At only 29 years old, Julian Gaines doesn’t aspire to be a leader, he already knows he is one. Whether you know him as Julian Gaines or Ju Working on Projects or simply Ju, if you’re familiar with him as a person, you know that’s 100% true. A cultural leader like Ju is exactly what we’re talking about when we talk about the New Black History, so we were honored to be able to include him in our series highlighting creatives, artists, athletes, and influencers creating Black History today and far beyond.
Born and raised in Chicago, Ju moved out to Portland, Oregon four years ago with the sole purpose of getting a job at Nike. A couple years later, he already had a two-shoe collaboration with the brand, an achievement most of us will never attain in a lifetime. And his success has only grown since.
One thing you’ll probably pick up on after even just a brief conversation with Ju is how serious and meticulous he is about everything he does. Every move he makes, everything he wears, and especially every piece of art he creates has purpose and meaning behind it. He wants to respect and honor those that came before him while simultaneously inspiring the next generation behind him. He feels he has a responsibility to do so.
But don’t get it twisted. Ju isn’t the brooding, self-important artist sitting in the corner. He’s probably one of the most fun, energetic, and welcoming people you could ever hang out with. By the end of our 45-minute video chat conversation, he was already inviting me out to Oregon, offering to pick me up in his ‘65 Impala (“I have two of ‘em!”) to come out and tour his studio. That’s just the kind of guy he is.
Please introduce yourself. What should everyone know about you?
My name is Julian Victor LaMarr Gaines. I’m from the southeast side of Chicago. I live and work outside of Portland, Oregon. I’m a fine artist and creative consultant. That’s what I do for a living.
How would you define New Black History, and how would you say you’re creating it?
You know, I like the term “New Black History.” To me, that is rewriting one’s own story, or retelling the stories that may not have been told, or not told in the proper light. So for me, for instance, retelling the stories of Emmett Till or Michael Stewart, retelling the stories of Malcolm X or the Four Little Girls, and really, even more so, telling the stories of what’s happening today. So, with me painting the stories of “Karens” and that becoming the New York Magazine cover, it’s really painting the pictures and writing the script of what will at one point be looked back on and be used to tell new stories.
Speaking of the “Karens,” we were going to ask you about that. You recently had the piece grace the front cover of New York Magazine. The cover headline reads, “The Karen Next Door.” Tell us about the process from painting the piece to it getting on the cover?
So the story of the “Karens” stemmed from personal events that I experienced myself, me and my girlfriend. One in particular was where I saw my neighbor hit my Impala. As lucky as that is—because it is pretty lucky to actually see someone hit your car—but she tried to hit and run and really disregard the incident as a minor situation. Furthermore, when I went and tried to get her insurance, she said, “Well if you’re going to call the insurance, I’m going to call the police and claim elder abuse.” So she called the police and claimed elder abuse. And because of the fact that I recorded the entire conversation, that’s why nothing happened other than how it was supposed to happen, meaning I was able to walk free and continue my life.
I (often) read this book “Lift Every Voice: Words of Black Wisdom and Celebration.” In this book, there are a number of quotes from my ancestors from many decades that I use as affirmation and validation and reassurance in times of sadness or adversity. One of my favorite quotes is from Maya Angelou, and I’m paraphrasing it, but she said it’s OK to be angry, but you take this anger and you channel it—you sing, you paint, you talk about it—you just don’t remain silent.
You know, I could have died! I’m an honest person, but if I’m a cop and I heard that a 28-year-old, 6’6” Black man was abusing an elder, I’d be like, “He needs to feel the law.” But that wasn’t the case. And she went on to send an apology note, but the damage could have already been done where an apology note is a moot point. So I was like, “OK, I gotta paint this situation,” so I came into the studio, and I treat it like the gym, so I was like, “I gotta put up my shot and get this energy out.” So I painted the Karens.
At first I painted four of them. I drew a lot of inspiration from Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, David Hammon, his Jesse Jackson “How Ya Like Me Now?” piece. All of those pieces went into how I conceptualized the Karen story. Because I dealt with this firsthand, it was significantly more personal and the aesthetic that I chose—because I paint in a number of different ways, and I look at my painting styles just like a rap flow, like Hov will rap in a certain flow to convey a certain message at a certain time, and that’s how I paint. So for this “flow,” if you will, I didn’t want people to get lost in the aesthetics of the piece. I needed my message: Women are calling the police on Black men that are doing nothing. I wanted the subject matter to be the focal point, so I went with a pop art aesthetic. Made it easily digestible so that we can focus just on what we’re talking about.
I painted the four Karens, and three of them sold to my collectors, and then I went to my studio and I had one painting on the wall and I was like, “Damn, this looks bland.” [laughs] So I bought nine more canvases and I painted a series of ten. And then a week or so later, New York Mag called me, and I had done their cover for the “I Voted” campaign before, and they said they were telling a story about the “Karens” in different parts of the nation and they wanted to use my art as the cover.
Who or what has influenced your work the most, be it a mentor, other artists you admire, family, your life experiences, or anything else?
