Tarish "Jeghetto" Pipkins sets up his Puppetry NOW exhibition at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Midtown.
BY ELLIE HENSLEY
What if the classic story of Pinocchio were reimagined as a Afrofuturistic Hip Hopera that examines multiverse theory?
That’s what Tarish “Jeghetto” Pipkins has done with his puppet show, 5P1N0K10, (pronounced Spinokio), and several of the characters featured in the story are now on view at the Center for Puppetry Arts.
5P1N0K10 is the first exhibition in the Center’s new series, Puppetry NOW, which features puppeteers and artists of color by giving them the keys to its museum’s special gallery as an experimental space to fill with their art.
Learn more about Pipkins below, including how he became interested in puppetry, got his nickname and found himself working alongside Missy Elliot and Pharrell in a music video.
Pipkins was born in the small steel mill town of Clairton, Pennsylvania. He has always been interested in art, from spoken word to visual arts, but has never had any formal training.
“Even as a little kid, I was always making stuff out of found and recycled materials,” he said. “There was never a name for it. I just called it poor, you know? We made our own fun.”
In the late 1990s, Pipkins joined the BridgeSpotters, a collective of Black artists, and became known for his “live paintings” and poetry. A voice in his head told him to make a puppet, so he did — a wrapped wire with clothes on it dubbed “Doobie Live Wire” who took the stage with him at a gallery open mic night and received rave reviews.
At the time, Pipkins was also working as a barber, and his clients loved him so much that they were reluctant to see him go full-time as an artist. He finally got a chance to reinvent himself in 2005 when he moved to North Carolina, where he currently resides.
“I just started doing my thing, and here I am,” he said. “But I’m a perfectionist, so it’s never good enough. Even the puppets that I do have, I’m always modifying and rebuilding them. I’m never satisfied with their movement.”
5P1N0K10, (pronounced Spinokio), from Pipkin's Afrofuturistic Hip Hopera. Image Credit: Center for Puppetry Arts.
WTF (Where They From)
After his move, Pipkins worked for a teacher for several years and continued to build puppets. Then, the opportunity of a lifetime came along. A friend he used to rap with in Pittsburgh got signed with record producer Timbaland, and he found out fellow artist Missy Elliot was looking for a puppeteer to work with in her next video.
“I was at work at the school when they called, and the kids were out at recess,” he said. “A coworker came in and asked me what’s wrong, and I was like, ‘I was just on the phone with Missy Elliot.’”
A year later, Pipkins flew out to do the video shoot for Elliot’s “WTF (Where They From)” music video, where he controlled the puppet for Pharrell, who was featured in the song. He made the decision at this point to become a full-time artist.
“Puppetry’s been really good because even though I was a rapper, me rapping would never have gotten me into a video with Missy,” he said. “This puppetry thing, I can plug into anywhere because it is so adaptive. Skills pay the bills.”
Although many picture “Sesame Street” or “The Muppets,” Pipkin’s work tends to be darker and aimed at older audiences.
“People have no idea the rabbit hole that the world of puppetry is,” he said. “There’s shadow puppetry and stories of drama and violence. I’ve been in puppet slams and seen some of the wildest puppet shows you have ever wanted to see.”
Pipkins' play 5P1N0K10 tells the story of Pinocchio through an Afrofuturistic point of view. He has tapped into his past rap experience to create a Hip Hopera, co-written by Pierce Freelon, about the multiverse that transports viewers to a post-apocalyptic realm.
“It questions, ‘What is humanity? What is reality?’” Pipkins said.
The Henson Foundation awarded Pipkins two grants for the stage production of 5P1N0K10, and his Puppetry NOW exhibition is a reboot of the show scaled down to table-top-sized puppets. His sons, aged 14 and 19, came along with him to perform at the Center from June 23-27.
“The storytelling aspect of it has a father-son dynamic because I’m a real proud father, and I want to tell my story in as many ways I can without being preachy,” he said. “I love fatherhood and I get to tell that in a fun way through puppets.”
Pipkins actually coined his nickname “Jeghetto” while watching Pinocchio with his older son, who was five years old at the time.
“I was reading the back of the DVD about Geppetto, and I pulled out a pen and wrote out 'Jeghetto' and thought, ‘I might be onto something,’” he said. “So I decided to run with it.”
While Pipkins has wrapped his performances at the Center for Puppetry Arts, you can see the 5P1N0K10 exhibition through September 25. After it closes, he will leave behind a few of his pieces for the Center’s World of Puppetry permanent collection and help select the next special Puppetry NOW exhibitor.
Get your tickets to the Center for Puppetry Arts’ Worlds of Puppetry Museum here.