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Philly Street Art Interviews: JesPaints Stencils the Heroes People Want to See

May 14, 2020

Welcome to Season 3 of Streets Dept’s newest series of street artist interviews, created in partnership with Philadelphia’s own unofficial official street art museum, Tattooed Mom. Each month, Streets Dept Contributor Eric Dale will sit down with one local street artist to ask them about their work. Together, we’ll learn more about the incredible artists getting up around Philly. (Photos by Eric Dale and Conrad Benner.)

From politicians to poets; athletes to icons; Philadelphia stencil artist JesPaints has been bringing portraits of local and national heroes to the streets for a little over a year now. With them have come hundreds of messages from fans who love seeing the likes of Kobe Bryant, Anthony Bourdain, and, of course, Gritty, showing up on the walls in their neighborhoods.

In addition to changing the venue of our interview (from Tattooed Mom to over the phone), the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the nature of the artist’s work. For one thing, JesPaints simply can’t afford to make as many pieces as before, given the economic situation. But, almost unavoidably, the content is changing too. “Miss America,” a recent piece featuring a nurse wearing a trash bag, which was “sponsored by Hefty,” garnered attention from several Philly news outlets. It also represented a new funding source for JesPaints: the piece was created entirely using GoFundMe donations.


 
Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Hi! Thanks for your flexibility in doing this interview over the phone!
JesPaints: Yeah… You know, it’s the new world.

SD: So first of all, the question that now means a lot more than it used to: how are you doing?
JP: Uh, I guess I’m doing ok. I’m doing a lot better now, a couple weeks removed from the start of this, but, you know, everything’s a little topsy-turvy.

SD: How is the pandemic influencing your street art?
JP: Well, I pretty much lost my funding, so it totally changed everything. Now, instead of going around and painting a lot of stuff, I’m more or less just concentrating on a couple of larger pieces here and there.

SD: And it seems like you’re focusing on pandemic-related imagery as well.
JP: Yeah, that seems to be what’s going on right now. It’s kind of hard to avoid.

SD: How did it feel to have photos of your work featured on the Inquirer’s Instagram twice in one week?
JP: It feels great. I know they put it on the front page of the website a couple times. There was a spot where they did it like three times in a row… without giving me credit at all.

SD: Yeah, I was going to ask how it felt that they didn’t tag your account despite dozens of commenters identifying you!
JP: You know, it felt fine. It was a little frustrating the first two times, then by the third time, I thought they were trolling me and I started to like it, to tell you the truth.

SD: What do they have to lose by tagging you? I don’t understand.
JP: I don’t know, I can’t figure that out. I do know that they reached out to me and wanted advance warning for when I do my next pieces.

SD: Are you kidding me?
JP: Yeah I got a couple messages and contact information for people, and I’m just like I don’t know if I’m ever going to use this! On the last piece, Miss America, I put my name in a spot where they couldn’t miss it. So I think that helped.

SD: Meanwhile, a few commenters alleged that you “capitalize on tragedy” by painting dead people. What’s your response to that?
JP: Nah, I’m just kind of painting people [who] people want to see. People love Kobe, and I got a whole bunch of messages asking when I was gonna do him. So it was just there. Nipsey Hussle—I ran into the guy who owns [the shop where I installed that piece], and he had wheatpaste leftovers on his wall, and I was like yo I’m gonna come back and I’m gonna paint that for ya. And he told me about how much he loved Nipsey Hussle, and how much Nipsey Hussle did for his community, and in 2008 [how he] opened businesses and put people to work, and I respected that. So I came back one day when he was closed, put that piece up, and the next day he comes in—he loved it. That was a lot of fun.


 
SD: So how do you see your role? What do you take away from this?
JP: I don’t know. When I get angry or emotional or something, I just get to work. And I don’t want my nurse wearing a trash bag if I ever go to the hospital.

SD: Can you tell me about your artistic background? I always wonder about that when someone like you comes along and starts putting work with a seemingly fully-developed artistic style on the street!
JP: Philadelphia born and raised—I came up here, so yeah, I got a degree in art, and in 2008, that kind of got me away from it… I lost my job, all that fun stuff, and I was just overwhelmed. So it took me a while to actually start really doing art. I didn’t really go to school for art. I kind of went to school for design. I’m more into making people smile and enjoying the art, enjoying just walking up on something and being surprised and liking what they see. Like, somebody loves Nipsey, they’re pulling over, they’re taking a picture in front of it, they’re tagging me… When I put up Anthony Bourdain, before I put it up, I was driving around looking for a spot, and I remembered that the Honeygrow was right there and they’ve got all these chefs and people that love food going back and forth, so I just put up Anthony Bourdain right by there, and all of a sudden, everybody’s loving the painting and taking selfies next to it and enjoying it… And seeing other people happy is really what got me inspired. You know, I look down at my phone and I see somebody smiling ear to ear with this huge grin—I miss Anthony Bourdain! It just takes them away from what they’re doing and gives them a smile and that just really does it for me.

