Words – Justin Howard @Jthnomad
Inspired by a four-inch plastic statue of Jesus he saw on a dashboard while driving around Los Angeles, the street artist calling himself ‘Plastic Jesus’ sets out to create imagery that often poses a moral question. His most infamous work is his series of ‘Oscar’ inspired statues that bring to light the darker side of Hollywood. We chatted about his first encounter with the casual use of cocaine in LA, an experience that is not unique to the beautifully tragic illusion that is Hollywood.
Cocaine Dreams – Plastic Jesus
JTH – Here we are surrounded by your infamous Hollywood pieces, the ‘Oscar’ character using a syringe to shot up heroin and other ‘Oscar’ character crawling on the floor snorting up cocaine… A true symbol of hedonistic excess. Let’s talk about your take on pop culture.
Plastic Jesus – My take on pop cultural is inspired or motivated by a lot of culture that is within society but doesn’t normally get engagement or conservation. Be it drugs, money, credit card debt, things like this. I think there should be a great conversation about these things, and hopefully my pieces and I try to act as a catalyst to get some kind of conservation going. I came to LA and I was shocked. I had been here for two weeks and I went to a party. There was a bowl of cocaine in the bathroom. I had never seen that before. Just the sheer use of drugs here is quite staggering. You ask people here “Do you do cocaine?” Or you go around America and ask people “Do you do cocaine?” Most people would ask “No, I don’t do cocaine.”
But in the US in 2014, 40 billion dollars worth of cocaine was sold. Which is the same amount of Coca Cola sold that year. So someone is doing a shit load of cocaine.
JTH – It isn’t just one person…
Plastic Jesus – Exactly!
JTH – You keep premiering the now infamous ‘Oscar’ character statues literally right before the Academy Awards.
Plastic Jesus – It has literally become an annual Oscar event for me to create a ‘Oscar’ statue.
JTH – How has that experience been? The ‘Oscars’ are usually held to be this untouchable ‘Ivory Tower’ of Hollywood. Yet this year there was a flood of anti-Oscar feelings from a number of directions. You kinda poke fun at it. The Oscars are in a sense a pageant, one big pageant for Hollywood to come out and enjoy.
Plastic Jesus – Yeah. I don’t have a problem with that. The whole Hollywood TV and movie machine is staggering and phenomenal in what it creates. And it should be commended and awarded, those within it should be awarded. But there is this darker under belly of the industry that goes unnoticed. Just going back to what I was saying a few moments ago about drugs. How many people leave the Oscar parties and go to after parties to do substantial amounts of cocaine, or drink too much? It is all to give this great glitz, that it is perfect here. But clearly it is not. When I did both the drug-related Oscar pieces, I was a little concerned about the response I would get. I thought I might get quite the backlash. The response I got was entirely positive and it was from people, rehab organizations, former addicts and even people within the industry – producers, directors that would contact me and congratulate me saying “This needs to be out in the open. We need to start discussing this within the industry.” The heroin Oscar piece I did just after the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, I know a small amount about heroin. I had a cousin who died from heroin addiction. Heroin is seen as this ‘dirty drug’ used by people in broken down places.
JTH – It is seen as the ‘homeless’ drug.
Plastic Jesus – Exactly. But it is not. I can guarantee you that in this city there are attorneys, entertainment agents, producers, directors every day that are using heroin. Now many of those people cope with it and they have some kind of control on it. It is not deviating from their lives. But what about the lighting guys, the electrician, the make up people, the production people who don’t have the safety net these high profile people have?
JTH – You mentioned when you first got to LA, you had an encounter with this bowl of cocaine at a party. Tell me about that journey, which inspired you to create these statues that have become your trademark around award season.
Plastic Jesus – The impetus was that I felt there is a number of ways of producing controversy, controversy for people. You can do by writing on a wall, saying “No to drugs! Drugs are bad!” Or you can something that hopefully has a deeper significance that really gets people questioning their approach to in this case, drugs. I have always tried to be a creative, I love the physical element of making something. So for me to make sculptures or a physical piece that conveys a meaning or asks a question, that has always been my aim.
JTH – So it is all about creating a conservation that gets people thinking. A dialog going around the art piece.
Plastic Jesus – Totally. When it comes down to drugs, you hear people saying that cannabis should be legalized, the war on drug isn’t working. Even that cocaine and possibly heroin should be legalized. Generally when you look at the argument about those opinions, quite often they are coming from people who have an agenda within the drug industry. I don’t do drugs, I have tried cocaine four times and it left me with a suicidal depression the next day. I think by not actually being a drug user, I do have an input that is not biased or tainted by personal hidden agenda.
JTH – You don’t have a financial stake in it, one way or the other.
Plastic Jesus – I am saying the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working, what we are doing now isn’t working. We need to address it. This isn’t coming from someone who wants a free easy supply of cocaine I can assure you. That is really where I come from on that.
JTH – Why the name ‘Plastic Jesus?’
Plastic Jesus – That is interesting that you asked me that as I know nothing about you. It depends on you the answer that I give. I give a number of different answers. Are you religious?
JTH – Ummm, no.
Plastic Jesus – So in that case, I came to LA seven years ago and driving around there are a lot of people who have these little plastic Jesuses on their dash boards. Personally I am a atheist. I felt it a little strange that someone would need a four-dollar, two-inch figure in their car to remind them who their god is, how religion is important to them. So that is one of the answers I give. But there are a few others as well. The other answer I give is that a ‘plastic Jesus’ is a symbol meant to remind us of our beliefs, our ethics, our morals and that is what I try to set out in my art work.
