Over the past four years Plastic Jesus has been using Los Angeles as his playground to showcase his witty brand of street art. Originally a photojournalist from the UK, Plastic Jesus moved to Los Angeles and taught himself how to cut stencils. Known for his in your face stencils and large sculptures Plastic Jesus has quickly become one of the most shared on social media street artists on the planet. Plastic Jesus took some time to chat with me about life, art, Hollywood, his show at Krause Gallery in NYC with Penny, and of course Banksy.
Let’s give all the folks who are not familiar with your work a little background?
I’m British. I’ve been living in LA for ten years. I started doing street art about four years ago. I kind of fell into it by accident, really. I’ve been a photojournalist for over 20 years. I travelled all around the world covering news stories for major publications like Daily Mail, The Times, Newsweek, Huffington Post, CNN, BBC, and so on… and I was becoming disillusioned. Maybe it was LA, but I was becoming disillusioned with the focus celebrity media and the exclusion of all other news. So I started approaching subjects which I felt were being left behind by mainstream media and creating street art which I was hoping to draw people’s attention to these issues.
As far as I know your medium is stencil and sculpture and I guess obviously some mixed media because of the sculptures. Did you train as a stencil artist or did you just kind of figured it out? How did it all come together as your actual process?
No, I kind of trained in the university of YouTube I guess. I’ve always been very practical. I didn’t train—I’m actually trained as an electronics engineer, so I have no training or qualification or training with art at all. But I’ve always been creative, I remember, as a child living just outside London, I’d be in the garage with a car and a little workbench out there. I’d always be making things out of wood and hammering pieces of wood together and things. For me it’s so good, really. So to be an adult now and have a studio and basically to be able to make shit. I’m living in heaven really I guess.
You get to be a kid going to the toy store every day, right, for a living?
Exactly, What other man in particular could, let’s say if Home Depot is dominated by men. But what other guy can walk into Home Depot, run to tools section and just buy every tool he wants without having to go and justify it to his partner back home or justify it financially. It’s great.
And to use it for most likely what it was not intended originally to be used for at all.
That happens often. I love to spend hours walking around Home Depot looking at the stuff thinking, I wonder what I could use that for? That looks interesting…. what could I use that to create? Or, I work from a completely other angle where I have to figure out how to create something… how do you create an 8-foot long missile, or 12-foot long lines of cocaine. where you need to use your imagination and go and see what’s available out there and then adapt it and use it.
Wouldn’t it be a funny if you got a sponsorship from Home Depot out of this conversation?
I spent enough money there. It would be nice to get the money back from them.
You could just be the poster boy for them, it would be great. You only started four years ago. That’s not that long a time. You just decided to kind of go guerrilla on everything? So to address the elephant in the room “Oh, you’re going to be talking to Plastic Jesus ask if he’s Banksy!” my friends asked… But I’m assuming you can’t be in two places at once. So it’s probably a no…
No, I’ve been answering that question a number of times…No, I’m not Banksy although there are a lot of people who think I’m a Mr. brainwash kind of hoax he was playing on the world.
Are you sure? Because we could sell a lot of art really quickly. It would be a feeding frenzy.
Selling really quickly and really expensively, yeah.
Exactly, it’ll take 5%, cool?
If all your asking is 5% that works.
I’m a fair man. But, I’m assuming though that he was someone what of an influence on your style?
Yeah, once Banksy’s work started getting all the attention, obviously I’m a journalist I heard of him. It just fascinated me that with a cost of very simple stencils, he was able to represent quite complex issues within the society like global warming, or like racism, or like corruption and things like these, and and he had the ability to create an image which convey the story, it’s kind of like what I was doing as a photojournalist. That’s kind of how the two came together. I mean to say that Banksy really changed the whole street art scene in the way that the quality of the work that he creates is consistent, and the way in which he connects with people. There’s a lot of street artists out there which are hugely skillful… you can look at there work or whoever painted it and they have amazing skill and talent but you can stand back and think, what the hell does it say? Or, what does it mean? Whereas Banksy, you sit there, you scratch your head for 15 seconds, 30 seconds maybe, and almost immediately you get what he means by the piece.
And you get how it’s tongue & cheek most of the time “Oh, that’s clever. I would’ve never thought of that.” But… Because you were not classically trained was there anyone else who really influenced your style that we wouldn’t think about? It could be music, it could be anything.
Yeah, in fact I love the work of Blek le Rat, his work, his images are kind of more memorable, something more artistic. Blek le Rat is often credited as influencing Banksy greatly. But for me, I guess one of the big things that influenced me was, right up in London around the ‘70s. I mean, there in the UK, you could drive around and you’d see these graffiti written in white paint which would have been done with a brush. And it just says, George Davis is innocent. Now, George Davis was somebody who was convicted of robbery, I think of a bank robbery and was basically sent to jail. His family set about this kind of graffiti campaign. I was only young at the time and I was thinking and I remember saying to my parents along the lines, “ If George Davis is innocent why don’t his family go to the police or the newspaper and tell them that he’s innocent and they’ll let him go”, in a very kind of simplistic way. Then it kind of occurred to me that maybe, that they’re using a guerrilla work getting a message out there because nobody’s listening. They kind of had an influence on me, the people that actually go out, go to the effort of doing this. That was part of my first influence in terms of street art and getting messages over.
