Artist in Residence: JonOne
The Harlem-bred, Paris-based artist joins luxury cognac brand, Hennessy, as the latest in their Hennessy Very Special Limited Edition Series
A musician in Toronto, a chef in Copenhagen, a painter in Paris—now more than ever, there exists an endless array of ways for artists to express themselves in the increasingly connected world that we live in. But as diverse as they come, the common measure that defines an artist has stayed the same: a commitment to craft and a unique point of view.
Craftsmanship is something that luxury cognac brand, Hennessy, is well familiar with. After all, they've been refining their technique for over 250 years. And while it's true that Hennessy’s ability to survive the test of time can be attributed to their sheer dedication to their art, it can also be credited to their fostering of strong relationships, especially within the creative community.
Marking their sixth year of artist collaborations, Hennessy has partnered with renowned street artist, JonOne, as the newest induction into their Hennessy Very Special Limited Edition Series. JonOne (born John Andrew Perello) joins the ranks of other internationally-acclaimed urban artists, like Scott Campbell, Ryan McGinness, Shepard Fairey, and Futura, who have also worked with Hennessy to create a limited series of custom-designed bottles.
Here, the Paris-based artist discusses his roots, his craft, and the kindred bond that he shares with the luxury French brand.
Your cultural background is Dominican and you grew up in New York. How did those early years shape you as an artist?
I was born in New York and grew up in what was known as Black Harlem, where a lot of Dominicans lived. At age 16, in the early 1980s, I used to hang out with my friends a block away from where I lived, on 156th Street. That was our spot. We’d spend our time watching the subway trains go by. Here in Paris, you call the kids who hang out on the street “la racaille.” That’s what I was, racaille (riffraff). So I started painting using spray paint. I didn’t have any money then, and my parents were poor. Really poor.
You have obviously been exposed to many different cultures and people through your travels and the places that you’ve lived. Have you found there to be a common denominator that brings people together?
For me, the common denominator that I have personally have found has been in street art—in graffiti. When I started, I always thought it was just a New York thing. I didn’t think that people would be able to relate to or understand it. It was just something that was coming out from places where I grew up. So, when I found out that people were painting in Europe, and South America, and Japan, the first thing I said to myself was, “Why?”
I’m amazed that with this movement, there are no borders. People are doing it all over the place—it’s amazing. I don’t know if there’s been a movement like that ever in the history of art, but every year it gets bigger.
What prompted you to leave Harlem for Paris?
My art became my passport out. One day, I got a call from a graffiti writer from Paris. At the time, I could not fathom why anyone would be doing graffiti in France. To me, graffiti was a ghetto thing. I was curious to hear what the French tag artist had to say.
In the late 1980s, graffiti in New York was dying down. Drugs were part of it. Hip-hop shifted away from peace, love, and having fun, and there was violence. People had to get real jobs. No one was living the graffiti version of Westside story, that romantic image of the street.
Arriving in France, I realized that other artists were already following my work. This was before the Internet, when people exchanged photographs. So, as it turned out, my style was something of a reference already, and people felt my energy. I was very well received in Paris. In the end, Paris became my home.
You said that spray paint was perceived by some as “vandalism.” But you felt a calling as an artist. How did you first experience that calling?
There were a few street artists I hung out with, and everyone thought I was really talented. Remember, I was born in the Mecca for street art, where the movement was born, watching the subway go by, covered with tags and people’s names written on the subway cars. The energy of that art was palpable, and it spoke to me. I wanted to be part of the whole graffiti movement. So during the day I went to school, and at night I sprayed. What I did, more or less, was follow my art. When you do that, you just wait and see where your art leads you.
Do you find that street art was a way of democratizing art for both the artist and the spectator?
The whole terminology from ‘graffiti’ and ‘vandalism’ to ‘street art,’ it opened people’s eyes. It was a generation that changed. When I first got here, people were judging me, coming from where they came from and their education. They didn’t have the right information to understand me. Now what’s happening is that we have a new generation, a more open and youthful generation that grew up around graffiti and seeks information differently. So they look at us differently—now more than ever. It’s that generation that is becoming the museum directors, curators, and auction house workers. It’s just a changing of the guard. And now it’s our turn to impose our culture and way of living.
How would you describe your style as an artist?
I consider myself a paint maniac. I spend so much money on paint. Sometime it’s rather excessive. But everything about technique I’ve learned on my own. Most people look at graffiti as representing an image, or as figurative art. My art is completely abstract. That abstraction has become my reference.
Technically speaking, the trick to using spray paint was measuring the distance between the can and the surface to be sprayed, because you are projecting color. On a canvas it’s different. Now I’m experimenting with other techniques. For instance, in the last two years I’ve been playing around with thickness, and the effect produced by multiple layers of paint.
You use canvas and other mediums for your work. What is the difference between using a streetcar and a canvas? Or the difference between using spray paint and oil?
For me, working on a car, a canvas, or even a bottle for Hennessy—I don’t think there are too many artists that can do things like that, you know? Andy Warhol, for instance, had a factory where he was working with a lot of different products. In today’s day and age, as an artist, you have to be modern and use the vehicles around you in order to be able to communicate differently. We live in a different time.
What was your impression of Hennessy during this collaboration?
Because I live in France, I have always known and respected Hennessy. The name embodies a certain tradition here. They represent excellence and know-how. They put their soul into their product, which is made in France, and I am very attached to France. But I have an appreciation for Hennessy that goes beyond consuming the spirits they make. For me, Hennessy is about crafting and exporting the best of France.
What does success mean to you?
Success is being able to do what I want to do. That’s a success story. It’s freedom.