In many ways, Craig is an unusual 21-year-old. He spells his name "Kreeg", and his primary income source is breaking into cars, stealing them, and selling them on. A Puerto Rican who lives in Alief, Texas, he is enrolled in a college which he does not attend – but instead pays someone else to go to his classes for him. He raps in a group called Rich Broke Dudez, and recently he was called out on social media for sending a girl an unsolicited picture of his genitals. One way that Kreeg is unusual, however, stands out more than any of the rest. Kreeg is less than two-foot-tall and he is made of fleece. Kreeg is a puppet.
"So basically Kreeg all he does is just buys clothes, talks to girls all day, makes music," explains Kenny Figueroa, an 18-year-old customer service worker from Texas, who created Kreeg and his profile on the photo-sharing site Instagram @HypebeastKreeg.
Over the last few months, a "puppet wave" has taken over the social network. People post on the site posing as puppets, and get in fights, expose one another for cheating, and even have funerals. There are entire puppet families, made up of parents, cousins, and grandparents. There are even "Make Puppets Great Again" hats, riffing off those worn by Donald Trump supporters. To outside eyes, there is virtually no information about who is behind these accounts, and what they hope to achieve.
"There's always a new wave going around," explains Figueroa. "You know Kanye [West] had a wave where everybody was wearing ripped up clothes, looked like they just got inside a blender you know, that was the wave at the time. It's just now there's a wave for the puppets, the puppets are taking over."
Mr Green Bags and PJ the producer do not get along. The former is young-looking, with a round face and a mop of ginger hair, though he poses on Instagram with money and toy guns, and writes his captions in all capital letters. The latter is, in his own words, "the first puppet producer" and wears a hat emblazoned with his own initials. Recently PJ kidnapped Mr Green and taped up his mouth, before taking a picture for social media.
"Mr greens is my son," says PJ, when I reach out to him over Instagram's direct messaging service to ask about the beef. Instead of speaking to his creator, I am speaking to the puppet himself, and his quotes are copied verbatim from our Instagram messages.
"My life ass a puppet is good," PJ explains, "Mr green is a fan of me iam the reason why he started he was hating and watching my growth for 3 months straight then he ran out to get a puppet to try and be like me." When I ask for clarification about how the two puppets met up in order to take Instagram photos, PJ reiterates that Mr Greens is his son. "Is the same person behind the account?" I ask. "What u mean" he replies.
When I reach out to Mr Greens on Instagram to ask if he would like to speak with me, his reply is simple. "Yea as long as u not working with pj the producer."
After browsing the profiles of various puppets, one question would not leave me. Why? I assumed, from the beginning, that there was something to promote, or sell, or advertise. I assumed there was something to figure out. Though a YouTube series about "urban puppets" does exist, these puppets are not connected to those that are most prominent on Instagram (their creator has even spoken out to deny a connection). Some puppets have comedy shows, or music to promote, but those with the most followers often do not. Seemingly, they just exist. They have no purpose.
Yet somehow, in assuming that there must be a TV show, or a book, or a secret art project, I forgot the number one driving force behind nearly all Instagram trends. Why have you created a puppet? Why does your puppet have genitals made out of felt? Simple. For social media fame.
For Figueroa, the creator of Kreeg, the explanation is multi-layered. He designed Kreeg as an alter-ego – a "person who's like kids nowadays" in that he goes out and spends a lot of money "because of what rappers say". Figueroa is attempting to make fun of this lifestyle with Kreeg, who is obsessed with clothes and drives a Power Wheel, a battery-operated toy car designed for children. "I think I spent over $2,000," says Figueroa, who buys Kreeg's clothes from thrift shops.
Because Figueroa is attempting to make Kreeg as realistic as possible, a puppet penis was almost inevitable.
"No," says Figueroa when I ask if the place he ordered Kreeg from, Nutty Puppets, makes puppets with genitals. "I went out to Michaels [an American craft store] and I just pulled down my pants and took a quick picture and I pretty much just copied it from what I saw." The "how" is simple – imitation, scissors, felt. The "why" is perhaps harder to explain.
