The first time Joerael Numina ever saw graffiti, he was 9 years old and watching television footage of the Berlin Wall coming down. Men and women climbed over the 12-foot cement barrier under a night sky and broke it apart with pickaxes, sledgehammers, and even their bare hands. It was obvious, even to a kid in west Texas, that something momentous was happening.
“There was music and celebration,” he says. “I think I must have been seeing this on MTV. I remember seeing the people, but also zoning past that and looking at all the painting and graffiti on the wall. Those were letters, but why were they painted like that? It seemed mysterious and cool.”
He started writing his name on walls that year and steeping himself in the traditions of graffiti, which, he says, was originally called style writing. The artists call themselves writers.
“If you’re going to talk about graffiti, you have to know the roots and the history. You have to carry it with you as a practice. If you don’t, you’re kind of faking,” says Joerael, 39, who prefers that people refer to him by his first name because that is how he is known in the art world.
“Ethically, I never wrote on personal property. I’ve painted on it, but it’s usually with permission. But then, on the other end of the spectrum, you write on trains. It’s governmental property. Trains expanded colonization all the way through the western states,” he says, leaping from concept to concept. From Pompeii to World War II. Indonesian cave walls 40,000 years ago. Complexity science. Art washing. Indigenous land acknowledgements. The fact that graffiti is probably the first globally networked movement of visual communication. He drops insider graffiti terms like “burner,” “Chicago flip,” and “throwie.”
His breadth of knowledge is dizzying.
Today, as an established artist with commissions locally, nationally, and internationally, he carries his graffiti origins with him like a badge of honor. His murals bear a signature style that incorporates graffiti’s hyper-characterized letters and a sort of swirling geometry that connects one image to the next. What drives him is a deeply held sense of social responsibility. His work speaks to both the oppressed and the powerful about what he sees as the most vital topics of the day: border issues, civil rights, indigenous rights, and the environment. He says he’s “addressing people in power who are failing, who aren’t cultivating change.”
Some people call him an activist. He doesn’t mind, but he prefers the term “activator.” Because when he puts a mural on a blank wall, he says he is activating a previously empty space.
Joerael (pronounced Joe-RAIL) knows that many people consider graffiti to be a form of vandalism — no matter how beautiful or consequential. But writing was always more meaningful to Joerael than tagging his name on a wall. Even before he hit the double digits, he saw his work as way to shout at the system, a way to create real change. He has never taken the responsibility lightly.
“I am not trying to be the voice of anyone — just an ally of people I see as oppressed,” he says. “Public space is an ideal platform so that injustices don’t get buried or swept away during our busy lives. When you create a public political piece, someone in a position of power will see it at some point.”
Origins of an autodidact
There wasn’t much of a graffiti scene in San Angelo, Texas, when Joerael was growing up. But graffiti-covered trains rumbled in and out of town. He watched them and eventually came to an understanding of how this writing moved from city to city, state to state. In time, he learned that this practice dates to the Great Depression, when hobos would send messages to each other this way.
On a hot day in the summer of 1994, a 14-year-old Joerael took a break from skateboarding to browse the magazines at the local Hastings Entertainment store. He already liked to draw, often sketching “little cholo dudes with shotguns behind their backs and baggy pants” to appease an intimidating classmate who enjoyed the pictures. Next to the skateboarding magazines, Joerael found the very first issue of Juxtapoz, a San Francisco-based publication that celebrates alternative and underground art. Next to that was an issue of 12ozProphet, a graffiti magazine. Seeing them side by side on the shelf hit him like a spiritual kick in the head. This, he says, was the moment he knew what he wanted to do with his life.
“I decided to be an artist and paint graffiti,” he says. “I showed my friends and we got hooked. One of them had a dad who was in the Air Force and had dial-up internet. We found the Art Crimes website [graffiti.org]. You could see different graffiti and study it.”
He painted on trains and other places he wasn’t supposed to. He went to Dallas and looked at the graffiti in the historic Deep Ellum neighborhood, which is known for its live music and art scene. He studied every work he could find to figure out how shapes, shadows, and depth were created in the letters. And he tried his hand at his own pieces. Writing on walls with spray paint involves a lot of trial and error, he says.
