In a world full of viral memes, insane true stories, and carefully manufactured hoaxes, it's difficult to tell what is real and what might be staged. In September 2015, the internet was delighted by the sudden emergence of a video of a rat carrying a slice of pizza down a set of subway stairs. Quickly termed "Pizza Rat," the video went viral. But as soon as it gained popularity, people began to question the video's authenticity, and when a Gothamist story in 2016 revealed it was orchestrated by a performance artist and animal trainer named Zardulu, journalists began to expose even more of her unknown art pieces. Her art includes the likes of Selfie Rat, a three-eyed fish in the Gowanus canal, a photo of a raccoon riding an alligator, and a prosthetic leg planted in a beaver dam, all of which experienced some level of virality.
Zardulu established a movement called Zarduluism, through which the artist posits modern myths that are found largely today in mediums meant to encourage consumerism and financial exploitation by those in power, such as advertisements. Although some people call what Zardulu does "fake," she believes it's more real than anything we consider reality—she wants to reawaken imagination and desire so that people can experience joy instead of leading a monotonous life driven by the exploitative myths of modern American society.
Eric Yearwood, a New York-based actor, told the podcast Reply All that Zardulu approached him with a job in late 2015. The unidentified artist paid Yearwood a few hundred dollars to pose as a man sleeping on a subway bench with his phone in his lap. A trained rat then ran across Yearwood's phone and snapped a selfie, having been secretly encouraged by peanut butter smeared onto the phone's screen.
With regard to Pizza Rat, though, Yearwood said the titular rat looks similar to one of the rats he saw at Zardulu's apartment. He speculates she likely orchestrated the video:
Well I have to say, the main rat that Zardulu uses is named Whiskers. And [the Pizza Rat] did look somewhat like Whiskers. Zardulu's capable of doing things that you can't even imagine. And so the the possibility that some people took a video that they didn't know was created by Zardulu, I mean, it's it's not beyond the realm of the imagination.
In 2016, Matt Little spoke with the hosts of the podcast Reply All about his capturing the viral Pizza Rat video. Little maintained he had no knowledge of the viral artist Zardulu, and said that he and a friend simply happened upon the rat carrying a slice of pizza and recorded the moment:
We looked down, and there's a rat dragging a slice of pizza twice his size, his or her size, down the stairs. And it was one of those moments where I was like, "I have to take my phone out and videotape this 'cause my friends will never believe this if I just tell them I saw it."
Podcast host PJ Vogt points out, however, that there are some flaws in the logic of the Pizza Rat video: why is the pizza a perfect, undisturbed slice? Why is the rat carrying the pizza instead of simply eating it? Whether Pizza Rat is real or not, Zardulu has accomplished one of her goals: her art makes the viewer question what's real and what's fake, creating a sense of mystery and wonder.
Eric Yearwood is the man who appears in the viral Selfie Rat video. He acts as the sleeping man whose phone the subway rat crawls across and snaps a photo on. Yearwood revealed that he visited Zardulu twice after completing filming of her mythological artistic vision in late 2015. He reported that she had trained an army of rats to retrieve items through a maze or obstacle course.
Yearwood shared, "She's got an armada of highly trained rats to deploy to create viral content." Yearwood also detailed odd items in her studio, such as a suit made of human hair and geometric wood and metal shapes.
In December 2017, The Art Newspaper revealed that a viral story about an iguana popping out of a family's toilet and biting the father's testicle was fabricated. Zardulu filmed the iguana perched on the toilet and hired actors to claim it attacked a family member's genitalia. According to the performance artist and viral mythmaker herself, the piece was based on the Greek tale of Ouranos:
[The writer Hesiod] tells of a time before the traditional Olympiad where the primordial figure Ouranos ruled the universe. As he and his consort, Gaia, began to produce children, he became worried about his position as supreme deity and imprisoned them in the underworld, Tartarus. With the help of Gaia, Kronos rebelled against Ouranos, destroying his genitals, and in doing so, usurped the throne. So, this piece is not only symbolic but also a ritual designed to usher us into a time of peace and prosperity of our own.
In Zardulu's viral piece, she says the iguana is representative of Kronos. She drew a picture of the incident, which she attributed to the actor in the video.