Jilly Ballistic: interview with New York City's best street and subway artist
In a post-Banksy era, could street art still be considered marginal, underground, and illegal? Are there still that many people who believe that art may only be exhibited in museums and galleries?
Almost half a century after May ’68, street art stirs up a city's collective unconscious, while establishing a new public art status. Murals, stencil graffiti, 3D graffiti, sticker art, public collages, socially targeted comments on posters, anti-advertising, installations in public spaces, etc, mark urban daily life. The strong impressions they create and the ideas they suggest, shape a totally new public domain – an environment that extends international dialogue and exchange of information of the social media into our physical space, thus creating new perceptions, behaviors, value systems, or even fashion trends.
Jilly Ballistic is an ingenious and gifted artist with an acute sense of humor. She’s famous yet anonymous. For the last three years, she’s been inundating New York and Brooklyn subway with works and interventions of an idiosyncratic, conceptual subway art of her own invention, creating a huge sensation that led some media to compare her to Banksy himself! Even though she started out as a writer, she eventually switched over to posting her comments on the subway walls, finding it a natural outlet for her restless spirit.
She began setting up posters demonstrating her sensible or mocking Policy Advisory; messing up dumb ads by sticking on them fake Internet error messages and thereby turning them into anti-advertisements or into fine-looking collages; pasting her stickers showing gas-masked nurses and WWII soldiers, and more. Jilly’s projects can even be seen on seats and other spots in subway cars. Her work is elegant, expresses a humanistic attitude, and emerges a Duchampian aura – which is quite rare. It is also well-aimed at the dodgy world of commerce and sly advertising messages that underestimate our intelligence. It’s full of humor; it puzzles; it reveals. But it’s time to let Jilly speak at this point.
Interview by Vassilika Sarilaki*
Art Noise: I know you grew up in Brooklyn, early 80’s, and as you have said “graffiti has always been a constant” and that you got into the scene about 4 years ago. I wonder how you decided to turn the coin from writing to “posting” on the New York subway walls .
Jilly Ballistic: It wasn’t a decision, exactly, as much as a natural progression. It felt like the next step in where I was headed in this thing called street art. As any New Yorker, so much of your time is spent commuting and being in that subway space. After all this time it suddenly felt like: there it was, a blank canvas right before me. I can interact with it. Use it to speak.
Art Noise: Do you feel that your message “breaks through to the other side”? Are you satisfied?
Jilly Ballistic: The public is definitely listening. And I believe it’s because they want to hear something. I work in broad daylight, with New Yorkers around me on the platform or inside a train car. I can say from experience and interacting with the public that they are hungry. When I begin to put up work, they watch and then ask questions after I’m finished, mostly who’s portrait I’m putting up or why that particular Policy Advisory. After our conversation it feels as though they really appreciate the artistic endeavor. They’ll also take a photograph, which ends up being shared and commented on; suddenly a dialogue begins. That’s great stuff.
Art Noise: I want to discuss with you some of your “Policy advisories”. F. e “If you build it they will Vand –alise”.. Some people say that you resort to Vandalism. In Greek Vandal is someone who destroys not he who creates works of art. This word comes from the French Vandalisme which refers to a barbarian German tribe who used to smash the noses and ears of statues because they were afraid that through these diodes the statues will acquire soul and become alive!
As far as I know, you’re too polite, you’re not cutting either ears or noses from anyone and in addition, I have to say that some ads aren’t exactly art works. Instead you give some harmless advice or make some comments. Is this Vandalism or social offering?
Jilly Ballistic: The politeness in some of the “digital” faux Mac or PC warnings, like adding Thank you or Apologies, adds to the humor of the situation. In a way I feel like I’m writing a short letter on the behalf of the public to corporations or the movie industry.
As for the Advisory in question (If you build it, they will vandalize.) that was a message to condo developers, construction companies, politicians who change our zoning laws, and to the City government itself. Graffiti will always exist. Street art will be made.
A Girl in Red Dress with Cat and Dog, Updated (Ammi Phillips  & Jilly Ballistic ; 5th Ave 53rd St; MoMA platform), photo: JB
Art Noise: You are the most known-unknown street artist in New York. You have planted hundreds computer error messages and stickers with divers images on ads and walls and now they compare you to Banksy, a decisive figure of street art… How do you feel about that and what do you think of Banksy’s work in relation to yours?
Jilly Ballistic: Being compared to Banksy was unexpected, to say the least. It’s flattering. Perhaps it means I’m on the right path in terms of getting messages out there, points made and communicating.
Art Noise: You have managed to reverse some stupid ads to anti-ads or artworks simply by adding them your clever internet advisor’s stickers like “move to trash” etc, or paste-ups featuring gas mask adorned figures of WW1& 2. What is more important to you? To pass your message to the people, to stimulate second thoughts or to make clever surrealistic collages using as ready mades these ads?
Left: Tweet Mentioned by @JillyBallistic: Please continue to ignore this advertisement. Thank you. (M15 bus shelter; Allen St & Stanton St) Right: “Move To Trash”, added to beer advertising.
