What makes a good time good? I suspect that a hallmark of the “good time” is, quite often, a felt sense of togetherness. Yes, good times can be had alone, and yes, bad times certainly happen in the company of others, but it’s around people that we are reminded of our common humanity; physical proof we are not alone; a temporary dissolution of the hard lines we draw around ourselves. As Elias Canetti says in Crowds and Power, “Only together can men free themselves from the burdens of distance.” And that’s good, right?
It makes sense, then, that within the extraordinary scenario of being en masse (say, at a sports game), there would be an additional element (say, a mascot) to serve the purpose of emphasizing that good time. A mascot acknowledges our value as spectators and rewards us for our presence, amplifies our enthusiasm and reflects it back to us. In the chaos of whistleblowing umpires, aggravated coaches, injured players, fast talking commentators, fouls and buzzers and wins and losses, the mascot acts as a hospitable interlocutor to guide us through, reminding us to enjoy the hubbub, smile for the jumbotron, and accept a fist bump when offered.
I don’t know about you, but mascots are what keep me in the game, when I’m at a game (which I rarely am). There’s something about a seven foot tall, plush dolphin that hits different than a mortal human of flesh and blood. It helps that the mascot even physically scales up in size to proportionally support the crowd’s massive, collective spirit. That seven foot dolphin creates a larger than life fiction you might actually, for a moment, believe; a world where it’s safe to really care about something, to get on board, to root for some basketball team just because they play for your college, to embrace your regional pride or even some kind of newfound patriotism, if only for a couple hours.
Mascotry strikes me as performance art woven into a genre—sports—that we rarely associate with creative expression. And this is where it gets interesting for me. As a self-identified entertainer, I treasure the theatricality and clownish sensibility of these costumed cheerleaders. I relate to their keen consideration of the crowd (what’s a performance without spectators? We need them!) and their ability to distribute equal attention to the players and the audience like a cordial party host. A sports arena is effectively a theater in the round, where everyone watching the game also gets to watch each other. We are all implicated in the experience, and we all play a part. The lively group nature of a sports game recalls the participatory culture of ancient and Elizabethan theater, when it was customary for audience members to respond with loud utterances and a lobbing of stones or a goblet of wine. I love that mascots become a conduit for the collective buzz of the spectacle.
I recently started hosting a weekly public dance happening at Lloyd Center Mall in Portland called Public Acts of Dance Company, and realized that I am effectively a mascot for the “game” of dancing publicly at this half empty shopping mall. In front of the shuttered Hollister or the former Champs, I observe Saturday shoppers walk past us with perplexed or piqued looks on their faces, and I respond by smiling, dancing harder, and beckoning them to join us. I’ve coaxed a few passersby, but I have to wonder if my success rate would increase if I were dressed as a giant sneaker or an absurdly proportioned saxophone.
For all the output of energy and attention toward the crowd’s experience, though, you have to wonder: where does that leave the mascot? What’s it like behind those eyes? For answers, I turned to the closest mascot within reach: Victor E. Viking, the official mascot of Portland State University (PSU).
Mascots aren’t allowed to speak, but the people who play them are. Inside the Athletic Pavilion on campus, it’s “a well known secret,” who the human being is underneath the plush covering of the PSU viking costume, but the identity of “Z” must remain anonymous to the general public. Z works in the marketing department, which is a nod to the fact that mascots are, in truth, a branding strategy. Plus, this position helps conceal his true affiliation with the sports department— only the tennis team, with whom he shares a locker room, and the cheerleading squad, who sometimes teach him a routine, are in on it. His second life will be revealed at graduation, where tradition will have him walk in Victor’s enormous, plush sandalled feet: “It’s supposed to be a final, Oh, this is who it was the whole time.”
Until then, Z, who possesses the mascot’s holy trinity of athletic, theatrical, and hospitality experience, lives an anonymous dual existence as the one and only mascot of Portland State. As I learned from talking with him, that can be “a weirdly alone experience.” Maybe that’s what, in part, propels the presiding social nature of Victor’s personality. After all, shouldn’t everybody be having a good time?
Becca: How did you become Victor E. Viking? Did you have mascot experience? How long have you been doing it?
Z: I was an athlete, but I was also big into theater. I did a bunch of musicals in high school every spring when I wasn’t playing sports, and that was one of my big niche things that I really liked doing. So when I heard about the opening—which I found out about through a friend, they hadn’t had a Victor in two or three years because of COVID— I remember telling them at the office, Hey, I can just do my best and it’ll be a lot of learning on the job. I showed them some of my theater work, and it just lined up. This was last summer. So I’ve been on the job for six months now.
Becca: How did you train? Or audition?
