Jersey Joe “Rime” is probably one of the funniest guys I’ve interviewed in awhile. I’s not just his heavy New York accent either, he’s not even trying to be funny. He just spits the truth straight up and his brutal honesty and realness is enough to turn heads in any social setting. Well respected as one of the legends of the graffiti scene, Joe is back on the East Coast and still painting as much as ever, now more than 20-years since picking up a can. Joe opened up about his past, how the graffiti scene has changed, it’s future and the widely popular sport of handball. If you ever get the chance to meet Joe, make sure to inquire about the toilets in Italy, I promise it’ll be more than worth it.
You recently moved back to NY. How did a New Yorker like yourself make it on the West Coast for the past eight years?
Growing up in New York, all I knew was New York City and being familiar with those surroundings. I moved to Los Angeles at 25, and up until that point I had only lived in New York and New Jersey. Moving out West was a big deal for me, it was different in many ways and I think that was exciting. It was a really great motivator to be in a place that had a different kind of pace, with people that had a different kind of attitude towards things, plus the weather difference was a big factor. Being in a place like Los Angeles where it rains in maybe two months out of the year gives you the chance to really be productive, and not use weather as an excuse to stay indoors and slack.
Being out there, I was extremely motivated to run around and do graffiti, it seemed like there were plenty of opportunities within the city, and you could take advantage of that if you were aggressive enough. I think I did well as an outgoing, loud New Yorker existing in Los Angeles. I’m pretty sure it worked out in my favor.
With all of that travel, where do you think the best scene is or where did you feel it was the best for you?
I have a hard time with defining what the best thing I ever did was, or the best place I ever visited. I would say that the best country I have ever been to is America. I haven’t found a country that’s better to live in than the United States. I think every place has its flaws, and has little parts of it that maybe are lacking in some ways, but no matter where I go for whatever period of time, I’m always very happy to return to America. There are some things in place that are very comforting, and I have to leave them to really appreciate those things.
It was strange at first being in a foreign country where English is not the main language, and seeing western influence. For example, Hollywood’s influence on the world, and just American pop culture being an influence within a country. I remember one time I was in Warsaw, Poland, I was in a club, and it was very different. They would casually drink beer on the street, paint trains regularly, they do this and they do that. Yeah, it was fucking cool. So, I was in the club, it was some hip-hoppy club, they were playing Mobb Deep and Group Home and shit. They’d go from Group Home and the next song to follow that was P!nk, the pop singer P!nk. It was that song that goes like, “I’m coming up so you better get the party started.” They went from Group Home to P!nk, and all these wannabe hip-hop dudes got super excited. They probably barely spoke English or whatever, but they were super excited, holding their beers up in the air and dancing, a bunch of guys dancing with each other, shit like that. I just was like, “Man, this shit wouldn’t fly in America.”
I’m going to switch gears on you a little bit here, but we can always revisit the toilet thing. Tell me how the name RIME evolved…
I started writing graffiti in 1991, I had a couple of names at that time. Before I wrote Rime, the main name that I was writing was Onea. I was writing that for a while, and then in ’93 I was getting ready to go into high school and I thought, “Well, maybe I need to have a more serious name for graffiti. I’m going to be going to high school in Manhattan, dealing with people from other boroughs and stuff like that.”
I picked the name RIME because there were some people in my neighborhood that were bombers. There was one guy that tagged really good R’s, and there was another guy that tagged really good E’s at the end of his name. I combined these two different peoples’ tags. I wanted to start my name with an R and end my name with the E. At first I tried writing Rule, R-U-L-E, but I thought, “That sounds like something that someone already writes or whatever.” Then, I picked the name RIME and I spelled it R-I-M-E, which is different from rhyming. I think when people see that name, they might think of stereotypes like, “Oh, it’s like rhyming, and hip-hop elements, and graffiti is an element of hip hop,” and all that kind of shit.
I’ve been asked hip hop related questions or asked about rap albums because I write RIME, people assume that I’m really into rap. I like rap to some extent, but I’m not really into it like that. I like all different kinds of music. The name itself, it actually means a thin coating or layer on a surface, like rime ice on tree branches.
What did your family think when you started getting into graffiti, and what do they think now?
