American Graffiti Writer and Painter JonOne Let Us Know He Has No Intention to Stop
by Virginia Villari
I met JonOne at the preview of his first solo show in Rome, in occasion of this interview. He popped out of the windings of Palazzo Velli looking a little spaced out, with a child-like sense of wonder in the eyes. At first he showed me a video of the night before in Paris, where he was with a friend drinking and rapping on an NTM’s song. This was a good introduction to understand JonOne the man: down-to-earth, humble and kind.
As expected we bonded over New York, where he was born and raised and where I lived for nearly a decade. He grew up in Harlem, where I lived when I first moved to the city, and that helped me picturing him bombing the hood’s street walls and trains. The 54 y/o is a pivotal graffiti writer, among the ones who invented this creative expression and one who makes sure not to call it “street art”. His paintings, including the body of work he specifically produced for the Roman exhibition, carry the rough energy and immediacy of his early tags. Not only because of the obsessive repetition of his name, but also because of the spontaneity of the creative gesture they evoke. As a mature artist, JonOne has expanded his artistic practice, making his own “graffiti” version of Jackson Pollock’s action painting. At the preview he live painted for the audience and that performance showed that you really cannot separate his art from himself. JonOne’s canvases are self-portraits, manifestations of his heart and soul and mirror images of the artist in the different moments and phases of his life. The interview felt like catching up with a friend. We talked about Italy, fatherhood, the artist lifestyle, nightlife, how to reconcile family life and a busy schedule, and about street culture from the perspective of one of its creators.
Who are your favorite Italian graffiti writers?
The one who stays always in my head is Blu. What he does is just incredible. Then there’s my people, I love them a lot: the couple that goes by the name Microbo, they’re my friends and part of my Italian crew. I know them pretty good as I used to come to Italy before, you know? Cuz Italy was the place to be.
Which years are you talking about?
I used to come here in ’87. But before me my good friend A-One used to come here. So we would come to Italy sometimes and just hang out because we knew that in Italy there was a strong hip-hop culture. For example that store in Milan, Wag, was one of the reasons we were going to that city. You know who was also there? That rapper Giovanni (Pellino aka Neffa). He then became a big pop star…
So if you had to identify a specific quality of Italian Street, what would that be?
The romanticism and a kinda thread with its painting tradition. Their way of looking at life…it’s just very particular you know? Here you have hardcore (graffiti) writers, especially in Rome. I think there is a Jon in Rome too…
Yes there is! I know him actually, he’s part of a crew I used to hang out with sometimes.
He paints on trains a lot.
Did you know that Rome is one of the most bombed cities in Europe?
Oh yeah? Wow. Is it still bombed?
Yeah it’s still pretty bombed. Some trains still are.
Oh wow I wanna see!
Totally! You should check out the line B of the subway.
You know it think this is a very heavy space to expose in.
In what way?
There are a lot of distractions for the eyes, you try to look at the paintings but then you see this (pointing at the metal pipes on the ceiling), then you see that (pointing at the floor tiles) and all those other great things about it (looking at the old fresco above the window behind us).
It’s a space that has character in itself.
Yes that type of deal.
What do you find most inspiring about Rome?
First of all I’m so happy to be here! It’s a dream come true! So far it reminds me a little bit of Paris cuz it’s just beautiful. I’m in an old city and I like to see the contrast of old and new. I’ve never thought I’d make it here to Rome!
I think the contrast of old and new you just mentioned is happening right here with your work on display in a medieval palace.
That’s true, imagine that! It’s crazy and so cool! I get to look at my work and really enjoy it, you know?
Absolutely. It’s like a new frame for it.
Your painting work presents a lot of color dripping and large color fields, which show a strong influence of Abstract Expressionism/Action Painting, in particular of Jackson Pollock.
Yeah I love color splashes!
But what and who are you other major inspirations and visual influences?
My real inspiration is the life I live you know? And I’m really serious about that because you can only be influenced by art in itself by so much. But then after a while your art has to talk, and what my art is talking is my life. This is my life you know? (pointing at the painting in front of us) The splashes, the colors, the movement and the energy: that’s what I live every single day and it’s hard to carry inside you because, you know, it’s like a volcano that’s inside you and that never stops erupting. My lifestyle kinda reflects my painting and this lifestyle that I have is always moving, always trying to discover things. I have the opportunity to see a lot of beautiful things and meet a lot of beautiful people that inspire me every single day. So I’m one of those lucky ones.
Would you agree if I say that the core content of your work is you?
Yeah definitely, it’s my lifestyle.
And your work it’s like a mirror of it?
Yeah and that’s why I’m constantly writing “JonOne”. It’s like this egocentric meaning, like the world revolves around me. And that’s hard, it’s horrible for the people around me cuz eveything’s gotta be around me and my lifestyle.
But then I’m always interested in people: like couples like you and your husband, like what’s up with these two, how do they live?
You’re curious about all the different life stories…
Yeah cuz this world is crazy but also really exciting. I’m standing in front of this painting and I’m liking it more and more…
Yeah because all the different details emerge with time. It’s sort of ever-changing: the more you look the more things you see.
Is the obsessive repetition of your name or of a certain pattern a sort of meditation for you, like chanting a mantra?
Yes exactly! Look at this painting right here (“Blank Stares”, 2018); it’s almost like touching insanity. You go into a deep state, like a trans, a spiritual dimension. But it goes beyond the meditation thing. There is something more aggressive about it. It’s loud…almost like a spot. With this other one (“Cactus”, 2018) I wanted to make something almost invisible, that you don’t even notice. You may pass by it every single day and not even noticing it, yet it lives with you, it goes on the wall and it’s in harmony with the space around you. It would work in one of those apartments by the beach or in some minimal space with a lot of light and not too much distraction.
