JUXTAPOZ Issue #56, March 2005

creates High Art influenced by that Lower East Side vibe.
Herein he shares his secrets with GEORGE PETROS.

Attired in punk finery, cigarette in hand, JOHN JOHN JESSE stands before his wall of trophies. A Clash poster from the late 70s, a Discharge tour poster from ’83, a copy of Punk magazine signed by The Ramones, a Joe Strummer autograph and much more excites the eye. Across the room, cabinets stuffed with super collectibles present their curious contents. Batman, Little Alex from A Clockwork Orange, Ultraman, and Catwoman pose menacingly; monsters, flying battleships, and crazy shit await animation. John John’s frisky Boston Terrier leaps heavenward, toy in teeth.

A tattoo of two Clockwork Orange baby droogs decorates John John’s neck. On his arm, a troll emerges from the ground, an image from the record sleeve of the Bristol punk outfit Amebix. On his leg the words “punk rock” blaze in Old English letters against a heart and swastika.

Deep in the bowels of Brooklyn’s Bushwick section, John John inhabits an alternate universe of punk supremacy. He plays in Morning Glory and paints portraits of chicks who could give a fuck about you.

For years he haunted the Lower East Side, a funky punk junkie hanging out, getting high, and playing hard, fast music. In 1985 he formed Nausea, an anarchist squatter punk band. He lived a rough life, but it was not the hardscrabble existence of ancestral peasantry. Rather, it was the punk parasitism of the 80s hardcore scene. Squatting, stealing, fighting, and rocking constituted the routine. Drugs and anxiety fueled it. Anger gave it a heart.

One day John John quit getting high and started painting. It’s that simple. He started portraying punk waifs in all their glory, in blissed-out states of totally fucked-up euphoria. At first glance his paintings invite a smile, but upon inspection they suck viewers into netherworlds of druggy abandon. Ripped t-shirts and razor blades serve as high fashion. The chicks are hot, delicate, and dangerous.

Now he ranks among underground art’s brightest new stars. His shows at the Art At Large Gallery revealed a romantic nod to oblivion. Catholica Erotica told the story of his Catholic school years in pictures of young girls drinking, smoking, and shooting up dope. Punk Electrique told the story of punk aloofness in pictures of young girls nodding out, snorting coke, and bleeding. He certainly has his finger on the pulse of the times!

When he’s not painting, John John joins members of Leftover Crack and World Inferno in Morning Glory. He collects punk ephemera, Batman toys, and taxidermied animals. He takes it cool, one day at a time. Although he lived through a torrent of intoxicants, he appears unscathed. He takes a puff of his cigarette and smiles.

Q: What year were you born?

A: 1969. I grew up on the Lower East Side. My dad was gone by the time I was three. He was an unemployable alcoholic. My mom worked for the city and took care of me. I left home at fifteen.

Q: Did you hang out with the Cro-Mags?

A: I knew them. I was more punk rock; those guys were skinheads.

Q: What is punk rock?

A: Now it’s so different. It’s a normal part of society, a standard counterculture. Back then, in the early 80s, it was a tribe of misfits who had the common bond of a certain type of music. We were angry, unattached, and lost. That’s why so many of us got into narcotics. It was not easy. In fact, you had to pay your dues to get into the scene. It was like a family, or a gang. We were on the street all the time, panhandling, stealing, copping drugs, fighting. It was dangerous. The cops hassled us. The Puerto Rican gangs didn’t understand us. It was a much tougher scene than it is now. It was about hanging out on the street and getting fucked up.

Q: So you left home and school at fifteen.

A: I stayed at punk rock squats, lived in doorways, panhandled, and formed my band, Nausea. Everything happened really fast.

Q: How did Nausea come about?

A: I always wanted to play music. I became friends with Vic Venom from Reagan Youth. We formed Nausea. The New York Hardcore thing was evolving into that Youth Crew scene, with bands like Youth Of Today and Gorilla Biscuits. We were more punk rock. We did okay, but we were totally DIY. We opened for Bad Brains, and we were sixteen at the time. Eventually we all lived together, with Roger Miret of Agnostic Front. I had such a drug habit, I’d always sell my guitar after tours.

Q: Tell us about the drugs.

A: Back then it wasn’t as taboo as it is now. All our heroes were people like Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders. Drugs seemed like the natural thing to do. I’d gone to a catholic school. I felt abused mentally and physically. I don’t think the teachers understood that they were abusive; they thought they were just strict. I built resentments. I was angry. The drugs numbed all that. I became obsessed with self-destruction. It was a subconscious way to kill yourself.

Q: Having a kid must have added to the stress of the punk rock street lifestyle.

A: I had a son named Keegan when I was twenty. Eventually we had an apartment that became like a flop house. Me, his mom, four roommates and whoever would be floppin‘ on the couch for the next month or two. My kid has seen it all. Now he’s fourteen and in a punk rock band called Skinned Alive.

Q: Nausea did pretty well —

A: It did. We were very political. We were anti-cop class-war anarchist squatters. Eventually it came apart for all the usual reasons.

Q: How did you get into doing graphics?

A: I was always good at art. When I got into punk rock, so much of the imagery fascinated me. We would just need a flyer for a show, so I would do it. It wasn’t like today where people hand out glossy little cards. We made xeroxes at Kinko’s. I did a bunch of Agnostic Front flyers.