Z: There was no audition. It was like, Put on the outfit. It fits. Let’s take you to a couple of games, let’s have someone come— they call it a handler— with you; make sure you’re comfortable, and then they’ll report back to us and we’ll get an idea of how you did. My first couple events, I was really worried about how I looked. I’d be like, Hey, does everything look normal? They were like, Yeah, dude, we’re just happy to have a mascot here, you’re overthinking it. So a lot of it for me was understanding that it’s really about just being there and being seen. You don’t have to go so hard and constantly do everything. A lot of it is tough, especially interacting with so many different people, and with limited vision. You can’t see very well at all.
Becca: Through those two eye holes?
Z: That’s it, that’s all you have. So a lot of it is just sort of winging it. I’m way more comfortable at home games because I know the Pavilion really well. It’s been a great season for me personally, because I’ve been able to grow into it and get more interactions with the players. It was a good confidence boost, I think.
Becca: What does growing look like? What’s your vision for where you want to be as the mascot?
Z: As a mascot, you’re like a mime. You can’t speak, but you need to display some sort of emotion. That for me was really hard. I may have done theater, but I’m not the most creative person. So a lot of it was like, Okay, I can do this, and people are responding well, so I’m always going to do this every time there’s a situation like that. I do a lot of repetitive action. You want to kind of stay reserved. One thing I do is I’ll taunt the other team when they’re shooting free throws. But you don’t want to go too far, because they’re college athletes too. Even if we’re playing them, I want them to do well, and I don’t want them to feel like it’s a mean thing. That’s just how Victor is.
Becca: That was a question of mine: who is Victor E. Viking?
Z: Uh, I don’t know. He’s way more confident than I am, I will say that. He’s definitely more cocky than I am. And he’s probably a little annoying. But I think those are all good traits for a mascot. When I put on the Victor outfit, if I see a player complain about a foul, I’ll start doing the crying [motion]. I guess he’s like a troll. A nice one. I always clap for the other team and go visit with the visiting fans.
Becca: So he’s slightly provocative to keep a competitive edge, but still supportive of everyone in the room.
Z: Yeah. I would rather be a bit more empathetic with my approach, versus, if we lose I still want the players to know they did awesome. I could care less if we win or lose. Most of the time I don’t even know the score because I’m walking around trying to shake hands and take pictures, rather than actually pay attention to the game. I mean, I think it’s important to win, but I think the experience for me at least is more like, is everyone having a good time? Did the families, did the kids, or the little brother, little sister, get to dap up the Viking? Because when I remember my experience with mascots, it was always a family thing.
Becca: What kind of value do you feel like the people that you interact with get from getting close to the mascot? Do you feel like they see you as some kind of celebrity? Is there a kind of larger than life excitement getting up close to Victor?
Z: There’s definitely different reactions. A lot of students are too cool for it. I’ll try to dap them up and they’ll kind of look at me and I have to just kind of get them to go. But then there’s other students who are just totally into it, absolutely love it. I try as best I can to give everybody attention, but those are usually the people I will float towards just because it’s easier to get that confidence. When the dance cam is going, you want to be dancing next to people instead of just dancing by yourself. Families are always very easy, because kids don’t care that nobody’s ever heard of Victor E. Viking. You float towards the people who are more into it.
Becca: You’re finding your audience.
Z: Even the game we had here last Saturday, I think most of the people were fans of the opposing team. I was waving at this one little section of the audience and this lady was not having it. She was just like, “Can you move?” She was just like, not about it. A part of me wants to stand there, and just wait as long as I can, act like I didn’t hear her. Another part of me is like, Well, I could just like go say hi to this family who, yeah, they’re all from the Eastern Washington team, but they’re all super into it. Maybe they give me a thumbs down, but they’re very nice about it. It’s very vibe oriented.
Becca: Do you think of yourself as an entertainer when you step into that space?
Z: It’s like pantomiming. You can’t speak, and I have always thought that the best thing about acting is being able to convey something without words. I think that’s the whole point of it.
Becca: The wildest thing about wearing a mask is that you can’t communicate through facial expression and instead you have to translate everything to your limbs and the way that you’re holding your body.
Z: Posture is a big thing, I realized.
Becca: Are you making facial expressions underneath that head, even though his face is out there, never moving?
Z: Absolutely. I’ve caught myself doing it a bunch of times. And I have to make sure I don’t make a noise. I don’t know about other mascots, but I definitely still hit all the facial expressions. I honestly think maybe that’s better for the performance because it’s more natural.
Becca: How does suiting up as Victor affect how you approach the rest of your life? Do you find that the attitude seeps out?
