This week I had the opportunity to catch up with 23 year old pop expressionist Justin ‘Jay’ West. West has applied an enormous drive in making a name for himself in New York’s prestigious Chelsea art scene. You may also know him as A$AP Rocky’s resident artist, painting up works for music videos Wassap, Purple Swag and Get High…I’ll admit that the rap ties had me expecting to be greeted by somewhat of an inflated ego, but what I got couldn’t be further removed from my arbitrary assumption. Who I did have the pleasure of meeting was a big teddy bear of a guy with the genuine spirit of a self-starter.

Born and raised in Central Harlem, West’s art is often informed by his colorful surroundings, combining culture-rich sight and sound with the not so beautiful realities lurking on street corners and alleyways. Wise beyond his years, Jay made the level-headed choice in his teens to rise above the vice he was witnessing and turned it into a platform to show kids what can be done if you just let your mind wander below and beyond 125th. The self-discipline and bravery found in such stepping out on his own path is what really makes this artist special. He’s had the supportive guidance of his family to thank. Together his step-father, a skilled tradesman, and his mother, a creative writer, instilled in him love, work ethic and to value his gift from a tender age. He allowed me to thumb through an early portfolio his grandmother put together for him as a child. A shabby, white 3-ring binder comprised of a young West’s character sketches, computer drawings and even an artist bio; I immediately felt the love pour from its pages. The type of sentiment that screams, “We all know you’ll be somebody” and boy isn’t Justin the great.
words + photos Justin Fulton

JF: Harlem is…
JW: The mecca. So many powerful events have gone down here from the Harlem renaissance and the creatives who forged their way to Malcolm X starting his ministry on Lenox Avenue. Harlem has always symbolized the cultivation of culture in New York. It’s definitely given me everything I need to sustain and come up in this crazy world.

When did you pick up the brush?
I’ve been painting since I was 4 years old honestly. As a kid I would draw portraits of my family with charcoal pencils, watch Bob Ross and try to do some of the things he was doing on TV…You know, Sonic and Dragon Ball Z, I guess I would draw all the things kids in school used to draw. 

So cartooning has always been close to heart?
Yeah, that’s what started it all. When I was in high school I wanted to pursue a further career in animation, but as that passion dwindled, I dove further into making fine art. 

I can definitely feel the irony in you putting these rather lighthearted characters in adult situations. What’s going on over here with Elmo holding a gun?
Well I use characters to represent humanity, because unlike humans they aren’t subject to pre-judgments and allow for people to really take in the story I’m telling. This particular piece I did after the Kevin Clash scandal. I just found it interesting that Clash, this successful African-American man with one of the highest grossing characters on the market came under fire and out of nowhere. I don’t condone the actions he was being accused of, but it was almost like they were trying to crucify him….all the good he’s done for children kind of went out the window.  So this painting is speaking to the madness of the media. 

What role did your parent’s play in fostering your creativity?
Being that my mom’s a writer she totally understands the creative process and my biological father was an artist as well. He wasn’t a commercial success, but damn good at drawing. So I’m pretty sure that’s where I got the skill. He passed it right to me. Growing up I would draw and always hear “you’re so good” and never let it go. 

What does your process entail?
I usually can’t just jump into a canvas. I’m not even going to lie to you, a lot of my stuff is very calculated. I sit down, sketch and map things out on paper first. When I like the composition on paper I bring it to canvas and paint it up. I hate getting lost on the canvas. It’s a waste of money, a waste of space [laughs].

Why the glorification of luxury goods in some of your work?
I would say I grew up in a perfect blend of struggle and glamour so I was exposed to these things early-on while experiencing the realites of living in Harlem where everything wasn’t all too good. So I’m glorifying finer things because I know children from this whole socio-economic setting who would like to get there…If I can use my art as a tool to say “you can get there” without compromising who you are then that’s great.

You’re kind of like a visual rapper then [laughs]. Where did you study?
I went to Art & Design High School here in Manhattan then to Sullivan College upstate. But Art & Design is really where I got the know-how and all the technical skill. Art & Design really taught me wonders. It’s one of the best art schools in the country.

Who’s been your greatest teacher in life?
My sister’s father who’s raised me since I was 2. My biological father was locked up when I was very young so I talked to my step-dad about everything. He didn’t just give you a biased opinion, but knowledge to back things up. I confided in him a lot.

What’s next for Jay West?
I have a group show at the Tria Gallery in Chelsea entitled Urbane Decay, opening April 4th. It’s mainly about the love affair high and street art share. 


URBANE DECAY | Opening Night April 4, 2013 6-8p | Tria Gallery 531 W25th Street