- Nicole Gordon Levine
Jay Shells: The Man of Many Mediums
What a small world it is to know that you are the brother of someone I adore. It was when she and I had last bumped into each other, that your name was brought up. The rest is history as I had already been a fan of your work. I knew I had to interview you to share with our audience the diversity of mediums you have already mastered.
Let's start from what I believe to be the beginning...
Please tell us about your mentor and how his art influenced your work ethics?
The only true mentor in my career thus far has also been my biggest source of influence, and that's Milton Glaser. I was fortunate enough to work as an intern for him for a year and a half between 2005-06. Milton's fine artwork and his graphic design work blend seamlessly. The man draws every single day no matter what. He has clients who have been loyal to him (and he to they) for decades. He's the smartest person I've ever encountered in my life and has more culture and grace than most. I've always modeled my career after his and hoped to achieve what I feel he has in his life which is true fulfillment from his work and enlightenment. One of his mantras is "Drawing is Thinking" which I couldn't agree with more. If you aren't familiar with Milton Glaser, go ahead and get googling. The man is a legend.
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How did the rap quotes start, and what made you choose those specific lyrics? Are these from artist's you admire?
I'll try and make this succinct, but it's a lot.... I've always been drawn to lyricism and paid close attention to what MC's were saying. More than just a hot beat or good sounding song (which is still very important to me), I listen to what's being said. I have a younger brother who I put onto rap music at a very very young age and I taught him to pay close attention to lyrics. One of the first groups I had him listening to was Organized Konfusion, so that should tell you something right there. In 2012 or so, we decided to start a twitter account called @TheRapQuotes where we would tweet what we deemed super ill lyrics. It's still up, although we aren't as dedicated to it as we once were. Fast forward to 2013. I was in my home studio working on a wood burning piece while listening to Big L's first album (Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous) for the 100+ time I'm sure, but for some reason, the proverbial light bulb went off for me when he raps "On 139 & Lenox Ave there's a big park, and if you're soft don't go through it when it gets dark." I thought that those lyrics should appear at that intersection as a way to commemorate what was a truly historic location for hip hop culture. I had just finished a fun street campaign which I called "The Metropolitan Etiquette Authority" where I placed tongue-in-cheek rules of conduct onto metal street signs, and installed them around the city. I decided on that vehicle for messaging after seeing what Trustocorp was doing...it's a very efficient way to get work up. Within seconds of this idea forming, I decided to try and find every sight-specific lyric I could in New York and that I would turn them into street signs and install them in the exact locations mentioned. That's the only deciding factor in the lyrics. I don't need to be a fan of the artist necessarily and they don't need to be ultra famous. They just need to mention a very specific location that I could mark with a street sign (or sometimes mural or ad takeover). I've brought this project to New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Atlanta so far. Houston is next.
You seem to like interacting with the public. Why is that, and how do you feel they respond to your work?
That's the beauty of "street art" isn't it? The visual dialogue with the public. That's why we all do it, I think. Studio work that ends up in a gallery is for a very tiny audience. But work that goes up in public, especially in the urban environment, can be seen by hundreds of thousands of people before it's buffed/removed/fades, etc. Much of my work in the public is quietly woven into the nearly invisible ubiquity of public signage and advertising. My work doesn't stand out, it hides in plain site. I like to think of these projects (Subway Etiquette, Metropolitan Etiquette Authority, The Rap Quotes) as little gifts for those who really pay attention to their surroundings. But of course, the internet drastically increases visibility and opens the door for dialogue and criticism. I've been very fortunate in that the response to most of my public works has been positive. I very much care what people think of my work. Especially the work that I'm putting out into the public. I want people to get some enjoyment from it, I want people to stop and think about it, I want people to have an opinion. When a project goes "viral" it's because it's affected a lot of people. That's not necessarily a measurement of success for me, but it can certainly feel validating.
I recently attended your "Overlooked & Underexposed" solo show at 212 Arts and saw your beautiful watercolor pieces. I remember "Lost On Pills" for some reason! How did this show come about and what made you drawn to that theme?
First off, thank you for coming, I appreciate every single person who came to show support. For the last few years, I've been working mostly on hyper-realistic pyrography (wood burning) pieces. There's no color in these works (except for the collaborations), so they focus primarily on texture, light and shadow. As an study exercise, I decided to make a watercolor of one of my subjects to help inform the wood burn. I enjoyed the process so much that I decided to keep making them. I was making about one painting a day and just really fell in love with the medium. It's pretty challenging, and I always like to try and get a hold of a new medium. The series became a body of 61 paintings! Pretty nuts. I became a little obsessed with it for a while. Regarding "LOST ON PILLS," this is a play on "POST NO BILLS" which I have as a large stencil that I paint on green construction barriers around the city to give pause and thought to our country's opioid addiction epidemic. The watercolor was a portrait of one of these. Toying with the meta is fun for me.
How many mediums have you mastered? Are there any you're afraid of trying, yet want to experiment with?
I'm not sure I've "mastered" anything at all. But mediums which I've put thousands of hours of my life into include screen printing, etching, acrylic and watercolor, drawing and most recently pyrography. I tend to bore easily, so after a big series of work, I try and tackle a new medium and see how long it holds my attention. But I always seem to go back to screen printing. That never gets old to me.
Let's talk about the subway etiquette campaign and how you install the pieces. Just how do you do it?! I look at the subway signs more carefully now, thanks to you. What was their original purpose and do you interact with passengers while putting them up?
