Laughing with Richmond: One Meme, or Art Piece, at a Time with @RVACOFFEESTAIN

by | Dec 19, 2023 | ART, COMEDY, DESIGN & ILLUSTRATION, POP CULTURE, RICHMOND NEWS

Sitting down with Doug Orleski aka @rvacoffeestain, a local artist and Instagram celebrity known for his witty and relatable memes and art, offers a unique perspective on our city’s everyday scenes and shared experiences. In this laid-back chat, our resident conversationist Christian Detres dives into the world of meme culture and art to figure how they intertwine with the fabric of Richmond. Orleski’s journey provides insightful reflections on art, humor, and the little idiosyncrasies that make Richmond a city we love, and sometimes love to tease without mercy.

Christian Detres: So, Doug Orleski tell us a little bit about yourself. Why do you think we’re sitting here right now?

Doug Orleski: Okay? Why we’re sitting here right now? Probably because of my Instagram memes? RVA Coffeestain? I guess there’s an audience that appreciates the ways I interact with the City of Richmond through humor. Through RVA Coffee Stain and my painted work, I’ve definitely felt a momentum this year that feels different than previous years. I feel like I’m in a better place with my art. I feel like I’m clicking. I’m making what I want to make and it’s starting to resonate with a larger audience.

CD: I really wanted to talk to you about meme culture. 

DO: Oh. Okay.

CD: Somehow, scrolling jokes on our phones has become a ubiquitous habit. We share them, LOL at them, learn from them, and shame ourselves for spending too much time with them, “doom scrolling”. It’s also a legit method of communication and an art form. Maybe you can trace its origins back to Sunday newspaper funnies, political cartoons, The New Yorker’s patented inscrutable ‘jokes’, all these things. We’ve gone from walruses “has’ing buckets” and grimacing frogs to succinct, but intensely insightful, observations about our world. All in the span of 20 years or so. It is it’s own genre of pop art.

On the other hand, many memes are thinly-veiled cries for mental help, ridiculous non–sequiturs that are hilarious in spite of themselves, and weirdly specific observations we didn’t know we had in common. It’s almost a therapy, which entices understanding and belonging. There are many more shared experiences than what popular media will tell us there are. Do you have any insight into the popularity and importance of memes in our culture?

DO: Definitely. We all think we’re living these unique lives, and we are in a sense, but then you and your partner are sending marriage minutiae memes to each other all day. And then you realize that we’re all sharing a lot more, not to just repeat what you said. But there is that like, shared experience.

I think a lot of the Richmond-themed memes I’ve been making kind of tap into that shared experience and enrichment too. Sometimes I will have an idea that maybe I think could be like, a jokey drawing, or painting. I might test it out as a meme first, and see if the concept resonates with people.

There’s also something about having a recurring gag to fall back on. I’ll do a lot of stuff that kind of repeats. I’ve made several posts about Richmonders talking during concerts. I’ve done the drawings of it, and they’re popular every time. You can tell it’s something a ton of us shake our heads at when we notice it at a concert (ed: and then immediately talk about it loudly to the person you came to the show with). I don’t know if there’s a comforting nature to that, just kind of knowing what you’re gonna get or what’s going to happen. I’ll kind of package it differently each time but it’s a familiar rant. And, like, it does work. 

CD: There is such a crazy specificity to memes, it’s almost creepy. A great meme should make you feel like you’re having your mind read. I mean, obviously there are plenty of generic ones, but those don’t seem to really get the same play. The meme culture as a whole has evolved into this laser pointer aimed at our neurotic cubbyholes no one would understand. I mean, my wife and I do send each other memes all day. And usually, it describes some quasi annoying, but kind of cute, typical thing that either one of us will do or say to each other. It’s “oh, I guess I’m not a weirdo for, you know, every time my wife’s running up the stairs in front of me I gotta chase her, or slap her butt or something like that. 

Outside of the meta aspect of it, let’s narrow in on RVA Coffee Stain. There is a peculiar relationship Richmonders have with Richmond. I wouldn’t say that it’s unique, but it is rare. There are very loud cultures in New York, LA, San Francisco, Tokyo, etc and they usually gobble up any attention focused on local experiences. The traffic in LA, slow walkers in NYC – jokes everyone knows but only have the context residents of those cities give us. 

This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with memes but I’m curious because we mentioned it earlier. I gotta ask? WTF is up with all the talking at shows? I can’t tell you how many times I have been at The National, or The Camel, anywhere, and feel like yelling like an angry old man “Didn’t you just pay for this? What are you doing? Pay attention!” I’m real fun at shows. I mean, first of all, just as an aside, do you have any clue? What are your thoughts on that? 