As far as graffiti goes, it was something that I tried to hide. I would sneak out at night to go paint or I’d paint in the daytime. I think everyone in my family looked down on it because they saw it as like a self-destructive thing, something that led to you being arrested, and getting in trouble. They would say, “When are you going to grow up?” and then they’d see that I’d get in trouble, but then I’d go out and do it again, so they looked at it like an addiction. It was something exciting. It’s like you’re doing something wrong and when you do this thing, you can’t control it. For years I battled with it, I felt like, “Oh man, this thing is destroying my life, I have no control over it.” Then my ideas about it started to change once I was no longer depending on living with family.
When I could support myself and go out to paint graffiti, and I became better, I decided that I needed to rethink this. The reason why I’m so ‘addicted’ and can’t live without this thing is because I feel a genuine connection with it. I decided at that moment, I was maybe in my late teens, I said, “You know what? Fuck thinking like this. I’m going to embrace this and accept that this is what I want to do, and I’m going to do it as best as I can. If I’m going to do graffiti, then I want to contribute to graffiti as a whole.” I wanted to be the best graffiti writer.
I think the big thing that worked in my favor was just how I thought about graffiti. I simply embraced it, and accepted it, and stopped apologizing for my desire to do it. In that process, I earned the respect of everyone in my family. My mom went from being ashamed that her son writes graffiti to bragging about it, and having a little showcase shrine in her house of all the different shit that I’ve done or made or whatever. I come from a very blue-collar, practical East Coast family, and I’m the only person in my family that does anything related to art. I think my family sees me as a successful person.
How much planning and preparation goes into your work? I’ve watched a lot of your process videos. It seems like you just attack the wall, but do you sketch things out beforehand, or take measurements, pictures? Elaborate on that process…
Each time I spray paint, it’s different. Different factors relating whether or not it’s legal or illegal, what kind of surface I’m painting on, how long I think I want to paint for, as well as whether or not I’m feeling creative. More often than not, the situation is really impromptu, where I turn up at a spot and the sketch is something I more put together in my head. It’s not something that I have in hand. A lot of times lately I’ve just been freestyling, and I’ll maybe come up with a starting formula in my head, and then I do it.
Again, writing your name for going on 23 years now, you need to incorporate some excitement. So, not having a sketch or a general plan is sort of necessary. I paint things based off of my mood. Whatever mood I happen to be in at the time, I will try to paint something that is a true reflection of how I’m feeling in that moment. If I’m painting something that is forced, it is because it’s not connected to my feelings, so I’ll go in and change it, or I’ll even destroy something if needed. Sometimes, the act of destroying something excites me, and makes me happy, so then I go in and I’ll turn something into something else.
Being nervous makes me work even harder, and feeling I’m going to fail is a great motivator because I’m a stubborn person. I’m not going to fail, and I’m going to keep working like a maniac on something until it gets over that hump, until I get that confidence in it. I feel like art has no soul unless the person who created it felt something in that process. I am not about that mechanical shit.
I know you see a lot of crazy shit on the street when you’re doing a piece. Is that all a part of the experience for you?
The thing I said before about painting with feeling, or trying to tap into emotions and all that kind of stuff, it goes along with trying to understand myself. Trying to understand myself as an artist, trying to understand myself in relationships, friendships, or maybe in environments, and how I exist in the environment. If I’m in a particular type of neighborhood, maybe a low-income neighborhood, how am I perceived in that neighborhood? Am I a target? Am I someone that people are afraid of?
I feel like when I’m in public environments, I want to be able to adapt. Be able to get through and experience all sorts of crazy things that can potentially help build on my character. In painting graffiti, we see all sorts of spooky shit because we’re out late at night. All the strange folks who, well, not all of them have places to go, so when they’re wandering about, they stop over at people painting graffiti or they just cross paths with us. We see all sorts of crazy shit, like public homeless sex, people getting into fights, crimes being committed or whatever. Sort of deranged people, and just interacting with these people, who maybe are non-threatening, or dealing with the politics of neighborhoods, with people who are trying to scheme on you, or try to get one over on you; you gotta know how to navigate through those situations. All this kind of stuff I think helps to build your character as a person, and in the end your artwork in part becomes an illustration of all these experiences.
If you don’t mind me asking, because I’m sure there are a lot of aspiring writers wondering, how does a graffiti artist make a living?
I think with graffiti, it’s a talent; it’s something that you perfect, something that you market with or without permission. It’s really dependent on how much you believe in it, and how much you convince others to believe and invest in it. It has to do with putting out stuff in the public, marketing, putting up big displays of your work for other people to see, and branding a name with an idea being attached to it.
From that, you have people that are willing to invest in you, either by owning your work or wanting you to design something. You could get into the graphics scene, doing graphic design. You could get into making paintings that are related to something you already do, or are very similar to what you paint in the street. Then, you have the whole process of being a professional graffiti writer, where you just go out and paint graffiti and people get excited by that alone. You just continue to do that and people will invest in you just on the strength of that. Any of these things, they’re not easy, they take a lot of work. As I said, there are a lot of different avenues you can go down, but that shit shouldn’t really matter.
There’s been a lot of people that have made an effort to exist in a professional way within graffiti and I’m one of those people that has really pushed to get respect within this craft. When I first started, there was no financial goal related to graffiti. It was something that I would’ve had to leave in order to have financial stability. I think these days that some people do graffiti for the wrong reasons.
Have you found a lot of people trying to imitate your work or use the name Rime, now that you’re one of the biggest names in the game?
I think that if you’re doing something right, imitation is something that happens alongside that, and you should accept it. Sometimes I feel like if people are not imitating what you’re doing, then maybe you’re not hitting the right point.
As far as names go, I think there’s been some people that have tried to write the same names or words that I write, and I’m not threatened by that either because, again, I think it has to do with how comfortable you are as a person. If you’re very secure within yourself, and in your artistic style, then imitation will always just be imitation. There’s a world of difference between imitation crabmeat and actual crabmeat. You’re like the top cut of meat and shit like that, and this other stuff is just Burger King.
Again, all of this stuff is irrelevant if your work is a continued reflection of who you are as a person, and if you are still in the game. Then again, there are some people that don’t produce anymore, and they still can’t be touched. That’s what I try to be. I am to be a style master. When I was a teen I said I wanted to be a master of what I do, I wanted to be the best at it, and I still try. Not all the shit I do looks good, but I try.
Speaking of that, what’s some of the stuff outside of graffiti that you do? What do you like doing in your free time? Is there any new art or new mediums that you’re experimenting with, or hobbies?
I like playing handball, but I’ve been into handball longer than I’ve been into graffiti. I really like directing videos, making video projects, or art directing or creating events, scenarios, something like that, that’s outside the box or strange; maybe kind of improv, semi-extensive, and has public interaction with people. Convincing others to do some strange or crazy shit, and filming it, that is the kind of stuff I’m really into at the moment. I think about like, doing something very public, or even just a little bit perverted, not in a sexual way but, maybe in a sexual way too, why not?
Totally, and what’s some of the new stuff that’s coming up with Seventh Letter, new projects that you’re working on?
We’re refocusing the entire line as a whole, focusing more on individual artists with each season, instead of like 30 artists on 30 different t-shirts each season. So moving forward, each artist gets their own little small capsule collection in the delivery. We’re talking about items that may not even be apparel right now, just different things than what we are currently doing. We’re trying to reinterpret how people look at street art and graffiti; not just a typical drippy tag on a shirt. Everyone and their grandmother has done that in the past, including us, and there was a time and place for it, but now we’re really trying to take the brand forward in a way.
I have some stuff coming out in the winter. There’s a shirt called Drunk Dial; it’s like characters on top of characters on top of characters. There’s a comedic text message scenario that goes along with the piece. That will be coming out later this year, as well as a piece I did for Art Basel two years ago, called 50 Faces. We’re going to reinterpret that piece to apparel as well, so that will be coming out later this year.
Last question, if you could do everything over again, would you change anything at all?
I think that if I could do something over, of course, I would make some adjustments and changes, but maybe I’d just end up saying sorry to women a thousand times more. Doing things differently, I think we all would, as much as people try to sit on their high horse and say that they did everything they did, and they don’t regret anything. I mean, yeah, sure, but if we actually went back to the future and had a chance to redo things, I think we would all make some changes.
MSK – Mad Society King, AWR – Angels Will Rise, Art Work Rebels; the Seventh Letter. jerseyjoeart.com, theseventhletter.com. Keep it real in the ghetto.
Interviewed By: AB