At 11:04 p.m. on February 12, 2015—all of twenty-five hours before Valentine’s Day—Twitter started going off.
Like Beyoncé and Radiohead before him, Aubrey Drake Graham had just dropped a new album without much more than a whisper of warning. It was called If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late, and it was, like everything Drake touched in 2015, an instant smash hit.
The songs were great, particularly the moody, anthemic “Know Yourself,” but true to the Drake experience, the songs were never the whole point. As the internet picked the thing apart—was it a mixtape or a real album? Was it released only to facilitate his exit from his Young Money contract? How many more songs about his mom was he going to write?—there was one thing that fascinated everyone: the cover art.
Apart from a tiny Tarot-esque prayer-hands emoji at the bottom and a requisite parental advisory warning label, the cover was just seven unpunctuated words written in black on a white background, arranged into four lines, slanting downwards as they made their way from left to right, walking a crooked line between the uncontrolled scribblings of a child and the highly intentional creations of a deranged, brutalist-inspired calligrapher. It was the sort of handwriting you’d expect on a note from a psychopathic killer, perhaps written with his left hand to throw off the Feds. And the message—particularly the “too late” aspect to it—seemed to back that up. Was it a subliminal diss to Birdman, Drake’s estranged label head? Or, in the classic Drake-onian style, a kiss off to an ex (or, possibly, several exes)?
As it turns out, what it was, first and foremost, was Jim Joe.
Who Is Jim Joe?
I’d been seeing Jim Joe’s work in the alleys and streets of Montreal since 2010 and running a Tumblr devoted to his work since not long after that. Watching my favourite graffiti artist introduce himself to the world on one of the most high-profile releases of 2015 was as pleasing as it was unexpected—the odd experience of coming across Jim Joe’s name in the storm of online content about the album, the sudden sense of recognition at the starkness of the handwriting.
It was a new style for him, but something about it fit instantly. It felt like a kind of promise: that weird writers could toil in obscurity only to blossom on the big stage, that doing what you did and doing it well could garner the right kind of attention, that it was possible to have success on your own terms.
But almost seven years later, the man behind the handwriting is still a mystery, and it’s arguable that he isn’t exactly experiencing success at all, let alone on whatever his terms are. He is, for all intents and purposes, still nobody. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page (yet), despite his name appearing in the pages of W magazine and the New York Times, and online at High Snobiety, Juxtapoz, and The Fader, as well as at Complex on multiple occasions, and in a veritable slew of NYC blogs. He even merited a glossy (albeit brief) profile in Saturdays Magazine in 2017. A member of Kanye West’s creative team probably uploaded an old picture of him to Instagram in September 2015, but that’s the sole full-face shot that’s currently known to exist, alongside a bunch of half-hidden appearances he’s made that seem to confirm that he’s a skinny white guy.
His real name isn’t public, nor is where the name Jim Joe came from. (The title of one of his gallery shows, “WHAT DOES IT MEAN AND HOW DID YOU CHOOSE IT,” may be a winking reference to the question.) Despite the amount of work he’s done in New York City and his connection to Drake’s Toronto, he claims to be from Montreal. He almost certainly attended McGill University there in 2009, meaning he’s likely in his 30s, but, short of a real name, any detail about him must be considered an educated guess at best.
Less a matter of speculation is the fact that, in a few short years, he went from being the most omnipresent graffiti writer in New York City (or, at least, in the East Village and Lower East Side) to probably the hottest visual artist in the rap game, and then, nothing. Receding into the background in a way only the truly anonymous can.
It’s a fascinating story, frankly. How does someone create the most iconic rap album cover of the past decade and yet remain a complete cipher? Who is he, and what is he doing now?
But let’s start elsewhere. Why care about someone like this before the Drake cover? Graffiti is one of the least respected forms of art in the world, a public nuisance people pay to erase from their property, an infection that won’t go away no matter how many times it’s painted over.
But it’s simple, and I know it because I’m not the only one. The truth is, Jim Joe is—was?—special.
The Humble Beginnings
If street cred—respect from the common fan, the absence of doubt from a performer’s narrative arc, the reality that an artist’s artifice is so fake it seems real—is the currency of the rap world, then another hip-hop pursuit, graffiti, has a rough equivalent: ups.