Q: How did you do them?

A: There was no Photoshop like today when everybody can do it. I broke out a piece of typing paper and looked at old flyers in order to get the vibe. I drew and lettered by hand in pencil and Rapidograph pen. Thousands of kids have my Nausea logo tattooed on them. It was an anarchist peace sign. I drew it in a squat on 8th Street. I also did the SFA album cover and the cover for a punk rock crusty band called Destroy.

Q: These days, your typographical flourishes are wonderful.

A: That’s because my biggest influences as an artist are not the Renaissance masters, it’s Jamie Reid, who did all the Sex Pistols artwork. And Vivian Westwood’s fashion from those days. It’s not Rembrandt.

Q: We’re happy to hear that someone is influenced by something that’s actually relevant to them. Real life comes out of TV and comic books, doesn’t it?

A: That’s what it’s all about. I can only give people what I know. My new series is called Idol Worship. It’s got the same drug-alcohol-sex vibe goin‘ on, ’cause that’s what I know, but with all my childhood and adult heroes. Sid Vicious, The Dead Boys, Little Alex, Adam West’s Batman.

Q: Tell us about this cabinet full of Batman paraphernalia.

A: I only collect stuff from the 1966 television Batman with the George Barris Batmobile. Here’s a Batmobile slot car that I made. I have about forty Batmobiles, and figurines including Julie Newmar as Catwoman and a Catwoman I made from a Josie And The Pussycats doll. Anyway, I became obsessed with Adam West as Batman. The show was cool, with the colors, the insane dialog, the Batmobile. He was cool. Unlike the other superheroes who were too muscular, he looked like a real person.

Q: So, when you stopped getting high, you started painting.

A. Immediately. I’d only painted a little bit prior to that, for a short time.

Q: And you continued to do music.

A: Playing in a band was a release for anger and frustration. Artwork was a quest for serenity.

Q: How would you describe your painting style?

A: Pretty suicide. Very cute. That’s my style, because I saw all that. All the girls in my work are real people. I’ve been off drugs for about five years, since I was thirty. My work is my life story about the times before that. It’s what I know, the drugs and the girls. An entanglement of disasters. It’s about drugs and sex and punk rock and teen suicide and being angry and young, you know? I think it’s romantic. I think it’s funny, too. I accept that there may have been hurt along the way. If you can live through it all and not take yourself too seriously in the end, that’s success. My work is completely autobiographical.

Q: In your faces, you capture that rapturous drug state so well —

A: You can only get it if you lived through that for many years, you know? The work is a back-from-the-dead type thing.

Q: The chicks really look like they’re high.

A: Thank you. That makes me happy to hear that. I don’t think I should have to explain it. It’s pretty obvious. The vibe is all there. The sexuality is not the bodacious titty-dancer-type sexiness. It’s more like innocent teen sexiness. The faces show curiosity, desperation, confusion and resentment.

Q: One occasionally finds swastikas in your work.

A: Any swastika, backwards or forwards, causes people to be immediately shocked. I use a lot of them in my work. In the ’77 punk days, Siouxsie and the Banshees wore it, Sid Vicious wore it, and none of them were nazis. They just wanted to piss people off.

Q: Tell us how you work.

A: I take pictures of models. It’s basically pencil, ink, gouache and Krylon spray paint for the backgrounds. It’s done on heavy illustration board. I’ve worked as large as 20x24. I like working big, then working on smaller pieces in-between, for quick satisfaction. I work all day, every day. I get a lot done.

Q: So, how did the stellar career come about?

A: When I quit drugs, I just painted anything, all the time, to keep fucking sane. Someone said I should contact Les Barany because he’d know what to do. I had no aspirations to be an artist. I had no sense of career and no goal except to stay clean. I asked Les what he could do with my work. He said, “What’s ten percent of zero?” He sent me to Subculture Gallery. He introduced me to Axel. I got a little attention, a little press came out of it. I did a show with Axel at CBGB 313 Gallery. We signed some collaborative pieces in our own blood.

Q: And you started cranking out paintings.

A: Yeah, just to keep my head together.

Q: Is that still the purpose, five years later?

A: Now it’s to tell a story. It’s a full-on narration of what I’m all about. I work incessantly. All I do is paint. I’m not the job-working type. I need to live my life as autonomously as possible.

Q: What’s the price range?

A: From 800 to five grand. They’ve been moving fairly well.

Q: Do you foresee further evolution?

A: Yeah. I feel like I’ve come a long way. Everything I had to go through to get to this point happened for a reason. The work gets attention because a lot of people can relate to it. I mean, most people have done drugs. Most people get high and drink, you know? Caffeine, cigarettes, it’s all drugs. That’s just human nature. Some people’s influence might be Caravaggio, mine is heroin and cocaine addiction. I’m not a writer. The only way I can tell my story is through my paintings. I’m not trying to be shocking; it’s all that I know. However, if I don’t shock at least one person, then my job’s not done.

For more info, check out www.johnjohnjesse.net
To purchase the works of John John Jesse, go to www.artatlarge.com
For your musical pleasure, visit www.nauseapunk.net and www.mglory.org