Hey, You’re Cool! Jilly Ballistic
Culture jamming in the subway
If you’ve ever been in the subway and stumbled onto black and white images of people in gas masks sticking their head out from behind a sign, or worked into an ad, then chances are you’ve seen the work of Jilly Ballistic. She’s a prolific guerrilla artist culture jamming subway stations with paper people and some spray adhesive.
The images are powerful—oftentimes families and kids with gas masks strapped on their faces—and they’re usually positioned to work closely with the space they’re applied to. Sometimes they stand on their own, wrapped around a subway pole for support. We caught up with her on the phone because we thought she’s cool, and she told us about her evolution from spray-painting short stories on garbage, the rhythms of the subway, and some insight into how she works.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I work at a tech company in Manhattan that knows what I do on the side, whether they’re fully supportive of it or not. That’s about all I can say on that. I’m born and raised in Brooklyn. I’ve been in the graffiti/street art scene for a while. I had every job under the sun. My mediums have changed, but I’ve been with the prints for the past five years.
What came before the prints?
I was using spray paint about eight years ago. I was a short story writer and wanted to publish my work, so I thought, why not just paint excerpts of it on garbage? I found couches, stoves, anything that was large enough and would paint a quote from my work on it. I could do it in broad daylight because technically it’s not illegal. The cops were fine with it. The neighborhood loved it. People really gravitated towards it and I got a positive response.
So what made you move away from it?
I did it for a few years but didn’t want to deal with the weather and I always had to find the right thing to paint on, so it wasn’t consistent. I wanted to work a lot, and as you can see, I put stuff up a couple times a week. It dawned on me that I could use the subway. I’m down there every day anyway. But I had to move into this very different environment which is more populated and there are cops and cameras. So I had to adjust the materials I was working with and had to work quick.
What are the materials?
It’s regular paper with a spray adhesive you can get at any hardware store. It’s like wheatpaste in a can. Like hairspray but thicker. It works great on the surfaces down there. It took me a few tries to find the right adhesive. I tried paste, but the bucket was just too much and didn’t dry fast enough. The spray does make a slight hissing sound though. A smell. Makes people curious.
Have you gotten caught?
About three times I missed a camera. I’ve been politely interrupted by MTA agents who were really confused. They’re asking me, “What are you doing? You can’t do this.” The best response it to be polite and move on. It gets you far and then you just hit another station.
You’re pretty prolific.
Yea, there’s just so much material to work with. Not only the physical space but just a massive amount of historical photos that match the environment down there. It’s a fun little game to play. It’s a serious topic but enjoyable at the same time to do. My main topic is the gas masks, which is partly about documenting the evolution of chemical warfare, which started exactly a century ago. I use a lot of children and families—overtly put it into ads and everywhere to bring that reality into the everyday life of someone who wouldn’t have to worry about that, although it’s very, very real.
Your use of space is central, how does that work?
The subway is the pulse of New York. It’s defined by the subways. It’s the great equalizer. Everybody is down there trying to get where they’re going. So it feels like the greatest audience to reach. And it’s really exciting to work down there. I’ll be commuting and see some sort of architecture or ad and remember where it is. I try to gauge the size of it and then do some research for the right image that would fit in harmony with the space. Sometimes it’s the other way around, where I find an amazing image that I have to work with.
How long does an installation take?
A few seconds. I’ve been doing it for a while. The longest part is waiting for the right time to strike, when there’s that 30-second lull when there are no people or trains. I just spray the back of the paper put it up and walk away. People who see me rarely want to talk, they usually just have somewhere to go. New Yorkers are amazing. They look at you and gauge whether you’re going to fuck with their commute, and if not, then they don’t care.
Do you travel specifically looking for spots?
Usually, I’m just going where I need to go and keep my eye out. If I have time, though, I’ll venture out to a new spot. I don’t generally carry work on me, it takes some planning. It doesn’t matter whether it’s day or night or what weather, it’s a whole other world. There’s no rule other than trusting your instincts about the right time to do it.