Where cravings meet [insulin shots.] (Greenpoint Ave; Church bound G)
Jilly Ballistic: I do have several projects running at the same time, like you noted: the historical images, the “digital” work and the updated idioms as Advisories. More projects will come and go as well. It’s not that I prefer one of these over the other; it really all depends on the site. If I’m addressing an ad, I’ll put up an Alert or insert an image that is relevant to my commentary. But whatever it is that ends up being pasted to a wall, I hope to get a dialogue going, a few thoughts on the topic. Or even get a laugh.
ad for JillyB's Uranium Rush-An exciting new electric game for the family. (G train; car 5023)
Art Noise: What inspires you to make all these slogans? Are all yours?
Jilly Ballistic: Yes, all the content is mine. So I have to thank Hollywood for their lack of ingenuity and companies for their lacking products. It’s actually their lack of faith in the public and what they are trying to pitch is what inspires me. Also, the subway system itseld is such a great space. Mixing the past and the present, they compliment each other and really show how little/far we have come in society.
Art Noise: Public art is associated with social criticism and politics (in a large aspect). What’s your relation to politics? Banksy f. e did an installation during the Occupy Wallstreet. Would you do something like that?
Jilly Ballistic: In a sense, I feel the military images I install within public spaces has a political undertone. It’s subtle and not clearly defined or in your face, per se. However, I’ll gladly head to the other end of the spectrum if the time is right and get a precise point across. My work is site specific, environment oriented and very-in-the-moment, so yes, I have no problem speaking out. Someone has to.
Freudian Warning. The use of pigs to represent capitalist desires of “having more” may be an unintentional slip. Please review. Thank you, Jilly Ballistic (W4th St Station; NY Lotto Ad)
Art Noise: Why do you resort only American imagery of WW1&2 and not use also imagery from other contemporary poor or war damaged countries to make the contrast with today’s situation?
Jilly Ballistic: The 100th anniversary of the gas mask’s invention is coming up. I wanted to install the face of war then into our world today. This face has changed, but not the behavior. It feels as though you can take the characteristics and decisions of our governments from a century ago and put them side to side with our governments today and see a startling resemblance.
Art Noise: I saw your beautiful recent video https://vimeo.com/64965149 and I wonder: aren’t you afraid acting like this in front of the passengers? What if the police arrest you? What would the penalty be? How dangerous is it?
Jilly Ballistic: Passengers are curious and conversational. Once you start talking about your projects and their purpose, people become welcoming to what you’re doing and understanding. When I explain the materials I use don’t damage property and cost nothing to remove, suddenly it’s the Law that seems radical not the artist.
Art Noise: There’s no doubt that all this material you use costs. How do you manage your expenses? Is street art for sale?
Jilly Ballistic: Every now and then I receive requests to install custom images in homes or offices. All of the Policy Advisories can be printed and shipped. So yes, if someone is interested in buying a piece or having one made, they just need to reach out.
Art Noise: “Kill your television”. You have made a very beautiful “collage” by changing completely the meaning of a TV news ad simply by pasting the image of a soldier who shoots on TV. Do you really believe that TV can be killed for good by any media like Internet?
Jilly Ballistic: Television needs to adapt to the internet age or it will certainly die, or worse: become irrelevant. More Reality TV shows won’t save the day. You need quality programming. Trust that the viewer can handle intelligent or controversial social material.
When there is a well-written show, people become loyal viewers. So there’s evidence TV can make it. But executive producers can’t make 90% of their shows useless crap and hope that other 10% let’s them cruise along. The public has options and they’ll go elsewhere.
Kill Your Television (36th St; Queens bound R/M), Photo: Jilly Ballistic
Art Noise: You have lately posted a photo featuring an executive producer who proudly shows one of yours “Policy Advisory” affiches – framed!. We read: “Beauty is in the eye of the executive producer”. You have also criticized sexism by posting “sexism sells”. As a woman I like your gentle postfeminist approach…What do you think of sexist ads and the manipulation of beauty nowadays? You know, even an effort in Sweden to pass legislation against sexist adds has finally failed.
Jilly Ballistic: Both women and men should be insulted. When someone consistently tells you that you are lacking in some area and you need them to improve, or feel adequate, or for a sense of security when you walk out the door—that’s emotional blackmail and abuse. It’s an abusive relationship. Any company that resorts to those tactics needs to be called out, and simply by adding a piece of art over an ad you’re saying No to it.
“From dressing injuries to dressing supermodels.” (Northern Blvd; Queens bound; R train platform), photo: Jilly Ballistic
Art Noise: When I read your slogan “It’s all fun and games until morality makes it hurt” instead of reading the word morality I read mortality! Instantly my mind recalled the function of Synchronicity by Jung and I started making strange thoughts:
“What if only the awareness of mortality can lead us in a situation where you can seek the true ethos rather than the current ridiculous morality which devalued Nietzsche himself?” Or am I off the line? What do you think?
Jilly Ballistic: The progression of your thought process is exactly why I do what I do. You went through a series of emotions and questions that analyzed what you know or what you think you know. You read it one way, went down one rabbit hole, then re-read the Advisory which lead you down another. That’s perfect.
Art Noise: What are your current plans and dreams?
Jilly Ballistic: The plan is to keep going, to continue making work and experimenting; collaborate with other artists and locations. The plan is to go head first.
Art Noise: Have you ever been in Greece or do you want to come in Athens and paste some images to our subway? You’re welcome anytime!
Jilly Ballistic: I have never been to Greece but would definitely love the opportunity to get work up in the subway there. Afterwards, we can get something to eat and drink to celebrate.
* Vassilika Sarilaki, is an art critic and art historian.