Thinking outside the palette: Da Vinci Fest features graffiti art demonstration

Graffiti artist JoJo will paint a mural at Da Vinci Fest Saturday, Jan. 11, at Stillwater Area High School. (Photo courtesy of David Parker)
Graffiti artist JoJo will paint a mural at Da Vinci Fest Saturday, Jan. 11, at Stillwater Area High School. (Photo courtesy of David Parker)

A stigma has always surrounded the work of the 2014 Da Vinci Fest’s featured artist.

He’s a Minnesota man who goes simply by the name of JoJo. His chosen medium? Graffiti.

“There’s always been a stigma around graffiti, and I think the stigma is generally a misrepresentation of what it’s really about to a general audience,” JoJo said. “Over in Europe there’s a lot more acceptance for graffiti art versus America, and I think the  main reason for that was media representation (in the U.S.) that was somewhat what I would consider propaganda.”

JoJo isn’t what many expect of a graffiti artist. He’s a college graduate with a degree in music business and production. His passion for graffiti led him to a career as a commercial muralist, and he has done work for Fortune 500 companies, including Best Buy and General Mills. He teaches summer camps and gives lectures at schools and colleges.

His career flies in the face of the image he says many have of graffiti as “ghetto art.”

But he believes graffiti art gets a bad rap because the public often confuses it with ordinary tagging. If a wall has simple symbols or words scrawled on it, he explained, that’s often tagging done by gang members,

which isn’t related to his art culture at all.

“About 80 percent of graffiti artists are not ghetto at all,” he estimated. “They come from middle class to upper middle class families, and this is just something that interests them. … It’s something that’s unique.”

JoJo became fascinated by graffiti while growing up in southern California, and he’s been practicing the art about 27 years.

“Back in 1987 I started,” he said. “I was attracted to the bright colors and the really cool images I saw as a kid when I helped my dad. He owned a construction company. … I would go with him to work and saw it all along the freeways and fell in love with it.”

At first, JoJo sought out people who could teach him graffiti techniques.

“It’s kind of like martial arts where you have people who are considered somewhat masters, and they bring up in a certain way,” he said. “From there it’s kind of up to you as the individual to go out there and do a lot of the learning on your own.”

But JoJo said he had to learn most of the art on his own, because he moved to Minnesota early in his graffiti art career.

He never expected to do this for a living.

“When I was younger, all I thought about was the immediate,” he said. “As I got older, I didn’t actually get in trouble for it. I think people actually appreciated what I was doing because I was actually taking the time to go out and beautify property. I wasn’t trying to destroy it.”

After investing so much time and energy in the art, he decided to see if he could make money and achieve recognition. He did both.

Two of the projects he’s most proud of are a mural he painted at the Minnesota State Fair (it has since been removed due to remodeling) and a grass mural he did for Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. He’s proud of them because they were unique, and that’s what continues to attract him to this art form.

“The biggest thing to me is I can do any type of art form — I could do landscapes, I could do oil paintings. … The thing that draws me most to the graffiti art is that it is atypical.”

The unique nature of the art is also what led the organizers of Da Vinci Fest to request JoJo demonstrate his art during the event. In its eighth year, Da Vinci Fest is a community event to promote and celebrate art and science. It is put on by the nonprofit Partnership Plan.

“We just had the opportunity to do something a little bit different this year with the special events that pertain to art,” said Beverly Petrie, interim executive director of the Partnership Plan.

JoJo will demonstrate his art by creating a graffiti-style painting in front of an audience at Da Vinci Fest at Stillwater Area High School Saturday, Jan. 11. His piece will be sold in March at the Jeans and Jewels Gala, the Partnership Plan’s signature fundraising gala.

Petrie said because he’s outside the mainstream arts culture, JoJo can show students there are many paths they can take in life.

“He’s creating something beautiful, and you can look at his pieces and see how talented he is,” she said. “That’s what artists do — they push boundaries.”

JoJo hopes onlookers come with an “open mind.”

“Innovation and things like that don’t  come from thinking inside the box,” he said. “Sometimes you have to actually think outside the box, and you can create something beautiful and unique. … The biggest thing is I want them to come out there and just know that you don’t have to follow a certain path.”

Contact Jonathan Young at [email protected]