Despite being an artist my entire life and doing a lot out in the public, this is the first project that the internet wave took a hold of. Like many riders of mass transit, I grew tired of people's disgusting behavior on the subway and decided to stop complaining and laughing about it to friends and family. I thought it would be fun to make a list of rules of conduct for the subway, and using the MTA's visual language, screenprint hundreds of posters and put them around the system. I surveyed a bunch of friends about their biggest pet pieves while riding the subway and wrote them up into these 10 different rules. Most were a bit silly, but addressed a more serious underlying issue. Putting them up is very fast and easy using a Scotch ATG gun (two way tape). I just rode the trains early in the morning and put them up next to the actual "Service Advisory" posters on the trains and in the stations. My colors were slightly more vibrant, so they did stand out a bit next to the real MTA posters. Some people would ask me questions or take photos while I installed them, but I moved pretty quickly, so interactions with passengers was minimal. After one day of installing these (maybe 50 or so), the internet got hold of the project via (now shut down) AnimalNewYork.com, and it just went crazy. What a fun ride. RIP Animal!
Can you please touch upon the wonderful collaborative pieces you showed us that are half you, half Emilio Ramos, URNY, Danielle Mastrion, Chris RWK, Sean Sullivan, etc.?
My woodburns, for the first few years, were completely void of color. The work is more about capturing texture, light and shadow. A gallerist suggested that I add some color to the pieces. My immediate reaction was to say no, the works don't need color. I let my ego get in the way of listening to the opinion of someone else. After considering this for a while, I decided that I didn't want to personally add color to the works, but what a great opportunity to invite some of my contemporaries to join forces with me and collaborate on a body of work. I'm so glad I decided to do this as the outcome of these collabs have been very exciting and the process challenging and rewarding. I've so far gotten to work with some of my favorite artists including: Emilio Ramos, Danielle Mastrion, One Tooth and Paul Cooley. Currently in the works are pieces with BK Foxx, Ski & 2Esae (URNY), Deanna Maffeo, Sean Sullivan and Col (Wallnuts). I have some other artists in mind that I'd like to work with should the opportunity present itself. I'm working towards a solo show which would showcase about 50% collabs and 50% just my works...but all pyrography (wood burn) works. The process is very slow, but the finished pieces are starting to really add up. I'm very excited and still very inspired to keep making these pieces.
I have to tell you that watching you install the "Resistance Is Female" ad takeover gave me an adrenaline rush that I assume you get quite often. How does it feel to add art to this ever changing city? How did you originally become involved in the ad takeovers? How many pieces do you intend to put up?
No matter what type of artwork I get up in public space, I just love the feeling of adding a stitch to the fabric of the city. Even if the work is ephemeral, it's a nice feeling to have your voice heard in a city where information is constantly being shouted at us. It's hard to compete in such a crowded environment, but if you can hear even a whisper from me amongst the noise, I'm grateful and I hope you got something out of it.
I became interested in ad takeovers when I first saw the phone booths KAWS took back in the days. I thought it was such a sick idea, but didn’t take any phone booths or bus stops myself until 2011 or 2012. Jordan Seiler really took it to another level though. All respect to Jordan and PAC, #yeahwegotkeysforthat. It’s a fast way to take the piss out of obtrusive advertising and replace with artwork. Although, let’s be honest, we’re still selling something. We’re selling ourselves. The thought for me is that it’s better to bombard people with artwork than ads trying to sell them something they don’t need. Although, there are plenty of ads around the city that I won’t replace, Meals on Wheels being a recent example. They don’t get replaced. The Resistance is Female project immediately caught my eye and I reached out to them asking for their blessing to participate. I’m not going to dive to deep into it, but I have two daughters and we have a misogynist serving as “President.” I wanted to get involved and my idea was pretty simple; translate the statement into as many languages as I could and layout the typography into the universal female symbol. I think it’s a pretty successful design and I hope to get a few more up around the city. I’ve got dozens of prints for bus stops and phone booths ready to go. I don’t have much of a strategy for them, I go out and install them when the mood strikes. Adbusting is nothing new, but it’s fun nonetheless and it’s not going anywhere any time soon. I encourage everyone to go steal some ads, it’s a mitzvah (look that up).
If you could collaborate with any artist, dead or alive, who would it be with and why?
I'd have to say Tristan Eaton. I think he's one of the most brilliant artists of our time. Always evolving, but with deep roots in graphic design, graffiti and toy design. The way he blends styles in his pieces the last few years blows me away. He has an eye for color and typography and illustration that is unmatched in my opinion and I would love the opportunity to work with / learn from him via a collaborative project. I think it's important to work with people who are better than you and who do things you want to be able to do, so you can try to rise to their level. This is an artist who is capable of thinking and executing in ways I wish I was able to.
What is next for you?
I'm gunning for a solo exhibition of my pyrography pieces which also include a slew of collaborations with some amazing artists. No date or gallery confirmed yet. The Rap Quotes will be going to Houston in the next few months and will also be airing as a TV show on Red Bull TV early fall (episode 1: Brooklyn). I've got some other fun street projects in store and I started a company with my wife which is top secret for now. Basically, lots of coals in the fire. Unrelated to art, I'm running my first marathon this November in NYC, wish me luck. I just want to maintain motivation and hope my kids are proud of me.
Where can our readers learn more about both you and your work?
jayshells.com is a good place to start.
There's also Instagram @jayshells_
Twitter @jayshells & @TheRapQuotes
and you can drop me a line, firstname.lastname@example.org