An Interview with Artist Jairus Tonel

Posted on March 11, 2011 – 7:07 AM | by Admin
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By Tony King

It’s one of those slate grey nuclear winter-esque days in Sacramento, and Jairus Tonel has done the impossible: he’s managed to out-dapper the wait staff of The Shady Lady. Smartly kitted-out in a tie, dress shirt, designer jeans, a tan waistcoat and brown dress shoes, Tonel sips scotch through his ever-present smile.

The artist, 30, has quite a bit to smile about lately: group and individual art shows (both locally and in the Bay Area) abound. Add to this the attention Tonel’s received from Nike and Burton Snowboards, both of which have featured the artist’s work on their products. This is the kind of recognition – both critically and monetarily – every artist dreams of.

Tonel’s artwork mixes vibrant and colorful graphic elements, vintage cartoon and text to express whimsical, satirical and poignant messages to the viewer (imagine Jean-Michel Basquiat meets Francis Bacon meets Hanna-Barbara, and you begin to get the idea). One look at any of Tonel’s many works and it quickly becomes apparent that this artist has definitely found his voice. Tonel took time out from his studio to chat with Midtown Monthly about his art.

Midtown Monthly: When did you first start making art?

Jairus Tonel: I really can’t remember, man. I knew the first thing I ever drew was Robocop. It was the first movie I watched when I came to America.

MM: When was that?

JT: ‘86, maybe. I remember I didn’t speak a lick of English – well I did, kind of. My half-cousin took me to watch Robocop with his then fiancée, and I was like ‘This movie’s fuckin’ ridiculous, man!’ I just don’t think Robocop is something you should take a six or seven year-old to watch, especially one of his first American movies. Horrible, man. Horrible!

MM: So, you came to America in ’86 from where?

JT: Overseas. We’ll say the Philippines. I actually picked up English fairly quick. The irony of it all is that I went to a public school. When [the school administrators] enrolled me in elementary school, they thought I didn’t speak any English, so they enrolled me in ESL class. My Mother’s maiden name is Fernando, and in my culture, your middle name becomes your Mother’s maiden name. So the school mixed up the Scantron and thought my first name was Fernando, and for a good half a year they thought I was Mexican. You gotta love the public school system here, right?

MM: The art that you’re making now, when did that first start taking shape?

JT: I was always a big fan of Depression Era signs and typography. There is nothing sexier to me than an authentic porcelain sign. Anything from that era is sexy, man.

MM: Who or what influences your art?

JT: You know, other than the standard answer of ‘typography’ and all that junk, a lot of my painting results from hanging-out with my friends. The very little time that I do hang out with them, those are the best times because those are the moments where I get my best ideas.

MM: How would you describe your artistic style?

JT: I think I already know what I’m going to do – like 80% of it, but as far as style, I’m not sure. I like to think it’s as free as possible. My favorite painters around are the ones that I know don’t analyze what they’re doing. It’s just an extension of themselves.

MM: Who are some of your favorite painters?

JT: I like [Robert] Rauschenberg a lot. I would also have to say Basquiat. I like the aesthetics of Warhol – not so much his art, but the fact that he was a machine. Love, love Jasper Johns and Sigmar Polke. Those guys from the Tin Can Era – with De Kooning and all them – those guys really didn’t give a fuck.

MM: Did you go to school for your art, or are you self-taught?

JT: I went to The Rhode Island School of Design, from 1999 to 2003. I always wanted to experience a place where every person around me was into art. When you’re young and you’re just getting your teeth in it, it’s an exciting experience. But after the second or third year, it’s like ‘Goddamn, these people are privileged assholes!’

MM: What do you think of Sacramento’s art scene and who do you like here?

JT: I liked the scene six or seven years ago. I liked what Joe’s Style shop was doing. I liked what Mike Rodriquez was doing. I liked when Liz Donner opened up Fool’s Foundation, but we all know what happened with that; you can’t have a real art scene if the City doesn’t want to support it. I really like what Laura Edmisten is doing with her screen-printing. Also, John Fortes and Zach Barnes are amazing painters.

MM: Where have you shown your work?

JT: I always show at the Honey Salon, on 19th Street. I’ve shown at Kondos Gallery, Fools Foundation, Bows and Arrows, and Ritual and Mina in San Francisco. Other than that, I’ve just been putting up my own painting everywhere.

MM: Now that you mention it, what’s the idea behind the bathroom paintings? (Tonel has displayed his pieces – guerrilla-style – in restrooms.)

JT: I really hate hearing people say ‘I really love your stuff, but I just can’t afford it.’ I was thinking of several different ways to get my art into people’s hands, and I thought ‘Fuck it, I’m just going to do it this way.’ It’s all about making art more accessible to everyone. I’m going to do the Crocker and the MoMA next.

MM: Any shows coming up?

JT: There’s the group show at Bows and Arrows, Ark 221 in San Francisco and then the show at Phono Select [in May].

MM: Any parting words?

JT: Anybody can paint. Anybody. But if you can’t make it personal – if you can’t piss somebody off, or inspire them to go home and paint – then what’s the point? And once you put your painting out there, people own it; visually, mentally – they own it. The moment they start talking about it, it’s theirs. It’s no longer yours.

To see more of Jairus Tonel’s work, go to

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