John Hairston, Jr.

Written by Ellen Gurley

an interview by Ellen Gurley 6.27.2012 /

810-jhairston-largeE: We met years ago, as we were both performing at a spoken word poetry event at the Visulite, Wordphoria. Do you still write?

JOHN: I still do ‘music’ every now and again.

E: You mean you still write hip-hop lyrics and perform (live) under the moniker “JaGO 13”, yes?
JOHN: Yes, from time to time (a couple of times a year). But I’m just John. Calling me JaGO is like calling Bruce Wayne Batman in mixed company, you can’t ‘do that’. That’s just ‘me’ when I’m in that certain environment. I become the colossal, bigger-than-life rapper, with my crew, Potter‘s Field.

E: I wouldn’t exactly characterize you as a starving artist, but would you say that you once were?
JOHN: Well it’s one thing to be able to sustain yourself on your craft and not have to ‘do’ anything else. It’s very much possible, but for me, I’ve always had a job (or two); something to fall back onto.

E: Speaking of starving, what do you ‘take from’ the phrase; ‘Stay hungry‘?
JOHN: It means not to become complacent. You have to keep a certain amount of discomfort in order to maintain focus; to keep producing. Whether that be psychological or emotional discomfort; for me that’s where I get my ‘fire’. The thing is that, I was a ‘funny’ looking little kid, raised primarily around white kids (i.e. being the butt of a lot of jokes). And for me, making music was going to be the way that I was going to show (you) that I ‘mattered’. And it still is ‘that way’, for me, with my paintings.

E: Who is more fun to paint - superhero or villain?
JOHN: They are two sides of the same coin. With the superhero, circumstances have put them into a place where they want to save people and with the villain (on the flip), circumstances have put them into a place where they want to destroy people. Everyday people have the potential to be either (walk that tightrope). And often times the villain has the more fascinating story. (So, it‘s like “Where did you come from?” “Why do you chose to be this way?” And his answer has to be more exciting that the superhero.) The hero is only as good as his villain.

E: Live art. You’ve been spotted doing this in dozens of venues in the past few months, Heroes Aren’t Hard to find Comics (, with your friend Shelton Drum, just to mention one alliance. Isn’t there a certain pressure that goes into live art (I felt it in an open mic freestyle)? Is this a welcomed pressure? Are you the type of person who works best with a fire under their rear or do you prefer to work on a piece in your leisure?
JOHN: If I work on something in my leisure then I could easily work on it off-and-on for about a year. That deadline, that pressure, that brings in the order through the chaos. When I was a kid, my biggest fear would be that someone would come up (as I’m painting something) and ask “What’s that supposed to be?”. And to shut them up, I would just do it as fast as possible, get in there, get out of there.

E: How far is too far in satire (political, social, religious) in regards to an artist “going there” to shock or evoke thought?
JOHN: Honestly, as far as satire goes, I don’t think you can ever (really) go ‘too far’. When I think about satire, I think about MAD Magazine. Basing your humor off of stereotypes and not off of (actual) facts, that’s not satire, that’s just being offensive to be offensive (shock value). As a visual artist, I’ve never tried to ‘offend’ anyone. (But it happens.) Regarding the painting I did of Trayvon Martin; I was depicting what ultimately ended his life. He was a young man going to the store and somebody thought that he was somewhere that he wasn’t ‘supposed to be’. I (just) painted it with ‘my take’ on what happened. (But) I would never attempt to rip apart a race of people over one’s person’s ‘screw-up’. End result is that I felt deeply for the fact that this little boy is dead and his mother will never see him again. Even that, what’s even ‘more real‘ than that is the fact that he was dead and in the morgue (with an I.D., mind you) for three days before his parents even heard from ‘anyone’. See what I’m saying, I feel deeply. This was someone’s baby. As far as feeling passionately about something, speak your mind, if there’s some truth to it, it won’t be empty.

E: People have gotten to where they can spot one of your pieces from a distance (giving you a certain brand recognition in the back of people’s minds). You’ve come into yourself, as a man and as an artist, in the time I’ve known you, and the community has begun to use your name on a daily basis, many are looking at your art in their homes; literally making you, by definition, a household name. How do you think you’ve evolved since the beginning?
JOHN: Wow, household name, that’s crazy. Thanks. That’s really cool. As long as it’s something that you can identify with, then I’m cool with that ‘back of mind‘ recognition. Look, all I know how to do IS what I do. I can’t paint in someone else’s style. I paint in a certain way (that I feel has ‘matured’ since I began.) I don’t hate my old pieces but they were definitely influenced by certain things that are ‘yesterday’. And I say to myself, how can I bridge the gap from yesterday to today. And continue to evolve. I listen more than I talk, because while I‘m (sitting there) running my mouth, I could be learning something. Change is always constant. Because we are our own worst critics, that means that there’s always room for improvement (somewhere). So regardless of whether you are satisfied with something you have done (at that time), you need to always continue to bridge that gap (between what you have done and what you would like to). I try to remember to always be consistent (in regards to the ‘household name’), if anyone continues to do the thing that they are passionate about, then people will begin to ‘know you’ for that. I would never ‘take that to my head’, though, because the minute you do that, that’s the minute you stop learning and you start resting on your accomplishments.