Was he innocent? How did it turn out?
Yes, he was actually. I think he was… He was released in the end. But anybody that grew up in London, probably most of the UK around the ‘70s will know the words, “George Davis is innocent.” I mean that’s all it said but it became iconic graffiti because essentially that’s what it was.
I guess that’s your next t-shirt, right?
Well, actually I’ve reached out to him a couple years ago, to try and basically just do what you’re doing and basically interview the guy because as a former news photographer, photojournalist, I’ve liked to kind of get his thoughts on the whole street messaging as it were and campaigns, guerilla campaigns that are led on the street but I’ve not been able to get anything back from him.
That’s interesting… also quickly, give me the Plastic Jesus origin. You can make it quick because I know it’s been written everywhere but for people that don’t want to do a Google search.
I came to LA.… I love Latinos, and they drive around with these little Plastic Jesus characters on the dashboard in their cars and I just thought, if you’re that religious and your belief in your God and Christ is so strong, why do you need a five bucks figure in there to remind you of who your God is? So that is the first reason I chose the name Plastic Jesus. A plastic Jesus is there to remind us of their beliefs and morals or ethics and so on. I guess either way that’s kind of what I’m trying to do with my art.
That’s funny because the idea of these little cheap plastic things everywhere is like, what would Jesus do? Would he hang a $2 souvenir off of this rearview mirror?
Yes, exactly…. I don’t know. I mean what do an atheist hang on their rearview to remind them of their atheism?
I guess, nothing. You just have to get a thing that says, “Atheist” hanging there, I guess. There’s not much else you can do.
Exactly. But then we don’t need reminding, I guess.
Obviously your cocaine piece with the Oscar statue is, I’d say, your biggest, most Instagram thing or whatever. How did that come about? Did you actually get it on the Oscar premises?
It was actually placed on the Hollywood Boulevard just a few days before the Oscar ceremony.
You gave everyone a little warm-up of what was to come in the actual ceremony there?
Yeah, that was the whole point of the thing. Here we are at the Oscar ceremony, a big, great congratulatory ceremony of everything good in Hollywood and quite right they’re sober. So many people that would have been in the awards ceremony that day and it would’ve gone to a party where there would’ve been an open bowl of cocaine perhaps on the dining room table. And so many people attending would have drug dependency issues. I’m not just talking about the actors and actresses. I’m also talking about the electricians, the lighting guys, the make-up people, the hairstylists, and so on. It’s a huge, huge issue. In 2015, cocaine grossed the same amount of Coca-Cola within the US. But you get around LA and you say to people, “Hey, do you do cocaine?” Nobody does it. Nobody would miss doing cocaine so somebody somewhere is doing a shitload of cocaine. I think it’s $40 billion in 2015 of cocaine that was consumed in the US which is a huge industry. My argument is we need to change the conversation. We haven’t really change at all because after 100 years of the war against cocaine it’s clearly not working.
It’s working for somebody, just not the people it should.
Exactly, sadly, yeah.
So I’m interviewing you by phone but I’m also interviewing Penny separately, and he’s told me he’s a trained artist who does stencil work that’s very intricate. And you’re an untrained artist who does stencil work that’s more raw and you both have messages but yours is somewhat more political, more in your face. How did you guys get together, and how is this whole thing at Krause Gallery coming together?
I got to give Benjamin Krause the credit for getting us together and even introducing me to Penny’s work. He showed it to me and said, “Hey, I really like this guy. What do you think of him?” I like it because it’s really intricate, he works a very sort of opposite way to the way I do, and the intricacy and the detail and the technique that weren’t mine. I try and simplify an image as far as possible so that only any observer can understand the message that are contained within that image. And that’s the same when I’m painting things in the street. I want to get it done as quickly as possible and then get the fuck out of there before the cops turn up. But it’s a whole other way the Penny works. He maintains quality through his skill, down to the sheer detail in the stencil. That’s an interesting contradiction on our work that could stand alongside each other. They both carry a message, both very different. But we’re all together.
Do you have a theme of your work for this show? Is there a specific idea or is it just a bunch of different fun stuff?
The pieces I chose for the show are just kind of commentary on culture meme. One piece is commentary on street art itself, and that piece already sold. I’m only sending three pieces over, and those three have already sold before they’re even up in the show. There’s the one piece that Benjamin used in the flyer. The girl flashing the paparazzi, that’s old as well. It’s pretty obvious what the comment on that is, the commentary on Hollywood 15 minutes of fame and what people would do to obtain that now.
