whitehot | January 2009, Interview with Jaybo AKA Monk
WHITEHOT Magazine of Contemporary Art
JAYBO aka MONK at Cc: BERLIN, an interview by Paul J. Thomas
The studio Jaybo (who also goes by Monk) has been working at for the last few years is a former carpentry workshop just around the corner from the Südstern cathedral, a long brick building nestled in a hinterhof (the back courtyard spaces which the backsides of Berlin's honeycomb of apartment buildings often share). With thick glasses, a red beanie and several days' worth of gray/black scruff on his face he comes across as easygoing and even a bit distinguished yet also energized with a constantly running train of thought teeming with stories and ideas as he talks.
Just as it took the world some time to recognize hip hop as a legitimate artform, the art world was similarly hesitant on the pickup to embrace street art as a valid and volatile force. However, Circle Culture Gallery, where veteran street artist Jaybo's paintings and sculptures are now showing, opened its doors in 2001 to show work by the likes of Shepard Fairey, BANKSY and KAWS, some of street art's more influential conscious culture commentarians. The common pop thread of nearly all Jaybo's work in this exhibit is the image of a dismembered Mickey Mouse arm including the universally-recognizable signature white glove with three black slits. Real-life white Mickey gloves were given out to gallery attendees to engage them during the opening.
There is a heated office full of design prototypes and colorful sculpture projects inside second-floor entrance, beyond which lies a stretch of sky-lit studio space packed with paintings of all sizes in various stages of completion. A band practice room and another large space which looks frozen in time with its aged wood lofts and old beams leaves the back of the space open for projects, but it could also definitely double as a movie set for people hiding-out in a WWII film.
I probably spend at least 7 or 8 hours a day here just working. The lady I rent it from- she is in her 70s now- brings me coffee everyday and we chat. I don't think she really likes my work at all, but she just seems to be happy that someone is still working here and making something -since she's been around this workshop since she was a kid he explains.
Paul J. Thomas: I've noticed that you have your fingers into almost everything these days- a magazine, gallery shows, product designs-
Jaybo: Well, I'm actually coming from a musical background.
PJT: You were a rapper, right?
J: Yea, I was a rapper because they needed some French rappers at the time, but I am more of a guitar singer actually. A guy with a guitar.
PJT: So you have been in Berlin since 1986?
J: I've seen Berlin Before and Berlin After.
PJT: What brought you here originally?
J: I'd been traveling a lot ever since I was 14, and one day I fell in love and I decided to stay here. So- [shrugs laughing]
PJT: Your projections onto the Dom [Cathedral] at the Lustgarten are made of the same wave comprised of the hundreds of Micky Mouse hands as the painting in your show. To make an image like this do you freehand all that?
J: I freehand then I put it into computers and also convert it to film. I have been working together with this guy for two years already, and he recently bought a very powerful projection machine. The fist project was on one of the tallest buildings in Berlin. When I was walking around the Dom there were these guys selling little snow globes, so that was the where the idea began- I wanted to to a snow globe there, too. In a snow globe there is water and little snowflakes, but i thought "how can I put the sea in there all at once?" and I thought of Hokusai's wave. In the Japanese tradition it is normal to remix something in order to measure yourself against an old master.
PJT: You have the icon of the Hokusai image- which a lot of people would recognize- and the Mickey Mouse hands- which is nearly universal, so you have an icon superimposed onto an icon, layered in 2 different visual layers and this seems to be common throughout your work...
J: Every Micky Mouse hand can shake something, I see it in terms of sign language in painting and each hand is communicating with every other. The third level would be people's interpretations and associations about the work. The next show in London will be animated, the hands will be moving.
PJT: When did you start using the dismembered Mickey arm?
J: I started using it in the paintings last year.
PJT: Any particular reason?