SD: Because of your style and medium, I’m going to venture a guess that you’d count Banksy among your influences?
JP: I LOVE BANKSY! I love him. His stuff is just so influential. It’s awesome. One of my favorite pieces from Banksy was the one he did before the London Games, with the kids sewing the flag—where he was calling out child labor. That’s one thing I really love about his work: it’s political, but it’s beautiful.

SD: Where else do you draw inspiration from?
JP: I love Nero, our Philadelphia guy—I tell you the truth, between him and Banksy, that’s what got me into this! I think I was walking around the parade, gettin’ drunk when the Eagles won the Super Bowl, and I look down at my phone and there’s St. Nick! I was like holy shit! Somebody around here is doing some cool crap! That made it really tangible to me.

And my friend Maks Art World is awesome and he’s been a total influence to my art. When I first started doing this, I ran into him, and he’s been a constant go paint go paint go paint kind of person, which I love.

SD: How did you come to put up your first piece on the street, and what was it?
JP: The first piece I did on the street was Colin Kaepernick. His conviction inspired me. And it wasn’t about what he was standing up for as much as his conviction to stand up for it. I think it was when President Trump was talking trash on him—like, are you kidding?! So I went and I put up a Colin Kaepernick—it was just a small piece, maybe about two feet big—over on the high school football field. I looked back, and I was like maybe some kid’s gonna see this. And I was just hooked from there.


 
SD: Early on, you sold some of your work, but your Instagram bio and GoFundMe now very clearly state that nothing is for sale and you don’t take commissions. Why did you decide to stop selling your art?
JP: I never really intended to sell it, but then last year, I needed money for rent, so all of a sudden, I got stuff together, went down to the stadium, and got rent. So that was really cool. I sold a couple of pieces here and there to some people, but I feel like most people underbid. I feel like if I’m going to put 40 hours into a piece, I should be paid for it. I don’t need any more “exposure” opportunities. And the other thing is when I want to do something, I kind of want to do it and I don’t want people’s opinions in my way, if that makes sense. A lot of people are always asking for custom stuff, at least a couple times a week, but it’s just kind of overwhelming.

SD: It sounds like you need to raise your rates, then!
JP: Definitely. But I’ve given some people prices, and they’ve come back to me with a quarter or half of that. At a certain point, if somebody’s going to be truly serious, they will reach out. Until then, I’m just enjoying myself.

SD: But why discourage people from even asking?
JP: Cause I was getting distracted with it. Maybe I do need to raise prices or something like that, but it takes me a long time to do a piece.

SD: How long does it take to do the average piece that you put on the street?
JP: Sometimes a week—the design phase for getting it together takes a while. Not to mention… I’ll design something and throw it away. I’ll design something and throw it away. I’ll design something and throw it away. It won’t be right away that I settle on something.

SD: Tell me more about your stencil-making process!
JP: I make a lot of stencils. That’s pretty much the process. They’re big, and there’s like 10 or 15 sometimes. The more there are, the more difficult it is, so I try to limit it to like seven or eight stencils per piece.


 
SD: Why do you paint portraits?
JP: I like to promote people I feel like do good. That’s about it. I like seeing people smile and taking pictures, and when they come up on somebody that they love, that just kind of does it. I did Gritty, and that was really cool—I mean, it made it to the Hong Kong Reddit, and it got like 25 thousand upvotes like three days before one of their protests. That just did it for me. I was like YEAHHH! They saw my piece; they know Philly loves them; we fight for freedom.

SD: How do you decide where to paint?
JP: Usually, I’ll come up with my design, and then I’ll just drive around for a while until I find a spot that seems deserving, or just fun. That’s basically it. Sometimes I’ll talk to somebody, or make contact, and then come back and surprise them and hit their wall. Sometimes something’s visible and I really like the spot. I know the first real-sized mural I did was the Phanatic Banksy on Aramingo and Lehigh, and that was at, like, a dollar store. That was before I really did anything. I walked in there, and they didn’t speak much English, but I was like I’m gonna paint a mural on your wall. And they were like don’t bother, they’ll tag over it, don’t bother. And I’m like eh, it’ll be fun. [And I also told them] no money. No money. No money. No money. No money.

