MJ CHOPS IT UP WITH JERSEY’S RENOWNED GRAFFITI ARTIST LEON RAINBOW @Aerosoleon
Leon Rainbow is a Graffiti Artist and founder of Jersey’s biggest Hip Hop Festival, Jersey Fresh Jam. The festival was established in 2005 and has grown to be one of the most respected celebrations on the east coast of Hip Hop Culture and all of the elements. Each year Leon brings together aerosol artists from all over the world, indie and legendary emcees, deejays, and photographers. This annual celebration of Hip Hop is well known in the communities attended by babies, kids, adults, and families!
MJ: First and fore most I want to congratulate you on the continued success of Jersey Fresh Jam and making it a mission to celebrate the culture of Hip Hop. Share some history about the festival and how you came to play a major role in it.
LR: Thanks MJ. In 2005 one of my friends contacted me about painting at a warehouse he was working at. It was a young, hip company with big ideas and lots of blank walls. That is when I met Tom Tszaky, the CEO of the company Terracycle. This now Trenton based company was talking about worm shit like it was gold, and in a way it was. So they were taking worm shit, making a tea out of it, packaging it in recycled Pepsi bottles and selling it as plant fertilizer. Go to https://www.terracycle.com to find out more about the company. So when we met Tom, Will Kasso, Brandon Jones, and myself did a test wall. We have been painting the whole building ever since. It was important because it gave us a location to do classes, bring people from out of town to paint and throw events. Our first Jam was 15 graffiti artists from NJ, Philly, and NYC, a boom box and a few cases of beer. The first few years it was called the Terracycle Jam or The Worm Poop Jam until eventually we came up with Jersey Fresh Jam, a nod to the state’s agriculture campaign. Only we were growing a Hip Hop community. Things started out slowly and grew very organically. We started having music one year and that really made it into a festival. I still don’t know how it worked. I helped Pose 2 with Philadelphia’s Legendary BBOY BBQ and I just tried to create a similar quality event. It’s a little bit harder in Jersey because it’s a smaller market but we have made a name for ourselves and I am proud of what the event has become. Each year we try and do a little bit more and improve. Right now we have all 4 elements represented as well as vendors, and sponsors. It has evolved into a strong community Hip Hop event. We have had amazing artists like El Da Sensei, Cappadonna, and Masta Ace.
MJ: Take it back for our readers. How were you personally drawn into the art form of Graffiti? We hear so many stories of how emcees and deejays got their start, but it is very rare we get the history of Graffiti artists.
LR: When I was a kid Hip hop was big in the 80’s. I loved Rap, Deejaying, Breakin, and Graffiti and how it blew up on the scene. At the time I lived in San Jose, CA. Like many graffiti writers my first influences were books like Getting Up, Subway Art, Spray Can Art and the movies Style Wars, Wild Style, and Breakin. As soon as I saw Style Wars I was drawn to graffiti. Then I started tagging locally, Bus Hopping, as it was called at the time. We would cut class and steal markers and paint and tag the buses all over our city. Local influences were King 157, Picasso and Dare Wcf. In ‘92 I moved to New Jersey and graffiti was put on the back burner. I got into drinking and getting high. During that time, I just drew on paper in Black Books. I got clean and moved to Trenton, NJ in ‘97. I started going to school at Mercer County Community College for graphic design and walls in Trenton in 1999 and 2000. In 2003, I met Philly artists Pose 2, Joe Base, Sew and others. They really schooled me. I was doing it wrong, hahaha. There are certain things that are better learned from another artist than a book, magazine, or the internet.
MJ: I am curious to learn; do you dabble in any of other elements of Hip Hop? Does Leon rap? Your pieces of art offer a visual story with knowledge…I guess I answered my own question, but would love to hear it from you.
LR: Oh man when I was a kid I dabbled in Breakin. I have a lot of love for Dj’s and MC’s but I’m just not musically inclined. Rap and Poetry inspire me because the words are so visual but I only create visual art.
MJ: Hip Hop is for the kids! What is your reaction to that? How would you say Graffiti ties into that?
LR: Yeah Definitely. I always try and inspire the youth as much as possible. But I feel like sadly that they don’t want it. I guess with the internet things are so accessible. When I was coming up if you told me to stand on my head in the corner I would do it if I thought it would make me a better artist. Don’t get me wrong there are some young people that are passionate about Graffiti and Art. But as a whole not so much. I have done after school programming and workshops off and on for the last 15 years.
MJ: There is a plethora of unrecognized talent in Trenton, NJ mainly because of the reputation the city has. Do you think the festival is helping to diminish those stereotypes and spread positivity?
LR: Yeah. I feel that Jersey in general is just starting to get props. It is tough being between NYC and Philly. I think the city’s rep is what it is. It is a city that has crime. However, I believe that the graffiti and art scene in Trenton is spurring a lot of positive change. When the event started in 2005, the graffiti scene in Trenton was in its infancy. We had graffiti writers that came into town from Pennsylvania or North Jersey but we didn’t really have a tight knit community like we do now. Over the last 5–10 years’ people have been coming into the city mainly because of the arts and culture scene. There is great underground hip hop and rock scenes in this city, as well as a lot of talented artists both of my generation and those that came after me. I have a lot of love for the City of Trenton. It is a city of second chances and talent. The important thing that Jersey Fresh Jam has been is a melting pot. It has allowed us to bring in other artists, rappers, djs from all over, and showcase them to the public. It is truly a community event for people of all ages, races, colors! All just for the love of Hip Hop.
MJ: Talk a little bit about your own pieces and what they contribute to Hip Hop.
LR: For my fine art stuff I am working on a Dynamic Abstract series. They are brightly colored pieces that incorporate patterns and designs into cityscapes, characters, and scenes. For my graffiti, I try to be well rounded. Taking traditional styles, good letter structure, and color schemes and giving them my own twist. I like to do themed pieces where the background goes with the lettering and characters. I take a letter’s first approach. Basically, all the other elements support and exemplify the pieces.
MJ: As we wrap up is there anything else you would like to share?
LR: Go after your dreams, continue to improve yourself, get with people better than you that can school you, pay your dues and stay humble.
MJ: Much respect and continued success to you and Jersey Fresh Jam! Thank you for keeping the culture alive!