J: Well, it was the start of my drawing career! I come from a farm deep in France and when I was a child the only entertainment that I had was the Mickey Mouse comics which arrived every Wednesday. I would be waiting for the guy to open the hop to get it and then I would reproduce every square in every issue from beginning to end. The American Dream that I had came from these things. Now, I am a bit more distant about the American Dream (laughs)
PJT: So you were getting popular culture in these little packages. Were you watching anything?
J: No, we had no television, the first thing I ever saw on television was the first guy on the moon. My father bought a tv for that, and it was a big flash for me. America was like a religion for me at the beginning, my father was a military policeman for an American base in France during the occupation time after the war. I never went on the base, though I was always on the farm. I mean, I'm coming from a very simple way of thinking about art. I'd never been in a gallery until 10 years ago...
PJT: You'd never had your work in a gallery until yen years ago?
J: No, I'd never even set foot in a gallery until ten years ago. I quit school at age 14, so that's why I am coming to it with very classical guys as influences- Warhol and Bacon- everybody knows the banana and the Campbell's can, and everyone loves the raw upside-down and inside out of Bacon. I love this hazardous way of painting which produces just one thing, and then it isn't going to be touched-up anymore, I think that is great. and this is how I learned.
PJT: When did you start paint-painting?
J: For real? Last year. I'd painted but before but it was usually more dependent on good weather. I've done some actions- for example in connection with Adidas, but this isn't really painting, it is more like graffiti design. But with the gallery thing I started last year and it is big.
PJT: You have such a purely street art background, which we now see more and more ending up in galleries. How did you get from Point A to Point B?
J: People came and asked me to do things for the gallery, but still- I keep it separate. The gallery work is something else.
PJT: You think quite consciously about your gallery audience?
J: Yea, the gallery shows are like concerts, and I go into them like I am sampling music. I am sampling Warhol, I am sampling Jasper Johns and Bacon and I'm not just going to sample the sound to play it back I'm actually going to play that sound to understand the way it is just like with Mickey Mouse at the beginning! To learn to draw Mickey Mouse I had to work it out, same thing with Johns and Bacon, I learn every time.
PJT: Practically every time one turns around at your show one sees an element of yet another prominent artist.
J: All the things in there are pre-cognition, people look at these artists and they think that it is God speaking- I try to change that. People also look and they see the image and thing "Oh, this is Bacon, he is copying Bacon" but you see- Bacon never did this picture. Bacon gives me the technique and the interpretation of his vision and this other way of painting and I pit a Mickey Mouse hand there and suddenly there is a confrontation! People see: It IS Bacon, but it is NOT. I try to shift the associations that people have had before, all the stuck ideals which are the origins of righteousness and ignorance, people have got to stay open-minded and that is what I really try to poke at.
PJT: When did you start doing work on the street and what kind of things were you doing when you started?
J: It was a hippie thing in the 70s and a punk thing in the 80s in France, my name was Talking Art at that time -like Talking Heads -that was the mood. There was one guy with a banana stencil on the streets, which was a cool thing -it really works, but then I thought: "hmm, I'm not going to stencil anymore. No point."
PJT: Now that you've got work in galleries how does your street work manifest itself these days -other than the building projections?
J: I'm very sporadic, always working in the backyard (hinterhof) because I don't always need the projection of myself somewhere. The big streets of Berlin are so full that it is hard to find a place unless you wanna be aggressive and write over somebody, and I come from this background which says: if it is good then don't cross it (or, you can cross it but not a lot) but it is just like music, MCing, DJing or anything, it is a battle to have the better skills, and if you do then you are the one until the next one comes along and beats you. It is a quest and you are always thinking. Crews come and scribble stuff and cross each other's work try to make it more gang-thinking than artist thinking. I still go to the backyards of Berlin -where there a lot of these blank walls- and I talk to the people and they decide and then I put a birdhouse with Hellgirl, which is the girl you see everywhere. It creates systems of recognizability, like- everyone knows that there is this one guy doing Hellgirl, but they don't know WHO it is. Sometimes she is in 3D, sometimes not. I am actually working quite a bit with honey, it has a very even consistency once you get it going. I have also been very interested in and impressed by in the work of Andy Goldsworthy. Sometimes I try to do what he does but in an urban way, like arranging all the leaves in a yard in the same way just using what I have around me, and sometimes it will only stay for five seconds. People watch you from their windows, like "can he do it?? The wind is coming, the rain is coming!"
