Venice Beach artist Jules Muck talks about what it was like developing her fine art chops from the roots of the graffiti world, how she saved her art from rehab and we dish on how to preserve the artist community in an ever gentrifying Venice.
She’s prolific and talented, fearless, messy and slightly self-destructive. She can’t quell it, so she rides the wave. The first time I saw her was at least a decade ago, painting ten foot tall canvasses on the sidewalk in Venice, her mean little Chihuahua nipping and growling, protecting the paints. What I didn’t know was that she was living in her car back then. She told me one time that she really tried to get a “normal job” at Starbucks. And spent three hours locked in the bathroom sobbing.
Her front yard, called The Muck Tent, is an ever evolving structure on her concrete patio tucked behind a white picket fence. It’s a makeshift clubhouse of sorts, filled with scrap furniture and protected from the sun with a few faded umbrellas. It’s there that she surrounds herself with a gritty Rolodex of people brimming over with their own sloppy creativity, overflowing ashtrays, paint cans, scraps of wood and fairy lights. Faded pictures of pop stars and paintings are left out all night long in the dew and the dust and the rain. There are always stacks of new canvases, most of them covered with Jules’ signature green faces, piled high from the front gate all the way to the front door.
And the best part for Jules herself, but also for the entire creative community, is that somehow in the ever gentrifying, hyper big money scene that has taken over Venice, NO ONE seems to care what this haphazard group of young adults with paint in their hair and broken windows on their beat up, spray painted cars does in that spot called The Muck Tent. And I say to the community and to her landlord, THANK YOU. Because we need people like her and her tribe. We need to let them unleash their hose of creativity and get everything nice and wet and messy and let it stew.
She’s fresh off a southern USA coast to coast tour with a videographer from Sony. She’s got a new show opening in Venice tonight at Will Leather Goods at 1360 Abbott Kinney. Bring an item of your own for her to paint a kitten or something on. You won’t regret it.
Anna: What’s up with the green faces? People love them, but why do you do them?
Jules: Well, I started off doing graffiti in the Bronx and I started with the green faces . . . because green is easy to do blends. And that point I was using Krylon hunter green, jade green, emerald green and black and white. The shading worked really well and it was just a good easy combo and a small amount of paint that looked realistic light wise – the lights and darks – so it was easier than using a whole multitude of paints. And that’s really why I stuck with the green. Great blending, freaking less paint to carry and I could do anything. When I started doing the faces, I started with a made up one, kind of cartoony. I did it a few times and it just worked really well. I painted it at the wall of fame in Harlem in NY and that was the first time a female had painted there. So it was really cool, it got some play. I just stuck with it and then I started doing canvasses with the green paint and that was the first time I started doing fine art – that was about 2000. And the first time I did a realistic person would be Lady Pink, the woman who trained me, my mentor. I did a portrait of her with brush – the first brush painting I did. But then I did one in spray paint just to see if I could, you know. And a lot of times I’ll do that, I have a Mona Lisa in my house right now that I did with spray paint just to see if I could.
Anna: Women in graffiti art – – is it a boy’s club? Is it intimidating?
Jules: Yeah! It’s freakin’ yeah – it’s definitely a boy’s club, but there’s advantages and disadvantages to being female, like with everything . . . but Lady Pink kinda keeps the girls pretty tight in NY. At least like we all help each other out. We all put each other up, like if we’re doing a wall . . . we do a lot of all-girl walls, that kind of thing. Now and then there’s some kind of beef and someone’s not happy but for the most part I never had a problem other than people shit talking about me.
Anna: What’s your take on women in the graffiti scene?
Jules: I think it’s awesome, I love it, it’s great. I always encourage girls who are getting started, it’s fucking awesome, you know, I tell them to just do it, encourage them because it’s a physically tough thing to do – climbing a lot, jumping fences, running from cops and walking through bad neighborhoods at night. I mean yeah, it’s taxing but, if you want do it, that’s great.
Anna: What’s the scariest/most exhilarating experience you’ve had in the graffiti scene?
Jules: I got chased in London. It was at King’s Cross in London and we were just bombin’ on a building – just some bubble letters back then. I guess the building owner or someone who lived there looked out the window and saw us, started yelling and we didn’t really take notice, but he came down and he had a chain and he was chasing me through the streets. There were two of us and we split up and he chased me and it was freakin’ probably like two in the morning and I was carrying like a book bag full of piant. It sucked and I wasn’t about to ditch the paint. I knocked on this bar door, it was after the bar was closed but there were people partying inside and they let me in. I just told them some bullshit like, “This guy’s trying to get me, I don’t know what’s wrong with this crazy guy,” and they let me in and they wouldn’t let him in.
Anna: You are prolific and fast. How did that come to be?