JTH – Fantastic. That is interesting because you do have this whole theme going on with your sculptures. It is a moral dilemma, but you are obviously making fun of it to make people actually think.
Plastic Jesus – Yeah, I am. I created a piece about eighteen months ago that was eight feet by four feet, a mouse trap with a pile of credit cards where the cheese should be. The piece was called ‘Credit Trap.’ To me, the purpose of doing it, it was during the worst times of the mortgage foreclosures on houses, and people were in huge credit debt. You can write ‘fuck the banks’ in six foot high letters on a wall or you can create a piece like that. I think a piece like that gets the same message over in a fun way. I like my pieces to connect on a number of levels. Firstly, I want them to look cool, and for people to say ‘WOW!’ It is a fun piece, it is in the street. You want it to look cool. I want people to have a deeper connection, and a deeper understanding as well. So far it seems to be working.
JTH – If I were to look at you as an artist, you are put in with street artists. But you do sculptures. You build installations. Tell me, how you define yourself.
Plastic Jesus – It depends. I do street art in terms of stencils. The stencil pieces, that was how I started really. Going back to what I said a short time ago, I love the physical creation process of creating a piece. I think it is easier to get a response of ‘Wow, that is so cool’ from a physical piece. Be it a sculpture, a statue, or a construction, it is easier to get that reaction from somebody then from some form of painting. Be it stencil or something else.
JTH – Do you have any ‘classical’ training to be an artist? I know a lot of street artists are self-taught, and they fall into it. Did you all into it?
Plastic Jesus – I totally fell into it. I will tell you a little bit about my background, for twenty years I have been a photojournalist. I have worked all over the world, I have been in conflict zones. I was in Haiti after the earthquake, I was in Japan just after the earthquake. I have done a lot of investigation work on issues like people trafficking, drug trafficking, prostitution and organized crime. A lot of my motivation comes from there. I think also that gives me the ability to create an image which has quite the impact. Sometimes I would be on assignment for a week and as photojournalist I would have one image to convey that story. The background behind the story and the emotion behind it. That is what I try to do with a stencil. The background history that I have of photojournalism really helps me in what I do.
JTH – You have experienced the worst of humanity with organized crime and war zones. Now you are telling that story, creating installations that have meaning to them. How do you feel about it now when you are stenciling on the streets, which in a sense is illegal?
Plastic Jesus – I would never get an audience or a gallery, and by gallery I mean a world gallery by any other means. Now I get invited to galleries, to come through their doors and exhibit with them. Which the irony there is somewhat amusing. Quite importantly, my pieces of art, if that is what you want to call them. I still have an unease about calling them ‘art.’
JTH – So you don’t call yourself an ‘artist?’
Plastic Jesus – I have a difficulty with that. I suppose I am kinda a subversive political activist on some level. I don’t know. But most art is created for people who appreciate art.
JTH – For collectors, you mean.
Plastic Jesus – Yes! Quite often street art is created to impress other street artists. There are some amazing street artists out there that have amazing technical ability. You can walk around many areas in LA, in alley ways, and there will be stunning stencils. Such control of the paint and technique of the artist. You can stand back and say “That is great but what does it mean?” You can’t understand the meaning of the words, the letters or the piece. My pieces are aimed at everybody. I want them to connect with everybody. Everybody who can see them, the message in the piece. Not art collectors, that is not what I am creating art for.
JTH – What is next for you?
Plastic Jesus – I have a couple new stencils I am creating. But basically I am going to keep doing what I am doing now, just aiming to get a greater reach. I am off to London shortly. So I will be doing a couple pieces there. It is always difficult as an artist to keep a foot in the street art camp and the fine art, kinda of gallery camp. It is always difficult to walk that line. I don’t do that, I just do what I do and if people like it then thats fine. It is an interesting juxtaposition I guess.
JTH – It is. One is more of a consumer base, the other is a visual storytelling base.
Plastic Jesus – It is interesting. A lot of my art sells to collectors and investors, people who at some level you would say are the most conformist in society. I think people just feel some part of their being is subversive. That is what street art can bring to them, it can say “Hey! I work for a big government department in the civil service. Or I work for a major bank at a very high level, but I have a piece of street art on my wall. So I really subversive. I am saying ‘fuck the system’ because I paid 10k for this piece of art!”
JTH – On global storytelling. You have done pieces in LA, you are going to do pieces in London. What are the different cities’ audiences and what are the different response?
Plastic Jesus – The appreciation of the type of street art I do, that is to say subversive or politically engaged street art. I think is more of an US East Coast or a European concept. It certainly gets more acceptance there. In LA, it comes from more of a graffiti writing background. More of the gang tagging background that initiated it. But even so, I love creating street art here because the sun shines so I am not moving. People have to come to me rather then me go to them.
JTH – A lot of what you create is as you say ‘subversive or political.’ Every artist wants their pieces to touch someone. What is most memorable story you have heard from someone touched by your art?
Plastic Jesus – It is always the emails I get, not from the collector that gets it from a high-end gallery. But it is the emails I get from parents who have children 8, 10 years old that say “My son loves your work and he is starting to create his own work.” It is always good to feel on some level you are inspiring someone to create their own graphic imagery about things that are important to them.
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