Student Spotlight: Graphic design student explores digital art by subverting expectations with fake corner store

Dakota Roberts’ “The Bangin’ Bodega” exhibition displayed absurd original alternate-reality ads and labels for products to elicit joy in audiences.


Photo contributed by Dakota Roberts.

Zhenya Loughney, Arts Reporter

“Boys’ Tears,” “Magic Mushrooms,” “Fresh Can of Bullshit,” and “Dumb Bitch Juice” were all products available for purchase at one graphic design student’s recent exhibit.

Dakota Roberts is a fourth-year student at the University of Iowa who will graduate with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design this May. Her senior exhibition “The Bangin’ Bodega” explored joy through absurdity with reimagined ads and labels for alternate-reality products found at a local corner store. The exhibit ran from March 27 to April 1.

“I’ve always loved art my whole life ever since I can hold a crayon,” Roberts said. “That’s all I’ve been doing. I even once colored on my cat because I’ve loved art my whole life.”

The entryway to the exhibit — set up in a gallery of the Visual Arts Building — welcomed attendees with a white doorway and signs that read, “No Shirts, No Shoes, No Service, Sorry Hippies” and “ATM Not Available Inside.”

“[The entryway] was one of my favorite things to build because I wanted to have that storefront effect, so me and my dad created this,” Roberts said. “I’m really happy with the way all of the branded aspects and the little store signs pull it all together.”

After walking through the front door, visitors were met with a miniature bodega with absurd ads posted on the walls that read “Knuckle Sandwich $8.99,” “Devil’s Lettuce: Grown in Some Dude’s Basement $15/gram,” “All Clothing 100% Off,” “Boys’ Tears $6.99/pack,” “Forbidden Fruit 50 percent Off,” and more. At the toy cash register stationed to the right of the door, visitors could take a printed card of the ads as a souvenir.

“I really like when people can relate to my art and maybe get a little laugh out of it as well because there are times these projects are very serious and everything like that,” Roberts said. “It’s nice to put a really fun spin on it.”

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Everything in the exhibit boasted a vivid yet cool-toned color palette to emphasize the kidlike nature Roberts aimed for. The typography used was soft and gradient, reminiscent of the early 2000s and calling back to Roberts’ own childhood. Growing up in a suburb north of Chicago, Roberts said bodegas bring her many positive memories.

“I was inspired by the lots of bodegas by where I used to live as a kid,” Roberts said. “And they have big posters with the name of the item and the price and all that. And I thought I could take that and kind of do my own take on it.”

Originally intending to hand draw everything, Roberts’ plan was quickly halted. Halfway through the exhibit’s development, Roberts broke her wrist because of a snowboarding accident, but she still completed it. She learned more about digital art and color illustration in the process by turning away from a coloring pencil and toward a computer mouse.

All of the exhibition’s fake products were made from recycled containers from real-world products, with Roberts’ labeling repackaging them. The products themselves consisted of labels like a “Do-It-Yourself-Lobotomy Kit” taped onto a box, “Bong Water’’ stuck to a soda can, “Instant Rizz” in a squirt bottle, “Chill Pills” in a small box, and “Sweet Nothings” in a larger box.

Every product was unique yet cohesive — believably only available in Roberts’ alternate reality — bringing levity to graphic design as Roberts intended.

“I really like fun, unique things that are really different and humorous and make people laugh,” Roberts said. “So, I really wanted to lean into that and show that graphic design isn’t all just boring stuff.”