Which I think it’s a good idea since Rome and Milan are not alike at all. The people, the styles are just not the same. What you created for this show is more site-specific to this city.
Yeah. And so I guess I’m a jazzy guy. You know I used to write “Jazzy JonOne”? That was my tag. Cuz I’ve always been sorta jazzy, I was always creating some crazy shit…
So is this free way of composing jazz music a reflection of your creative process?
Yeah…I mean even moving to Paris was sorta influenced by jazz musicians.
Yeah! Because, you know, back in the days, in the 80s, graffiti writers were looked down at – now it’s called “street art” and it’s a whole other story… Everybody was like “what is that shit? It’s vandalism!” You could never get work nowhere. They’d say “go back to school and do something!” So I followed the tradition of black jazz musicians, cuz they were also looked down at in America and a lot of them moved to Europe. Lots of musicians like Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker. And France had a big tradition of welcoming jazz musicians cuz they really appreciated them. It was like hip-hop music back in New York. Nobody before would have made Jay-Z…mainstream didn’t appreciate rap music, even MTV, they didn’t put rap music on.
Yeah I remember there was a lot of rock and grunge on MTV. Maybe there was just one show dedicated to hip-hop…
Yeah “Yo MTV”
And that was it. But they couldn’t stop the energy of rap music because it was something very international and now rap is everywhere in the world.
Everywhere! In Italy it’s huge. It’s been around for a while but it’s like a decade that it really hit the mainstream.
So you felt like a bit of an outcast in the US and you found a better place for yourself in Europe?
Yeah I finally found crazy people like me! Even in Italy, when I used to come in the 80s, I found more openness. People were appreciating me. And we grew from that. I used to go to a club in Milan called Plastic. It reminded me a little of Area, Studio 54 or Danceteria in New York. That was the club era and Plastic felt like the place to be.
Yeah Milan has an awesome nightlife, still now.
And everybody was so…so Italian! I was having a lot of fun in Milan.
I think today the best party city in Europe is Berlin.
Yeah? Do you go there?
I do! I got some very good friends over there. Some other friends also travel there on week-ends to party. You know in Berlin some clubs open on Thursday and close on Monday!
Yes it’s dangerous!
And what’s the best club?
Berghain! OMG It’s such an experience!
Is it easy or hard to get in?
Well here’s the thing: There is a selection at the door, but it’s a very particular one. It doesn’t really matter they way you are dressed, what they check is your swag and your style and whether that matches the party that’s happening on a given night. They look at you and they figure out whether or not you are a fit for that party. One time we went with my husband, we got in and, once inside, we realized that there was some kind of harmony among people, like we made total sense all together. I have friends who are regulars, yet sometimes they don’t make it to get in and that’s simply because it’s not their type of party.
But let’s move on. If you had to choose, what inspires you the most: wall or canvas? street or gallery?
Right now, at 54 y/o, what inspires me the most is doing shows. Even in a space like this one, I’m able to sit down and look at my paintings for a while you know. Now we’ve been talking for about 20 min and I keep on looking at this one as I talk to you, and it really makes me understand my work in a different way. Cuz I never get the chance to do it. You don’t get to experience it the same way when it’s on a train…
You’ve worked with very important Art institutions as well as with famous commercial brands (Perrier, Hennessy, Lacoste and Rolls Royce, among others). Which sector gave you more artistic freedom?
I wouldn’t pick one. I would say that just being able to express myself is the greatest experience you know? So I don’t really make a difference between working commercials and doing shows. They’re different possibilities of reaching out to different areas with your work. Being an abstract artist can have its limitations and so being able to challenge my work and to apply it to a lot of different places is the best learning experience.
Often the art market compels artists to maintain the creative formulas that have been commercially successful. Did you have this type of experience? Did you find the art market more restrictive, creatively speaking, compared to big brands?
When you work with brands is more like a collaboration. You work half for yourself half for the brand to sell their product. I’ve been really lucky that the people that approached me to do commercial work have been very respectful and understanding towards my art. And that has given me artistic freedom, but it’s also been very challenging sometimes because I’ve been asked to do some things that are very different from painting canvases or walls. But all in all it’s enriching to be able to expand your artistic dimension and that’s always a great experience. Of course there are things I wouldn’t do, like working for Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. But I’m not at all just a commercial artist. I don’t seek that. My real thing is doing paintings.
Well if anything you make those brands less commercial!
Yeah that’s true!
What kind of advice would you give to your young self, when you began writing graffiti?
Do or Die! Which takes us back to the title of the show. Nothing can stop me. It’s always that same advice.
Is it the one you’d give to young generations of graffiti writers?
It’s such a different world from the one I grew up in, you know? In a way it’s simpler for them, but in another way is very difficult. The market is more mature now. There is much more interest, more collectors involved and much more opportunities. But this also means that (the market) it’s more competitive and demanding. There’s too much pressure… I’m just very lucky to be an old school graffiti writer that’s still around young people!
Can you give us a sneak pick of your future projects?
Well! I’m gonna go to China for a solo show, a bit like this one.
Where in China?
Hong Kong, I leave this Tuesday! But it’s going to be completely different because it’s in China! And that difference is gonna be an enriching experience. Then I have a big show in Marseille in June at the Palais de Borse. I’m also gonna do a big big show in Paris in 3 weeks.
Are these all solo shows?
Yes. The Paris show is gonna be in Le Marais in a really nice space. I’m also gonna do Art Paris, the art fair. Then in July I might be back in Hong Kong to work with Hennessy again.
Such a busy schedule, how exciting!
That’s funny you say that because only in January I had no schedule! Cuz I’m freelance, you know? You look for opportunities, invent situations and then it all comes at once. And I’m like: let’s do it!