Donning a white jumpsuit, JonOne applies a liberal streak of purple paint onto the glass canvas. Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.” blaring over the speakers, a packed house observing at Manhattan’s Terminal 5 nightclub, he splashes on some pastel pink, then some sky blue. It’s wild, messy, mesmerizing.
Rebellion in colours. That’s been JonOne’s M.O. since the ’80s, back when he would dodge cops to spray paint city property in his Harlem neighbourhood. And though the graffiti legend has gone on to become an it-boy of the mainstream art world, his aim hasn’t wavered. “Street art nowadays is more romanticized and packaged to be consumed,” he tells me. “But in reality, the streets are very, very hard. That’s what my art represents, not the glamorization of it.”
Which might sound a bit rich, considering JonOne’s at this party to promote his new collaboration with Hennessy — a bottle he designed himself, the latest in the brand’s ongoing Very Special Limited Edition Series. Cognac isn’t exactly a street drink — it’s no 40-ouncer of malt liquor. So in the Venn Diagram between this centuries-old spirit house and street art provocateur, how much overlap could there possibly be? Apparently, more than you’d think.
Born in Harlem in 1963 to parents from the Dominican Republic, JonOne — real name John Andrew Perello — had a rough upbringing. “We were poor,” he reveals. “If life is an elevator, then I came from minus 20 floors underground.” When he turned 17, he found an escape in the bourgeoning graffiti movement that swept New York City in the ’70s. Inspired, Perello would tag subway carriages with his signature “Jon156.” Before long, he founded graffiti crew 156 All Starz with an eye to helping troubled youth forget their problems by focusing on art. JonOne’s idiosyncratic style immediately stood out: he flouted prevailing graffiti norms, using brushes instead of spray paint where he saw fit, and opting for lively, abstract expressionism.
“When I got into graffiti, it was all about having freedom,” he says. “Then I got into the graffiti circle and I was told, ‘To be a real hip-hop guy, you’ve got to have Adidas shell toes, and you’ve got to do this type of graffiti.’ I was like, no man, I’m a freak! I’m going to do whatever I want.”
Evidently, what he wanted entailed leaving New York altogether. Taking up an invitation from French graffiti pioneer Bando, he flew to Paris in the late ’80s, where he’s lived ever since. There, he began painting on canvas, and establishing himself in art circles via exhibitions at galleries throughout France — and eventually, the world. “The people sitting in positions of power didn’t know how to appreciate my art,” he says. “I had to wait until they died off and my generation took their seats. So I painted on canvas to preserve my artwork, like wine, or even Hennessy.”
Sly plug aside, JonOne’s career has indeed been cask-aged to perfection. In the 21st century, graffiti’s value as a commercial entity has exploded. These one-time vandals are now rockstar artists (see also: Banksy), appreciated by big-time galleries, auction houses, and yes, luxury brands. Which, sure, might conflict with the artform’s subversive ethos — if only Perello cared about boundaries. To him, anything can be a canvas, even a bottle of premium cognac.
Back at Terminal 5, the painting is complete: a myriad of shapes and colours all crash and overflow into one electrifying, entrancing composition. Surely, there are parallels to be made between this and the complex layers of flavours and aromas involved in the blending of cognac. But it’s what JohnOne tells me afterwards that really clicks: “It’s not like Hennessy is selling tanks. They’re exporting l’art de vivre — a sense of getting together, having a good time, and appreciating life, even during struggle.”
What this all really boils down to then, as JonOne said before, is freedom — the freedom to enjoy yourself, whether you’re on level 20 or minus 20, because life’s too short not to crack the occasional, graffiti-covered bottle. It doesn’t get more rebellious than that.