The faces of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Kendra James, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Atatiana Jefferson, and other victims of racial brutality, emerged one by one in powerful portraits on boarded storefronts. The portraits were done by artist Jules Muck, artistically known as MuckRock, after the weekend uproar of Black Lives Matter protesting echoed through Venice, CA due to the killing of George Floyd. The faces greet those who move down Lincoln Boulevard and Abbot Kinney.
Painted in black and white, these portraits speak not to the victimhood these people would face, but to the people they were. Light and hope are seen in their eyes, the windows into their souls. “There’s something about a portrait that’s different,” Muck said. The effort was not a grab for relevancy; Jules simply goes where her magic is summoned.
She’s been casually dubbed ‘The Queen of Venice Beach,’ as her vast array of works create their own prolific world within the infamous Venice mural scene that started in the 1960’s. Yes, she spent a lot of her youth in defiance,“I did a lot of things to piss people off, and I did a lot of vandalization, and I did a lot of, like, fuck the system.” And yes, she’s the professional graffiti artist out of a family full of accountants: ”I didn’t really want to be an artist…I thought my parents didn’t really respect it as a career, and I didn’t really think it was a valid thing to do…I really tried to avoid being an artist. But I really liked to paint on stuff and do graffiti!”
But alas, she’s royalty, and when one rolls through her town, her presence cannot be missed. Far enough west on Venice Boulevard, once one has officially entered Venice, California, lay two giant white bunnies. Copulating. The girl bunny thinks “MuckRock” in a thought bubble, while she smokes a cigarette. While the bunnies have become a sort of signature, Muckrock’s specialty is portraiture. When a domino effect of civil unrest broke in Venice, CA and the surrounding cities, she was able to show the west side’s solidarity, crowning the kings and queens who fell victim to hate and corruption of power.
”Portraiture has become my strong suit over the years. And in the end, when I finished my apprenticeship, she (LadyPink, famed Ecuadorian-American mural artist under whom MuckRock studied) would even have to hire me back to do the portraits, because some artists just don’t, you know, do portraits with realism.” Realism is just one of the core aspects of Muck’s portraits. For this half-Greecian artist who grew up between the early street art scene of Greece and the golden age of graffiti in Manhattan, the process of painting is her definition of God. “I think the most spiritual thing about my work is the ability to paint definitely signifies that God is present. Because I don’t really know how I start, how I paint,” she said. “Some of the things, the way they turn out, I’m like holy shit. Like, I don’t even know what happened, especially when I’m painting people. And I think that it definitely gives me a feeling that there’s another power working through me…”
“…On a day to day basis, I have to be pulled by my higher power into where I’m supposed to be of service….I didn’t plan on doing any of the portraits that I did. I wasn’t like ‘oh, I’m gonna do a whole bunch of portraits now because there are protests going on.’ I was just in the moment. I went to paint my friend’s store, then I spoke to another friend, and then another, and then other people started asking me, and then it was just like wildfire. I wasn’t ever trying to make a statement.”
All in a day’s divine intervention, Muck’s work is just the bold type. Graffiti befits the portraits, as “one of the four elements of hip hop,” and a statement-making medium “which technically comes from the black minority–they started that.”
Grateful and nonchalant, the artist, who successfully overcame drug addiction and homelessness, recognizes the privilege that the graffiti world often sees: “This is my perception, but people that can continue to do graffiti throughout their life are usually rich, suburban, white kids. Or a mix, whatever. Maybe race doesn’t have to come into it as much as, it’s people that have enough affluence. Graffiti is fucking expensive! To be arrested continuously for writing your name on stuff.”
Muck took to her Instagram, captioning pictures of the portraits with, “Just in case there’s any question about where Venice stands on this issue,” in addition to the names of all the victims whom she painted.
The portraits of her past are on a spectrum of “political oomph.” Often a famous face like Frida Kahlo, the Mona Lisa, or even Bettie Page, donning pizza slices over their breasts, or a lit cigarette between the teeth. Her portraits demand double takes, featuring the familiar with something that takes one into another visual dimension, like Kermit the Frog crying rainbows, or Thomas The Train puffing on a different kind of smoke. Tripped out visuals meet unfiltered, unintentional political statements.
No matter how wild, her work never looks out of place. Though the portraits live on plywood boards, they belong. Perhaps because joy is currently the motivator of her work. In black and white, they serve as a daily reminder that Venice loves all people, and that those who fell victim to hate are remembered. “I was just being of service. Which, I think is all I could do. To try and be of service to other people, and sometimes I think it’s just making somebody happy.”