E: So, you believe in being a constant student? To whom have you turned to for that guidance?
JOHN: Above all, John Hairston, Senior has instilled in me a great work effort (and a lot of people ‘miss out’, in that regard, you can see it, too, it shows). I was blessed to have someone to just tell me (bottom line); “You’re not special, you’re not any better or any worse than anybody else.” “You have to get out there and ’do what you do’ (bust your butt).” “If you want to be anyone in life, you have to do an exceptional job.” “Don‘t slouch.” “Have direct eye contact.” “Playtime is playtime, when it’s time to work, you work.” (Now, my grandfather, he was the painter. My mother, my mother, she was the dreamer, she was the one who read comic books.) There’s always room for more learning (even after high school and college). As far as being a constant student, that’s a part of the whole human experience.

E: Let’s talk giving back. I get the vibe that you feel as though the community has given you an enormous amount of love and you feel thankful and are humbled by that reception (yes, you’re transparent) and now you seem to be driven to return that warmth. What’s your way of doing this?
JOHN: Other than being involved in shows curated for charity (which I do), I just want to contribute to the community, be that bringing my art somewhere that’s it’s never been seen before or getting in front of children and sharing the experience with them. I had cartoonists that I looked up to (role models) when I was a child (going to conventions meeting guys that drew comic books) and I would be foolish not to pass my craft onto someone else, as well. If I’m able to exist in this world as an artist and nobody can ’take anything’ from what I’ve done, then I’m a failure. It’s not about how many paintings you can sell, how dope or photo realistic they are or how large you make them, it’s about making an impression.

E: What’s up with the constant, reoccurring theme of the pandas? Is that your doppelgänger?
JOHN: I love pandas. Is that me? Yes, everything is ME; even the medusas. I can identify with all of my paintings. Pandas, though, to me, are just a really enlightened creatures. All they do (pandas) is sit and ‘chill’ and they eat bamboo (which goes down hard, like life). They’re cute and fluffy. But they can kill you. And we are all ‘that’. We can look adorable, but can also devour your face. Powerful but peaceful. There was a story I read once of a man who had a bunch of pandas, in China (he was their master). And when he got old and died, he was cremated and the Pandas all sat together crying and hugging the ashes (rubbing their eyes and holding each other). They’re a very noble animal. I love that story so much. (It’s dope.)

E: Do you have any haters? Students? Biters?
JOHN: Haters are basically people who could being doing something more constructive (with their time) but opt not to. I’m like ‘your talk is just talk, you’re not going to derail me or anything’. I just try to be consistent, in my actions. If you’re ‘hating’ on me because you’re not doing what you’d like to be doing, then go out and do something to better your chances. Wishing ill will on someone else, that shortcoming is counterproductive. People can hate on me, if they elect to, but talk is just talk. I wish them well and go on my merry way. There are people doing ‘way better’ than myself. How can I be mad at someone who is ‘eating off of their artwork’? I don’t ‘hate’ on them, I say to myself ‘what can I do to get there?’ and I make goals to surpass that. As far as students, if someone wants to know how I created something, I will happily tell them what I did to achieve it and if it works for them good, if not, oh well. Most importantly I remind them that, regardless of how self-conscious they are about what they’re doing, I tell them ‘you’re up here painting and nobody else is’, period. I can point you in a certain direction. I’m not going to hold all my resources to myself. This is a community and without that, what do we have? We’re a family and we have to operate like one (a network). That’s what we do. As far as biters, there are a few people who have done some similar things and instead of getting mad, I say to them ‘if you’re having luck doing that, then do that, more power to you’. Their stuff will still have something different (their life experiences) that they are bringing to the table. It’s not going to be ’the same’, we all have different experiences. No reason to get mad. Is it going to ‘work’ for them? We’ll see. It just means that something I have done has effected somebody so much, that they went from having no identity to trying to bite mine. I try to see it as flattery. I had to come to ‘this’ on my own. I want to see them ‘take it’ somewhere that I couldn’t. Impress me. If you want to take my style, then WOW me with it. Make me want to step up my game a little bit. Keep me hungry.

E: Do you prefer; the city or country?
JOHN: The city is where the influence comes from and the country is where you find peace of mind. You can’t have one without the other.

E: Chess or checkers?
JOHN: Checkers is a game; something you play to pass the time (not much thought goes into it). CHESS, now that’s life (in general). That’s strategy.

E: Apples or oranges?
JOHN: They’re the same.

E: Gospel or rock-n-roll?
JOHN: Rock-n-roll is the blues, that’s worldly, I can get into and get my influences from that. Gospel is celestial; gospel is what they ‘sell’ you to teach you about the pearly gates… that’s all later. Rock-n-roll is VERY right here, right now. That teaches you how to live now. The worldly is what I need. I’m not going to sit here and talk with you about something that someone is guessing about. We haven‘t ‘been to the other side‘, we are here. We know about this, we can control what happens today. I don’t want my head in the clouds. Gospel is something you dream about. Rock-n-roll is what you live.

E: John, thanks, and everyone is looking forward to your monthly illustrations in MY CITY Magazine.

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