Ralf Jean-Pierre travels back in time to tour Jilly Ballistic’s street art of WWI gas masks and government imagery, work that questions social control and our current politics. Ballistic discloses the risks and rush of putting up work in the NYC subway system.
- I have a funny question,
these are all like traditional Polish dishes, right?
- Are there any dishes
that you guys invented here in Brooklyn
that aren't from Poland or is everything...
Oh you don't know, okay.
I'm just curious.
Two things you can almost always find in North Brooklyn,
a warm tasty pierogi and some inspiring street art.
I've got one,
so the other's bound to be right around the corner.
- [Jilly] I don't really feel like
there's anything really illegal about what I'm doing.
- [Ralf] Sure.
- [Jilly] Cause it's a reflection of our society.
And some people see it as art,
some people see it as an expression,
some people just see it as vandalism.
And there are all those gray areas in between.
When I do you put up a piece
there definitely is a lot of adrenaline.
That hasn't gone away over the years,
which is really interesting.
It's the same beautiful nervousness that you have.
It's like performance,
like equate it to like a performance on stage or something.
My hands still shake after each time.
- And that's, I know, I'm really proud when it gets up.
- So bad ass. - Yeah.
- Who's the bad-ass I'm talking to?
Infamous Renegade Brooklyn street artists, Jilly Ballistic.
How bad-ass is Jilly?
Jilly is so bad-ass we can't show you her face
and even that's bad ass.
Yeah, that's so bad-ass.
- [Jilly] I started street art back in 2010, 2011.
I found myself wanting to work in the subway.
I just loved the environment.
It's fast paced.
You can work with that environment 24/7.
You don't have to worry about the weather.
There's a little bit more of a risk cause there's cameras
and there's a lot of people.
I really dug that.
I kind of looked into wheat pasting,
which is you take an image
and you put it in site specific areas.
I just went on this deep dive of historical imagery.
And I think it was 2014
that I came across just this endless treasure trove
of government files of World War II, World War I
and just soldiers in gas masks, families in gas masks.
And I'm like, I have to use this.
And I just put it in our modern spaces.
And I just could not believe how well it worked
with our current political climate.
And it was just like, this is just something I have to use.
And that's how it started.
(dramatic upbeat music)
- There's some sort of like covert
I don't know the right word is like espionage.
There's some sort of like, get in, get out.
Nobody saw me.
I'm a Ninja.
I got put this work up.
And if the riskier sometimes sort of the better,
I feel like,
if I'm putting words in your mouth, please forgive.
But is that accurate?
- [Jilly] I think what takes the longest
is waiting for the right time to strike.
Literally, you're waiting for a moment where there's
the fewest people on the platform.
You don't want the train coming in and out of the tunnel,
you want, you kind of get a sense
of when's the right time to put the piece up
and then just walk away.
And putting the piece up just take seconds.
- And you really have to trust, really have to trust your
gut cause the platform will never be completely empty
or the train car will never be completely empty.
Then you have to kind of get a sense of who's there with you
and they're complete strangers
but you kind of get a sense of, okay
that'd be cool with me doing this.
You know, they're not a plain clothes cop or, you know.
- So there are some times
when you're just like retreat back, come back,
and we'll fight another day.
- [Jilly] Exactly.
You can't force it.
Otherwise it just won't go right.
- I guess it occurs to me that like
the danger part that there might be like the adrenaline part
is like as part and parcel,
like comes with the territory of doing the street art.
Like you're just accepting that there's a little bit
of danger and maybe that's sort of even goes
with maybe an idea that - I could be projecting this idea
or it's real - this idea of like kind of civil disobedience.
But I also feel like in everything I'm seeing,
even in like the small bits of like color and imagery used
like a very sharp sense of irony
and a very sharp like sense of humor.
Where's that coming from?
Is that an accident?
Is that very calculated on your part?
- [Jilly] I totally agree.
There's definitely there's an irony.
There's a humor to it.
There's a dark humor to it.
And I think that's,
I think that's parts of my personality coming through.
So that's part of the artist slipping in there
cause that's how I really approach every situation is
I know this is serious, but how can I also laugh about it?
Because I'll cry.
- Talk a little bit about being based here
in Greenpoint for so long.
I feel like Greenpoint is such a particular neighborhood
to live in,
like in its relationship to North Brooklyn
and what it means.
- Yeah, I was born and raised in Brooklyn.
So Brooklyn always is, yeah it's...
It's always my, it's always going to be my home
it's always be my borough, you know?
- Yeah, yeah, same I was also born here.