Figeuroa laughs when I ask this question. "Why?" he says, "It's really for the comedy… Girls on Instagram or Twitter, they always get guys sending them dick pics and it's revolting… But a puppet doing it – that's funny." In a way then, it is satire.
It's also just plain smart marketing. Figueroa's aim with Kreeg is to become "social media famous", which he hopes will help him (not Kreeg) become a stand-up comedian. To achieve this fame, Figueroa has imitated one of the most famous puppets of Instagram – known as Lux – who blew up on social media a few months ago after he sent a picture of his genitals to a YouTuber.
"YALL! a fucking PUPPET just slid in my dms and sent me some dick pics ! I CANT MAKE THIS SHIT UP!!!" the YouTuber wrote on Twitter, before getting over 60,000 retweets. Lux denied any involvement but after social media users searched for the offending puppet he enjoyed a rapid growth in followers. It seems likely he targeted a high-profile individual in order to get his own profile up. A few days later he had a public fight with another puppet, with her own Instagram account, named Kiyah Brickz.
"As yall can see Lux was deep in prayer!" Kiyah captioned an image of Lux – who is visible from the eyes up – performing a sexual act on the lower half of a puppet, presumably Kiyah herself.
Like our own, human, society however, the puppet community is mixed. As well as sex, drugs, and scandal there is a sweeter, softer side. Lux has a grandma, complete with flawlessly applied red lipstick and earrings. There are also puppet children. Musa Bradley is a 38-year-old from New York who created Fuzzy Beard, "a super lyrical bearded 10-year-old" with nearly 16,000 Instagram followers. Bradley takes the puppet into schools to teach children about "health, character and manners while preserving the Hip Hop culture one rap at a time."
"The kids can hold him and talk to him," says Bradley who studied child psychology, "I rap and then I sneak the knowledge in after the rap." Bradley characterises Fuzzy as a mix of both Lisa and Bart Simpson, in that he is "cheeky" but also gets straight As. The beard is a metaphor for children who are forced to grow up too quickly.
Yet though Fuzzy is very clean cut – he says "What the fuzzy?" instead of any profanity – he interacts on Instagram with the rest of the puppet wave. Bradley has even reached out to Joselito, a "celebrity puppet", who has videos on his social media of himself slapping a stripper's ass. Bradley created a backstory with Joselito's creator that the puppets are cousins, and they have since filmed videos together.
"I want him to be edgy anyway," explains Bradley when we talk about whether he's concerned that this association might affect his work in schools. He was invited to go to the strip club to film a video but declined, and has clear limits on what Fuzzy can and can't do. Whilst strip clubs are a definite no, Bradley doesn't mind the association with Joselito, as he hopes it will raise Fuzzy's profile.
"The reason why I even started doing more serious raps was because I go to schools and I go to a lot of correctional facilities and jails with a lot of rappers," he tells me. "Every rapper they bring in these schools are from the streets and rap about coke, guns, and drugs, but when they are in the schools they talk about staying in school and the kids listen because of their name."
Quite simply, he says: "I have to be edgy because the children I'm trying to reach are edgy."
The sexualisation of puppets is arguably nothing new. In the broadway musical Avenue Q, puppets have breasts, have sex, and sing about porn. Princeton – the main character – repeatedly sings about finding his "purpose".
To outside eyes, it does initially seem as though the puppet wave on Instagram has no purpose. Yet each puppet's creator has their own aim – whether it is fame, creating music, spreading comedy, or teaching children important lessons. Many accounts are also simply pure entertainment. For every puppet that is trying to promote an album or a comedy tour, there is another which simply seems to want social media fame. Thanks to copycats, the puppet wave is really just beginning.
Before I hang up with Figueroa, I ask if he has anything in particular he wants to add, or a message he wants to spread. He leaves me with Kreeg's personal motto. "Always remember," he says. "Do not chase after hoes, let them chase you. Because you don't wanna get tired."