It’s funny because one of my favorites is the piece you did about, “I was gonna paint some streetart, but I realised I could go to jail for longer than a Rapist“ piece. I showed it to a couple of friends earlier and they were like “That’s so fucking scary that that’s true.”
It is, that piece I sort of did a rendering and then when I did it I knew it would resonate with people, and I can’t remember how many it got but I think it was at least 100,000 shares on social media. It was crazy. I kind of realized how true that statement was when I was caught one night by the cops and I actually couldn’t talk them out of booking me. It was a felony, vandalism or criminal vandalism, and I think it was $400 of damage or greater for a felony. If the city have to send out one man with a pot of paint it’s going to cost $400. Basically, you’re screwed.
I was going to ask if you had any good stories of the cops bothering you?
Yeah, I have. It was a couple of years ago now. I was doing a piece which is the statue of liberty with the police riot shield and that riot helmet on. It was at the same time as the Baltimore riots. There’s a lot of question about whether the police were over-militarized using Hummers and all that vehicles and stuff on the streets. So that’s really what that piece was about. I’m just finishing it off and I’m usually very careful but a cop car rolled up, puts on his lights, it was four o’clock in the morning, comes over, grabs me, handcuffs me, throw me on the back of his car, checked my ID, and so on…. I’m still handcuffed…. He walked me over to the piece and says, “What is it? What’s it supposed to be?” So I said, “Well, I’m a big supporter of cops. At the moment there’s a lot of criticisms and this over-militarization but actually the cops are there protecting our liberty.” So the cop looked at me and he says kind of half disbelieving it, “Is that true or is that BS?” I said, “No, it’s true. That’s how I feel. Let me go.”
I think he probably let you go just like creativity points more than anything…
Well, I hope, I would like to think so. He did ask if I was Banksy as well…
He’s probably telling the story the opposite way where he’s like, “So you want to hear about the time I could have busted Banksy…?”
Yeah, exactly. I mean that would be brownie points. That would be good points for a cop, wouldn’t it? Busting Banksy? It’s quite funny because now I look at social media at comments and emails and I got ex-cops, detectives, judges following me and commented on my stuff a few times, politicians, even royalty. I sold a piece to the Saudi Royal Family, this prime minister of Uzbekistan, his daughters bought a piece from me. It’s quite funny, it kind of all boils down to the fact that within each of us, doesn’t matter whether you are an anarchist protesting against Trump on the streets, or protecting against the oil pipelines, or if you’re a hedge fund manager, or a government attorney, you still feel like there’s still a part of you that’s a rebel. I think that’s quite after what my work tapped into with people.
Also… I wouldn’t say Trump, but someone like the Kardashians could still laugh at themselves in your work., I don’t know if they’ve ever bought in your pieces or commented or anything but I think they would wear your t-shirt, just because it’s like—
Actually… Kendall Jenner has a No Kardashian parking sign in her home. She bought that from Benjamin, actually.
That’s funny as hell. I mean, listen, if you’re them it’s like, yeah, good, go put them up. They’re still worth billions . And I bet they think it’s funny. If they want to be all stern and 100% against it, it’s just going to work against them. They’re not dumb like that. I mean they can’t be that dumb if they’re making that much money.
Exactly. On a personal level, I have nothing against Kardashians. My whole anti-Kardashian commentary is a commentary about media and about as consumers we latch on but trust what media said to us because we’re told it’s what we want, and what we need.
100%, and that’s my point exactly. They see that and they’re probably like, “listen don’t hate the player, hate the game”.
Well we have gone WAY over our intended 15 minutes and as much fun as I am having let’s wrap this up by asking is there any up and comers that you really have been noticing and really like? And for me, I used to work in the music industry for years, what do you like to listen to?
Plastic Jesus: Up and comers, an artist who’s became a great friend and I give some of my studio space over to an artist who goes in the name of unfukyourself. unfukyourself, that’s U-N-F-U-Q, unfukyourself, all one word. She came up with an expression which is “love me anyways”. And like so many others, she’s done things in her life, she’s question who she is and her validity. With all our faults, with all our travels and all our history, we should still lavish it all. And I think that’s great. She’s really creative as well. I’ve been running my ideas by her to get her opinion on them and we try to bounce ideas back and forth. unfukyourself is an up and comer and she’s selling her stuff to collectors so that’s great to see…. You were asking about music influences, I’m really doing UK and the British Indie music stuff right now. I play music myself, I’m actually just getting back into it.
Let’s just go to the last thing you were listening to today that you’re really digging.
Actually the last thing I’ve listened to is Blur.
Why not? Gorillaz is coming out in a couple of weeks, right?
Yeah, exactly. That will be interesting to listen to. Blur is one on the few bands who have made consistently great music over the past 20 years right??
Any Final parting words?
I hope one day people will realize that creativity is EVERYTHING.
It’s not finances, or marketing, or branding, or leadership that make companies great, it’s creativity…
All Photo’s & Text Copyright 2017 Matthew A. Eller. Follow me on Instagram @ellerlawfirm