PJT: Do you document this process in any way?
J: No, I'm bad at that. But I just want to be in touch with the art that I am doing when I do this. Sometimes I go out with other people to do this, but ultimately I want to keep this art-making process separate from the money-making process.
PJT: Any kind of money-making endeavor which you do with art, is that just a necessity?
J: At the beginning, when street art really came into being it was so cool because everybody can look at it, nobody needs an invitation or to think to go to a gallery to look at artwork. I like it because it is very naive, untouched and free when some grandmother comes down the street and says "oh, what have you done?!" or says "oh, I love the new Hellgirl you did!" But in a gallery there are so many elements in this space which are not free- I mean, you work with people who have to pay the rent. They've got to sell your stuff to this French collection or that other collector who doesn't understand a word of what I am talking about.
PJT: Your work is purely just an investment to them?
J: There are people who hear about the street art thing and think "ok, this is the moment to buy things, because in one month or one year the prices will go UP!" I was talking to Judith Supine the other day about this, who of a similar opinion, and we do a similar thing- she goes in the trash, finds some newspaper, cuts it out, colors it, glues it together and hangs it on the wall again but there's someone working with, like, Johnathan LeVine and who has things going on with Deitch Projects, and there was a point where he was street- even more street than me, and he's now like: "man, I've had hard times for so long and now I can finally hit it, make some money and do things even bigger." and I said "yeaaa, but if you have the possibility and the legitimacy to do things then it is possible that you'll end up with too much water in your coffee, you know what I mean?" You can lose the authenticity. So that is why I love to work in my cold fucking studio, it helps me focus on this one thing I am doing, there are aren't trying to be something you're not.
PJT: So you have one audience for the gallery and then on the other hand working for a big company like Adidas, how does balancing the art and the commercial and creative aspects actually work?
J: Actually, those companies- were the only ones who wanted to give us money for this, so I was like "alright, cool-!" With street art that's the thing with street art you have to buy things, and at the end of the day you've made something great but it is very expensive! I've always tried to be sponsored by Montana or by spray paint companies but it is just hard.
Still, on a more simple level the experimental part of me is always going to be outside, and it has happened in the past that I'll make a small series of sculptures out of found objects and that is much more interesting to me than anything else. Then several months later someone will do same thing and made a big commercial out of it. I created a piece which made it look like dozens of blackbirds were hanging out in the trees, which was wind-activated, and it was full of great forms. Nobody knows that I do this, it is something separate and new and ideally I would love if if people recognized me like this, like "if it is new, that is must be Jaybo" -that would be something that I would love to achieve.
The thing is -I don't really feel like an artist. I don't know what it is- I work in the same way with art as I do if I cook. I don't have to be on a lot of drugs or drink, I don't have to put myself somewhere. And sometimes I lose of course, but I am always experimenting on myself to know more. Whether the question is theoretical or just how to cook better pasta it doesn't make a difference, I don't need etiquette. And as soon as somebody comes to me and says "Oh, you're the one who does the Mickey Mouse-" then I'm going to change. Those pieces sold, and I'm not going to do them anymore. No more hands- please! (he says laughing) -I'll find another thing and work it up.
PJT: Where would you like to go in the future?
J: For me there is not future, just moments. The Chinese say that the future is the presence of hope, the past is the presence of knowledge and the present is a gift. If you know how to live in the present then it is like kids at Christmas every day... take the time to look at things and open your mind, the present is a gift.
JAYBO aka MONK's exhibition, called AS FAR AS U CAN C: Trying to catch the unreachable is up at the Circle Culture Gallery until Feb. 1, 2009.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief