‘Don’t Shoot’: Jesse Hazelip On Injustice and His Tattoo as Protest Performance
"I feel like it was the only way to communicate the severity of what I’m trying to expose."
Images courtesy of Trevor Pikhart
Jesse Hazelip’s art coheres into a life force dedicated to activism. His practice—figuratively equal parts fervent prayer hands and swinging fists—can always be found in the throws of the good fight. For years, the Colorado-born artist-as-activist has been calling for greater awareness of social injustice through his work. In particular, it has been the inhumanity of the United States’ for-profit prison industry that has been in his crosshairs. Which has spurred him to creatively explore his intentions in varied ways: on public walls with printed wheatpaste cutouts, in intricate paintings of nobel animals flecked with cholo writing, and in masterful fine-line drawings.
But, in the journey of the last 24 months, his visions have begun to manifest into what the artist describes as tattoo performance protest. Beginning in the winter of 2014, for a solo exhibition at Jonathan Levine Gallery, Hazelip became canvas—a living, visual protest—by tattooing his body (the back of his head, each shaved eyebrow, and his forearms) with images and phrases evocative of our corrupt legal system and incarceration practices. His forever-markings-as-critique aim to summon the severity of what’s at stake for the 2.2 million Americans currently behind bars and the many more struggling to rejoin their communities once released.
This past Friday, Los Angeles was witness to Don’t Shoot, Hazelip’s latest tattoo performance protest. With attendees encouraged to wear black, it was offered as a candle-lit memorial and post script for those who have been murdered by police. During the piece, held at Mishka L.A. Gallery, Amer The Gamer, clad in a “Death by Police” hoodie, live tattooed the potent words “Don’t Shoot” in gravestone block letters on the inside of each of Hazelip’s palms.
We caught up with Hazelip in the days leading up to the performance to learn more.
Mass Appeal: Injustice permeates your work. Can you take us through your creative progression, from early explorations of the U.S.’s appetite for war to your focusing on the for-profit-prison industry and our justice system?
Jesse Hazelip: Activism has always been tied into my work spanning back to my early days of graffiti. My original tags were just statements complaining about the status quo. I thought that the act of vandalism and civil disobedience was my protest against the system. Much later I came to the realization, that seems so obvious now, that my message wasn’t conveying my intent. I was just writing my nickname on lower and working class property, and the only people paying attention were other knuckleheads. I eventually came up with this concept of the American buffalo mashed with a WWII bomber plane that encapsulated my critique of war perfectly. I still wanted to keep my work in the street, but wouldn’t be able to paint this image quickly enough illegally. So, I switched mediums to wheatpaste. Though I still write graffiti and rep my crews, my focus has been more on pushing important political agendas. I started putting up the buffalo in the Bay Area and it got a lot of positive feedback from residents of the neighborhoods. After a few years of making work about the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, my attention started being pulled to our problems in our judicial system. It was always in the back of my mind because of my experience with police harassment and watching my friends go in and out of jail. My first time going through county jail was a very eye-opening experience. I saw countless human rights violations with absolutely no accountability. When my best friend was incarcerated, it expedited the urgency to create this new body of work. Drawing from these numerous signs and my own visions, I started what would turn into Love Lock: Cycle of Violence, my solo exhibition at Jonathan Levine Gallery in NYC.
What was the catalyst for your awakening into a life dedicated to art as activism?
One of my earliest memories is running across the playground towards my brother, who was being kicked on the ground by a group of children. I was so desperate to help him, but I was stopped by a teacher and disciplined for running. My brother is black. He was adopted when I was two years old and I can’t remember a day without him. He was being beaten up by a group of white kids because he was the only black child in the whole school, city, and county. I found myself beating up white kids who would constantly call my brother nigger, and always trying to be there for him. We would practice fighting in our backyard so he could learn how to defend himself. It took me a very long time to figure out that the activist inside of me was born that day on the playground, sprinting in desperation to save my brother. It also dawned on me that if the teacher saw me running to save him and stopped me, why didn’t she stop the children kicking my brother?
How did you first conceive of your tattoo performance protest? What was your performance experience like with Love Lock at Jonathan Levine and how has it helped to inform your work since?
Like most every thing in my work, the tattoos came to me as a vision first. This one differed from most because it had to do with my body as the canvas for this message. First off, I’ve never wanted face tattoos or head tattoos. So, this concept really scared me. But, that fear only helped reinforce the strength of the message. While speaking with friends and family, I was faced with shock and violent objections. This, too, only helped solidify the power of sacrificing my own image for that of the cause. Going into preparing myself for the tattoos for Love Lock: Cycle of Violence was terrifying. It was such a transformation that left me looking at a stranger in the mirror. I had to completely shave my head and eyebrows and trust that my tattoo artist wouldn’t fuck up my face. The snake tattoo on the back of my head took over four hours and was the most painful tattoo I have ever received. I got the Love Lock tattoo [into each eyebrow] during the same session and left feeling completely drained and questioning what I had just done to myself. The next morning was startling, waking up to blood-and-ink-soaked pillow cases. After I showered and washed off the blood and ink, I was confronted with my new face. I accepted it and saw the beauty in it. My interactions with the world have never been the same. I’ve had to become accustomed to being stared at everywhere, and have had to change the way I engage with strangers. There are so many stereotypes associated with facial tattoos—and silent judgements. But, I have accepted this role as a part of my activism, and hope that my actions bring light to the subjects I’m addressing. I never had considered using performance art as a medium to discuss my agenda, but I am very intrigued by the power that it has. I feel that art is mainly viewed over social media now, and it cheapens it in a sense. The performance happens once, and only for those who are present. It’s a very special energy exchange, and can only truly be experienced in that moment.
When did the concept of “Don’t Shoot” take hold of you for this show?
When the riots in Ferguson started, I was extremely frustrated that I was so far away and felt helpless. I feel that event really exposed the country to a reality that has been hidden since the founding of our nation. Technology and the media is the only reason that these issues have been exposed, but I fear that the country will lose interest in this very pressing matter. I chose “Don’t Shoot” specifically to keep those words in the minds of America. I hope this act will continue to keep the pressure upon our corrupt judicial system. I’ve been wanting to do this performance for quite a long time, but have had a hard time finding a venue that would back my agenda. I’m finding that life as an activist artist is pretty lonely in an art world that mainly caters to furnishing the living rooms of the 1%.
What are your thoughts on the phrase “Don’t Shoot” in relation to the movement? Some have tried to unsuccessfully throw water on its power by contesting that Michael Brown never said it.
The media portrayal of Michael Brown and many other people who have been murdered makes me ill. Michael Brown would be the most reliable source as to whether those words were stated, but his voice was stolen from us. Because he was black, period.
Do you feel it’s the justice system that enables cops to murder minority men and women?
Yes. The fact that police aren’t being held accountable for their actions, regardless of video evidence, is proof in and of itself. Then when these officers receive little or no punishment for murdering people, innocent or not, it only emboldens police to carry on, if not encouraging the behavior. The courts love to “make examples” out of criminals to deter the public from committing crime, such as mandatory minimum sentencing, but refuse to prosecute police in the same manner. If police had to answer for their injustices, we wouldn’t see rampant brutality. I also think that we need to completely change how we employ police. Police should be paid more and go through extensive training to be able to deal with their extremely complicated job. Police currently only have to have a GED and go through a short eight weeks of schooling before being thrown into the world. Lawyers have to pass the BAR exam to get a license, so why shouldn’t police have to do something equivalent? The responsibility of being a police officer is intense, and shouldn’t be handed out so casually.
With your tattoos as protest, this act, in one sense, is the least that you could do—to donate your body as canvas as there are people being murdered in the streets—and in the same breath, it’s the utmost offering, the most human offering possible.
I have thought about this myself. Without being conscious of it, I have sacrificed my reality. It’s hard to describe, but my interactions with the world have forever changed. Some might say it was a choice, but I don’t feel that it was. I feel like it was the only way to communicate the severity of what I’m trying to expose.
When experiencing your work, I always harken back to Michelle Alexander’s incredible book The New Jim Crow and her describing how the label of criminal and felon is akin to “the mark of Cain”—a racist badge of inferiority—how a person is forever defined and “tattooed” by their worst mistake. You’ve openly credited the book with having profound influence your work. Can you share the impression The New Jim Crow has made on you?
I was gifted that book by my good friend and fellow artist Bianca Casady, who accompanied me in the cell in my first performance at Jonathan Levine. I started reading the book in an oblivious manner, but was quickly struck with its importance. It clearly documents the racism in our system that reaches back to slavery. It’s the only non-fiction book that I’ve had to put down multiple times because of how emotionally it affected me. My last big exhibit in Hollywood was directly referencing the book. I titled it Mark of Cain, and had the mark tattooed on my forehead to protest the treatment of criminals in our culture. The book brilliantly diagrams exactly how hard it is for people who have gone through the system, to get out of the system, especially people of color. In our society, we have a very punitive approach to criminals without compassion. I call The New Jim Crow my bible in my pursuit of change. I would encourage everyone to read it, especially the skeptics.
Are the acts of creation and protest a means of coping for you, a buoy of sorts?
My art is my way of coping. I see injustices and I have to do something about it or I will simply implode. It’s a very therapeutic process for me, and I try my best to make my work accessible and approachable to everyone. I use animal metaphors because everyone has their own experience and relationship with animals, and I find that it’s a neutral ground to begin a conversation. I feel it’s important to include everyone in the conversation, or I might as well speak to myself. Change can only happen if we drop our guards and work together.
Do you think that the tide of opinion is in the process of changing regarding mass incarceration—from both sides of the aisle and within our communities?
I feel like we have made some progress in shedding light on this issue. I generally hate politicians, but I’m glad that they are being forced to discuss mass incarceration. Though we are gaining ground, we have mountains to climb before we see real reform. I look forward to the day that we are at peace as a species and I can take up landscape painting like my parents always wanted me to do.