Art for life’s sake

Bazooka Joe is not just a brand associated with chewing gum... It's also the pseudonym of an Israeli artist whose passion for creation turned his life around.

One of artist Bazooka Joe's creations.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
One of artist Bazooka Joe's creations.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Art can be a lifesaver. We all need to take a breather from time to time, and pondering the aesthetics and intricacies of a bunch of paintings, for instance, can help to slow the pulse and set things in perspective. For Bazooka Joe, art was, and is, a lifesaver in the keenest and most corporeal sense of the word.
That, of course, is not the 54-year-old artist’s birth name – he revealed his real, definitively prosaic moniker, as an aside – but it fits the bill. “I am Bazooka Joe,” he pronounces.
“I naturally connected with the colors and simplicity of the comics,” he explains, of course referring to the comic strip contained in every wrapper of the said bubble gum over the course of almost six decades. Anyone who has ever unwrapped a piece of Bazooka Joe gum will know that the generally cheesy, but lovable, diminutive comic strip always came with a “fortune” prediction, which was just as sappy.
“I loved the naiveté of the fortunes,” the artist admits with a smile. “I later discovered that Bazooka Joe was a real character. He was an American soldier in World War II who was an amazing sharpshooter with a bazooka. I’m a great sharpshooter with my art,” he chuckles, feigning a touch of bravado.
These days Bazooka Joe is a respected artist whose works sell for pretty decent prices, some of which will be on display in his outdoor Gangster of Art exhibition on Dov Hoz Boulevard in Holon, which opens on Monday as part of the city’s 2017 Design Week.
But a few years back, success in such a highly competitive arena was not something the artist could even contemplate.
In fact, just getting through the day in one piece, physically and mentally, was a trial for him.
Joe did not have the best of starts in life and at the age of 16 he found himself out on the street. That dramatic change in circumstances was followed by almost a quarter of a century of horrendous trials and tribulations. He went through several penal institutions and got hooked on the hard stuff.
“I was addicted to heroin for many years,” he says, adding that it was not just a matter of being homeless. “I found myself almost without a life, let alone a home.”
As he picked his way from one dark time to even darker times, Joe intermittently kept up some semblance of normative behavior and gained his initial experience of the art world as a dealer in Judaica and other areas.
By the time he was 40 he had reached a nadir. He had almost gone beyond his corporeal and spiritual tipping point. “I felt I was going to die,” he says starkly and simply.
“I felt I was physically close to death, and I should take the initiative and do something with myself.” He went cold turkey and, thankfully, came through the nightmarish drying-out process. Today he is clean and free of the addiction that almost sent him six feet under at a young age.
Presumably, it would have been easier not to fight it, simply to let go and keep going under. “Yes, it would have been easier,” he concurs. Many have done that. But I think I felt a sense of mission, that I had something to do in this life.”
Looking around his Florentin studio in south Tel Aviv, “something” leaps at you from all quarters. As we chatted in the snug seating area, the fruits of Joe’s labors were in clear evidence, propped up against the walls of the industrial building.
Joe’s laissez-faire ethos calls his style Gangster Art, and seems to feed off pop art and graffiti. There is something endearing and captivating about his alien-looking figures, rich colors and the nonsensical lettering many of his paintings sport.
There is a raw energy to his work, which, in other circumstances, might almost be thought of as naïve, but you sense an undercurrent to the paintings. The same can be said for the man himself.
Joe is soft-spoken and breaks into a smile or a chuckle at the drop of a hat, but the cliché about having to suffer for your art before you can call yourself a bona-fide member of the artistic community applies to Joe, and then some.
“I think I was some sort of soil that needed to be fertilized to produce something good out of it,” he muses, “so what I do now could grow out of me.”
That took a ton of fertilizing. “Yeah, that was a lot of fertilizer, but it brought all this growth with it,” he laughs. “Anyway, fertilizing is a positive thing, no?” Evidently so.
Joe says he tries to keep things simple.
“I run away from technocracy and techniques and complexity. I love things that are very flat and very simple,” he declares. That is easier said than done.
“You have to learn how to do things simply, too; how to arrive at simple results.
It should be easy, but that’s not the way it is. A lot of self-teaching goes into achieving a good and interesting end product. That’s also a sort of technique.
I really steer clear of the traditional.”
Joe keeps coming back to the simplicity- complexity conundrum.
“When it comes down to it, a true artist is only a conduit for things to pass through him,” he posits. “If things are going well for you [with the creative process] you connect well, and then you simply transmit things to the canvas.
“But, to do that, you have to learn to let go and to dispense with your ego.
You have to put the “me” to one side, so that it is just a little mirror. I’m just a conduit, a vessel. I just have to try and not get in the way.”
The more he talks about his rite of passage and, more precisely, the latter stages of his return to robust creative life, the clearer it becomes that things happened when they were supposed to; that trying ordeal notwithstanding this was a journey he simply had to take, to get where he is today.
He even got his initial artistic inspiration from his own, clearly rich world of imagination.
“As I was coming to the end of breaking free of the drugs, I began dreaming about all kinds of shapes and doodles,” he recalls. “In the morning I’d put them down on paper, and later people would see the scribbles and they’d tell me how much they liked them.” Joe began to realize he was onto something.
“It wasn’t just doodling. I liked it, and others did, too, which gave me confidence that I could maybe become an artist,” he continues. That feedback was a crucial part of his artistic coming of age, and continues to play a role in his work.
“Some people can make something and just stash it away in a drawer. I need to get people’s reactions to my paintings,” he declares. Is that a matter of needing feedback, or because he has to share his creations with others? “Probably both,” he notes.
“I want to feel I’m making a difference, that I’m putting out some positive waves. It helps me when I do that. I need to feel that I’m giving something, and I’m also getting something back.”
Dreamy epiphany notwithstanding, Joe’s artistic coming-out took a while.
He developed his newfound craft while making ends meet from various lines of work, and eventually sold his first piece around seven years ago. Typically it was a serendipitous episode.
“I was at a friend’s studio,” he recalls.
“I was upstairs working on something, and I thought no one could see me. I didn’t realize I could be seen from the street, and some American tourists happened by and they saw one of my works downstairs.
“It was a small piece. They asked me if it was mine, and when I said yes they asked me if I was selling and how much I’d like for it. I said $200. They said OK. And that was that. I’d sold my first painting.”
I ventured that, considering the alacrity with which the tourists agreed to part with 200 greenbacks, perhaps he should have aimed higher. “Probably,” he laughs, more at himself than anything else.
It is not hard to connect with Joe’s Gangster Style art. You are drawn to the seeming insouciance his works impart, but you also instinctively get the fact that there’s more to the paintings that initially grab the eye. You can connect with something of the symbolism – Stars of David pop up from time, as do heart shapes, skulls and other instantly recognizable items – but there is definitely an evolving storyline to the canvases.
There’s a lot going on.
Today, Bazooka Joe is sitting pretty.
He hasn’t quite made it to the millionaire bracket, and he doesn’t seem to be the type to set too much store by material possessions, but he is free of the hard stuff that almost killed him, free of the life of crime he led. He appears to have divested any anger he may have accumulated in the process and is doing something he loves – and is sharing it with the world. His works have been purchased by collectors in the States, the UK and here, and he recently had an exhibition in Amsterdam.
Not bad going for a former homeless kid and junkie. Hope – and light – spring eternal.
Gangster of Art closes on October 28.