Melissa Johnson is channeling her creative vision into insult teacups
“No one likes you,” “I hope you choke,” “Witch,” “Such a nasty woman,” and “I faked it” are just a few of the words Melissa Johnson has hidden inside the ornate vintage teacups she sells. If you follow a certain art or fashion crowd on Instagram—or watch Late Night with Stephen Colbert—you’ve likely seen in the past few weeks.
Prior to committing to the world of teacups fulltime, Johnson worked as a writer, spent time working in a troll factory, and was a PhD candidate, in addition to working as an animation producer. As for the inspiration behind her “insult teacups,” she credits her grandmother and Miss Havisham (part of her name, MissHavishamsCurriosities, on Instagram) from Great Expectations.
“My grandmother was an occasional antique dealer and her specialty was china and glassware,” she says. “She wasn’t the happiest lady in the world. She had a mouth like a sailor and a really bad temper but she loved a good auction or garage sale.” Johnson, who calls herself a Goth Martha Stewart on Instagram, says her grandmother would stitch “naughty things” into intricate quilts and paint rude or funny things inside the chips or cracks of antique teacups. “Her outsider art projects were her way of expressing her dissatisfaction with the world.”
The insult teacups of today all started a few years ago when Johnson, who attends Horror conventions as a fan, noticed that there wasn’t merchandise available that suited her aesthetic—darker, yet sophisticated with a hint of irony. Thus, she began selling her cups and matching plates about three years ago at popups in LA as a creative outlet. “I don’t need another plastic skull barrette or purse,” she says. Johnson credits the basic idea of insulting slogans on dishes to whoever put “over the hill” on a coffee mug. “Thankfully, I’ve met a whole new coven of smart, sarcastic women through this little venture.”
“I never expected them to be as popular as they are,” she says, of all the endless Instagram regrams and of course, their big screen debut. “When they appeared on Late Night with Stephen Colbert in the #tea4tuesday segment [back in October 2016—and they’ve since made other appearances on the show] I walked around in a daze after,” she says. “When they went viral, I nearly had a heart attack.” She adds that filling the orders has been a challenge, since each cup and plate is “insulted by hand.”
One of the most popular (and controversial, if you read Instagram comments) editions of her insult cups reads, “We hate your baby.” It’s a personal favorite of Johnson. “We've all thought it at one time or another, but you just can’t say that, can you?” she muses. “I'm also amused by how popular it is with parents.” But as for the cup she thinks is the meanest of them all? “You’ll Do.” As she explains, “It’s the absolute worst version of ‘If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.’”
Though Johnson has been creating and selling her insult teacups for the past few years, there’s a reason why they’re so popular now—especially when taken into context with our current political climate. In fact, as Johnson’s grandmother was using dishware and home objects as a sort of activist art, she also happened to be a woman entrepreneur and was reprimanded by the Catholic Church for getting her tubes tied in the 1960s. Not at all far from the same issues women are fighting and dealing with on an everyday basis today. “She may also have been an arsonist,” adds Johnson. “But that is a story for another day.”
“Words matter,” she says, when referring to the kind of language expressed by our politicians and leaders in the US. “We could ignore it or we can stand up and say something.” She also references the feminist ties many of the cups touch on—like “Such a Nasty Woman,” and the power of having something (like teacups) which are seen as pretty, delicate and ladylike turned completely inside out. “Tea is seen as a stodgy little ceremony surrounded by gossip and cattiness and I want to turn that on its head. While not overtly political or frankly even that insulting among my circle of friends, I do think the cups strike a chord because we’re tired of being nice and swallowing our words. I wanted them to be the right balance of biting and quaint.”
When Johnson is plotting out the next insult, she puts herself in the mindset of the Dowager Countess or Miss Havisham to conjure up her next put-down. Per her rules, it’s never crass or too direct, but always to the point. She’s also focused on using the teacups for both good and evil, in her very own words. “Send one to Trump,” she says. “Send one to the girl who bullied you in middle school.”