From the Street to Studio: An Interview with RIME
By Anna del Gaizo
The street-bred, aerosol-fed graffiti artist is a dying species. But RIME, also known as Jersey Joe, is one of the few who’s keeping the gritty, guerilla tradition alive—ironically by taking to the canvas and imparting elements of fine art into his own uncensored style. The New York City-to-New Jersey-raised and world-traveled artist has been painting for more than a decade, and with a pop culture-conscious and deceptively nuanced aesthetic, Jersey Joe’s unpretentious gutsiness is currently raging brighter than ever. I stopped by his Brooklyn studio to talk about optimism, edibles and the timeless power of the Hawaiian shirt. RIME’s latest solo show, Conclusions, is currently on display at Jonathan LeVine Gallery in New York City through March 19.
So what’s your process like?
I’m a last-minute person. I was always the person to wait ‘til the night before to do my report on something.
You’re a procrastinator?
Yeah. I make an abstract kind of composition, and then I start turning shit into shit. With this approach to art, I’m just placing marks down, you know, with a certain kind of attitude. I do something and I respond to it. It’s like dancing. I don’t know how to dance, but I dance all the time. This ain’t the fifties. There isn’t no “move.” You’re not doing the bop or something like that. You just sort of do it, and if you do it with a certain amount of conviction, if you believe in what you’re doing, you can convince people. You can convince yourself. So when I paint, I have the idea in my head that whatever I do, I can build on it. And if I don’t like something, I can cover it or add to it. Instead of thinking pessimistically, I think optimistically.
I think for a lot of people, the idea of putting something on a canvas feels final. It’s intimidating.
It shouldn’t be. You shouldn’t be scared to touch something. You have to break the ice. So I break the ice just by throwing paint around and maybe working with colors I think go well together. Maybe trying to limit a color palette and see where I can go from there, create a push and pull to create depth on a flat piece. And then eventually it turns into some shit. Like this one says “hot breeze.”
What do those words mean to you?
It’s like getting a warm blow job.
That’s a pretty good feeling, I imagine.
Yeah, it’s very welcoming. Why not? I’ll have one! So there’re some eyes, there’s part of a guy’s head, there’re some titties.
Hot Breeze by RIME
All the images don’t register at once. It takes a little while for them to present themselves.
It’s like R&B music. I saw, I don’t know what you call it, a meme? It said that guy The Weeknd was nominated for a Kid’s Choice award for a song about doing cocaine.
That would be “I Can’t Feel My Face.”
Right. So people hear the song, and it sounds good, and it feels good, and it goes together well. But the subject itself is maybe something that’s racy.
Like little girls singing along to certain Britney Spears songs.
Or “O.P.P.” Naughty by Nature.
And middle-aged suburban dads will be singing along, too and have no idea. That’s part of the genius of pop.
Whenever you want to get in or you have an agenda you want to put across, sometimes you’ve got to disguise it a bit. And that’s what art’s all about.
Do you paint high?
For past shows, when I was trying to master my craft, I would paint sober. But for the past year, I’ve been more open to eating edibles. I was turned off by cigarettes because my mom smoked. When I tried to smoke weed out of a Philly blunt wrapper with my brother when I was, like, 13, smoking it would burn my throat, but it never got me high. He’d say, “You gotta try harder! Open yourself up!” I think because I was on-guard about it, I never let the smoke in. I didn’t get high, in many attempts, from 13 until 25. So I was always turned off by weed because I was like, “What’s the point?” And this one time, at this college I was going to, I smoked some dirt weed with this dude on the roof, and it ended up hitting me the right way. I got smashed.
Did you like it?
I liked it, and I thought maybe it would help me do my painting, but it made me totally retarded. I couldn’t draw shit. I couldn’t paint shit. My lines were way off. It was just too much. But on a trip to San Antonio, Texas for some painting event, we went to a house party where they were making tea out of mushrooms, so I tried mushrooms for the first time. It made me giddy. Sharper and quicker than I normally am. Then I ended up trying that while painting, and I liked it a lot. I tried eating weed, and I found it was a bit more chill than mushrooms. I could eat a bit daily, and it gives me an optimism within me, and I can focus on repetitive line work. But it has to be the right dosage.
Cut Throat by RIME
You’re from New York, right?
I was born in Brooklyn, and I lived there until I was like four. And then my brother’s dad spent all the rent money on drugs.
I have three brothers and all four of us have different fathers. I’m the product of New York. I grew up very dysfunctional. So the first of the month came around, and we had no money to live, so my mother’s sister came and got us and that’s how we moved to Staten Island.
How old were you when you started doing graffiti?
Well, I’m 37 now, and I started doing graffiti at 12 years old.