Ups means you put in work. Ups means you’ve been taking risks. Ups means you’ve been up late making your way through back alleys, climbing things that weren’t meant to be climbed, finding your way into buildings where you don’t belong so as to access their rooftops. Ups doesn’t mean you’re good—it means you’re all over the place. For graffiti artists—writers, in the parlance—ups is literal, physical, concrete proof that you live your work.
The more ups you have, the more work you’ve put in, the more cred you have in, and on, the streets. Every lamppost, there you are. Every streetcar, there you are. Every brick wall, you, you, you. Your name rings out in the arena, your enemies undone in a blizzard of fat markers, big cans, and aerosol pssssshes.
Beginning in 2009 in the snowy rues and avenues of Montreal, home of his purported alma mater, McGill University, and then graduating to the avenues and alleyways of Brooklyn and Manhattan, an artist named Jim Joe started getting, as they say, mad ups.
Buildings and rooftops, doorways and New York’s signature roll-down gates, lampposts and fence posts, mailboxes and bus stops, garbage and particle board, newspaper boxes and phone booths, stop signs and fire hydrants, dumpsters and bathrooms, trucks and vans and construction equipment—any solid surface seemed to be game. There’s even Jim Joe on the road. By sheer dint of his omnipresence, his tags have made it into pop culture—keen eyes can spot a Jim Joe on TV (30 Rock, Louie), in music videos (“The World (Is Going Up In Flames)” by Charles Bradley), and in film (The Big Short). Some of his tags even got archived by Google Maps before they were wiped away.
Eschewing the tell-tale visual complexity of the graffiti artist, from the beginning, Jim Joe sought another form of complexity—a lyrical one. Where other writers strive to outdo one another with more complex handstyles, more overwrought tags, more colourful throwups, Jim Joe kept his style relatively simple—one colour only and no unnecessary zig-zagging or criss-crossing.
From his inception, Jim Joe had a few different styles. One was a cursive, signature-like one, a scribble you’d expect to find in the lower right corner of a cheque, or an oil painting. He had a face whose features, when closely examined, turned out to spell his name, a little trompe l’oeil trick of a tag. And he had just plain JIM JOE in blocky capitals. Even your grandparents could read it.
Over time, those blocky capitals edged out the other two fancier tags, though he seemed to shift their exact style every six months or so. They’d slant forward, then fall back. The E would change, or the J would shimmy a bit and start looking like a U, or lose its curl—I’ve seen people online ask who Vim Voe was before.
For Jim Joe devotees—who came together on Tumblr and Instagram to discuss his art and share photos—the styles could be studied like a cross-section of bedrock, a relic from history that told a tale about its unfolding. Or perhaps they represented periods, as Picasso’s Blue. But all of this would be academic if not for what he was writing.
Jim Joe’s Street Poetry
Put simply, his best work was poetry: a Jenny Holzer-esque mad verse that obeyed no rhyme or reason—nor copyright law. Appropriative from the very beginning, one of the first Jim Joes I saw, long before I knew his oeuvre would be one I’d come to study for the next decade, in an alleyway off Montreal’s quiet De Maisonneuve Boulevard, just said: CALL ON ME / BY / JIM JOE.
“Call On Me”—a one-line dance number whose throbbing beat and pure simplicity make it more of a Platonic form of a song than a real track—is an interesting pick, disputed as its authorship is. Some claim it’s originally by DJ Falcon and Thomas Bangalter, the latter one half of Daft Punk. Others know it for its release as an Eric Prydz single. As I read through a YouTube thread trying to determine who was its true genitor, I was convinced by both viewpoints alternatingly. In the end, I realized, it didn’t matter. In the streets, it was by Jim Joe.
Many of his early works replicated the “by Jim Joe” formula; one tag in the Montreal Metro had him as the creator of Raw Power, the Stooges’ infamous 1973 LP. But, as time passed, he dropped the “by” and began simply incorporating context-free quotes, like a Bob Dylan lyric or a Dirty Pretty Things line, dropping all pretence of punctuation, even the hyphen. Some quotes he cut off, some had multiple sources. Yet more of his writings turned up nothing upon Googling—they sounded like snatches of dialogue he might have overheard wandering around, a sort of one-man Overheard in New York: SUCCESS IS EASY; I WEPT ON AN AIRPLANE TODAY; ITS COLD IN THE D.
