We speak with an artist who came of age amongst NYC’s burgeoning graffiti scene – before taking it with him to Paris to kick start a 30-year career
New York-born artist JonOne and I are sitting in the sunroom at Château de Bagnolet in Cognac, France, as waiters fuss around us preparing for a celebratory dinner that will honour his latest project – designing the Hennessy Very Special Limited Edition 2017 bottle.
“Every day, I tell myself I’m lucky to even be here,” he says, taking in the surroundings of what was once Richard-Auguste Hennessy’s family home – the founder of Hennessy Cognac’s grandson. “There is still so much to prove, so much more to go.”
Born in Harlem in 1963 to parents from the Dominican Republican, JonOne – real name John Andrew Perello – is always counting his blessings. “We were poor”, he reveals, “we had no money and no future.” Although his father was a window decorator and his mother owned a clothing shop, named Perello’s Boutique, the artist says they struggled to make ends comfortably meet. “Let’s put it in a visual sense,” he starts, “It would be like if there’s an elevator – you might be born on level two, or level 15. I was born in the basement... like minus 15-20 floors underground.”
To the north of Harlem sits Washington Heights, an area of New York which was beginning to make a name for itself during the 70s thanks to a burgeoning graffiti movement sweeping the city. Intrigued, a 17-year-old Perello began to ride the subway back and forth, tagging the carriages with his moniker “Jon” or his street number “157”. “It was powerful,” he recalls. “You could express yourself and you could access a culture. To me, that was more powerful than money because then you could affect a community.” He adds, “It wasn’t like painting on a canvas that I could put in my house, it was painting in a moving gallery. It was the ultimate advertising tool.
“I had a particular style... more abstract and it didn’t fit into the traditional mode of graffiti. I wasn’t just limiting myself to spray paint, I was also painting with brushes on the street.” He laughs, “Imagine that! In the 80s – painting with brushes on the street. I’ll let you think about that... I’ll go away and have a coffee.”
“It wasn’t like painting on a canvas that I would put in my house, it was painting in a moving gallery. I had the ultimate advertising tool in the world” – JonOne
In 1984 Perello founded the graffiti group All Starz with the aim to keep young people away from the troubles of drugs and instead focused on art. But three years later, he would leave it all behind and make the move to Paris.
Rivalled only by Philadelphia in scope and quality of the street art movement, why would Perello leave New York for the other side of the world? “I was always dreaming of getting away from my neighbourhood and going far away, to travel,” he says. “At first I didn’t think there was graffiti in Europe – I thought it was just a New York thing – so when I found out, I was like, ‘why are they doing that? They got wine and cheese – they got the good life! They don’t have to go outside and paint in the streets’.”
Upon arrival, Perello’s pre-conceived notions of Parisian life were flipped on their head. “I wound up in the Mecca for graffiti in Stalingrad. I met a lot of artists including Bango and a London graffiti writer named MOD 2. A little bit later I met Goldie. There was a very creative energy – a very underground, very small community of about 200 people in Paris, all mixed in with music, fashion, and art,” he explains. “We felt like we were part of something that was growing – and from then on, I called Paris home.”
A day before our trip to Cognac, Perello had invited me to his studio, a short drive from Paris’s city centre. A place where, upon entry, it’s clear that not one surface has been spared. The walls, the floor, the furnishings, Perello’s own clothes are flecked in paint, to the point where initially it’s unclear what’s an artwork in progress and what’s not. In the corner sits a collection of CDs, some family pictures and trinkets.
“I used to always dream of one day visiting an artist’s studio – that was the ultimate thing that could happen to me,” he says. “I didn’t go to art school but I used to read books that had photos of Picasso’s studio, Giacometti’s studio, or Francis Bacon’s studio, and I would study how they’d compose their environment.”
Now in his late 40s, Perello’s energy is paralleled only by his own work. Telling me his process is more intuitive than planned, he says he hopes this energy is something people feel when they see his art. In a second, much larger studio downstairs, he lines up two primed canvases, several paint pots, and steps into a plastic suit to protect his already splattered overalls. An assistant turns up a hip hop track and, grabbing fistfuls on various paints, Perello pelts the colour across each canvas.
After a while I leave Perello to continue working on what will be unveiled as part of the campaign to celebrate the Hennessy Very Special Limited Edition 2017 bottle that he’s designed, following in the footsteps of tattooist Scott Campbell.
The following day, while we are sitting in the Chateau’s sunroom waiting for dinner to start, Perello reflects: “I was considered a vando – a degenerate artist! There were all these terms that people were imposing on me, and after years of being not allowed in the candy store, I’m finally allowed in – and I wanna fill my pockets to the maximum!”
At the beginning of the 21st century, street art as a commercial art entity soared. After years of grafting the underground and hiding in the shadows, working at night, artists such as JonOne began to be appreciated in art fairs, art galleries and by consumer brands – such as Hennessy – around the world, Artists, such as Britain’s Banksy, have even been known to see their works fetch more than £500k at auction.
While he’s long since traded subway carriages for the artist’s studio, Perello maintains elements in his more recent work from his graffiti days, namely through his constant repetition of “JonOne”. But he’s not nostalgic for it – and admits that he’s interested in experimenting with different materials and methods, even mediums. “There has always been an evolution in my work – I never settle, I never stop,” he says. Whether a bottle collaboration with one of the world’s biggest Cognac distillers or having his work on display at the Grand Palais at Art Paris – like the street art movement that he came of age amongst, there are no rules to follow in his world, only ones to break.
“I always think, ‘how far can I take this? What’s the next step?’,” he confides. “I’m always searching for ways to differentiate the work – for ways to expand my language. I’m just doing my thing and trying to give an energy to people – if I can make people feel good, then that’s good for me.”
Hennessy Very Special Limited Edition 2017 by JonOne will be available from mid-July in the US and worldwide. This piece was made possible thanks to Hennessy Cognac