After years of specialising predominantly in graffiti work in Los Angeles, which captured his interest from an early age, artist Jason Revok moved to studio practice where he has been working on designs for the last decade. His current work still shows influences from his early artistic days, however, his transition into studio work has opened doors to his artistic capability, which is evident when looking at his unique, impressive design creations. And now his first-ever solo museum exhibition takes place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) until March 25th, 2023.

The Artist’s Instruments
 explores the impact of automation and factory-based labour in the United States, focusing on the considerable impact of this technology on art and artistic practice. The exhibition includes an extraordinary series of instruments designed to represent the extension of Revok’s body to explore this relationship between machine and human in a very original and authentic manner. Today we speak to Revok about his artistic background and his main inspirations and motivations behind his new exhibition.
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To start, could you please introduce yourself and your art?
I grew up in a culturally-void area East of LA. No one from my family went to college and they never took me to an art gallery or museum. I had no idea what art was – to me, it was skateboard graphics and album covers. I must have been about 21 years old when for the first time I went to a museum. Barry Mcgee, who I knew as the graffiti writer ‘Twist’ had an installation in the Yerba Buena Gardens at the Center for the Arts, San Francisco.
When I moved to Arizona as a kid I met two young brothers who had moved there from New York and they introduced me to hip-hop and graffiti. One of them had the book Subway Art, which was like the Bible for a whole generation of graffiti kids. I saw Beat Street… so here began my exposure. It wasn’t until I was about 13 years old and we had moved back to Southern California that I started making a name for myself. I would steal spray paint out of my neighbour’s garages and I would sneak out at night to tag my name along everyone’s route to school. I ended up sticking to this initially juvenile thing for years, staying the course that led to me meeting people all over the world.
You have spent around 30 years working with graffiti and mark-making public spaces, can you tell us what inspired this? Did you know that you wanted to pursue art, or did it come through experience?
Early on, I never expected this culture to exist beyond LA and New York, but the first time, I saw a huge graffiti piece that was obviously done legally was when I was in Nashville. The two-story piece was the most amazing I had ever seen at that time, then 17 years old. The owner had allowed his son to paint it. For the first time, my father, who was driving as I noticed it, appreciated my love for graffiti and pulled over to stop at the business. This interaction eventually led to me making friends with the owner’s son and fellow graffiti writers he knew. These introductions put me on this path to travelling the country, and ultimately all over the world, meeting through this shared obsession of writing our names on walls. I met people from all walks of life, of every educational and economical background imaginable. Collectively they had a lot more knowledge and experience than me and opened my eyes up to the world. Many of them long had aspirations of art making, which is how I came to learn and be inspired by art.
After so much time, why did you choose to change your direction and focus on studio work? Did you always plan on changing your artistic methods or did this come about for a particular reason?
Eventually, after 20 years of exploring cities and painting things, I had ideas that no longer fit in that context. I became curious and excited enough to explore what that would be and applied hands-on experimentation. Then I began the process of trying to break myself from that practice that I had spent so long to refine and master. I did not want to just take and turn graffiti into something on a canvas. Once I started making things that weren’t graffiti anymore, the intention was also to destroy the former ego inherent with the gestural mark-making or anything comfortable and familiar to me. I wanted to put these restraints on myself to use a different type of language. Now it has come full circle, incorporating some of these initial skills now but I had spent 10 to 12 years omitting the hand in the same way. For a long period, I tried to remove the painting and my hand from the process. I focused on found objects and making straight lines with a table saw.
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How do your earlier works influence your current art, if at all? If not, what do you think your current art is influenced by?
As I started to study art I turned to anyone focused on big, bold mark-making at a really large scale like Ellsworth Kelly, Julian Schnabel, Franz Klein, and Clifford Still. I was in my late 20s and early 30s at this point. I would get whatever books I could and see whatever I could in the museums. My personal vocabulary and language were formed by years and years of painting graffiti that I first tried to unlearn and break from what was familiar to me and now to try to connect with and harness that youthful enthusiasm. I am utilizing new tools and processes that I’ve learned along the way.