Joerael considers himself a self-taught artist and doesn’t really want to be reduced to “a guy who does graffiti” as if his entire artistic practice is based in some idea of cool rebellion. His work is more expansive than that — as is his thinking. Some might call him an autodidact. Certainly, he has no training in space exploration, and yet he created a movable mural used by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientists to educate the public about the Mars Rover. Nor does he have formal education in a kind of systems theory called complexity science. And yet a happenstance meeting about a used car in 2016 led him to a three-month residency at the Santa Fe Institute that culminated in a keynote speech about his ideas around graffiti and networked systems, as well as ongoing illustration commissions.
The president of Santa Fe Institute, David Krakauer, says that Joerael was a “surprising and wonderful fit to SFI, in large part because of his constructive iconoclasm, his desire to find and represent patterns in the world, and a willingness to learn about new ideas that could fuel his imagination.”
Joerael refers to some of his illustrations for SFI as “mental models of complexity.” It’s a phrase that could also describe the drawings he makes of people, which he calls “complexity portraits.” In the gorgeously (and possibly obsessively) detailed illustrations, Joerael attempts to reveal the inner lives of his subjects by filling them with images that reflect facets of the sitter’s personality. For instance, small soldiers that resemble children’s toys, a train blowing black smoke, and fragments of a red-and-white bandana are among the pieces of information that fill the figure of Vanessa Bowen (mixed media, 2017).
Complexity portraits were included in Joerael’s 2017 solo show at Keep Contemporary (142 Lincoln Ave.), I Am the Highway. Gallery owner Jared Antonio-Justo Trujillo sought Joerael out after seeing a (now-painted-over) mural he did on Lena Street about indigenous water protectors who were involved in the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.
“I was pretty much blown away by what he was doing. It’s hard to keep up with him,” Trujillo says. “He’s a great advocate for social justice, and things like why the border wall is just a stupid idea.”
Not made for tourists
In early July, Edward Johnson and Michele Varner took a drive through the Railyard neighborhood after dinner. The couple saw Joerael painting a commissioned mural along a sidewalk on Lopez Street — a high wall of reds, yellows, and purples — of faces, wings, flames, and stylized writing.
Joerael says the mural, called Burning at Both Ends, refers to the ancient Amazon prophecy of the eagle and the condor, which is about human society splitting in two. One half follows the condor on a path of femininity, heart, and intuition. The other half follows the eagle on a masculine path of the mind and industry. The prophecy says that we are now in a 500-year period during which the two groups have the potential to “fly” together. In the mural, Joerael connects the prophecy visually and conceptually to ongoing fires in the Amazon rain forest, in South America, and California. A purple, feminine hand at one end of 1,800-square-foot wall holds a candle that is burning at both ends. Another hand holds a burning flower that represents industry and capitalism.
The cacophonous imagery of Burning at Both Ends is a lot to take in, and there isn’t much to guide you. Joerael says that he wants to eventually embed QR codes into his murals so that people can scan them with their smartphones and discover more of the symbolism there.
When he was working on the piece, a woman who lived nearby came outside and demanded to see his permit.
“I told her I didn’t need that because the owners commissioned me to paint their wall. I kept trying to ask her name and ask her to talk. Finally, when she calmed down, she actually liked the mural. She makes me salsa and guacamole and we talk now. This mural is for her and the people who live here. It’s hidden, and it’s not for tourists. It’s for Santa Fe.”
“It was a fabulous wall,” says Johnson, a retired naval officer who now works in motion and atmospheric physics. “We stopped and admired it, and Joerael came over and chatted. He drew us right in.”
Johnson and Varner commissioned Joerael to paint two murals on their property in Barrio la Canada. The couple gave him the freedom to choose the imagery. Completed at the end of September, one is in their backyard, overlooking a vegetable garden. It has an agricultural theme, with images of corn and flowers, as well as a hand grasping a can of spray paint. The other mural, which is about 1,000 square feet, is on the outside of their wall, along the Santa Fe River Trail. It is one of a handful of murals — some more faded than others — on private walls along the river. Joerael’s is called Oñate’s Foot: A Vandal’s Catharsis.