Z: It does for a couple hours. During football season, I went to the grocery store after a game and I felt like everyone was looking at me. And it’s like, No, they aren’t. It’s just because there were two hours of that straight. You have to catch yourself a little bit.
Becca: Totally. Sometimes there’s a real afterglow when you’ve been in the position of entertainer or someone in charge. Like you’re somehow carrying it on you. So maybe they really were looking at you, who knows?
Z: I wouldn’t be surprised, especially because you look kind of crazy after. I’m a pretty fair skinned person, and my face looks extremely red, and my hair is still a little sweaty. I’ve definitely, on my way out, had teenage kids say, Oh that’s the mascot! So I give them a thumbs up.
Becca: When your own humanity is obscured by this costume, does it ever get a little lonely?
Z: There are usually four to five mascots at a university, but because it’s a smaller program, I’m the only one. I’m friends with Benny the Beaver (of Oregon State University)– it’s my friend, Ryan. He tells me he hangs out with the other mascots like every day. So I think the only negative is that it can get a little lonely in that sense. My girlfriend will come to the games and my mom will sometimes come. The social media team I’m very close with, because I do a lot of work with them. But it is sort of a weirdly alone experience. You’re the only one feeling it and you’re the only one going through it. Especially if you don’t have the best interaction with somebody or maybe the night didn’t go as well as you hoped it would. I think that’s why I am not a big fan of the anonymous rule. I love that I’m close with the tennis team, because they know, and there’s a sense of trust there. It’s a little bit of a shame that the basketball team and football team aren’t supposed to know, because I feel like that would only bring us closer, right?
Becca: I relate to that loneliness as a performer. People can fall in love with that thing they see up there, but then at the end of the day, you’re you under there, and you haven’t necessarily been seen. Do you feel like being incognito at least gives you license to amplify some part of your own personal expression?
Z: Yes, it does. But you are also taking on a different persona, right? So the self expression, the creativity, that part of it is great, but there is also still a sense that, this is Victor, it’s not… It is me, right, and I’m the one controlling it. But I think the anonymity factor kind of makes it so… I don’t know.
Becca: It’s like you can’t quite take all the credit, because you’re not being perceived as yourself. You’re pulling the strings of the puppet.
Z: And there’s definitely a sense of freedom to that. I’m not the sort of person who would be in the center of the court, dancing. But when I have that on, who cares? No one sees that it’s me. That’s what they told me in the office about the anonymous rule. So I understand that part of it. But I think that people should be able to be that person, if they have it in them. Maybe the mask, the head, the costume isn’t always a good thing, in that sense. But if it ever got to the point where I was having a hard time with it, or it felt like something I needed to get off my chest, or something I talk to my girlfriend about when I get home, then I would mention it to them. But I don’t really care, it’s just the formal thing. It could be worse. I could not enjoy doing it.
Becca: It is interesting that one of the main purposes of the mascot is to bring everyone in the room together and represent this act of gathering, the athletic spirit and the excitement of a game and togetherness, all inside a culture of teams, and then here you are, the only one that’s not on a team.
Z: I think that’s more a product of us being a smaller program. Oregon State, there’s definitely more of a team aspect to it. But, you’re not totally alone— a lot of the cheerleaders I’m pretty close with; I go to their practices once a month or poke my head in if they have choreography for me to learn. There’s definitely still a sense of community, but it’s just probably less so than other programs. But that’s not a bad thing, right? Like, that’s also just a product of where you are and who you are, and the school you go to.
Becca: Has there been any talk of the team name and the character of a viking coming from an ancient, Nordic, plundering, settler culture?
Z: There hasn’t since I’ve been here, but I’m just a big fan of an animal mascot more than any human mascot. So like, I get it. I’m new to the Pacific Northwest, but I pretty much had the notion that a lot of people here have some sort of Nordic background. That’s a bit outdated, probably. I would hope that one day, they adopt an animal. I think that’s an easier thing to root for. It’s a little less creepy to have an animal mascot versus a spartan or a viking or a pirate. You know what I mean? A big thing for me is like, cuteness, right? If I see a mascot as a cute animal, I’m more prone to interact with it, versus that dude with the big muscles. I think that’s just a me thing, because I’m the one inside the costume. I don’t want to be creepy.
Becca: You’re like, I know how I look right now, so I’ll factor that into how I behave and interact with people.
Z: If you get kids who are really young, a lot of the time they might get a little creeped out or scared. You see that and you’re like, Man, if I was just a dog, or a bird, people would not feel that way. At least to me, it’s like, maybe don’t give him a golden beard. Give him like, a black beard or— especially because I’m a history major, and that’s a big thing for me is the historical value of it. There’s definitely a weird fascination with the entity of a Viking, where it’s like, you just go in and do whatever, and you’re more brutal than anyone else. No one can stand up to you. And I think that’s like a very American mindset. I’m not sure if that is cool. I think that there’s just a mythos to it that is very American in that sense, where it’s like, no one can tell me what to do. I’m stronger than you, even if I’m not smarter than you. It’s one that I personally do not relate to. I always, in my head, I’m like, Well, I hope I’m the only one thinking that.