That’s, like, the standard age, isn’t it?
That’s what it’s supposed to be, but not anymore because I think younger generations of people, their energy and interest in things is sort of shifting. There’s less of a passion towards seeking things out and being hungry because everything is accessible from what’s in your pocket. If you’re lost, you can go to your phone. If you have a mild interest in something, you can go to your phone. If you admire a great musician or an up-and-coming artist, you can follow their personal life with your telephone. And if they’re not too far out of reach, you can contact these people and sort of infiltrate things you enjoy.
It sort of ties into the debate parents might have, where they go through a struggle of whether or not to give your kid too much growing up. If they have everything available to them, do they really appreciate it? So this generation of young people is a bit off. There’s a bit of a dependency on technology to replace effort. I come from a generation where if I wanted something, I didn’t get it. I grew up on welfare. I didn’t have as much individual attention because I grew up in a crowded house. Anything I did or achieved, I did on my own, which has contributed to my character and work ethic.
And obviously shaped who you are as an artist.
I’m not into material things because growing up I didn’t have those things. I grew up being forced to go to church. Every Wednesday I went to a class to get your communion or confirmation. I had sex with my religion teacher’s daughter.
I thought you were going to say your religion teacher. Well, good for you!
I seduced her behind a dentist’s office. One time, we got caught while she was giving me a hand job, and I was sucking on her titties in the back room of the church. These old ladies came out from behind the candles and walked in on us. I was 14 years old.
I’ve also never owned a piece of jewelry, and I always wanted a piece of jewelry to have something valuable that was mine. Then as I became an adult and reached a point where I could have those things, I realized I didn’t want those things because I felt like not having it was a part of my identity.
I understand that. Except I love jewelry.
When I did get money, when I was 28, what was really baller to me was having health insurance. “Fuck getting a really expensive car. I’m gonna go get me some Blue Cross Blue Shield.”
That’s pretty responsible. Are there any material things you’re into now?
My long-term goal is to get away from wearing raggedy shirts and hoodies and all that stuff and wear suits every day. Like dress clothes.
You like dressing up?
No! Regimented. A suit’s universal, and I’ll just get a bunch of them. I’m a phase person. If I switch to something, I just switch to something. Like a couple of years ago, I was visiting Detroit, and my friends and I threw a party, and we thought it would be funny if we all wore Hawaiian shirts.
Was it a luau-themed party?
It was a party called the Turnt-Up Voodoo Island Jam. We threw it in a presidential suite in a hotel room. We had two Jacuzzis, a wet bar, conference area. I booked hula dancers, a Cirque du Soleil clown, six strippers, or prostitutes, whatever you want to call them, with two pimps, operating two different bedrooms. We all went to thrift stores and wore Hawaiian shirts. I found out about this Tommy Bahama kind of thing. I’d never worn them myself, and I wondered why old, fat guys like to wear them. And I got it.
Why do they?
What I understood was it’s comfortable, and you can be dressed up and informal at the same time. It all comes down to how many buttons are buttoned. If you’re letting loose, you’re going to let the chest hair out. I’m not manscaping. No T-shirt underneath. And the drunker or higher I would get, the less buttons. By the end of the night, no buttons. It looks like you’re on vacation, even when you’re not. When people see someone in a Tommy Bahama shirt, they’re like, “That guy looks like he knows how to have fun. Let me hang out with that guy.”
You create your own reality. Create your own vacation.
Then after that party in the summertime? Rockin’ those shirts. Fuck rocking a streetwear T-shirt with some company’s logo written on it! Fuck that noise. In New York, shit’s too hot to have that shit choking your neck. I want to get down with some collared Hawaiian shirt action.
What’s a style you would never wear?
I think the worst thing to be is a really fat dude with a tribal tattoo. Like, at least if you’re a fit dude and you’ve got a tribal tattoo, you can appeal to a certain audience.
There’s definitely a market.
But a dumpy-ass motherfucker with a tribal tattoo? That shit is just sad. That was in style maybe in 1997.
Sure, late ʼ90s to the early ʼ00s.
Thank god I never got a tribal tattoo. I was asked to design one when I was in high school. I tried to do it. I tried to make it look like graffiti. Then I was like, “This shit is dumb.” I don’t want to design tattoos for anybody. They’ll always come out bad.
Ride In, Thug Out by RIME
It’s a lot of responsibility. It looks like you have a lot of tattoos yourself.