Jules: That definitely comes from graffiti. Still when I paint, even when I’m in my freakin’ house, I still have this subliminal fear that someone is going to try to stop me from painting. Like something is gonna stop me and I have to just keep going. You know because it was always the cops coming or something like that fucking happening to fuck it up somehow. I still have that ingrained in me: hurry the fuck up, get the fuck out. Especially from train yards, cause I started painting graffiti after people had been alerted to it. People were more on guard and more likely to call the cops to arrest you. Back in the 70’s it was like you eat a pizza, smoke a blunt and paint a train. But when I was doing it was very SCARY, you had to be quick and you had to get the fuck out.
Anna: Was it a conscious decision to focus so hard on painting? I know you used to write and do some other things.
Jules: Honestly I fought against it so much because my family really instilled in me that [painting] is not worthwhile because it’s not a business. It’s not a living. It’s a hobby. And for the first ten years I was getting arrested for it so it was definitely not something they promoted. I was like, “Ok, this is something I’m gonna stop doing eventually.” But it kinda just happened. I tried to do a lot of other things, I went to school for things and I had jobs, I had every job in the world, I had so many jobs, but they just didn’t work out. And it usually was the painting that just pulled me back in.
Anna: When I see you, I see someone who lives life on her own terms, and so, has that been difficult for you to come to?
Jules: My childhood was me being placed in different countries with different situations repeatedly, every year changing locations. I never had time to figure anybody else’s terms out. I never knew what the right thing anywhere was. I never knew what the right slang was. I never knew what was cool and I was always the freaking dork. I was always made fun of. The only way you can like really operate in that sort of sense is to just own it, to be like, “Fuck it – I don’t care.”
Anna: That brings me to the Muck House, every time I walk by your place, one thing that I think is “How the fuck did you swing such a sweet pad over there?” What’s the deal with your landlord situation? How do you get to do what you do?
Jules: I don’t fucking know . . . We kiss ass. I pay rent, you know. I pay that shit right away but I’m not gonna lie because just a week ago we got a three day notice to get out. Get out or clean up, so we had the power washer out, really cleaning the shit out of it. I was driving there with money, with you know, whatever it takes. I love that house.
Anna: I love it too, I love that house, every time I walk by I’m very inspired that you get to do that there.
Jules: Thank you, you know I’m so glad that people don’t bitch about it, I mean, it’s Venice, we should be able to do whatever right?
Anna: And that brings me to another question . . . what do you think about the gentrification of Venice? How that impacts people like us who are artists who live here and want to stay here?
Jules: As long as we can keep operating in situations that are kinda under the table – which is kinda like how a lot of Venice runs. You get a hook up, you know the right person, you get the studio for this much or you get this or that for free. I had the art house on Abbott Kinney Blvd for three months for free. That’s a 10G a month lease. So as long as there are people supporting us we can operate in these circumstances and hopefully we can make some money.
Anna: Back to the Muck Tent, I definitely notice it’s a gathering place for you . . . for your community. How did it come to be? Tell me about some of the characters.
Jules: Well, I guess it’s rotated a lot. But it’s like everywhere I go, people are there, I swear, because I can’t be alone. I must have an issue. (She laughs.) I can’t work if I’m alone. I swear you see me by myself and I’m painting, I’m not painting I’m off texting people, asking where are you, what’s going on, come over, blah, blah, blah . . .
Anna: How do you feel when a mural of yours gets covered up or defaced? Do you even care?
Jules: It’s annoying, cause I’m supposed to go fix them. Most the time I’m on it, if it’s anything noticeable. When Lindsey got ragged, I fixed it four hours later, but it had already made it to the news. Whitney I’m slacking on, I saw that she’s ragged.
Anna: I saw Whitney. It was fine.
Jules: No, she’s got marker on her. You can’t see it unless you’re really up close. They didn’t go crazy with a can, they drew a crack pipe in her mouth which I think is kinda funny so I didn’t fix it right away. But I WILL fix it because if you don’t fix it, they start fucking with your other stuff. So I have to get on it. The worst is when the city just paints over something. I don’t know if you ever saw the building at Windward and Pacific. I freakin’ got in a bucket and I’m afraid of heights, three stories high on a crane and painted around the entire ledge of the building and they buffed that. That was a bummer. And the landlord wanted it and everything . . . everybody wanted it and the city fined them something like a thousand bucks a day ‘til they painted over it. So they painted over it.
Anna: We had a conversation a few years back, when you had the art house on Abbott Kinney Blvd., about inspiration. What really struck me was you said something like, “Some days I feel anxiety because I wanna paint and I don’t know what to paint but I just do it anyway.” Why? Tell me about the anxiety and how you push through.
Jules: Well, what was good about those days was the art house was so temporary that I was scared shitless to lose time, because I never knew if the next day could be the last day. And so I was like, “I gotta produce!” I did over 150 painting while I was there in three months. It helps just to do something simple. If I can’t think of much, if I’m having trouble, I do a very easy painting that maybe I’ve already done before. Just to keep moving, something, I swear the whole getting started thing is the worst.