On your website, it is written that your Spirograph series “attempts to harness imperfections and chaos within this predetermined framework,” what does this mean to you?
I had been playing with the spirograph toy with my daughter and in it recognised the youthful joy of making that I felt when I first started doing graffiti. Chaos comes with the illegal factors of graffiti that I met in my early days. The spirograph tool is controlled, the results are exact, so I created one to balance the imperfections that usually come with spray paint. Again, this and other tools I have made to use in my practice are about putting restraints on myself to hone previous skills and develop new invigorating ideas.
What would you say is the greatest difference in your work transition from the West Coast to the Midwest, in Detroit? The city of Detroit is featured in The Artist’s Instruments. You present the city by creating art using materials and objects that you have personally found on the city’s streets. Why did you decide to represent the city this way and why is this important to you?
Though I eventually stayed in Detroit for many reasons, the primary need for found materials in abundance, and space that was affordable for a modest living, as opposed to what was available in LA is what brought me here. I came to Detroit in 2011 to work on my assemblage series. The inclusion of sharing bits of Detroit’s history, especially pertaining to industry, become immediately implicit through the found materials.
What made me have an affection and connection to the city is the people, which I could not have anticipated, knowing no one when I moved here. The people of Detroit are very sincere, humble, and genuine. Whereas before my community was mostly spread all over the world, now I also have a local community that has become like family to me. That sort of support system on the ground has as much an effect on what can be accomplished as might access to materials.
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Your first solo museum exhibition, The Artist’s Instruments, is centred around automation and its impact on artistic practice. What inspired this idea?
I wouldn’t say it is centred on this concept, but it is a recurring theme that is innately part of my process with the tools that I use. Being that MOCAD is an Albert Kahn and Ernest Willoughby Associates building from 1907 that historically housed a car dealership, it is the perfect environment – minimal and urban with concrete floors – to consider the connections between automation and art.
Your work compares the artistic ability of humans and technology. Do you worry that as society is more and more reliant on machines and technology, traditional methods of art might get lost?
Though it is as troubling as it is exciting to observe the advances in technology and consider how this might affect artistic practice, in the end, the rarer a hands-on craft or skill becomes, the more valued it becomes. I think people will continue to hold on to their admiration for that while embracing new methods of production.
What have you enjoyed the most about preparing for your first solo museum exhibition/what do you hope to achieve from The Artist’s Instruments?
I hope this helps in breaking down the wall between graffiti and the art world in terms of the former’s public acceptance. I not only wish to garner respect for the evolution of my practice into studio work but that graffiti as a whole will be more respected for the diverse global community it has created and how the inherent freedom within it can support the creativity of future artists.
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SelfPortrait_A_2/21_9/22, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, MOCAD, and Library Street Collective.
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SelfPortrait_B_2/21_9/22, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, MOCAD, and Library Street Collective.
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SelfPortrait_C_2/21_9/22, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, MOCAD, and Library Street Collective.
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K_Loop_XL_FlourRed_Blu_FlourYl_8/22, 2022 - Photo by Tim Johnson. Courtesy of the artist and Library Street Collective.-
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Spiro_Sm_CBL/Blk/_OxBlood/FlR/P/O/ Y_9/22, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and Library Street Collective.
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AI_04X3_10/22_C, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, MOCAD, and Library Street Collective.
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(Detail) Spiro_Sm_CBL/Blk/_OxBlood/Mag/P/Or/Y/ Blk/W_9/22, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, MOCAD, and Library Street Collective.
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(Detail) Spirograph_Ellipse_4/20/21/22_Cyan/R/O/ Y/W/NAP/BlkR, 2022 - Courtesy the artist, Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, and Library Street Collective.
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InstrumentEx/FrameDrag_3_Blu/Ochre/Vio_6/ 2022 - Photo by Tim Johnson. Image courtesy of the artist and Libra Street Collective