DO: I don’t know what it is. I think the first time I mentioned it was after we saw The Avett Brothers and there  was a pretty loud, insistent murmur. Like the whole time. It’s not just at the loud concerts where you feel like you can talk without affecting experiences. It’s like these quiet sentimental moments with a  singer, acoustic guitar, and a solemn spotlight. And nobody is paying any attention to him. Like somebody playing in the corner of a restaurant. 

Hmm, I do think we need to dig deeper into the why. Like we all see it. This is something I’m going to start thinking about. I might put some feelers out. Yeah. Okay. So let’s take that layer off when we do. So like why and when did it start becoming a thing? 

CD: Oooh, that’s interesting. When did it start? I’ve been going to shows in Richmond since 1989. Seriously for a long fucking time. I don’t remember that ever being a thing. Yeah. I don’t know if it’s just a different way people interact with entertainment media now? Because we also have our phones in our hands all the time. I’m wondering sometimes it’s just a matter of available distraction. 

DO: Okay. I think we might be getting somewhere because I’ll buy a movie on my TV, but still sit on my phone and scroll the entire time.

CD: I think there’s been a shift in the expected level of attention you’re supposed to give a performer. A rewriting of an unwritten contract between the audience and the stage. Like “I bought the damn ticket. You (artist) are gonna get paid either way. If I just want to stand here and fuck around on my phone or chat with my stupid friends, why shouldn’t I be able to do that?”

DO: Silence can be a little awkward, too. So, maybe when you’re with your friends, standing around in silence, you feel this need to interrupt it with literally anything. Have we made silence more awkward?

CD: I caught myself the other day. I was playing video games on the PS4. I had my laptop open to YouTube on some stupid Trump shit. During load screens or waiting to respawn, I have my phone in my hand. And I’m scrolling memes or checking if I have any new notifications on something. I caught myself doing this. I’m like, what is happening? This isn’t the Batcave or some CIA surveillance van. What do I need all these streams of information running at ALL TIMES for?

The immediate contradiction! I wonder sometimes if that split attention could be constructive though. I mean, work productivity has actually gone way up in the last few decades. Apps, zoom meetings, and co-working interfaces like Slack have made many jobs much more time efficient. Maybe we’re trying to fill the void of all the busy work we’re not doing anymore. 

DO: I think we resent those habits more than we actually appreciate the ability to have them. 

CD: We live in a culture that has all of this connectivity, right? We communicate intimate ideas and sentiments via memes regularly with people who’d wonder what brand of crack we were on if we just typed out these thoughts in an email. Instead we send silly drawings or stock photos used over and over again to express a derpy look on the subjects’ face. We’ve gotten so accustomed to the argument that if we’re on our phones all the time, we’re not having healthy human interactions. Like, we’re not talking to each other. We’re not building meaningful relationships. 

There are people I went to high school with, that I have had no real reason to stay in touch with. But I do. I actually know what this person whom I haven’t seen in 30 years is up to these days. Did they have kids, turn into a Trump supporting conspiracy theorist (my favorite)? Did they get married, lose a family member, achieve some honor, etc? I can congratulate them, console them, block them, or simply send a meme that reminds me of something specific we’ve shared as friends – even if that was 30 years ago. I think all the shit that we’ve been sold on this topic is wrong. I think we might be in a better place now. Distance and time are no obstacles to sharing a Dickbutt meme.

DO: I have some near-strangers in my life who I would consider my friends just because I’ve connected with them through RVA Coffee Stain. We interact on a regular basis nowadays. We’re communicating and in the frequency of these interactions and the adjacent tweets, posts and so forth, I get to know their personalities. It’s a brand new social paradigm. 

CD: I was thinking about this the other day. I wanted to talk about your specific projects, but I hadn’t satisfied my curiosity about the the divergence of our technological and analog existences. Examining the effects of technology on analog life and the amount of weight we give each. We are defending our analog existences against technology and losing that fight, and I think there’s some point when we wake up and say “who cares?” I mean, keep your body healthy and do the thing, but embrace the future. 

DO: This is where it’s going. Without it, I don’t think I exist as an artist. I’m not gonna put my work up in a gallery and pitch it to people and stuff. That’s just not me. The thought of that gives me anxiety. Social media is a perfect platform for me to get my work seen and sold. 