Though still admired by some, the conquistador Juan de Oñate was responsible for the 1599 massacre at Acoma Pueblo, during which hundreds of men were killed, adolescent girls were sent to convents in Mexico, and other young people were forced into servitude. Oñate’s men cut off a foot of at least 24 Acoma men. In 1997, someone cut the foot off of a statue of Oñate in Alcalde, New Mexico. In Joerael’s mural, the anonymous vigilante is presented as a masked bandit against a rainbow-colored palette. Joerael says Oñate’s Foot isn’t “against the Spanish people at all,” but it addresses people in power and honors the freeing act of removing the foot from the statue.
“Since it’s right on the trail, we hear people talking about it all the time,” Johnson says. “They’re generally very enthused about it.”
His work, Joerael says, isn’t about gentrifying neighborhoods. In fact, Joerael works with community members who are going to look at the mural every day. “I try to knock on people’s doors if they are in direct line of the mural and talk to neighbors so they are not surprised. If people see me painting, I remain as approachable as I can so I can get to know them, listen to their concerns, and inform them of the content I am painting.”
In 2017, he painted a mura in Macon, Georgia, called Cultivating New Tones on the Spectral Stage of History. That state’s criminal code protects Confederate monuments from removal. So to counter that history of violence and bigotry, Joerael’s mural celebrates kneeling athletes, abolitionist and journalist Martin Delaney, Rosa Parks, and black Civil War soldiers. Prior to painting, Joerael held a meeting attended by a dozen black female athletes from Mercer University, which is located near the mural site. They gave him their blessing.
“I was fully aware of how awkward it may seem — being a white guy in the South, painting African Americans,” he says. “I will never know how that may look to this group of women who showed up to meet me, but I am grateful.”
Whenever Joerael travels to a new place, he seeks out the local graffiti. Whether he’s in Washington, D.C., or Bangkok, Thailand, he looks down alleys and up toward rooftops to find the telltale angles of hyper-characterized letters. He knows enough about the different styles and traditions of cities around the world to recognize what decade a particular piece might date to, or whether the artist was from out of town. He goes to train yards and stations to see the writing come and go (a practice known as “benching”).
It’s all connected. In a way that is both literal and symbolic to him. It’s all cars on the same train, all pieces painted on sections of the same wall. Out of this spirit comes Joerael’s most ambitious project: Mobilize Walls, an international effort to create a collection of murals, graffiti pieces, and land art that is longer than the Trump administration’s proposed border wall.
“Mobilize Walls is speaking the language of scale to create a decentralized international mural network to out-scale the proposed border wall and eventually the Israeli West Bank barrier and eventually all walls that are divisive, besides the ones we live in,” Joerael says. Using some hard-to-follow theoretical math, he has calculated that if everyone in the world has a place to live, then there are eight times as many walls in the world as people. It’s plenty of space for art to combat a culture of fear.
“Trump says all these people coming from Mexico are rapists and murderers and drug dealers, which they’re not. There are people like that there, but there are a lot of people like that in the United States. We build walls around them, too, as far as prisons go. That’s another form of walls that are divisive. They are institutionalized, like the border wall is.”
About 700 miles of border wall already exist, and the Trump administration has promised to build 400 to 500 more miles by the end of 2020. At this point, the two walls are pretty much running neck and neck. One hundred and twenty-four murals, artistic billboards, painted buildings, and other kinds of projects are now part of Mobilize Walls, in such locations as India, Thailand, Washington, New York, California, Arizona, and New Mexico — totaling about 1,200 miles and 58,204 square feet. Forty-four of the murals are Joerael’s, but anyone can participate, either by creating a mural and registering it at mobilizewalls.com or by donating wall space to the project. Photos of all of the murals can be viewed on the website.
The border wall is made of materials chosen for their longevity and meant to keep people out. In contrast, graffiti, murals, and street art are inherently impermanent. People paint over them; buildings get torn down. But Joerael doesn’t dwell on what comes and goes, or whether he wins this race. The impact is in the effort.
“I think about it this way: The mural is still under a layer of paint and the community has it in its memory,” he says. “You might not see the border wall, but it’s being built. And you know about it. And if it ever gets built, someday it will be gone. But it will be in the historical memory — the time this weird American president built a wall and demonized our neighbors.” ◀