Conversations with the Streets - Interview with JonOne

March 15, 2016

There are many types of conversations - the formal ones, the colloquial ones, debates, small talks, the enjoyable ones, the emotional ones. In any case, it is a special kind of a shared place, in which thoughts and ideas are being exchanged between two parties, and both participants get something priceless in return. We had an opportunity to have one lovely, insightful conversation with JonOne, in which he told us about the way that the streets speak to him, and the way that he responds. This is something that his vibrant, evocative paintings describe best, but it often turns out that mere looking at these dazzling shapes and colors makes us want to find out more about that special relationship between the artist and his source of inspiration. We were, therefore, curious and excited to ask JonOne about his creative process and his unique approach to walls, trains and canvases. In his own, honest and pure words, JonOne told us about his beginnings in Harlem, the way that Abstract Expressionism influenced his creative thinking, and how, for him, painting in public is different today. The Paris-based artist has an amazing career behind him, and who knows how many more great things are waiting for him in the future. As for the near future, there are two promising exhibitions waiting for us - in Milan and Paris, which will feature some fresh works made by JonOne. The third one is already on view, in Zurich, Kolly Gallery. Read something about these exhibitions as well - scroll down and see what the brilliant visual artist has been doing and thinking about lately.

Two Types of Vibes: Harlem and Paris

WideWalls: Urban landscape probably plays an important role in every street artist’s work, and the energy of the city is something frequently mentioned when it comes to yours. Could you make a comparison between New York and Paris, and how they affected your work?

JonOne: Yes. Where I was born, which is Harlem, was more of an urban, rough environment. It was full of issues, social issues, and poverty, and drugs… I guess that you need sometimes to create an explosion of people that want to express themselves. I think I was in the perfect environment full of creativity. Harlem is where jazz comes from, a lot of dance and writers… And that’s where I am from, I am from Harlem, I am from that part of New York. I guess the environment where I was born was the ideal environment for art to be created. When I say created, what I mean by that is what I was doing it’s just so unique. It’s not something that you can learn in schools, in books. This is pure creation, it came basically from scratch you can say, but the evolution, there was an evolution involved and the necessity at the same time for this art to be born. We needed a voice in a formula. And I guess, when I came to Paris I discovered the whole essence of culture or the old Europe, that sense of art history. You can also see in Italy, when you go to Rome and Venice, you see the history of art on the walls, on the ceilings: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. You can read it. People were doing it also on murals at that time. So I guess Paris influenced me in a sense of art history, you walk in the streets and the streets talk to you, but in a different way than they were talking to me in New York.

WideWalls: You often talk about the art of your generation, and the way that you started making art. Do you feel like you truly belong to the New York graffiti old school, or do you somehow feel closer to the European art scene right now? Or is it perhaps neither of the two?

JonOne: Well I think I come from the New York old-school. I am not old-school, because I am not like the first generation, but I am definitely one of the ones that was painting on trains, so I participated in that aspect of graffiti, which today people don’t really get, even if they paint in trains in Rome. But it’s not the same thing, this is painting trains in New York during the ‘80s, it was a whole different journey. I would say I am one of the lucky ones to have been able to live this culture in two different continents, which is New York and Europe. So I consider myself a New York old-school but also a European graffiti writer too and that’s what’s funny about me, because most people wouldn’t really expect that from me. But you know I’ve been here for 28 years, I was in Italy when they had so little graffiti but they had flavor, especially in Milan. So I am from the old school of Europe too.

Jazzy and Abstract-Expressionist

WideWalls: To what extent would you say abstract expressionism has had influence on you, as an art movement - closely related to New York, and often compared to your own style?

JonOne: In a way, when I started to do graffiti, people looked at it and they were like: this is not graffiti, this is not the whole essence of what graffiti is about, which is the characters, the letters... I felt comfort in going to museums and seeing abstract expressionists, what they were doing, and being able to identify with their struggle to make it as art is. So I definitely identified myself with the American abstract artists, of course Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Robert Motherwell… That former expression of energy, that rawness… I love the rawness of that period, not it being clean esthetically, but it making sense and coming from the soul. So for me it meant a lot to see their works?

WideWalls: What do you think was the most important thing, regarding your artistic expression, that made your work fit into two seemingly different categories – graffiti and abstract expressionism? And for that matter, how different are they?