Becca: You’re probably not, and I think that’s a good thing, that people be a bit more critical of it. I also wish that the mascot was a cute animal.
Z: When I was a little kid, I was always a Dolphins fan. Their mascot was the cutest and the most out-there animal that’s in the league. It’s a dolphin wearing football pads. How could you not love that?
Becca: A dolphin with feet! That takes the fiction to another level.
What does it take to be a mascot?
Z: I think it takes being a proactive person, more than a reactive person. When I worked in hospitality, I always saw myself as going that extra step forward. I think that that’s why I do well in the mascot outfit. For example, I went to the Phillip Knight tournament this year, which has a lot of bigger schools like Purdue and Florida, West Virginia. The Florida mascot was a gator, and he was sitting down the entire time, and I was like, I don’t want to be that guy. Even if I’m not the gator, I’m just like this obscure mascot, I’m gonna twirl my arms around a little bit. I think it is having a sense of confidence that is also boosted a little bit by the fact you are anonymous and you’re wearing a costume.
Becca: How do you maintain a sense of optimism in adversity, inside of a game situation?
Z: I have the approach of, don’t give up and just keep going. If the clock is running, then you need to be going, going, going. And maybe part of that is just a sense of work ethic. Even if you’re getting beat real bad, you can act like you’re worried about it or you don’t like it, but you still have to be performing, you know what I mean? When I’m down there, and I can feel that nobody has a good vibe, nobody is reacting, I think that’s where the work ethic part of it clicks in, where I’m like, Well, it’s my job. Even if it’s not the only job I do, I’m gonna do it the best I can for the three hours I’m in this costume. No matter what the circumstances.
Becca: Imagine a team that had no mascot at all. How would that team suffer? What happens in the absence of Victor?
Z: I think you lose some of the ambiance. You lose the feeling of having that host. You can still have an awesome experience, but would that kid on his way out be saying, “Go Viks,” if he didn’t see the Viking there as a symbol of the team? I’m not sure. I do think you lose a symbolic value.
Becca: Do you have any mascot ambitions beyond PSU, now that you’ve gotten a taste?
Z: I’ve thought about it. Maybe a local sports team, or even if they needed somebody at the high school [I worked at] to wear the suit for a year, I would do it right away. But professionally, I don’t think so. I think there are people who are built better for it than I am. I’m 25. So it’s like, how long can I even do this for? It’s a tough job. I feel it the next day, a lot of the time. But I also wouldn’t rule it out. I enjoy being a performer, but I enjoy other aspects of my life more. I remember listening to interviews of professional mascots. A lot of these guys are in their 30s and their 40s, and they’ve been doing this for a long time. They dedicate their lives to it. Maybe if teaching didn’t work out, and I was like, I just want to be a mascot, maybe. But I enjoy being myself. I think anyone who works as a mascot for that long has to really enjoy being that character, at least on equal par with themselves. You know?
Becca: Have you felt different since you started embodying Victor? Do you feel like you’ve taken notes from Victor’s personality in any way or discovered a capacity for one of those traits that you weren’t aware of before?
Z: I think I became a better dancer, which is cool. When I take off the costume, I’m me, right? If anything, more of me has rubbed off on Victor.
Becca Kauffman (they/them) is a socially inclined artist working in Queens, New York and Portland, Oregon. Practicing art as a public utility through interactive performance, devised gatherings, and neighborhood interventions, their work is currently situated at the local shopping mall and has also taken the form of an unsanctioned artist residency in Times Square, a public access television show, wearable conversation pieces, DJ sets, music videos, choreographed stage shows, original pop music under the moniker Jennifer Vanilla co-created with NYC producer and technologist Brian Abelson, a pedestrian parade with a group of fifth grade crossing guards, and a comprehensive artistic campaign to get a crosswalk painted in Queens. beccakauffman.net
Z (he/him) is a 25 year old originally from Virginia and now living in the Portland Metro area. He is pursuing a degree in history with the hopes of teaching his own students one day. He enjoys spending time with his dog and his girlfriend and doing various outdoors activities such as fishing, gardening, and hiking. For him, mascoting feels like a natural extension of his background in theater and something he does to connect with fellow students, athletes, and the school as a whole.
The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.
Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.
Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.
Sponsored by the Portland State University Art and Social Practice MFA Program