Name of the game: Outlaw artists are drawn to graffiti culture because of its creativity, duality

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Graffiti
Graffiti in northeast Minneapolis and underneath the Ford Bridge in St. Paul (bottom) demonstrate different levels of artistic expression.

“The Way I Work”
Some people might need convincing that the words “graffiti” and “art” belong together in the same sentence. But whether seen as a volatile form of expression or vandalism, there are underground artists who pride themselves on being able to create something so visually striking within a city’s landscape.

For our latest career profile, ThreeSixty writer Selam Berhea e-mailed JoJo—one of the Midwest’s most influential graffiti artists—about his work as a muralist, mentor and youth program curator in the Twin Cities. Because of his graffiti art, JoJo has earned multiple gallery showings and has been featured in more than 100 magazines and books. He also lectures at schools on the history and culture of the art form while working with local businesses to build positive relationships about graffiti culture.

Due to the nature of his work, JoJo keeps his real name secret and also can’t share photos of his art for fear of identification.

How did you get started in graffiti art? What do you enjoy about it?

I got started in graffiti art at the ripe old age of 12 or 13. I used to see it all the time traveling around L.A. and Orange County, Calif. I used to be a skateboarder, and when skating, my group of friends and I would find it at a lot of the local ditches and street spots we would frequent. We all just kind of picked it up and really enjoyed it, without any true understanding for it or what we were looking at.

Also, I would go to work with my dad, who owned a construction company. We would travel all over the place, and I would see it along the freeway and in the neighborhoods he was working in. I was just so blown away by the bright colors and cool designs. After awhile, I began to experiment with it myself and even sought out any and all information about it that I could find at local libraries.

I still enjoy everything that I had mentioned above, but also the complexities that it takes to create a piece of work. I enjoy people seeing it and having an opinion about it—either good or bad … I love being able to create something big and bright and colorful for people to enjoy.

What techniques are utilized? How does that help you express yourself with more clarity?

The majority of the techniques are pretty simple—spray paint, caps and the ability to control the spray. In graffiti art culture, stencils and projected images, etc., are looked down upon and are only considered OK when doing large-scale work for money. Otherwise, those tools are considered toys (for beginners.) A true pro or master doesn’t need crutches to paint well. Sometimes it takes longer, but you earn more respect.

I don’t personally think graffiti art helps me express myself more clearly, but it does help me express myself. The name of the game is to get your name up and known as much as possible—whether for large-scale murals or even small tags. Each one has it reasons and contains a certain amount of freedom and power. If I want to express myself politically, I can. If I just want to showcase my skill level, I can do that, as well. The act, by nature, is the expression and doesn’t require any real artistic merit or clarity. It’s like music. Sometimes the simplest songs are the ones that people enjoy the most.

What is the graffiti scene like in Minnesota?

The graffiti scene in Minnesota is rather small but growing larger every day. I now give lectures and teach classes, where when I first moved here, that idea was unheard of. I know of about 2,000 artists that have attempted it in the state. Most don’t last long and move onto other art forms or cities. A lot of them just can’t handle the unneeded stress that being a graffiti artist or outlaw brings. It just gets to be too much and they stop altogether to live an easier life.

There is a lot of graffiti being done here by the lesser amount of artists practicing the art form. Ten percent of the artists probably contribute to 90 percent of the art being done. There probably isn’t a bridge in Minnesota that hasn’t had some sort of the art done on it at one time. There is also a good freight train painting scene here, too.

Intermedia Arts in Uptown is the only space that is legal for artists to create freely. There is no city sponsored, legal, free parks or mural walls for artists.

What have artists here accomplished? Why are they drawn to it?

Everyone is drawn to it for (his or her) own reasons. One of the main reasons people do it is to let people know that they exist. They are doing something that others don’t attempt to do and kind of living a “road less traveled” lifestyle. It’s unique and fun and can be rewarding at times. This fuels the artist’s desires and needs and even might provide them with somewhat of an edge in their perspectives of the world we all share.

Some artists have accomplished a lot in the culture—from being a gallery artist to making a living teaching the styles and the techniques of the culture. Others have been featured in magazines and books and even on the news and in the paper. The motive behind it is to always be getting your name out there—good or bad, and sometimes both at the same time.

What negative perceptions are you trying to break down?

The media and local, state and national governments often villainize the artists. There is a real energy and effort put forth in trying to stop them from expressing themselves and gaining public acceptance. They have contributed to this fear of chaos and lawlessness through propaganda and criminalizing of them.

I try to showcase the quality aspects of the art and teach people not to fear it, but to champion it. Graffiti art is, after all, “American” by nature and encompasses all the great qualities this country was founded on. Freedom to express one’s opinions through speech is one of them. People often mistake it for gang marking of turf … which couldn’t be further from the truth.

What is the culture of graffiti as an art form? Why is it important to recognize this culture?

The culture is atypical by nature. People often confuse the letters as scary messages, but I assure them that it is nothing more then a stylized language of writing, like calligraphy. That is why we call ourselves “writers.” We use letters as the main focal point for the artwork.

It is important to recognize this culture because, like all things man-made and created, it is unique unto itself. It’s young and interesting. It is as basic and crude as cave paintings, and as complex and intricate as the things that created our universe. It is ugly and beautiful and challenges us as thinkers on many levels. It is freedom at its best and criminal by nature. Whether you love it or hate it, it exists.

How can youth benefit from this art form?

I guess just from experiencing something new and different or by creating it. You have to work hard to build the skills to do it. It takes many years to even become halfway decent at it, and technically, you may never fully master it.

CAREER ADVICE

This is the fifth installment of “The Way I Work,” a regular ThreeSixty feature aimed at providing insight into unique and interesting career fields. Intrigued by this career path? JoJo, a muralist, lecturer and curator of The G.A.M.E. (Graffiti Art Mentorship and Education), offers the following advice to teenagers:

“Being able to express oneself freely has its own rewards. I don’t think it is necessarily important to understand why (graffiti art) is created and how you can benefit from it, as it is to just appreciate and enjoy it for what it is while you’re looking at it. It can take you many places in this world. I’ve been able to travel and meet people all over the world just based off the fact that we enjoy the culture and artwork.”

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