I have a fear of needles, so I never wanted to be tattooed, but as I’ve gotten older, a lot of my friends are tattoo artists, and they would insist on giving me tattoos. I was always against it. Because before, when I was just doing graffiti all the time, I was stealing all of my supplies. We used to pull shopping carts out of Home Depot and stuff like that. I was living a criminal, Robin Hood-esque life of stealing things to go contribute it back into the community by painting beautiful things illegally. Or things I thought were good looking. And when I’d go into stores, I always wanted to look plain. I’d wear the plainest, wackest sweater and my glasses instead of contacts. I didn’t look like a criminal, but then I’d go and commit a crime. Even doing graffiti, I wanted to play the role.
Isn’t it amazing how much people go off appearances?
Back then in the late ʼ90s, early ʼ00s, I wanted to look as plain as possible. I was anonymous. I wasn’t a public person with my work. I had no interest in being an artist or being a public graffiti writer. I just wanted to blend in.
So what changed?
Oh, I went to jail. I got arrested a few times, and I think I reached a point where I was locked up for, like, a month on a trumped-up “conspiracy to commit criminal mischief” charge with $100,000 bail, which was more money than I could ever dream of, and I was working at fucking Sears. I always enjoyed working shit jobs where I could take the money and go travel and paint graffiti.
Where did you go?
I’ve gone all over the world. My first trip out of the country—I was working at a pizza place off the books—was on a EuroRail trip for almost two months. Anyway, while I was in jail for graffiti—this thing I believed in but was ashamed of because I thought of it as an addiction, this thing I needed to shake—I was drawing shit on handkerchiefs for ramen soups, and I was like, “You know what, man? I don’t belong here. I don’t need to be here. This path I’m on and these feelings towards art, not wanting to have an art job, who works passionless jobs… I need to stop dividing myself, and I need to fully commit to it.” I said, “I’m going to accept myself and what I do and stop apologizing for it.” When I came out of jail, I had a different outlook. I came out and I made a canvas. I started to travel more, and I started leaving the country.
Which place had the biggest impact on you?
Going to San Francisco in 1998 was the most inspiring trip for graffiti. There was a certain vibe and energy that’s not in San Francisco now. It’s been cleaned up, and a lot has been painted and built over. There was open-mindedness towards applying art. People had bigger ideas when it came to doing graffiti. That trip changed my whole perspective, and when I came back to New York, I had all these ideas. By having a grander vision, I was able to produce stuff that was maybe more acceptable to people who normally resist graffiti and look at it as this malicious act.
What kind of stuff exactly?
I came back with an outlook to do a piece that’s maybe six or seven colors instead of two. And instead of spending 15 minutes, I’ll stay at a spot until the police come. I was doing stuff that looked like it was done with permission, but it was done in illegal places. Instead of a throw-up, I would do an elaborate production.
Installation view of Conclusions
So you kind of tricked people into appreciating something prohibited?
I stopped looking at what I was doing as this thing I needed to get rid of, like smoking or drinking. I no longer looked at graffiti as a negative. I looked at is as a passion. I said I should feel fortunate I have something I can channel my energy into, that lets me communicate with people I don’t know and influence others and feel like I’m a part of something. You know, not everybody has that, something that’s not related to family or money. I would hate to live life and not have an outlet, something I could pour my emotions into. It’s one thing to have something in the back of your mind. It’s another to pull it out and analyze it.
It definitely requires somewhat of an ability to let go.
I’m lucky I’ve reached a point where I’m able to get past things. We all have something. Someone who seems like they have it all together or they look a certain way, it’s, like, “Oh, that person has nothing to worry about.” Everybody has something, and I think for people, the hope is to get to the point where you accept yourself and love yourself. Make peace with things to be tolerable to people around you. I got there to a certain extent.
It takes a lot longer than you’d think. You’ve got to push yourself.
If doubt doesn’t come into the picture while I’m creating something, then I’m not trying hard enough. I need to sort of enter a territory where I’m unsure that it’s going to work out or not and get into this feeling of negative criticism. Then I work to bury those kinds of things and re-describe them in an optimistic way. I feel fortunate to have a stubbornness embedded in me. I won’t abandon a work. I won’t walk away from something and have it be half-assed because, to me, my finished product is everything, and I should be able to stand by it, good or bad. It’s easier to judge something that’s finished rather than something that’s incomplete.
That’s pretty inspiring. We have to remember, there are no rules other than the ones we make up.
You have to be able to let go of some of your hang-ups and maybe even celebrate them. You are the product of all your quirks, all your struggles, life experience—all that shit is you, and you either celebrate it or disguise it and go live in this conflicting life. You want to get into these things that don’t really compute. The sweet and savory. You want to expand your experience, become broader.
That’s what life is about, right?
Well, it depends who you are. Some people like safety, comfort and normalcy. Some people don’t like to get out. They don’t like things that are different. They’re very regimented.
I think most people are more like that.
Not I! I’m a wanderer.
Originally featured on PRØHBTD