Of course, though he’s name-checked Marcel Duchamp, the art world’s favourite thief, in interviews, he was more than just other people’s quotes. Since the beginning, his words—sprayed on subway walls or across the tops of buildings, written in marker on lampposts, mailboxes, furniture left by the curb, even in sidewalk chalk—had played with the notion of the writings we expect to see in public spaces, particularly copywriting from advertisements and public service announcements. Works like “1-800-JIM-JOE” and giant swooshes with “JUST DID IT JJ” appended in place of the familiar Nike logotype were common for him, exhibiting both a playfulness and a thoughtfulness about the role of graffiti.
Often, he appended years to the end of his tags, dating them as would an artist on a painting or a gallery curator. Even these couldn’t escape his penchant for rule-breaking, though, as he frequently used them to time travel—dropping dates both a year or two ahead of or behind the actual date of the tag’s creation—so frequently that eventually the only way to tell when a tag was from was to study the style of his letterforms.
Though naked tags—just “JIM JOE,” nothing else—represented the majority of his work (if you’re going to get the kind of ups Jim Joe was getting in 2011 and 2012, when Gothamist noted “it is hard to look at just how much of the city he’s managed to get his ink on and not be at least a little impressed” and called him “one of the most omnipresent taggers in Lower Manhattan,” you can’t treat every single tag as a grand statement), what drew his fans to his work was the words he appended with regularity.
In addition to quoting others, he used them to be playful (one early one said “NOT LONG IS HOW LONG THIS TAG TOOK ME”), or meta (“MY LEAST FAVORITE JIM JOE,” read one winkingly self-deprecating tag), or to explore his predilection for tweaking pat sayings into pithy turns of phrase (“DON’T JUST DO SOMETHING STAND THERE”). His favourite words tended towards the prosaic—working, sleeping, and walking were his go-to verbs, and “please,” “OK,” “God,” and “asshole” recurred frequently—but there was a beautiful unpredictability to his writing. He was the class cut-up, always trying to recast the constants, always trying to undermine the mundane for a cheap laugh.
In addition to the fact that it was hard to tell what, exactly, his pieces meant, making them a sort of Rorschach test, you never knew what the next Jim Joe you saw was going to say, and in that way, seeking new ones out became a fun game of discovery. As several different Jim Joe fans I interviewed while writing this piece pointed out, his tags turned the city into a sort of urban treasure hunt.
Walking The Line Between Street Art and Graffiti
Even though Jim Joe’s sheer ups earned him street cred with blogs, his text-centric, lo-fi handstyle earned him few fans in the graffiti community.
Though he came up in a city with a long and storied history when it comes to spray paint, where there are art galleries devoted solely to graffiti and something called Mural Festival every summer, in the streets, Jim Joe’s work never seemed to show up in conjunction with other Montreal writers’ tags, as it would later in NYC. Rather than running with a crew, as many serious graffiti artists do, he was a lone wolf, his slight tags fighting to be seen through the haze like all the others.
Part of the apparent disconnect from any Montreal scene might be down to a simple point: what he’s doing isn’t exactly graffiti. Though the average passerby would be likely to label it as such, graff scholars might be more likely to call it street art.
In essence, where graffiti is insular, seeking to impress other graff writers with its omnipresence and technical skill, street art is more interested in using public spaces as a platform to communicate a message to the public travelling through those spaces—a truth about life, about the artist themselves, about the space in question, or some combination thereof.
A good rule of thumb is that if your grandparents would appreciate it, it’s street art, not graffiti; though, ironically, businesses and municipal governments often hire graff writers to create street art for them in the form of murals. Indeed, street artists often start out as graff writers, and people often create both coincidentally, but given the near mutually exclusive hallmarks of the two genres, it’s rarer to see work that has a foot clearly planted in both worlds.
Banksy, perhaps the world’s most famous street artist, often incorporates graffiti into his work, but his work is unquestionably street art. With Jim Joe, it’s harder to say. What other graffiti artists are making use of negative space like this?