Douglas Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain Interview by Christian Detres 2023
Fireflies by Doug Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain

CD: Back to our RVA Coffee Stain conversation, before we never get out of that rabbit hole. So you observe a funny quirk or an annoying soul suck around Richmond, find a background image of whatever locality illustrates the context of the joke, and then slap a completely unrelated GIF of a person/animal/cartoon mimicking the mood of the joke. The juxtaposition itself is clever, the content relatable, and the punchline just emanates from that recipe. Your formula centers around the relationship Richmonders have with Richmond. I don’t know that you’ve ever thought about it in this expansive of a way, but would you be able to describe from a birds-eye view, what nexus exists in our love/hate relationship with RVA?

DO: There’s definitely a love that Richmond has for Richmond, but in that love is like a hint of disdain. They know there are parts that could be better and we’re not afraid to criticize it. It’s not this blind love where you can’t say anything bad about it. We can totally punk ourselves. I think there’s a fine line between being a jerk about it to being relatable and funny. 

CD: We not only love the place, but we want to strangle it at the same time, then boop it on the nose, give it a kiss on the cheek. 

Douglas Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain Interview by Christian Detres 2023
Garnett’s by Doug Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain

DO: There is a certain sort of protectiveness of it but that exists within a great sense of humor. That’s not a given in a lot of cities of this size. So many local cultures seem too defensive to really roast themselves properly. There’s a rot and there’s a shine on Richmond that RVA Coffee Stain playfully captures without offending or being too cute. A lot of that just takes time and growth as an artist to find that sweet spot. 

CD: Do you feel that your life is connected to Richmond culture as a whole? When you’re commenting through RVA Coffee Stain on the way things are – hmmm, I’ll put it this way. There’s probably a lot of people our age and getting older that ran this city ragged back in the day and have a nostalgic view of what it was. We want to think all the cool things disappeared from the scene as soon as we decided to have babies and garages with tools in them. Not because you’re “too old” to go out and be engaged in bars and clubs and whatnot. You’ve just done it 1000 times. “I’ve gone to this club 1000 times.” “I’ve been to this bar 1000 times, and I know how every drunken night ends.” Fun and predictability rarely go hand in hand. And if you’re married, then it’s like “I’m not even trying to get laid, so what the hell am I doing here?”

What I’m saying is that the boat drifts away from the shore a little bit each year. And then you don’t know whether you’re seeing your surroundings the way people that are most engaged with it are seeing them. How do you stay engaged enough to find these insights into our collective vibes and gripes?

DO: I had this moment where I experienced a Richmond that I didn’t recognize and to realize I had been in the suburbs too long. I was a judge on some coffee tasting competition or whatever. I did it and afterwards we went out downtown. It’s late night, we’re on like Main Street and it’s lined with paddy wagons and stuff and I’m just “this is so different from the Richmond I live in. I don’t see this often. It just felt weird to be experiencing this totally different mood. This late night, party side of Richmond as opposed to living in Bellevue. on the North Side. It was so different from the Richmond life that I’m leading now. There’s just this moment I had. Similar to what you’re saying. I stay connected by exploring, taking photos, getting ideas for paintings and stuff. Like when I’m somewhere like this at the VMFA. I came early today before we met and just walked around a bit, watched people, absorb the energy. 

CD: What commonalities are there in RVA that someone who presides over a humor base sees? What are your particular insights into how we behave or what we do?

DO: One thing that I realized early on is the creativity in the city and the many people that support it. Maybe you’re not a person who makes things, but if you’re not, you’re that person who enjoys supporting people that make things. I don’t know if it’s symmetrical but it is noticeable. Yeah. I noticed that early on like when I started the Tumblr. Gina Garvey, who used to do 804RVA, reached out and just flatly stated “You need a website. I’m going to help you make one.” and we met for coffee and she made me a website. People seem really proactive in supporting the arts. 

CD: I think Richmond feels defined by its artistic output more than anything else. 

DO: The support was something I noticed very early on, and still see it. I’m self taught. Early on, I was just learning and growing and figuring a lot out. Aesthetically, I didn’t really find my work even that pleasing. But people were still supportive of me. And I try to think “Why? What did they see in this back then?” 

Douglas Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain Interview by Christian Detres 2023
John Marshall by Doug Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain

CD: I don’t know if I’ve ever looked at it that way, but there’s some truth in that. You can’t throw a rock without hitting a frustrated artist in Richmond. There are plenty of creators here. In all disciplines across the spectrum. But, it’s the other people that are a huge part of our equation. The other people are very proud of “their” artists. They’re proud to be close to those people. They’re proud to be frequent consumers of their work. 

