By Roselle Chen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Rows of tiny bullet-proof vests hang on clothing racks and "safety defense" lunchboxes adorn the walls. It looks like an apparel store -- almost.
But the "Back to School Shopping" art installation by the artist WhIsBe is a commentary on U.S. mass school shootings, intended to raise the question: How long before life imitates art?
The child-sized bulletproof vests are adorned with cartoon characters Pikachu, Care Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, while the lunch boxes are filled with replica guns, Tasers and brass knuckles. The exhibit, in warehouse-style space in the heart of Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, also features a game arcade claw machine filled with brightly colored cap guns.
The artist, whose nom de plume WhIsBe stands for "What is Beauty," is aiming for a gut-punching reaction to an exhibit that he hopes will spur action to combat school shootings.
"The reactions are full spectrum from shock to upset to being angry, but not angry at what I'm doing, angry at the stark fact that this could be a reality," the artist, who does not reveal his real name, said in an interview on Monday.
U.S. schools have been rocked by a steady stream of shootings in the nearly two decades since the Columbine High School massacre that killed 13 people in 1999. A growing national campaign by young people to tackle gun violence and toughen laws on firearms sales has turned up the volume of the debate over guns in America, where the right to bear arms is protected under the Second Amendment of the Constitution.
Since 1970, there have been more than 1,300 incidents of gun violence at schools in the United States, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database maintained by the Naval Postgraduate School's Center for Homeland Defense and Security.
The art exhibit, located in the Starrett-Lehigh Building in Chelsea, runs through June 30.
"I'm hoping that people are going to experience a different visceral reaction that will maybe change their thoughts about the matter into provoking them into action," WhIsBe said.
(Reporting by Roselle Chen; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Leslie Adler)