Jim Joe, by merging a largely readable handstyle, a penchant for street poetry, and a relentless drive to tag, was creating something that wasn’t exactly either, and the tension between the genres produced something fascinating. Was he a really bad graffiti artist, or a graffiti-influenced street artist? Did he himself see his work in those terms?
The Beginnings Of Jim Joe’s Art World Cred
In the late 1970s, before he became an international art celebrity famous for his text-stuffed paintings, Jean-Michel Basquiat was a New York City graffiti artist. He went by the moniker SAMO—short for “same ol’ shit”—and he tagged Manhattan walls with pseudo-philosophical political messages: things like “SAMO©… 4 THE SO-CALLED AVANT GARDE” and “SAMO©… AS AN END TO THE 9-TO-5, WENT TO COLLEGE, NOT 2-NITE HONEY BLUES.”
Eventually, he ditched the practice (“SAMO© IS DEAD,” read one tag) and the latter portion of his career saw him thronged by millionaire collectors and art-world celebrities like Andy Warhol.
It’s hard to know how intentionally Jim Joe was following in Basquiat’s footsteps, but before long he, too, started to attract the attention of the more graffiti-conscious end of the city’s art elite. Gallery shows at The Hole followed: first with other writers in May 2011 and then solo shows in June 2012 and January 2014, as well as one in Paris and one in Toronto.
Jim Joe’s gallery work turned out to be a mixed bag. He expanded on several tropes of his wall work, retaining his low-fi drawing style and his habit of borrowing from instantly recognizable imagery (his favourites, the Nike swoosh and his stripped-down line drawing of Mona Lisa, made regular appearances) without venturing too much into territory where he would have less sure footing. Apart from da Vinci’s most famous painting, his street work had occasionally incorporated a winking relationship to the art world—once, he tagged a tree like a gallery work, and one garbage piece was a discarded canvas with, apparently, a better painting on the back.
Still, his early gallery work, if devoid of serious missteps, wasn’t generating much buzz. Was this the same artist that a Purple Magazine write-up had called “pure raw talent” in 2012? It seemed to suffer, as the work of street artists and graff writers often does when transplanted away from the street, from its new, less fraught context: absent the illegality of the work, was it still any good? Or, put another way, if a graffiti writer spray paints something, and nobody gets mad about it, can it have any value? If the medium was an important, inextricable part of the message, how would the message fare in a completely new, desaturated medium?
In 2010, comments on a subwayartblog.com post had labelled him “the worst writer in NYC” and “Jim Joke,” and a few years later, he was the target of similar disses from a different type of critic—see articles like “Tagger Jim Joe Pretends to be an Artist @ The Hole NYC.” But while none of his gallery fare took off online the way his funnier tags had, this period was far from a step back for Jim Joe. He continued to plaster the streets and alleyways of New York, and his work began to pop up in places more than a bus ride away from his alma mater: Las Vegas, Rome, Berlin, even in the Catacombs in Paris. Meanwhile, a seeming sponsorship deal with KRINK markers and collaborations with an urban fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, helped bolster his burgeoning image as an aloof, enigmatic, artistic bad boy.
Despite the detractors, by 2013 the rest of the world seemed like it was beginning to buy what Jim Joe was selling. And luckily for him, he was about to make some real connections with another group of ultra-famous artists interested in, above all else, words and quotes.
How Jim Joe Got Big In The Rap Game
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Joe was able to garner fans in the rap world.
The two artforms are, if not brothers, at least cousins, both kin from the four corners of the hip-hop world, along with breakdancing and DJing. In fact, graffiti scholar Anna Waclawek posits that since rap’s inception, graffiti has been used as a visual signifier of its sonic uniqueness everywhere from album covers to movie posters to advertisements, a marriage of style and sound that seems to exist as much in corporate America’s conception of Black culture as in actuality.
While rhythmic, rhyming writings and writing on other people’s property both share long histories dating back to the inception of speech and writing, respectively, the modern incarnations of rap and graffiti both trace their lineage to African-Americans and Latinx culture in 1970s New York.
