Artist Profile, Interview

An Interview with JonOne (Part 1)

abstract painting by JonOne


Hours On the Ground

Photo by Bruno Brounch

John Perello, AKA JonOne or Jon156, is an American graffiti artist living and working in Paris. In 1984, he founded the graffiti group 156 All Starz, before relocating to Paris in 1987, where he quickly made a name for himself. Working on a wealth of projects during his long career, and exhibiting on a global scale, his style is colorful and expressive.

In part 1 of her 3 part interview with JonOne, Alexandra Kosloski discusses the artist's early life and influences.

AK: Could you tell me a little bit about your early life in New York?

JonOne: Early life, well… I was actually born in New York so I'm a real New Yorker, you could say. I was born in a hospital called Flowers– I think it's called Flowers. Doesn't exist anymore. So I was born in New York in 1963 and I was brought up in Washington Heights, which is like Dominican, Hispanic, Black, all mixed types of people. My parents are originally from the Dominican Republic, so I got that Latino touch in me, which I’m very proud of. And my dad– he was a window trimmer, what he used to do was decorate store windows. And my mother used to have a boutique. It used to be "Perello's Boutique". She used to sell Jordache jeans, Sergio Tacchini jeans, Calvin Klein jeans, karate slippers, Weibo pads….

And I went to an all Catholic boys school called Cardinal Hayes in the Bronx. And so you can see from the little bit I’m telling you… we used to go to Coney Island in the summertime– that used to be our St. Tropez. So we used to go to Coney Island in the summertime, my mother used to bring the food from the house. So cute. She used to spend the Saturdays preparing food. And we used to spend our time in Coney Island in the summertime to cool off. I would go to Highbridge Park 175th, I think something like that. Yeah, I grew up like a real New Yorker.


The Simple Life

Photo by Bruno Brounch

AK: So it sounds like you're pretty proud of where you're from. It seems like your parents have some of that creative and entrepreneurial spirit that you have. 

JonOne: Yeah, they definitely do. I mean, my parents were, you know, like immigrants, and when you're an immigrant, you get the lowest jobs possible. And they had three kids. So they had to do what they had to do to put food on the table. So that's maybe where I got the drive… the drive to paint. From my parents, you know? Never giving up and trying my best. 

AK: Was art something that you had visualized for your future?

JonOne: No, I mean, art came from boredom. What better way to become an artist– because you're bored and you got no money. What you do when you got no money and you're bored is you listen to music and you draw. So I would spend Friday nights listening to music and drawing all night long on a table… and then that Friday and Saturday became Sunday, and Sundays became Mondays and Mondays became like… a real passion. From just being bored. 

I always encourage kids to take their boredom and use the boredom to do things. Yeah, it's good to be bored sometimes. So I used my boredom and I painted.

AK: Yeah, the idleness kind of leads to creativity and invention and new ideas.

JonOne: Yeah, I mean, nowadays you got so much distractions. And useless distractions because it doesn't lead you nowhere. But back then I was very, very lucky that I was able to use my boredom and do something creative with it.

When I was small, there was this film called Fame. “I want to live forever, I want to learn how to fly high”. Instead, it was the school called Juilliard but I wasn't so talented to go to Juilliard. So there was always this thing in my head, of like dancing, music, art, expressing yourself– if not on the stage, in the streets. And I always had that necessity to want to expose myself. Sometimes people are timid, but I wanted to be known and seen. That was one of my things. So from movies like Fame and things like that, and seeing graffiti in the streets, and being around graffiti writers, and breakdancing, and hip hop and all that stuff. I slowly transitioned to a more personal type of expression, rather than just following the hip hop scene. Art became more personal, I guess.


There Is Power In Me

Photo by Bruno Brounch

AK: So you said that you would just start drawing in your bedroom? Could you tell me a little bit more about your early art making practice?

JonOne: Yeah, I mean, I really sucked at painting. I was like, the worst of the worst. I mean, even to this day, I still can't paint, you know, I mean, something figurative, nor represented, nor graphic… it became too structured for me. And I didn't feel like I wanted to go through a structured type of expression because it felt like the same sort of oppression I felt in American society– where everything had to be a certain way in order for you to be accepted. So I felt more at ease expressing myself in an abstract form, which the abstract turns into a freestyle, a free style of expressing yourself. And that's what really interested me, I didn't want to be fitting into a box anymore than I had to be. You know, like when you paint a figure, it has to be drawn a certain way in order for it to be recognized or things like that. I wanted to be recognized for my uniqueness and my experiences that I was going through, which are very valuable.

And sometimes it was shunned by society, because people looked down at it, they were like, “That's useless, what you’re doing”, or “That's bad what you're doing". But I was like, yeah, that's my life. And that's an experience that's enriching because you're not experiencing it. And that's what makes it unique.


Photo by Gwen Le Bras

That's what makes me unique– is that you're doing what everybody else is doing, and I'm doing something that nobody's doing. That uniqueness is what I was trying to express in an abstract form; through colors and movement and poetry and experiences and energy. And I slowly started to apply my experiences– hanging out downtown, and meeting people, and that excitement of New York when you're young– I started to express it on canvases. 

And also, it wasn't just a joyful type of art that I was expressing. It’s also a revolting, and trying to understand “Who am I in this big city?”. You know how it is in New York. It's like a big city, but at the same time, you can feel so lonely, and have no friends and not fit in and, you know, and just be invisible in that place.

AK: Yeah, there's an anonymity. It sounds like you're describing that in some ways, art and creativity was an escape for you, but simultaneously, it was a way for you to participate in your environment and in the culture. Does it function both ways for you? 

JonOne: Yeah, it does. Because in a way, I was sort of like an outsider– an outsider of an outsider, you know? I felt like I was an outcast in the spectacle of this big city, and the only way of escaping was to paint. And that's what made me happy. And it made me create my own world, and try to figure out “What is the value of this world?”, when I’m doing something in a way that's so useless. Because who needs art anyway? You know? Who needs it? So little people consume art, or live through art, or need art in the way that I was needing it. So I was really I was an outsider of the outsiders. People would maybe sometimes dip and dab in art, but to me it was a way of breathing and… to live. So how do you bring a value to it? You know, how do you figure it? How do you figure yourself out in this thing? So it was a long process. And it's a process that's ongoing every day, too, it never stops.


Juice World

Photo by Bruno Brounch

AK: So early on, you're involved in street art in New York, and then you transition to painting on canvas. Is that correct? 

JonOne: Yeah, I mean, it was a really slow transition. I want to say graffiti is what I was doing. I was doing vandalism. I wasn't doing street art because I wasn't really painting in the streets. I was painting on trains. And, you know, some people look at it as vandalism or degrading, but to me it was definitely none of that. The trains were my playgrounds. It was a moving gallery. It was a gallery that was in your face all the time. And it was, at the same time, very underground. So that's what made me so excited, because I was into underground stuff. And yeah, it was my way of existing. So from there, I was very, very lucky to meet artists, and go visit studios, and start to go to museums and meet art dealers and things like that. So that was sort of my way of educating myself.

But today, yes, definitely called “street art”, which I use sometimes. Sometimes I'm a street artist, sometimes I’m an artist in terms of abstract.


Things Are Different In Me

Photo by Bruno Brounch

AK: Yeah, you're a little bit difficult to put in a box.

JonOne: Yeah. Because I'm just so complicated, you know, I'm extremely complicated– I mean, I've been doing it for, like, 40 some odd years painting or maybe even more. It's even hard for me to define myself. I'm always curious, and trying to be curious in things like that. Not settling down yet. No.

Continue to Part 2

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