In 2013, Shells created his Rap Quotes installations: a series of notable quotables from a litany of lyrical legends. Hand-selected by Shells with assistance from @TheRapQuotes Twitter account co-founded by his younger brother, Shells created over four hundred ‘rap quote’ street signs and personally installed them across six major cities/areas, including Atlanta, the Bay Area, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and Philadelphia.
The Rap Quotes project culminated in April 2019 with the release of The Rap Quotes Coast to Coast – his photo-journal book showcasing the cross-country Rap Quotes installations, all documented by Aymann Ismail – the video editor, producer and winner of the 2018 ASME NEXT Awards for Journalists Under 30 and Gerald A. Renner Award for Excellence in Enterprise Religion Reporting awards.
With quotes from Big L, Slick Rick, GZA, RZA, Danny Brown, Black Thought, Action Bronson and dozens more, The Rap Quotes Coast to Coast is equal parts art, hip-hop, construction and archaeology – a five-year tangible thesis expertly captured by Ismail.
Celebrating the release of The Rap Quotes Coast to Coast while focusing on pyrography – his long-running passion project – Shells took the time to discuss his beginnings, his brilliant “Geraldo Martin” street art piece and his current and all-time favorite MCs.
I began my journey of artistic expression like every other person did – my parents put some crayons in my hand and I just never put them down. All children need a creative outlet. Drawing is very important, not just for children and young people but for people of all ages. Drawing is thinking. When you sit down and draw, your mind can travel and dig and reflect. It gives you the opportunity to heal yourself, to learn, to consider.
Everyone should spend at least a few minutes a day drawing. Drawing anything at all.
ON INITIAL INTEREST IN HIP-HOP
I was born in 1979, so I grew up with hip-hop. I mean, we’re just about the same age. Not to say that everyone my age likes rap music, but I certainly gravitated towards it. I’ve always loved a good beat, and the storytelling in rap music sure captured my attention. I’m absolutely still drawn to rap music and hip-hop culture. Not everything that comes out is to my liking, and I certainly lean towards music that’s nostalgic for me personally, but I’m not one of these bitter old heads who shits on all the new stuff.
For many years, I was very curious about the potential of using a soldering iron in my work. I would frequently walk past them in the art supply store and almost buy one, but never did. For me, the subject matter and idea of the piece dictates the medium. I never bought the soldering iron because I didn’t have a reason to use it… no idea, no concept.
That changed one day when I was walking my dog along West 16th Street. There was this mailbox that I always looked at. Like most NYC mailboxes, it was absolutely covered in graffiti, stickers, old flyers, tape, paint chips, bird shit, etc. I myself had contributed to this wild street collage, and everyday it would change. Someone would rip off a sticker or part of a sticker, catch a new tag, buff an old one, put up a flyer, take one down and so forth.
But this one day, it was perfect.
It looked like it was so carefully curated, so purposefully decorated. I wanted to rip it out of the ground and bring it into my house. I’m super-interested in the ethereal nature of city surfaces like these and how they are constantly changing and evolving. I decided to take a photo of the mailbox to use as reference for a portrait, which I was planning to paint. In considering what exactly it was about this mailbox that attracted me, I decided to make a very permanent portrait of this mailbox by burning into a wood panel. This lead me to the store to purchase a soldering iron.
The process of painstakingly burning the image into wood, dot by dot, was the antithesis of the fast craziness that lead to the making of the mailbox on the street itself. I found that interesting. That piece set me on a path to attempting to master this medium, which I’m still working at seven years later.
ON “GERALDO MARTIN”
That project didn’t work out as I expected.
I don’t think that many people were aware of what Geraldo said, so most comments were completely irrelevant to the piece. That’s what happens when you open a dialogue with the public though, you just don’t know what you’re going to get. It wasn’t a successful piece because most people didn’t get it.
ON PUBLIC RESPONSE v. PRIVATE VISION
I don’t put any effort into balancing the public’s response to my work and my own expression. Of course, I care what people think of my work – I absolutely do. But I make work mostly for myself. I’m my first audience. If I decide a creative pursuit needs a larger audience, I’ll get it out on the street; then it’s no longer mine and people will respond however they wish.
As far as ingesting the culture around me in order to create my work—YES, of course! My work the last few years has quite literally been mixed up collages/portraits of things I encounter while walking around the city. So I actually need to absorb my surroundings to make my work.
My style evolves constantly. My work is not immediately recognizable outside of specific campaigns (The Rap Quotes, Metropolitan Etiquette Authority). Execution, medium and style, for me, is decided based on the idea or message I’m trying to get across. I don’t see any of my work as a trap, but I certainly don’t ever want to be typecast, which is probably why I keep changing what I’m working on.
Lucky (or unlucky) for me, my artwork isn’t my main source of income, so money has no say in what I make. I’m a Creative Director and designer. That pays my bills. My artwork is my therapy.
ON FAVORITE LYRICISTS
I think O.C. is one of the greatest storytellers ever in rap (yes, better than Slick Rick). Some others who I think are gifted with the pen (and flow), in no particular order: Pharoahe Monch, Kendrick Lamar, André & Big Boi, Pun, Biggie, Pac, JID, Em, Homeboy Sandman, Aesop Rock. So many, really. More than I can list. But these are the first to come to mind right now.
Follow Jay Shells on jayshells.com and on Instagram @jayshells_ IG