And, in part because of where they come from, for many years they were kept to the margins of American culture, demonized by white middle- and upper-class Americans as forms of creation more degenerate than genius, more rule-breaking than real art.
(And, of course, they both tend to be pursuits that glorify straight male braggadocio; but while they both tap into it and create avenues for it, as a corollary they also both often exclude women and queer people, narrowing the scope of what is said, and by whom.)
But to those in the in-groups of either culture, it’s not hard to see why a creator of one might see a creator of the other as a peer. And to be honest, it’s not like Jim Joe wasn’t dropping hints.
When I asked him where his inspiration came from in an email interview for Concordia’s student newspaper The Link in 2010, his response was typically cryptic (and clearly poking fun at the interview process): I CLOSE MY EYES, OPEN MY BOOK AND POINT AT SOME WORDS. THAT’S USUALLY HOW IT WORKS.
The upshot of his apparently scattershot approach was that a lot of rap lyrics made their way into Jim Joe tags—Chief Keef and Lil Wayne among others, but mostly Drake lyrics. It’s not hard to imagine him listening to the moody tracks as he made his way around New York after dark, the unrelenting forward momentum of the brags and the beats propelling his aerosol hand.
In rap terms, his first big break came in 2013 when Kanye tapped him for some illustration work through DONDA, his creative team—likely through the late Virgil Abloh, a Kanye-affiliated designer Jim Joe had worked with on the stunt clothing line Pyrex Vision.
Though West didn’t use Jim Joe’s cover as the final Yeezus artwork, opting instead for the non-art of the see-through sleeve with the red square, a classically Jim Joe-esque rendition of the infamous ski mask portrait from West’s infamous New York Times interview—when he compared himself to Steve Jobs—took up visual landscape on the album’s iTunes page.
At the time, Kanye was a lightning rod in the rap world, and it wasn’t hard to find people taking notice whenever he tried something new. Drake, expert borrower that he is, was next in line. Where Yeezy had only given Jim Joe a feature verse, if you will, adapting his talents to Kanye’s vision, Drake brought him on in more of a co-producer role, devoting the entire cover of If You’re Reading This to Jim Joe’s vision.
The cover was pure Jim Joe, showcasing not just his work and his style, but also spotlighting his primary mode of communication: enigmatic, faux-deep phrases clipped of context, done up in his jerky, angular handstyle. It was also a significant departure from the typical, gaudily over-Photoshopped rap mixtape cover art aesthetic; the starkness of the If You’re Reading This cover reiterated that less really is more. While the songs were quickly embraced and added to the Drake canon—future ghostwriting rumours be damned—the cover alone was an overnight hit.
The release seamlessly introduced Jim Joe to the Drake meme-o-sphere, as reworkings of the titular phrase quickly began to pop up on everyone and their mother’s Instagram feeds and Tumblr timelines. Font nerds created free, downloadable versions of the font and web nerds created “create your own Drake album cover” sites that would dress up whatever you typed in in Jim Joe’s stark, off-kilter scribble. Today, on Etsy, you can buy birthday cards or credit card covers riffing off the design, or cloth COVID masks reading “If you’re reading this, you’re too close.” Elsewhere, you can find hoodies that say “NO INFLUENCE” and hyper-niche bartender humour T-shirts: “If you’re reading this, put the vermouth in the fridge.” The handwriting style even migrated, sans “if you’re reading this,” onto T-shirts with body-positive phrases like “fat icon.” It’s an enduring look that’s lasted so long it’s no longer even really attached to anything, a direct result of an artist deeply uninterested in suing anyone for intellectual property violation.
For a few years following the album drop, Jim Joe’s presence in the rap world pantheon seemed cemented. He did the If You’re Reading This-era merch and tour visuals. His work was making regular appearances on Drake’s Instagram, and other rappers wanted some of the magic: mere days after Travis Scott name-dropped him in the same breath as Basquiat in an interview with Canadian music nerd extraordinaire Nardwuar, Pusha T dropped an album that went so far as to namecheck him in the opening bars of the song “Got ‘Em Covered”:
The flow plays limbo courtesy of Timbo
Strip it down nigga, Jim Joe
Lest anyone doubt this Jim Joe was the Jim Joe in question, Pusha stopped by Genius.com to annotate the track himself: “Jim Joe is an artist. His style is very minimal. I was introduced to him through Kanye.” An unverified annotation adds, “Jim Joe is an artist known for his very basic, stripped-down font.”
