Interview with mural designer Joel Bergner. An award-winning artist and educator whose work focuses on social justice, culture, and community issues. His huge murals are brightly- colored, intense and detailed, and are currently on display in many US cities and in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, and Salvador), Cape Verde (West Africa), Cuba, Poland, El Salvador and Peru.
RIK WTP: Holy Aliens bro, WOW your work is total bad-assery! How did you become a mural artist?
JOEL: Well, I was always really into art as a kid and teenager, and as my work evolved I realized that I liked to paint as big as possible. I also became interested in social and political topics, which are common themes for mural art, so it was natural for me to start painting on the street. I lived for years in the Mission District of San Francisco, a Latino neighborhood famous for its murals and street art, so I just soaked it all up and got inspired! I’ve always loved the idea of art being in public where everyone can experience it and where it can become part of the neighborhood instead of being imprisoned in a museum or gallery or private residence.
RIK WTP: Who hires you for this type of work? What special permits are required and do the communities pay you? Give me the low-down on the business side of your profession.
JOEL: Making a living is tough for artists. Sometimes I just do it for the love of painting, but of course I have to eat and pay the bills too. I get paid for my work in several ways. Some of my street paintings are commissioned by local establishments or city agencies who want some artwork to brighten up their walls. Other mural projects involve youth in difficult situations, like street kids in Rio de Janeiro, young people with physical and mental disabilities in Newark, incarcerated teens, and youth from marginalized communities all over the world. For these projects I’m usually paid through organizations or foundations, and some are funded through grants. Most of my work is pretty grass-roots; I partner with people I’ve met through my work and my life—it’s really all about networking and meeting people who share my ideas and vision, and then figuring out a way to fund our ideas.
RIK WTP: I love how your work is cross-cultural. I think it’s important for American artists to transcend cultural boundaries since art is of course universal. Did you grow up in a jungle or desert, or were you a member of some tribe? Where did this nomadic spirit come from?
JOEL: I’ve always been interested in different cultures, so whenever I’ve gotten the chance to spend time in interesting places I go for it. Not as a tourist though– I prefer to experience real life and have work to do; really interact with people and learn their language and customs and form strong connections, whether it’s the favelas (shanty towns) of Brazil, a working-class community in Poland, or an African island. So naturally my art reflects those interests of mine.
RIK WTP: Your work focuses on social justice, culture and community issues. What have you learned through your years of venturing off into different territories? What message would you leave behind if you had no walls to paint on?
JOEL: Throughout my travels I’ve learned that people are the same everywhere in certain fundamental ways, but also very different, often in ways that don’t reflect the stereotypes, so you really have to keep an open mind to understand them. People always amaze me; one minute I’m shocked by mind-numbing ignorance and intolerance, the next I’m uplifted by someone’s kindness, intelligence, or ability to overcome great obstacles. I see these traits in people from every country, every ethnic background, rich, poor, whatever. I really try to focus on the positive and not let the depressing side of things get me down. In every country people talk about how fucked up their society is, how it’s better somewhere else, but there’s so many amazing things going on that don’t make the news. I wish we would focus more on those things, since they’re often right in front of our faces.
If I had no walls to paint on I think I’d be a musician, get my messages out through music. I love music and always thought if I couldn’t be a street painter I’d be in some kind of band.
RIK WTP: What is your take on extra-terrestrials? Do you think that if (when!) they come, we will finally come together as one race and not be as divided?
JOEL: I’m open to aliens existing, I mean there has to be intelligent life out there in the universe, I just don’t know if they’ve visited us or will visit. If they attack us, yes, I do believe people will unite all over the world. Warring factions always unite when under severe threat, but then when the threat has passed they go back to fighting each other, just as the USA and the USSR cooperated with each other to defeat the Nazis, then went back to hating each other after the war.
RIK WTP: If you had the chance to paint the moon, what would you paint for the whole world to see?
JOEL: Wow, that would be a great opportunity, but honestly there’s nothing I could paint on the moon that would improve it—it’s too beautiful to paint! I would just leave it as it is.
RIK WTP: I hate TOY TAGGERS! I pass by the same wall with useless graffiti every day (12th street btw 2nd and 3rd ave!) and I just don’t get it. There is no message, no art. Just a bunch of useless gang font. What can these idiots learn from you?
JOEL: Tagging has actually always existed in one form or another. People have always scribbled their names or written crude graffiti on public walls, bathroom stalls, or wherever they could. The ancient city of Pompei was preserved for almost 2,000 after it was covered in ash and lava from a volcano. When it was uncovered, sure enough, the public walls were covered with people’s tags and graffiti, including phrases like,“Figulus loves Idaia,” “Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog,” “To the one defecating here, beware of the curse. If you look down on this curse, may you have an angry Jupiter for an enemy,” and so on. So we may as well get used to it.
I have mixed feelings about it, because on the one hand, the elites of our society put up their ugly billboards and ads everywhere; they get to decide what our urban landscape is going to look like no matter how tasteless they are, simply because of their money and power. Shouldn’t the rest of us get to put up our messages as well? But on the other hand, I recently visited an elderly woman I know in a slum area of Rio de Janeiro. She had spent some of her limited resources on a new coat of yellow paint for her little house, and the very next morning it was covered in black tags. She was so upset, and I was angry that the taggers had disrespected this poor woman’s house. So while I don’t have a problem with all tagging, I can’t support it in situations like that.
Whether or not tagging is an art form is not my question to answer, but it is true that many amazing and talented artists started out as taggers, so it’s important to nurture the youth and help them to realize their potential. Tagging is a very basic form of expression; it’s the equivalent of “Johnny was here.” Young people have so much more to say than that, which is why I work with them to develop their skills and their artistic voices in order to be able to communicate with society through public art.