the changing face of graffiti with jonone
We meet the iconic NYC-born, Paris-based graffiti artist as Lacoste L!ve brings his work to life with a new collection.
Bubbling in the underbelly of the graffiti scene for over 30 years, JonOne became one of the movement's most formidable artists. Decamping from New York to Paris at the creative peak of the 80s hip hop and graffiti scene, Jon's 'abstract expressionist graffiti', often characterised by his moniker etched in large scale on canvas, garnered him a cult following. He has now teamed up with Lacoste L!ve to bring his work to a wider audience by way of hoodies, tees and a take on the iconic Lacoste polo. Whilst at the launch in Paris, we talked to JonOne about his humble beginnings, 80s New York and why Paris has been more accepting of his work than anywhere he's ever lived.
So you grew up in New York City. Where abouts?
Harlem, Washington Heights. My parents are from the Dominican Republic, next to Haiti. It's a little island that's sunny with a lot of beaches.
So what was it that first interested you in graffiti and how did you get involved with the whole scene?
I'm old school you know, and I'm proud to say that. I grew up in a place that was the birthplace of the whole movement we know today as street art. So when I grew up, looking at my neighbourhood, it was like being in a museum, seeing all these youths creating a new movement and expressing themselves in the streets and then eventually on trains and things like that. I was so curious I wanted to do a little bit of it myself, I didn't want them to have all the fun! So I got my marker and then I started to write my name all over the place.
Was there someone that took you under their wing?
Yeah, this wasn't something you learnt in school. You had to have some sort of apprentice, somebody that could teach you and show you the ropes. You could get ideas from them to get a good flow of it and then eventually you can fly on your own. I had this guy, his name was Wheat One and he was this white boy - I say white boy because he was white and where I grew up it was all black and Hispanic people so we called him the pearl of the group. The streets were his calling, he was like a runaway, really living in the streets and he took me under his wing.
How did 70s and 80s New York provide you with a source of inspiration everyday?
Well in that era in New York there was a lot of drugs, no money, everybody was bum broke. Fashion was big, Pro-Keds, Puma, Nike Cortez, B-Boys, hip hop heads, Roxies. People were getting beat up a lot. I know I had so many challenges in life to confront you know, I often tell people I come from minus 20. Some people start plus 20, or 10 or something like but I really come the underground. But the underground scene comforted me and helped me escape my surroundings because it made me dream. Hip hop, breakdancing, Grandmaster Flash, B-Boying... that culture was bred into me from early on...
So, you moved to Paris in the 80s right? It was a very dangerous and volatile time but it was also one of the most interesting and culturally exciting times in New York's history, why would you move Paris?
Yeah, I moved in 1987. I was born and bred in New York and that's what I knew. I was always curious about what was happening on the other side of the world. I said it would be great if I could start writing my name in Paris you know, because by then I was already more or less well known in New York. So I came out here because in Paris there was a big graffiti movement going on with Bando and Mo2 and I just stayed.
Were people paying you to do graffiti at the time?
No. Money was not an issue as it wasn't the priority in my life. I was just bum broke and a starving artist, living the ultimate bohemian lifestyle. My main objective was to paint every single day and to write my name on walls. I was happy with that and that was what was important to me. Living my passion! I always wanted that sort of liberty to do what I wanted and today I've accomplished that because I consider myself free.
What's your first memory of Lacoste?
My first memory of Lacoste was that little crocodile, which back in the day was way too expensive for people from the ghetto like me. If you had something from Lacoste you would take care of it. It was one of the first official labels I knew that people would be sporting. People identify with it.
How did you approach the collection? Was it really instinctive?
Well I live in Paris so I know what it represents and how big a thing it is. With Lacoste L!ve it was always something else, something a little different. For me, it represented a more experimental side of Lacoste, something youth orientated. Now I basically do a lot of canvases, that's the way I make my living. A lot of the time younger people really support my work and they're really enthusiastic but they can't afford to have a piece of my artwork. So I kind of approached it like one of my paintings. Someone can get one of the shirts and be also as proud as if somebody has a painting of mine. Young people, they're the future, they're the ones that are gonna keep me going until I'm 70 I hope!
How do you see the future of graffiti evolving?
The world of graffiti has been around a long time. People will always say 'ah it's just a fashion', 'you know it's gonna die off'. I say you'll see, there's always something else going on, there's always a surprise with graffiti. Like I've just finished doing something for the National Assembly, a big painting that's going up there and I'm also gonna paint a plane for Air France later next month.
I guess one the best things about graffiti is that anything can be a canvas?
Yeah. like with the plane I got like a big tag with my name JonOne on it. You know before the cops used to get really mad and paint over graffiti but that's what's good about living in France. It has a big culture of art and they respect artists in such a way I can paint on planes. So, I think that's what's great for me about living here, I don't think I'd see as many opportunities if I was to be living somewhere else so Vive la France!
The Lacoste L!ve x JonOne collection will go on sale on November 2 in Lacoste stores and online.
Text Lynette Nylander