JonOne: What made it fit was the fact that I really feel that I made a point when I was living in New York, as far as a graffiti writer I was all around graffiti writing, which is meaning I used to make tags, I used to do things outside, I used to do throw-ups, top-to-bottoms, window-down burners, I used to collaborate... In that essence my artwork made an impression, even though it was different to the traditional graffiti writer, they can identify themselves with what I was also doing, because I was sort of representing that sort of craziness of New York. My colors made it just very jazzy, and I’d be creating like jazzy JonOne.

WideWalls: Your works are often associated with a very unique form of calligraphy, but also with something that appears to be the intuitive, free paint dropping. How do you put them together? Is the first completely controlled, and the second totally sub-conscious?

JonOne: I once heard something by Matisse saying that, before even starting the painting, he had the painting in his head. So when he started to actually paint the painting, he was just going backwards to go frontwards. And that’s the way I see it when I’m trying to express myself with my style of calligraphy and dropping. I kind of have an image in my head of where I want to go with the colors and the movement and the splashes. So it’s like a cookbook, I’m just putting the pieces together in order to achieve what’s in my head. And that’s what I have the talent to do.

Evolving as an Artist

WideWalls: Earlier in your career, you regarded trains as travelling museums that deliver art to the public. You were later commissioned to paint trains, cars, and even airplanes. How do you reflect on those days from the past, comparing them to the things you do today? Is the feeling different?

JonOne: Yeah, back then if I was painting on trains or on airplanes I would get arrested. But now I get paid a lot of money to do these things. So, yes, it’s different for me, I am in different conditions. Before I used to watch out for the police and now I’m just drinking champagne while painting. Maybe it’s a little bit of the success, maybe it’s the coming of age of this movement; people recognize it as being something that can be also enriching culturally to people. I’m very lucky to have been able to do this type of projects and put my artwork on a plain or on a train. So it is kind of different.

WideWalls: You have been making art for quite a long time. Apart from moving from the United States to France, and becoming an internationally acclaimed artist, do you feel anything changed, in your approach to art?

JonOne: I still have the drive as before. I still have the energy, because you need a lot of energy to paint. I still have the passion. So those things have not changed, those are the things that I still carry with me, this necessity to express myself. But the thing that has changed is that my work has evolved and that’s one of the things that I am most proud of, because it’s important to be able to evolve as an artist. And seeing my work evolve has been one of the most motivating things for me, because I’ve been a witness to seeing it move forward. So for me it’s always been part of the game to be able to evolve as an artist and that’s why I live here in Europe.

WideWalls: You’ve been working with Air France, Perrier, tagging cars, etc. Out all the commissions you’ve done, which one was the most interesting or significant to you?

JonOne: That’s a hard question… I guess every single one I do is significant, or else I wouldn’t be doing it. Each one is challenging, because it’s a different support and requires a different way of looking of how I am going to put my artwork on a particular subject. But what I find amazing is the ability to be able to apply my work on different things. That’s what has been motivating. I mean it doesn’t represent all of my activities, because my activities are based on doing shows and painting. This I do for fun, to communicate differently with my work. But each one that I do I give a 150%, because these collaborations are important for me.

Future Plans and Upcoming Exhibitions

WideWalls: You have three exhibitions coming up in Europe. Tell us something about them. Will they all showcase different works?

JonOne: I tried to show different things for different galleries. That’s what important for me – is to be able to do different shows in different countries and people discovering my artwork. I tried to do things differently in each show to make everything unique.

WideWalls: What will you be doing in 2016, and what are you most looking forward to?

JonOne: I have an important show coming up for me in Italy, in Milan with some good friends. For now I try to do it step-by-step and for me that’s the most interesting thing I’m doing at the moment. Because being able to expose in Italy, it means a lot. And I hope that the Italian collectors and public will be able to understand my work and specially appreciate it and invite me to come back.

jonone interview
JonOne - Assemblée nationale, Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, Acrylic on canvas, 2015, 300 x 220cm_© Bruno Brounch (detail), courtesy of Wunderkammern

jonone interview
JonOne, Language of the Wall, 2014. Pera Museum

Featured image: JonOne (portrait), © PATRICK NOSETTO. All images used for illustrative purposes only.

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