One of my mentors and collectors is James Whitner and I really appreciate him a lot. He’s very much an inspiration in my life, as well as other kids coming up. Business owners, influencers, aesthetes, anyone that really has any kind of affinity for business and taste. “If you know, you know,” and that’s his saying. I’m really grateful for him being one of my collectors, and just someone who pushes me as an artist.
When it comes to fine artists that inspire me, I would say Charles Gaines, Robert Gober, David Hammons, Derek Adams, Kara Walker, of course Jean-Michel Basquiat, he’s obviously a big influence in my work. And the energy that I present, that’s because I feel like I owe that to him. His life was cut short at 27, and I’m 29 years old—it’s the same way that Hov took on propelling Biggie’s legacy—that’s how I feel about Jean-Michel. I’m paying homage in certain details in the paintings. You can see nods to him. It’s really like, if I were to die, Julian Gaines, I would hope that I left such an impact on the world, on an artist, that they would hear what I was saying and see what I was painting and paint that, or say that. It’s just like us rapping Hov lyrics, or me rapping Curren$y lyrics. I grew up loving Curren$y, and he helped teach me how to not do lame shit. When I look at Spitta, or when I look at Rozay—that’s another one of my mentors, and that’s a relationship that stemmed from me reading his book and just DM’ing him—or Freddie Gibbs, these are artists that I really, really, really love what they’re talking about and I relate to what they’re saying. Their stories help me paint my story. So I just channel their energy and their confidence, and I use them like college professors. I don’t listen to people that I can’t learn from.
So it sounds like a lot of musicians have influenced you as much as fine artists?
Absolutely. I paint records in my paintings all the time, and I’ll make a list. In a number of paintings there’s a banner that reads “A Record Plays,” and then I’ll list out the artists I’m listening to. I grew up listening to music, and their stories, I see in pictures. When they’re talking, I’m seeing these pictures, and a lot of times I try to paint them.
How has being from Chicago influenced your work as a Black creative?
Chicago is definitely a huge inspirational factor in my life. Whether it be my attention to detail, or my competitiveness, or just the responsibility that I feel like I have for my city. There are countless Black creatives across many different mediums that are responsible for the art world as it is today. Chicago is the achilles heel of the art world. And I say that because a lot of other cities get the shine and respect, whether it by New York or Miami or LA, but if you omit Chicago creatives, the art world and the world in general looks completely different. And a lot of the respect that we deserve is kind of overshadowed by the violence in the city. And so I think that for me, I sit back and I look at the artists and designers, whether it be Kanye, Don C, GLC, Bump J, any of these people, there’s a different level of competitiveness and just a desire to tastefully and honestly reflect the city.
So you’re saying that Chicago is underappreciated in the art world?
Yeah, absolutely. We’re appreciated, but we’re not elevated and glorified the way other cities and states are. So my purpose for moving to Oregon, it was never to become famous or to become an influencer. I moved to Oregon to get a job with Nike because I felt that it was kind of ridiculous for Nike to be trying to sell products to a body of people, a neighborhood, an area that they had never been. So for me, being from Chicago, playing ball, getting my degree, doing these things, I am the piece that needs to be able to make sure the kids in my community are getting the respect that they deserve and the product they deserve. Now, the other blessings came after that, but really I came out here to get a job and really to show the kids in my community that you didn’t have to rap or play ball to achieve your dream.
If you hadn’t made the move to Oregon and were still in Chicago, as far as notoriety, do you think you would be where you are today? Or would it be a totally different story?
Completely different story. An avocado does not start to ripen until you remove it from the source. Just like you don’t really start to become yourself until you leave from your home. So I honestly believe that there were a number of situations, and marginalization, and just a limited range of imagination that would have prevented me from getting to the point where I am today.
Out here in Oregon it was illegal for Black people to own land. So that’s why it’s even more of a point. My family owns property in South Shore in Chicago, so I could have moved back and been comfortable in the city, but I’m doing this, really, to create this New Black History we speak of.
In the past, Black people were boxed out from opportunities. It was illegal for a Black man to own land, so that’s why I’ve been out here for the past four years, because I’m painting the New Black History, I’m telling new stories. Because I am a leader and I am a revolutionary, and I’m using my brush as the way to tell my stories. Portland was the place that allowed the solace, that allowed the quiet for me to focus on the work. But as we’ve seen in the media, there’s no shortage of excitement out here in Portland. [laughs] I went to the whitest state to tell the Black story. [laughs]
What is your ultimate goal?
My ultimate goal is to go to heaven. Period. Put that on there. Now a secondary goal, in addition to that, would be to be in permanent collections across the world. That’s the only way that I feel like I’m glorifying the Lord and doing what I’m here to do as a Black artist. Money gets spent, but museums last forever.
All I hope is that Jean-Michel is up there and he’s like, “I like this guy. He’s interesting. He works hard.”
All photos in this article feature Julian Gaines with his work-in-progress titled “The Four Little Girls” and were taken by Seth McGinnis (@lovewasher).
You can follow Ju on Instagram at @juworkingonprojects