I think our relationship to the river is one of our endearing qualities. Just about every other city our size, or larger, has a different relationship with its waterway: either it’s shops, boardwalks, and restaurants, or there are shipping lanes and no recreational access. But we refuse to build anything on the river. Which, if you think about it from an economic standpoint, is crazy. It’s crazy that the city and counties have kept the waterways pristine in spite of all the real estate possibilities. I get a lot of visitors. So many times, people have come here and can’t leave without asking how much rent is. Invariably, they’re always making soft plans to move here every time they come. There’s an indifference in our attitudes towards growth and development. Like, we want to succeed, but we kind of don’t. We’re the Peter Pan of the East Coast.

We’re helped out in that our politicians are historically incompetent as well. There’s no high minded idea that won’t be executed by complete clowns with Dollar Store imaginations. There’s something endearing in the failures as well. 

Douglas Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain Interview by Christian Detres 2023
Hollywood Cemetery Ghosts by Doug Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain

DO: it’s like sabotage. I don’t want it to grow too much though. We don’t want it too nice.

CD: We can’t have nothing nice. That should be our slogan for the city. 

DO: I think the scooter wars are so funny. Did you know that Richmond is the number one city for lost and most destroyed scooters? 

CD: I hope so. I have a bike and I have a car so I don’t know. It’s not for me. It’s not something I’m gonna interact except for when I’m walking down the sidewalk and I have to step over them like expensive trash. I swear at some point they were EVERYWHERE. Like there’s 80 children on the block that just went inside for a minute and left their toys outside. So the fact that they’re getting thrown in the river? Fucking love it. I love it and I hope it continues. It’s an invasive species. Like the lantern fly of technology.

DO:I don’t even know how many companies are left, but I mean, I see him every now and then still. Oh, another common trope that I like to use a lot is the butt quality of the sidewalks. The loose bricks, the incessant tripping — it resonates with people.

CD: I feel like you’ve been mad patient with me picking your brain about topics RVA Coffee Stain adjacent that fascinate me. But I want to let you promote your stuff too. Where’s your setup? Where do people go to see your work?

DO: 2016 Staples Mill Road and there has to be like, at least like 100 artists posted up there, if not more. It’s really cool space. You can rent like walls or I have like a three by three. Like three walled space which is really fun. I do mostly small format paintings. I always kept it to like 8”x10”s. That’s easiest for me to ship and much less expensive.

Douglas Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain Interview by Christian Detres 2023
Mama Zu by Doug Orleski aka RVA Coffee Stain

CD: How would you describe that artwork? Your style or your focus on your subject? Is there a common theme?

DO: The common theme is Richmond. I go back and forth between digital and traditional tools to create with. I feel like I don’t have a super set style right now. If you see a piece you can kind of tell it’s mine, if you’ve been around for a while. I just want to let it like happen naturally, let style and stuff merge together whenever it does, on its own time. I do pen and ink for like a while, go back into digital, and now it’s like a mix of both. The subject matter and like the vibe I’m trying to get across has been rainier, moodier scenes I felt reflected current Richmond a lot. 

CD: I have an art style. It’s called not finishing. Seriously, my art style is unfinished canvas. 

DO: I take it as it comes. I don’t really want to say this, because I’ve had it in my mind for a year, but I really want to draw an illustrated Richmond children’s book. I have the idea; I just need to, like, do it. It’s been years where I’ve been like, ‘This is the year I’m gonna do it.’ I feel like that idea is raising its hand right now, and it’s like, ‘Hey, it’s time to do this.’ After the holidays, I need to keep this momentum going. So, you might see more memes because I might be working on something more long-form.

Give RVA Coffee Stain a follow HERE
Buy art from Doug Orleski HERE

Christian Detres

Christian Detres

Christian Detres has spent his career bouncing back and forth between Richmond VA and his hometown Brooklyn, NY. He came up making punk ‘zines in high school and soon parlayed that into writing music reviews for alt weeklies. He moved on to comedic commentary and fast lifestyle pieces for Chew on This and RVA magazines. He hit the gas when becoming VICE magazine’s travel Publisher and kept up his globetrotting at Nowhere magazine, Bushwick Notebook, BUST magazine and Gungho Guides. He’s been published in Teen Vogue, Harpers, and New York magazine to name drop casually - no biggie. He maintains a prime directive of making an audience laugh at high-concept hijinks while pondering our silly existence. He can be reached at christianaarondetres@gmail.com




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