- All right man.
And I found Greenpoint cause it was affordable
and it was close to a train
which is what you want when you're right out of college.
It's like, okay, this is great.
There were some great dive bars.
The waterfront was dilapidated and I loved it.
It was just falling apart.
And like you had to like climb through fences
and you got to sit on something that was about to collapse.
It was dangerous as fuck,
but yes, it was just it was such a great time.
Just to... and there was like a ton of graffiti,
lots of tags, people practicing their throw ups and stuff.
The graffiti and the street art scene
is something I've always seen.
I've seen it rise.
I've seen it fall.
I've seen it change over time.
I've seen it become more mural focused than graffiti focused
over the years.
New York has always has that, that vibe of you can do it.
You can do it here.
You can make stuff here.
So it's, I think there's some energy about New York
that it wants people to create and to survive
and kind of New York forces you to live.
- [Ralf] Yes.
What was going on with you right before a pandemic broke?
- [Jilly] When March hit,
that's really when it got real in New York City
and everyone had to start quarantining
and I had to really adjust how I made work.
And since I worked and I still work in the subway
and the subway was kind of off limits back in March.
So I didn't really have to adjust my imagery
cause I worked with, I work with PPE,
I work with gas masks and face coverings and protection.
So I never, I didn't have to adjust the visuals of my work.
I just had to change where I put up my work.
And this was the beginning, like in March and stuff
and in March and April in New York City,
it was just the strangest surreal feeling on the street.
Nobody was out, it was just, it felt kind of hopeless.
And I'd never seen my city like that before.
And I would put up work
and I knew that putting up work,
it's like, no one's going to see it.
It was weird, but I still felt like I had to put up work.
- [Ralf] Did your situation change economically?
Or like, how are you normally getting by
and especially in this time?
- In terms of my job, I'd been furloughed.
So I'm on unemployment.
I will have to move out of this apartment at some point.
- [Ralf] How long have you been here?
- [Jilly] I've been in this apartment for over four years.
- [Ralf] Okay.
- [Jilly] Yeah, the company I'm working for
is hemorrhaging money.
They're not really making any money.
So I don't know if I'll be asked back.
So there's like a lot of things in limbo right now.
- [Crowd] Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter,
Black Lives Matter.
- [Ralf] Did your art sort of change
or alter in any way around
like the new resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement
when that started to pick up around
the murder of George Floyd?
- [Jilly] Yeah, it's also really unfortunate
how this work involves your respiratory system
involves a power dynamics.
I use a lot of children in my imagery
and just how they're forced into situations
there by the powers that they.
- [Ralf] And now having to go on.
Is that feeling like a new adventure?
Is that disappointing?
Like, are you taking that in stride
or are you still sort of coming to terms with it?
You know, that's just like New York,
it's like I've never lived in the same city twice.
That's what it feels like.
Even though I was born and raised here
you see it go through so many different changes and
- What a great way to put it, yeah.
- It's one chapter having been here for so long
that I'm going to be moving in with my partner.
So that's the positive part
and it's a new neighborhood to discover.
So I'm just going to embrace that I think.
- What is it about street art specifically
that somebody might miss that is for you?
Like you either would explain to somebody
or that you find people miss and don't get
about what street art is and why?
I almost feel sometimes that it's compulsive
that it's just like the city is calling you maybe,
I don't know.
- What's been happening since March
with like the Black Lives Matter movement
and defunding the police.
People are seeing the power of what the street can do.
And graffiti comes along with that.
And I think now people are being reminded
that the streets are, they are the people's voice.
And when you either gather on the street
or you write something on the street
or you make it, I mean, you make it public,
it's, there's some, there is some power to it.
As people just still continue being in the street.
You know, hopefully there's a new wave of street art.
That's what I'm hoping.
And it's not just decorating plywood on a storefront.
That's not really...
I would say we can, we can do better than that.
I saw an empty ad space on a platform off the L train.
I just happened to see it while I was commuting.
And I'm like, I knew right away
I wanted to work with that particular space.
From there, I just do a deep dive into what image
would fit comfortably in that space.
So it would work with it as though it's not overpower it
or just or dominate the space,
but look as though that figure was always meant to be there.
- [Ralf] Sometimes an artist is a decorator or designer,
who focuses on making spaces more beautiful,
more of a delight to our senses
and that's magical and wonderful.
We need that.
But sometimes an artist is also a soldier.
They fight on the frontier, the rest of us can't
or won't venture out to.
They fight to protect our streets, our values, our souls.
I salute those soldiers.
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