Growing Up A Graffiti Artist With A Cop As A Dad
Q: I’ve known you from our undergrad years and you have always utilized your skills with spray paint into your work. Where did your interest with graffiti come from?
A: My interest with graffiti first sparked when I was in elementary school. I would go to and from school with my mom, and would see these stickers being slapped onto random objects. I’ve always been interested in art, but something about those stickers with tags on them always visually interested me. I wanted to know what they meant. I even peeled them off and stuck them in my notebooks and started collecting them. As I got older and started to explore areas where I shouldn't be, like abandoned buildings and tunnels, I began to really study the art form.
Q: So you started to tag at a really young age then I’m assuming.
A: Yeah man, my first tag was in the fourth grade. I remember one time I tagged on a fire hydrant across the street from my house. I felt so guilty because I knew it was illegal so I told my parents and we went across the street to clean it off. In middle school, I practiced a lot and picked up some skills and techniques. My friends recognized my tags, and that’s when I realized people were pretty into this. Fast forward to high school, that’s when I really started to paint on the streets, trucks, billboards, you name it. Other writers began to recognize my moniker, I won’t say what it was *laugh*, but I got to meet some really cool people and was introduced to this community.
Q: That’s really funny that you felt guilty. Can you explain a little more on why graffiti is illegal?
A: Graffiti at its core is vandalism. You can argue that it is a form of expression, but at the end of the day it is defacing property and that’s what makes graffiti...graffiti. It’s interesting because it being illegal is the heart of this form of art. Being in the face of the law and still doing it is the essence graffiti. If graffiti is not illegal, I would consider that street art.
Q: I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before, but if you know graffiti is illegal...why do you do it?
A: You know, for the longest time I didn’t have an answer to this question. Growing up I would get asked this question all the time. There’s a lot of liability doing graffiti, whether it be getting into fights, falling off a building, or getting arrested. Not to mention my work can easily be covered by city officials, or weathered away by natural elements too. There’s just always been a curiosity I had towards graffiti, and until I had actually done it myself that’s when I realized I was in love with the process. That passion I had for the process carried over to my professional career today as well. I genuinely love the act of creating and every single step leading up to the final product.
Q: I know that the handle @jb.was.here is a big part of your graffiti identity. Where did it come from?
A: When I was painting illegally, I was not writing jb.was.here. I won’t tell you what it is *laugh* but when I made the switch between painting illegally to legally - which is when you’re commissioned and given permission to paint - that’s when I started to use that handle. JB are my initials, and my mom would call me that, and a lot of my friends have too so I decided to run with it. The funny thing is that so many people would call me JB that most don't know Justin is actually my name.
Q: At what point did you think people started to recognize your work?
A: After I got into a lot of trouble for painting illegally, I had to make a choice if I wanted to keep painting on the street or really put my time and effort into places that will allow me to grow. Once I had established that clear mindset, I pushed it hard. It’s funny how when one door closes many others open. I started freelancing, and that led to other freelance projects, and it kept growing from there. What’s also really funny is when I was painting on the street, I was creating a personal brand identity with my moniker and I wasn’t even aware of that. When I began to be formally trained in design and advertising, I began connecting the dots between the similarities of brands and graffiti.
Q: You mentioned that you got into some trouble. Can we talk a little more about that?
A: The first time I got into trouble I was in the 8th grade. One of my buddies told my parents that I was staying over at his place, but we were actually out painting. The cops showed up and caught me. Thankfully they were being easy on us but every time it happens my heart drops *laugh*. There were a few times that we had to run and hide in trash cans, but that is part of the thrill. The time that really was the turning point for me was when I was in the 10th grade and got caught tagging. There are teams within the police department that are dedicated to catching graffiti writers, so when they caught me they presented an entire file of my tags. So let's say it costs the city $200 to clean a tag. After a few dozen tags, suddenly you’re faced with a felony charge. I found myself in a pretty sticky situation and had to reevaluate what I wanted to do with my life. My father is a cop so getting arrested by his coworkers and having them find out I was his son was hard on my family. My family has been incredibly supportive in my creative pursuit so I had to make the switch. It has been the best decision I've made because it led me to discover a passion for design and branding, and I still spray paint, but now I get paid for it.
Q: Knowing that is father is a police officer, how does he feel about your graffiti pursuit?
A: You know it’s funny, I would jokingly say that I “grew up with the enemy.” My father’s great. He obviously knew that I’ve always had an interest in doing graffiti and would tell me to not do it illegally. Obviously he wasn’t happy when I got into trouble, so there was a lot of tension between us growing up. What I did was against what he stood for. Now, was it the most heinous crime? Definitely not. But it was very disrespectful towards him and created a lot of distance. But all that said, he has always been supportive towards my passion. We have a great relationship now. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was a mischievous kid *laugh*. I had to get all of that out of my system and now my relationship with my family is better than ever.
Q: The last time I saw you was over a year ago after our thesis show. How is life post grad?
A: Life has been great. I am now currently working at Liquid Agency in San Jose and freelancing on top of my 9-5. The story on how I got this job is really funny actually. So about a month before graduation I was in panic mode. Oddly enough I got a phone call from the CEO’s wife asking if I could paint their son’s bedroom. I jokingly told her sure I’d do it for an internship. Thankfully she talked to her husband, and though he wanted to handle the mural and his company separately, it gave me a foot in the door and the rest just started rolling from there. I’ve learned so much from being a part of the agency and collaborating with industry veterans.
Q: What’s your ten year plan?
A: I would love to be able to go freelance full time. The reason for that being I find myself in a career that I can work anywhere in the world. I'm extremely happy right now, but comfortable, and that worries me. I love The Bay, but I want to travel and meet people. Who knows I might be in Europe in a few years. The long term goal is to run my own agency.
Q: Do you have any advice for kids who are following your footsteps and wanting to pursue a career in graffiti?
A: DON’T PAINT GRAFFITI. Nah, I’m just kidding. I think it’s important that no matter what career path you choose, you have to fight for your passion and to remain inspired. My real piece of advice is to find your passion, because once you do, following that path no longer feels like work. You’ll definitely have to make some sacrifices, but things will fall into place.