Anna: I think it’s that way for all artists. What’s the story behind your grandma calling you Mucky pup? And how you got your last name?
Jules: Well, it’s a British term “mucky pup.” It’s very common over there. It wasn’t an insult, it’s like a term for a sloppy little kid, I think, but I heard it again when I started to do graf. I heard it in a song by The Exploited. I was like, “Oh that’s that thing my grandma used to say and they’re British too!”
Anna: I remember your early years in Venice, painting on the sidewalk by Abbots Habit. You were ballsy. Were the Abbots Kinney Blvd vendors supportive of you? How?
Jules: Well, honestly people were great, I was kind of blown away cause I’m used to New York where at least someone’s got a problem with something, just cause they wanna bitch. But here it was so supportive. At one point someone wanted me to clean up cause I’m sloppy, and I always have shit everywhere and then all the people who hang out with me, they’ve got their shit everywhere.
Anna: You’re a mucky pup!
Jules: Yeah! I cleaned up, that’s all. That was the only negative thing that happened and that wasn’t even that bad. But, people at Abbott’s Habit, they gave me an art show just from seeing me paint there. It was good, it was all very positive.
Anna: You’ve been pretty up front with the fact that you’ve fought and won a battle with substance abuse. How did art play a role in getting clean? Or did it?
Jules: Honestly, I was painting while I was using too. And it was a tool for me to make money by doing art. I did a lot of painting that I didn’t like, so it’s been a relief to not have to paint diners and acropolises. I painted so many fucking Greek diners with acropolises, you don’t even know, but because I was just trying to get paid.
And then when I went to rehab they actually tried to shut down the art because they said it was an escape. So they caught me drawing with pencils. They took my pencils and pens and I started sculpting out of the dirt – people’s faces. They were so mad. I almost got kicked out of rehab because I got ahold of a marker when they took us out on a trip. I just tagged up this whole park and they knew it was me. I tried to deny it. But it was actually a great breakthrough.
When I got to the sober house this guy who was running the sober house actually found out that I used to paint. And the owner was doing some fundraiser to put drug addicts through college, recovering drug addicts, and he was like, “Will you paint a bunch of paintings?” And I swear he had me in the basement – he gave me canvases and paint. I churned out so many pieces and he auctioned them and he sent these kids to school and it was great. It was amazing. And it brought me back into producing work.
Anna: You weren’t into art as a teenager. Was there anything in life that you had aspirations for back then/as a kid?
Jules: I was really into being a writer. I wanted to write books. I had all these ideas I would start all the time. I was doing a lot of poetry. Little spurts of other things . . . at one point I thought the only thing worthwhile for me was to learn medicine. To be able to heal fucking people. What the hell else is there? And actually I was convinced there was gonna be some sort of apocalyptic crazy shit go down. So I was trying to learn how to fix cars and going to med school, pre-med, trying to fix people, because I thought that really if shit hits the fan I need to not be painting a picture.
Anna: If you could give one piece of advice for anyone who’s trying to make a living make a living doing something in the creative realm – what would it be?
Jules: It’s the hardest fucking job. It’s the hardest. It’s harder than being anything else . . . being corporate scum, anything, this is the hardest. I hope you can work your ass off 24/7 not even sleep and always be stressed out. This better be worth it, you better really like that shit. You better really fucking like it.
Jules Muck Bio:
Jules Muck began doing graffiti in Europe and Great Britain twenty years ago. She began bombing in New York in the late 90s, where she was discovered on a Bronx rooftop by Sandra Fabara “Lady Pink,” who she apprenticed with for five years. Her work has shown at Tokyo Big Site, the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis, Phantom Gallery in St. Louis, the Fuse Gallery in New York, and the Bronx Museum of Art, where her green version of Gloria Steinem is on display. She has been published in Ganz’s Graffiti Women, Cey Adam’s Definitions and both of the Murrays books Burning New York and Broken Windows, in X-CIA by Hank Oneal and now here on our cover. Jules Muck’s studio is located in Venice, CA where her murals are prominently displayed, including the famed Gjelina restaurant, and Main Street & Horizon Ave that garnered her press including a spotlight on Access Hollywood and an article in Newsweek’s The Daily Beast who profiled her mural of Lindsay Lohan, featuring her as a Pop Art style mermaid with Muck’s famed green goddess face with neon yellow hair. Muck received quite a bit of attention for this mural when a someone painted a swastika over Lohan’s forehead. Jules Muck, when asked why she painted her, stated, “She’s an artist, and also someone who’s in recovery from drugs and alcohol. I myself am five years sober, and so I identified with her on that….She’s messed up a lot. I feel like Venice is the place for her. She doesn’t belong in that glammy crowd. She belongs with us. Venice is so accepting, the crowd is full of crazies and bizarre people. Follow her on Instagram @MUCKROCK