Gwak Star

Artist Joel Benham Delivers Sensory Overload at His Outrageous Vibe Villa

At the Desoto Acres casita, Benham indulges his inner child with his uproarious design choices. 

By Kim Doleatto June 6, 2024

Joel Benham
Joel Benham

If you commissioned Pee-wee Herman and Andy Warhol to design a home together, you might end up with something like Vibe Villa, a Desoto Acres casita where owner Joel Benham indulges his inner child with his uproarious design choices. 

Vibe Villa functions as a short-term vacation rental and doubles as a personal gallery for “Gwak,” Benham’s social media handle and pseudonym. Benham only 
recently launched into an art career full-time after years traveling the country as a technician working on large-scale packaging machines. The 38-year-old Bradenton native and Booker High School dropout calls himself “wildly dyslexic and illiterate,” with a knack for provoking people with his work, which can be classified as dopamine art or dopamine décor.

The trend is rooted in the 1980s. During and after the pandemic, it took hold as a way to evoke happiness and childhood nostalgia for a certain generation of Americans. “I support immaturity,” says Benham. “Why do we stop being kids? I’d rather climb a tree than do taxes.”

Benham says “a lot of time, research and expense” goes into making his art objects “as realistic as possible.”
Benham says “a lot of time, research and expense” goes into making his art objects “as realistic as possible.”

Benham’s style is maximalist maximalism, an in-your-face blend of Pop Art, branding and meme imagery that older visitors might not understand without a Google search. “After 65,” he says, “most people find the Vibe Villa hideous.” He’s OK with that. “I don’t think much about who I’m pleasing,” he says. “I do art for me. And I love it even when it’s hated.”

Multiple elements in the home trigger a “Rickroll,” when someone unknowingly sets off a recording of Rick Astley’s 1987 hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Sit on a fuzzy pink pillow on the couch, and you’ll hear Astley’s voice, which also blares when you open a certain kitchen drawer.

Benham made the home’s “furrridgerator,” meanwhile, by gluing fake fur on every inch of the fridge’s exterior. Why? Because “that’s what you do when you’re cold,” he says. You “wear fur to stay warm.” The butter shelf inside the fridge is designed as a VIP penthouse since it’s positioned high up, with window views. The shelf includes a small replica of a DJ booth shaped like a stick of butter, with a miniature disco ball and black lights, as well.

More than 100 boomboxes line a wall in the home’s living room.
More than 100 boomboxes line a wall in the home’s living room.

Outside the kitchen, you’ll find more than 100 boomboxes on a living room wall facing an 8-foot-tall SpongeBob SquarePants popsicle replica Benham made. He found an original Taco Bell sign on Facebook Marketplace and installed it in the bathroom, along with neon lighting and oversized 3D sculptures of the chain’s hot sauces. A Pepsi soda machine doubles as a toilet paper holder; hit one of the machine’s buttons and “Never Gonna Give You Up” starts playing once again. In the bedroom, a window shutter sports an oft-memed image of Nicholas Cage from the 1989 film Vampire’s Kiss.

Outside Vibe Villa, Benham creates huge replicas of lollipops, juice boxes, spray paint cans and more, and his creations range in price from a $1 sticker to a $7,000 Furby-shaped chair. The mediums are as eclectic as the designs. “I have to adapt and figure out the right material for my art,” he says. The SpongeBob popsicle, for example, is made out Styrofoam, while the spray paint cans are crafted out of fiberglass and metal. “Everything I build is a prototype that’s a self-taught process and there’s a lot of time, research and expense that goes into making them as realistic as possible,” says Benham.

Most people who buy Benham’s work aren’t local, he says. Instead, they often come from California, New York and Texas. Want to bring the Vibe Villa aesthetic to your place? Give him a ring. “My goal is to take my work on the road,” he says. “I’d love to outfit other spaces or create environments for businesses.”

Vibe Villa is located at 2329 53rd St. N., Sarasota, and can be rented via Airbnb. For more information about Benham’s art, visit gwakproductions.com or follow him on TikTok or Instagram. 

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