions, tigers, leopards. And even smaller kinds of cats, like servals. Do you know that hyena is a cat?

— I don’t! I’ve encountered them only when watching Lion King, though.

— So yes, hyenas are a type of cats. And they are completely matriarchal. Their female’s genitals look completely like male’s genitals, even though they don’t function like male genitals. That was an evolutionary development, so enemies wouldn’t know what their gender was. You should look hyenas up, they are amazing. Ordinary cats are definitely matriarchal too. They have that behavioral gender differences. Also, males are more laid back and females tend to be more uptight and nervous. That’s because they have to guard the babies.

Why are you keeping cats’ sculptures in the refrigerator?

— Fighting entropy in my apartment is useless… But if I put these sculptures outside, the cats would chew them in bits, as they like to clean their teeth on stuff. My dream is to make sculptures in gold with precious gems, but I can’t afford it. So this cat of a Flame Point Siamese breed, is made of bronze I control the patina through the colors I use. It has moon stones for eyes and guitar strings for whiskers. And this one is made from ceramics. When I do ceramics, it’s more with the feel. It’s got the feel of the cat. The other thing I’m very serious about with the sculptures is that they work no matter from which way you look at them. I’ve seen a lot of bad… Like, supposedly good artists who don’t pay attention to the full scope of the sculpture.

Here are my favourite paintings I’ve ever worked on. Of a favourite cat, Jupiter. He’s dead now, I miss him badly. He pooped on the canvases and I painted it. Here are my more realistic works, where I’m using cat hair and whiskers. It also glows in the dark if you turn off the light. Some more from my Cat Flower Head series, and abstract cats…

— I like this fluffy one, with you driving at night and cats all over the car cabin. 

— Yeah. Sometimes I’m going through art therapy. The therapist told me to do a painting of a situation where I would feel safe. So I did a painting of me in the car with all the cats driving down the road at night. I used to be a cab driver in Pennsylvania. Now I don’t even own a car anymore. Sometimes I really miss being able to sit in a car and take off. But I have my feline kids, I never leave for a single day.

— Siobhan, what are your further cat art plans?

These days I’m thinking a lot about toxoplasmosis, maybe it is something that cats have developed through their evolution to control us. And maybe that’s why there are cat ladies and stuff.

I’m trying to write a sci-fi story about cats finding humans that are particularly susceptible to toxoplasmosis, affecting their brain and enslaving them. Because look at my guys, they’ve got a human who’s really dexterous with different tools. And who’s serving them!

— I haven’t seen much street cats here in Lower East Side. Seems like rescuers, like you, work effectively. How does the rescuing process usually go?

— There used to be a lot of cats up here! The rescue group I work with neutered them all. And if you go to Chinatown, or Brooklyn, you’ll still see tons of cats. It depends on how effectively the rescue groups work. The main thing we do is called TNR, “Trap, Neuter and Return”. There are feral cats that wouldn’t come to you, they don’t like people. And we’ll trap them in a humane trap, take them to the vet, get them spayed or neutered, tip the ear with a little notch and then bring them back where we found them. Sometimes I also set a prayer for Bastet, the Egyptian cat goddess, mother of all kittens.

The friendly cats, we let some good people adopt them. And we cure the ill ones, like Kembra Pfahler’s cat Nina who had that umbilical cord problem that happens sometimes it gets wrapped around a limb and then it cuts off the circulation. That’s why she lost a leg.

— Oh my God. I saw Nina and I thought something happened to her in the street.

Sometimes in winter when it’s cold on the street, the cats crawl into car engines to warm themselves up. And if the person starts the car up, the limb or tail might get chopped off by the engine fan. There are all kinds of terrible things that happen to them.

— Can’t wait to hear a happy story now.

— I had this cat named Stimpy, big orange minx with no tail. It was the hottest summer night that year. I mean it was so hot that there was a puddle of sweat on a pillow. It was impossible to sleep but I finally fell asleep. All of a sudden I feel my face is really wet. I thought, oh my God am I sweating that much? My mouth filled up with water. I looked up and that was Stimpy peeing in my mouth. Maybe I was snoring too loud or he thought it was so hot I need to be cooled down. I woke up so astonished I couldn’t even be angry. I laughed all the way up to a sink to wash my face and mouth.

I’m sure that was a sign of great affection.

Yes, and a sign that he was owning me, actually. That’s how cats do.

How do they accept the fact that they all own you, and you are the one?

— There is great jealousy. That’s why I can only have one or two cats in a bedroom at any given time. But… I told you. One of the reasons I started rescuing is because cats helped me to keep warm in winter. So they all laid on top of me, and when it was getting too cold, they wouldn’t fight, they would all snuggle up and own their own spots on me.