But I put it up, and a couple months later, there’s some graffiti next to it, and then all of a sudden it’s on NBC news, where they’re cleaning up the graffiti, and the reporter goes “and we’re not gonna paint over the Phanatic!” I loved that. That was so funny. But that piece, I had the Phanatic looking at you instead of at the balloon, cause he was wondering if Halladay’s death was preventable. And I put Halladay’s number in the balloon.

SD: What are your thoughts on graffiti in general?
JP: I mean, it’s really cool. I don’t really do graffiti—I like to have things planned out. But it’s really cool—I appreciate their artwork. One time, I was driving around trying to find a spot for a dancer—I did this dancer lady; she’s maybe eight feet tall—and I saw this nice tag that I liked that this kid puts up a lot of places. I can’t read it, to tell you the truth, but it was just really pretty. And I put the dancer up right next to it, and then he came back, and he put his tag on the other side of it, and I loved it. And of course, the city comes through, and they paint over his tags, and they leave the dancer. So I think the next time I do something like that, I might stencil a picture frame around their graffiti so that the city doesn’t paint over it. I think CLIP, or the city or whatever, likes my art, cause there’s been multiple times where graffiti artists put their tag near it, and the city comes through and paints over the tag and leaves my piece. But I love seeing the tags.

SD: Very few Philadelphia street artists work with stencils as extensively as you do. What attracted you to that medium, and why do you think it’s not more widespread?
JP: What attracted me to it was Banksy—I mean he’s awesome, obviously. And then seeing all the other people do it, I was loving it, and the idea of just being able to get my painting up in a half hour or twenty minutes and it being big was what I liked. Cause I’m not good asking for permission, so that made it a little more freeing to go paint.

[As for why more people don’t do it,] it’s time-consuming to make the stencils. I spend a week sometimes making my sets of stencils, to go paint it once then wrap it up and stick it in my basement. I guess that might be the definition of crazy, but when I get time, I just get to work.


 
SD: After making street art for a full year, what have you learned?
JP: Wow. Let’s see here. I learned you gotta check for the wind. Which direction the wind’s coming is big. When I did Miss America, the wind was coming from right to left, so we were good, but it just took way too long. But if the wind goes all different directions, it’s just bad. I learned that I can spend a week doing stencils and weeks getting everything ready and still have somebody who might be set to help me not show up.

But most of all, I’ve learned that when somebody sees something they love, it just makes them go nuts. They love it. It just highlights their day. I got a message from a nurse—I just finished my shift, I was walking to my car, it was late at night, and I was parked on 10th street, and I walked past that, and oh my god it just [gasps]. That’s why I stuck it there! I stuck it there for them! Somebody got in a little car accident in front of Nipsey. They hit a parked car or the car in front of them and they messaged me and told me about it—they slammed on the brakes, like that’s Nipsey!! That stuff is just so cool. Our city’s full of art and murals, but I feel like our heroes are missing from our art. This kid loves Meek Mill; this person loves this person; and it’s just a long, long list of people that deserve to be painted.

SD: So who’s next on your list?
JP: I don’t know. There’s a bunch of cool people. I think I’m going to do something that’s without an individual person next. Something a little more generic. I found a really cool spot that overlooks a nice little space, so I’m excited for that one. It’ll be up in a couple weeks.

SD: What’s your take-out order at Tattooed Mom?
JP: I guess the burgers is what I would always get when I would go there, but I know they have really good falafel, and I always used to go there for that.

SD: Great! Well thanks, and I’m sorry we won’t be able to get any photos of you installing at Mom’s today.
JP: Well maybe I can get that next piece up and get you a picture!

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PHILLY: Don’t forget that Tmom’s is open for curbside pick up or available for delivery via DoorDash, learn more about these options on @Tmoms Instagram!

And if you can, please consider donating to the Tmoms’ staff GoFundMe organized by Sarah Cowell!

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Read past articles from our Philly Street Art Interviews series by clicking the artist’s name… Season 1: Hope HummingbirdFaithsFunnnBob Will ReignTaped Off TVLow LevelVoid Skulls… Season 2: Kid HazoUnder Water PiratesSymone SalibSEPERMorgLace In The Moon… Season 3: As Above So BelowHysterical MenReed Bmore, El Toro!

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