Where Did Jim Joe Go?
If Jim Joe’s career has had one constant, it’s been change.
His home city has changed. His handstyle has been constantly evolving. His medium has shifted and expanded. He’s always been faced with the problem of the temporary quality of his work: his tags always being painted over by anti-graffiti crews, or tagged over by other writers, or even tweaked to insult him (an early detractor turned giant JIM JOE tags into RIM JOBs; I’ve also seen at least one turned into a JIM JOKE). And that’s just the spray paint and marker ones—some were even more fleeting. His chalk writings were washed away by the rain; his works on pieces of trash have all been picked up, whether by art collectors or, more often, garbage collectors.
Then there were the ways in which his writing was rearranged by the city itself. A “SLEEP JIM JOE” tag on three consecutive “Post No Bills”-style panels would get jumbled up so it read “IM JOE EP J SLE;” a “SOLO SHOW” might become “SHOW SOLO;” a separate letter on a string of six garbage cans would end up showing “J M JOE,” the “I” turned around or lost to history.
As a reaction to that reality, he’s had to settle for a constantly forward-looking approach. (As he told me in our 2010 email interview, “I RARELY SEE THE MAJORITY OF TAGS I DO AFTER I DO THEM AND BECAUSE OF THIS I HAVE LEARNED TO EMBRACE EPHEMERALITY. THE PHOTOGRAPHS BECOME THE WORK.”) So why shouldn’t he be able to continue to blossom and flourish, working with the crème de la crème in one of the most vibrant, culturally energizing art forms out today?
Of course, there’s a bit of a hiccup here, because if his career has had a second constant, it’s been his anonymity. So little about Jim Joe has permeated out to the culture at large—in large part because he’s closely guarded his identity even as he’s become more and more famous—to the point that his secrecy and the lengths he’ll go to preserve his anonymity constitute a major chunk of what we know about him.
The mystery has also made me ask myself things like: What if Jim Joe is a collective rather than a single person? What if Jim Joe is a Dread Pirate Roberts-like conceptual graffiti/street artist identity passed from one torchbearer to another over the years? Or what if Jim Joe isn’t a man at all? Some tags—“MAN BOY,” “I AM NOT HIM,” and “I AM NOT A MAN”—gesture in this direction. And is there not something queer, in a Halberstamian sense, about this refusal to embrace one’s success in the mainstream, always skulking around and doing your thing at night, in secret?
On the flip side, over the years, that familiar sense of dread crept into my thoughts on occasion: If he is indeed a man, what if he’s … for lack of a better term … bad? Uncritical fandom of men is a dangerous business, after all, and the details we have about him don’t necessarily suggest someone who cares a lot about others. The lone wolf graffiti artist is someone whose M.O. is to break rules, often inconveniencing and annoying those around him. His refusal to communicate—with me or others I spoke with—other than in cryptic, all-caps sentences is only so far removed from the dictatorial vibes far too many successful male artists give off. Would it surprise anyone to discover someone like this had left behind a trail of hurt and harm?
Of course, accusations of anything concrete would likely be easy to find. Around Jim Joe, though, there’s mostly just a confusing, staticky silence. While holding tight the reins on details of your own identity is a trick that many artists have used to bolster their ascensions to stardom (The Weeknd, for instance, refused interviews for the first few years of his career) or elongate one’s career by keeping the baying hounds of fame at bay (rapper MF DOOM, whose all-caps style Jim Joe likely owes a debt to, wore a mask for all his public appearances for decades prior to his 2020 death), becoming famous without anyone knowing even your name, let alone your age, birthplace, and so forth, might not even be possible anymore. How big could Jim Joe conceivably get without his real identity being exposed? Or, on the flip side, how much longer before someone (a disgruntled hater, an overeager fan) lets slip his true identity?
