On a recent day in July, I attended a luncheon held at a trendy new spot on Lenox Avenue in Harlem by Hennessy, the French cognac house, to unveil its 2017 “Very Special Limited-Edition Bottle.” The shindig was being held in the neighborhood in honor of JonOne, the native Harlemite street-turned-fine-artist who created the label artwork for this year’s Hennessy bottle, the seventh in a series by international artists.
I didn’t choose art, art chose me.
“I didn’t choose art, art chose me,” JonOne told me when I asked him what had led him to his craft. A walking tour of Harlem’s graffiti landmarks had preceded the luncheon at Corner Social, and JonOne’s voice betrayed a hint of nostalgia and pride. “There is no separation between my artwork and who I am,” he explained, noting that he had come of age in the Harlem of the 1980s, an “environment that was perfect for an artist to be born.” An unpredictable environment, however, where “you can go outside on the street one day and run into somebody and have such an amazing day and then the next day be running for your life.”
Peace, love, and fun
The backdrop of a decaying, crime-ridden Harlem also presented the young JonOne with opportunities and inspiration for artistic self-affirmation. The energy he felt in Harlem back then still informs his abstract-style creations, which set him apart from other graffiti artists, who stuck to the traditional graphic or figurative images. The motto of street art and the then-emerging hip hop culture was “peace, love and having fun,” JonOne recalled fondly.
Crack-cocaine also spelled the demise of the graffiti movement
By 1987, however, JonOne felt a drastic swing in the street art movement due to the crack epidemic, which was claiming an increasing number of his peers. The drug-addled Harlem of the late 1980s had also swept away the unpredictably creative environment JonOne had grown up cherishing. Creatively and otherwise, “I was headed downhill. It wasn’t my fault, it was the way the system was built, there was no space for me there,” he said.
The spread of crack-cocaine also spelled the demise of the graffiti movement, as New York and cities around the country adopted tough quality-of-life policies that recast the freewheeling youth art form as a major urban nuisance. Jorge “Fabel” Pabon, the dancer, hip hop DJ, and street artist who led our walking tour of graffiti landmarks, prefers the term “urban stylized lettering.” Graffiti carries a “negative stigma,” Fabel explained as we stood before the Graffiti Hall of Fame, a wall enclosing the playground at Jackie Robinson Educational Complex, on East 106th Street, made famous for artists collaborating on commissioned works. Urban stylized lettering is a more suitable genre name for graffiti art, Fabel insisted, because it embodies what artists like himself are trying to do, particularly when they are being commissioned to do it.
A moving piece of canvas
A native Harlemite and longtime friend and collaborator of JonOne, Fabel was in a talkative mood, copiously sharing stories about growing up in East Harlem. (The tour included a stop at the Apollo Theater, which houses a famous piece known as The Spirit of East Harlem.) Graffiti art, Fabel said, “helped build [our] self-esteem and confidence, growing up in a neighborhood that was quite challenging, where quite often the voice of the youth was not heard. So we made it our business to make ourselves known and heard.”
Creating graffiti artworks could be quite dangerous, particularly on subway cars, which Fabel called a “moving piece of canvas” for artists seeking the “easiest way to gain notoriety and fame.” There was the risk of getting in trouble with the police or with other artists. Fabel also recalled that he, JonOne, and other young artists were “economically challenged” growing up in Spanish Harlem, and often had to steal spray paint cans from local art supply stores or sometimes even from competitors. Then there was the subway spraying action itself.
“You’d have to sneak into the train yard or into the tunnel for the layups,” said Fabel. “Then you’d have to make sure that you had enough guys with you in case other writers come and there’s a problem, because quite often back then other more aggressive writers would try to steal your paint.” Lookouts would be stationed “to see either the police coming or the actual MTA workers. All of this was part of the thrill.”
I didn’t want to do something serious, that doesn’t celebrate what it’s all about.
An abstract stroke of luck
In the early 1990s, JonOne’s offbeat, abstract style caught the attention of a group of French artists who invited him to Paris at a time when the urban art movement was just beginning in Europe.
“I got to live the movement two times. And at the same time find refuge there,” said JonOne who had arrived in Paris on a one-way plane ticket, “one of the smartest moves I ever made,” leading to a decades-long career in Paris, where several of his pieces set records for graffiti art sold in France.
When Hennessy selected him to design the label artwork for its 2017 Limited-Edition Bottle, JonOne said he tapped into the energy from his experience in new environments, just as he had done in Paris and Harlem. He also credits the Hennessy-sponsored trips he had taken, the places he had visited, and the people he had met on these trips for inspiring his sparse yet vibrant take on the high-end cognac bottle’s label. “As soon as I got back to the studio, I put that energy into my paintings,” he said. “I didn’t want to do something serious, that doesn’t celebrate what it’s all about — having a good time, being together, listening to music, exchanging stories, culture, art, and dancing.”
Photo credits: Jimbe Carroll (Harlem Bee senior photographer)