For some, the first venture into art was in a classroom, or maybe at a kitchen table under the encouragement of artistically inclined parents. For artist Jamie O’Neill, the most impactful art lessons began on the streets.
When he started out, his canvas was not linen, but rather walls, subway cars and tunnels, abandoned automobiles and boxcars.
To understand the work of this artist, you must first look at the outsider art many people label as “just graffiti.” Within the art forms “on the street,” each has a tight-knit group of supporting artists, rivalries and levels of expertise — just as in traditional art culture.
Understanding Street Art
Graffiti can be broken into two genres. The first is street art comprised of stencils, paintings and stickers. The second is lettering, which is also known as graffiti writing.
At one end of the spectrum, lettering may consist of a simple word thrown up with a marker to tag a gang’s territory. At the other end, it is the finely tuned, stylized and distinctive lettering recognizable to all street artists, and which represents the best of the best.
Graffiti lettering has a rich history, recognizable inspirations (period pop-culture personalities, television shows and movies, as examples) and masterful artists held in great esteem by emerging graffiti writers.
Numerous graffiti artists have shifted into the mainstream art world. They are showing their art — now painted on canvas — on gallery walls rather than in the streets. And, university art courses incorporate their works into syllabuses, while books and documentaries set out to explore the meaning behind the art.
O’Neill is one such artist who transitioned to canvas after years creating eye-catching lettering on the streets.
Learning to Write
Riding through Boston in the backseat of his parents’ car, O’Neill’s first graffiti memory is seeing letters written on an old incinerator. “I was just a kid, and so I was less interested in creating the art and more concerned about what my street name would be.,” recalls O’Neill. “Years later at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, I discovered magazines about graffiti. I was amazed that people were creating with spray paint.”
This spray paint art was very different from the art O’Neill saw displayed in museums growing up and while studying the works of the Old Masters — which all art so unattainable to him. But spray paint? That was something he could do.
“For me, graffiti is an avenue of self-expression, an education in composition and the practice of mastering one’s craft,” he explains.
His infatuation for spray paint art quickly blossomed. He started to copy the masters of this craft in notebooks, writing their works again and again. He even took a class while in college, held off campus in the city.
This course and the surrounding city was finally the spark to ignite his graffiti art flame. And although he didn’t know a graffiti writer at the time, he would go out at night to letter the streets.
When he did finally meet fellow writers, they weren’t very impressed with O’Neill’s skill. “They said I had heart, but that I was terrible,” he recalls, noting the other artists were impressed with the places he was painting at, however.
He continues, “Some of these guys had the artistic skill, had been taught by the greats, but they couldn’t write it up on the wall with spray paint. I could write on the wall but just needed some artistic guidance so we ended up helping [one another]. We pushed each other with graffiti lettering and later we transitioned to gallery art, more mainstream art, together.”
Instigating the ‘Shift’ to Mainstream
Pretty soon O’Neill started seeing graffiti everywhere — not just on the streets or when writing at night. From his son’s toys to graffiti on clothing, this art form was quickly hitting the mainstream. But why?
“The internet really changed graffiti art. In the past you could identify art by its geography; each city had its own look. Now artists are creating art and instantly putting it on social media for all to see and that immediate, worldwide distribution is blurring the lines,” explains O’Neill.
He adds, “The new art is a hybrid or a mixed-up conglomeration of all different styles and forms. The styles and the accents are dying out. The new artists are looking at their phones to see what the newest or the coolest design elements are and using those. When I started writing, we rode the trains to see the art where we lived, and then we developed our signature from those experiences.”
This wasn’t the only shift for O’Neill. Around this time, he started to transition from graffiti artist to acrylic painter. “I was trying to make this huge body of work on the streets to call my own while working on a traditional career, and it all came to a head when my son was born,” he reflects. “I thought, ‘I can’t be going out at night like this, taking these risks. There’s a new responsibility now and I want to be there, not doing community service or staying out all night. This isn’t just my life anymore, it’s someone else’s too.’”
And, thanks to graffiti art rising in popularity, well-respected graffiti artists were starting to make their mark on the fine art spectrum, showcasing their work in galleries. And, O’Neill decided to take the leap, too.
Graffiti Writing to Acrylic Painting
Of course, the shift from train to canvas took some getting used to. But some canvases are large enough for O’Neill to use arsenal and not just brushes, which allow for a more realistic graffiti aesthetic — and a small taste of familiarity for the artist.
“I don’t pine for it like I used to,” admits O’Neill. “The challenge for me now is to find a place where I’m happy with how the graffiti looks on the painting — it doesn’t look quite the same spray painting graffiti on a canvas. It’s way more interesting when it’s on a wall somewhere.”
With the switch to canvas, adds O’Neill, the context of the writing is lost — the box car, the wall, the neighborhood, any adjacent writing. “It’s like taking a paragraph from a book and making it stand on its own,” he explains. “It doesn’t always work.”
However, O’Neill incorporates train cars into his art, which helps keep the writing of the composition in context and creates a realistic scene for the viewer.
“I’ve gone full circle — incorporating my graffiti writing a little differently,” he says. “I’m trying to use graffiti and the photorealism element of the work but I am adding more abstraction in the work. Now the letters are part of the layering.”
Whether graffiti sprayed across city walls or layers of lettering brushed onto an acrylic train on canvas, these art works have the ability to leave a lasting impression on the viewer; beautifully illustrating that art, regardless of form and medium, can be powerful.