Of course, I myself do know his real name. I learned it not from high-tech sleuthing and going down digital rabbit holes, but the old-fashioned way—from a friend of a friend. But what good is that knowledge, to me or anyone? His identity remaining a secret is an opportunity for us to get something more unusual. Who among us would out Batman, knowing that the world would be left with only a beleaguered Bruce Wayne from here on out? And yet who among us, knowing Batman’s true identity, wouldn’t want to tell someone, to tell everyone? Or at least to drop hints?
It’s a temptation I push against in this very piece—trying to lay out the facts in a way that paints a complete portrait of his enigma without letting slip one detail too many. So often, carefully guarded secrets are blown to smithereens by people in love as much with the mystery of an artist as they are with the work; writing this, it was hard not to recall the way food writers could ruin secret hole-in-the-wall joints simply by alerting the general public to their existence. There’s something about the way people aren’t able to help themselves—they simply have to write about a cool secret, they simply have to flock to check it out. Some cats can’t be put back into bags; so many things in life genuinely are better left undisturbed.
BUT I DONT WANT TO MAKE A PAINTING
The Strange Beauty of Jim Joe’s Uncompromising Approach
Still, the best way to stay anonymous is to be uninteresting. Maybe that’s something Jim Joe began to understand. Starting in about 2013, he had a really strong half-decade or so run. He did the alternate Yeezus artwork, the Drake cover, and all that OVO merch. He was namedropped a handful of times by rappers you’ve heard of. He did design work and music videos for artists you haven’t. He collaborated with a marker brand and a clothing brand. He had a handful of shows at New York’s The Hole gallery, one in Toronto, and his work on a car appeared at FIAC 2018 in Paris. There was even a limited-edition carpet in 2019.
But the 2020s haven’t seen much by way of Jim Joe. While my NotJimJoe Tumblr account inbox used to be a popular destination, with user-submitted pictures of new tags appearing every few weeks or months from 2012 to 2017, its relative quietude as of late feels like a proxy for Jim Joe’s diminishing street presence. Despite the mainstream success he enjoyed in the late 2010s, submissions have slowed to a trickle in recent years. I only got one in 2020, none in 2021, and none so far in 2022.
Of course, there’s nothing especially surprising about an artist shifting media as they become more successful—not least when what got you there could, in theory, mean fines or jail time. But if Jim Joe is done with tagging, he doesn’t exactly seem to be launching himself into anything else, either. There was a Zoom video class for a Harvard design course during the early days of the pandemic, and he contributed, apparently, to Virgil Abloh’s final Louis Vuitton show, S/S2022, prior to Abloh’s untimely death from a rare form of cancer in the fall of 2021. It seems likely that he’s spent at least some time at Kanye’s Sunday Service thing in Calabasas, but, as one person I spoke to said, a lot of people have collaborated with Kanye. Sure, he’s still tweeting cryptic phrases, but you can schedule those things in advance, and they don’t take a ton of work to write. So, what exactly is he doing with his time?
Perhaps a more salient question than “Where did he go?” is “Why do I care so much?” When I first encountered a Jim Joe tag in 2010, he was nobody and, by every metric I can think of, he essentially still is. There’s no Wikipedia page; no biographical details; no fawning, sprawling magazine profiles. He also expressly wanted to remain nobody. Why did he feel worth maintaining a Tumblr about, one I’ve now worked something like forty or fifty unpaid hours on over the years? Why did he feel worth writing an essay about in my university graffiti course, and in a Google doc created in 2015 that would go on to become the framework for this piece?
But there was something fascinating at the core of it all. I spoke to twelve different people while working on this essay: doing interviews over the phone, Zoom, email, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram DMs with Jim Joe fans, the owner of The Hole gallery, other people who’d interviewed him, someone who knew a family member of his, people who’d picked up one of his garbage pieces off the sidewalk and found themselves enmeshed in the strangeness of his story. Some demurred, or tried to, feeling that what they knew or had to say would amount to little, but most of them had a surprising amount to say; a few of those who didn’t clearly had a lot to share but held back for fear of compromising Jim Joe’s secrecy.
Still, themes recurred—finding his tags was a sort of game; his work came to symbolize the excitement of the big city for young Americans who’d moved to New York for jobs; his mysterious approach to his persona was part of the appeal; people bonded with others, whether friends or romantic partners, who also got a kick out of his work; he was forever hard to pin down, and his email persona was relentlessly Jim Joe, to the point where it became hard to tell where the bit ended and where his real personality began—or if there was anything separating them at all.