What other cat personality features have you discovered?

— Cats’ attitude about living with each other is: first come first serve. Live and let live. Cats don’t fight to the death, like humans do. And they don’t actually dig poison out of the ground and spread it all over their environment. I think humans do so because they’ve lost their whiskers which is another sense.

Also, cats are anarchists. There is no such thing as police cat, comparing to dogs. Although I like dogs too, I think cats have higher intelligence. And they just don’t kiss ass, they are their own people. That’s what I love about cats they are the smartest, so smart they start attacking humans when they get bored.

I mean, a ten pound cat can drop a two hundred pound man. I’ve seen it. A cat crawled up a guy’s leg and bit him right into the groin and he just dropped onto the ground.

And if you’re involved in this medically, you learn a lot about humans too. Сats get the same diseases humans do just a cat version. Another thing about cats: their whole attitude towards life is much saner than human’s. And when they die, they are very stoic and brave. They don’t even let you know they’re sick until they’re ready to die.

— For you, seeing cats dying must be a real torture. You love them so much.

Oh my God it’s horrible. When humans die I don’t feel anything I feel when a cat dies. My heart just rips open. And it doesn’t get easier, it just gets harder. Cats are like religion to me. You see this MEOW cap with brooches I’m wearing I wear some cat hat all the time, it’s part of my religious vestments.

— How do you bury cats when they die? You bring them to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery?

— I used to do very ornate funerals for the cats when they died. We had a 100-hundred year old bread oven in the basement, left from an old bakery in a storefront. The very first cat we had when we opened the squat, his name was Buick. When he got old, he went down to that oven and there he died, so I made it a mausoleum for all the cats. I would get a small container for a coffin, fill it with wheat or corn cat litter to absorb the moisture, catnip and flowers and adorn the cats with jewelry my earrings in their ear, a necklace with cat pendant on their neck, and put everything in an ornate wrap and nice fabrics and stuff.

And then tape the coffin shut and put it in this mausoleum. It got sealed up during the reconstruction, so now you can’t even see it anymore.

So how do you arrange a funeral today?

— I keep the cadavers in a freezer until there’s enough of them. Then, I do a mass burial in a backyard, because digging the hole takes a lot of effort, so I wait till there are enough cats to bury.

What I want to do now is to save all the cats I have now and make sure they are all cremated altogether… Because you can’t trust anybody, you hand a pet to the guys and they drive away and come back with the ashes, so you don’t know if this is your pet or not.

When I die, I want myself to get cremated and then have my ashes mixed with them all, and then have a diamond made, there’s a special technique.

Or probably two diamonds they would be eyes for a special pendant I would probably design, a cat’s face. The pendant has to be made so you can hang it in a window and the sun would come through it. It’s really important for this concept: the sunlight passing through this diamond made out of cremains of me and my cats. That would be a really good physical heaven. In that diamond, there would be a universe where me and my cats, we all still would be together.

— Do you believe in afterlife or reincarnation of any kind?

I used to and I wish I could still believe, but I can’t. As it can’t be proved. Even if there is reincarnation, you’d never be aware of who you were before, which is still a complete death. You’ll never be that person and see your friends again. Because when you die, your energy dissipates into the other energy, and you don’t have consciousness anymore. I think chemical reaction in your brain is what causes consciousness.

But on the other hand, I got that you believe in the existence of a soul.

I believe all beings have a soul. Because what we call soul is in fact a life force. Even stars, planets, other inanimate objects, and everything else created, it still has that energy of it being made. But there are different types of souls. Like mammals, we all have same soul, pretty much. That’s why I can’t stand people treating our animal siblings like species of lesser significance because they’re not. At the very least, we’re equal. What I really believe is that they’re superior to us, because they’re pure.

But soul, consciousness… I can’t see that existing passed the individual’s life span. I would love it to and they gonna do it with computers, but there is a danger to that. They’re going to be able to eventually put a person’s soul into a computer, or robot, or a cyborg. Imagine the slavery going on it would be of the worst sort.

I’m glad I won’t be alive when that happens. I believe I have had premonitions about that even before I knew there were computers because I was always encountering this in worst nightmares where there was just this evil beyond our bodies. When most people wonder what the most horrible thing is, they think meat gore, or getting chopped by an axe. No, there is something much worse: your soul being decimated. And I believe there are beings or entities in the universe that are capable of that. We’re very lucky we haven’t found any intelligent life out there. If they are more advanced, we don’t stand a chance.

You know, I would like everything to be as pure and innocent as cats. My garden of Eden would be no terror and bloodshed on a planet. But only me and cats up here.