But perhaps the central compelling factor to the Jim Joe enigma was his steadfast refusal to let what was interesting about his work grow beyond his control. One of the people I spoke to for the piece highlighted how in the mid-2010s, other New York–based street artists had capitalized on their cachet, striking deals with businesses looking to use graffiti’s street cred to sell things. For Jim Joe, apparently the list of businesses worth collaborating with was vanishingly short.
To this day, who knows what he does for a living. Is he still coasting off the Drake money? Does he come from wealth? His rent isn’t being paid by cushy fees from soft drink or cell phone brands. He’s not collaborating with Nike on limited-edition runs of anything. Is he intentionally being extremely selective, or are brands simply not engaging? If it’s the former, his ethos surely must’ve cost him tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars in income. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that the number would be in the millions.
In 2017, for instance, Gucci started working with an artist named Coco Capitán whose style (cryptic quotes in a skittish handwriting) bears more than a passing resemblance to Jim Joe’s, one that he appeared to comment on himself, tweeting “FIRST THEY LAUGH, THEN THEY COPY”—the line itself, of course, a rip-off. Was it a case of him having turned the opportunity down, or of having created a market for others to fill? On Instagram a few years ago, I came across an account called Maison Hefner, with over a hundred thousand followers and a coffee book deal, ripping off the same vibes and offering little but slightly less interesting quotes. “There, but for the grace of God, goes Jim Joe,” I thought.
Invariably, every artist makes compromises in order to get their work out. They strike deals with organizations they have mixed feelings about, brown-nose people they hate, stay on in contracts they can no longer morally justify in order to put food on the table, to pay for their children’s educations, to maintain a standard of living they’ve grown accustomed to. What about Jim Joe? Does he have a full-on Superman-style desk job, pushing paper, hitting deadlines? Is this lull in his output a calm before the storm, or the sign of someone walking away from a compromise he’s not willing to make? He feels unbelievably improbable, an artist we need but do not fully have, an enigma wrapped in a mystery shrouded in a can of spray-paint particles. Whatever the politics lurking in the words and phrases he tacked onto his tags—he was, unsurprisingly, anti-cop, and, perhaps slightly less obviously, pro-Bernie—there was always something steadfastly, resolutely anti-capitalist to his approach.
For a while I kept on waiting for him to make his next big move, wanting to time finding a publisher for this piece with something newsworthy in his career, but at this point, I’ve stopped bothering. As the person who made the crack about lots of people collaborating with Kanye put it, “He kind of just dropped off! Which is fine. Totally fine.” The idea that every artist—that every person—needs to be constantly growing towards greater heights of success isn’t just unhealthy, it’s also deeply out of touch with the reality of how life works.
Until recently, his work was available on an Artsy profile with a dozen or so gallery-style works, giving off Martin Kippenberger vibes, priced (very modestly for the art world) between $2,500 and $10,000, and one garbage piece reading “YO SPLIFF WHERE DA WEED AT JIM JOE 2010” in his early-career font. I contacted Marcel Katz Art about the price but never heard back. One person I spoke to had successfully sold a piece of his garbage work, for a figure she recalled as being $700 USD, back in 2017. Poking around a bit, I even found a fake, a misattribution so half-hearted it must be intentional—perhaps the greatest sign of an artist’s success.
One of the people I interviewed, a co-founder of the now-defunct website Cult of Joe—which aimed to collect what was special and what was known about him, before he emailed to ask them to take it down—shared a note from an email exchange where there’d been a discussion of collaborating on some T-shirts. In his traditionally inscrutable manner, JJ had replied “NO COIN, NO COTTON.”
And yet there is such a thing as a Jim Joe T-shirt—a limited-edition collaboration with French designer Agnès B, who put on his first—and thus far, only—solo European gallery show in 2012. And, if you count them, all those bootleg tees on Etsy. One even brags that CUSTOM TEXT CAN BE MADE FOR YOU, which sounds like nothing so much as something Jim Joe would write somewhere, whether on a wall, in a tweet or on a canvas.