~ Milica Puric ~ 

1. Work in progress, John N. Yaou

Work in progress – John N. Yaou

‘I spent two years in US Navy military. I have been in Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel and when I came back to the United States, I got involved with the Law enforcement, spent there next 10 years, and through it, enrolled in Art School and became an artist,’ said John N Yaou, 37, Chicago based graffiti artist, who recently, with a couple of other artists presented his work in Studio Oh, Erwin Overes’ newly opened art gallery on Montrose street in Chicago.
John N. Yaou studied art with a concentration in the sculpture and ceramics at Northeastern Illinois University. In 2012 he earned bachelor’s degree in nontraditional studies, but after graduating he wasn’t sure what exactly he would like to do in art. ‘I didn’t do any painting. I still worked on sculpture, ceramics, and clay, but I lost passion for that… Graffiti was the only thing that I was actually still interested in.”
That had a lot of sense, because he has been doing graffiti his entire life, since he was a child, when he entered into graffiti world with the help of the older friends. That is how he started getting to know the art gets his voice as an artist.

2. 'Home', John's famous graffiti

‘Home’, John Yaou’s famous graffiti

But, drawing graffiti on the walls and inside of the city’s trains was dangerous because they were destroying properties and that was against the law. ‘We did graffiti everywhere and I can’t tell you how many times I ran out from the police… We wanted to put our names somewhere where everybody can see it, not only graffiti artists. We wanted to leave our own stylized signatures… That’s why we didn’t do graffiti in alleys because nobody goes there. You wanna do graffiti on the walls or on the trains because thousands of people ride trains and all of them can see your work… ‘

As a kid, he learned skills from older graffiti artist and his work today is the homage to them and to Chicago. He came from the Greek family and he even lived in Greece as a child, but his true love was always the ‘Windy City’. “This is the city that raised me, the city I love and hate at the same time. That is the reason I paint a lot of things about Chicago…’

John’s passion for graffiti continued during his high school. He was lucky to get a lot of support from his teachers who encouraged students to do graffiti, but the biggest and the most important encouragement he got from teachers at Northeastern University.

Getting Up 60x48

Another famous work ‘Getting Up’,  60×48

‘I tried to go to a few different schools, but I didn’t like it. I went to the school of Art Institute and Columbia, but didn’t like it because they push their own brand of art. Then I went to the Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago and that was the best learning experience for me.

The atmosphere at the University was great because it has an incredible art program,’ he said. The instructors were wonderful, and they took interest in students, teaching them how to be professional artists. Many of them remained friends with students after graduation… They didn’t tell us what to do. They let us be artists and they nurtured us through their honest critics. They never said what we should make, not pushed a brand of art… I like that freedom because we could create what we wanted to create… I was lucky enough to work with them, especially with Dennis L. Mitchell…’ 

Students worked a lot because the atmosphere was so inspiring and motivating. They talked a lot to each other and exchanged their experience. Sometimes, he remembers, he would work there until 2 or 3 in the morning and then he would open the door of his classroom and yelled: ‘Hey, who’s here?’ To his surprise everybody was there, working. ‘I was lucky to be there at that time, because so many talented artists came from Northeastern University at that time.’

After graduating he focused on graffiti and celebrating urban/street art. He was intrigued by the idea of merging the gap between fine art and street art.


John in his studio working on his work ‘Home’

‘Graffiti is graffiti and fine art is fine art. That’s the way critics, gallery owners, curators and entire art world see it. They don’t see graffiti as a fine art. But, I feel differently. I feel that in 15-20 years down the road we are going to look back and realize that graffiti was an art form. For now, it’s great to see how graffiti is being more respectable as an art form, because when I started nobody took them seriously. Everybody thought they were just done by gang members, but they were not. They are an art form.’

As a fine artist, John was very interested in the idea of merging graffiti and fine art.

‘You can take elements from graffiti and from fine art and merge them for the general public. You can show that graffiti can be a fine art.’ That’s what he does in his work.

Talking about artists who change the graffiti art scene and public’s opinion about them, John said that the most important artist wasn’t Bansky, but Keith Haring. He was an American artist whose pop art and graffiti-like work grew out of the New York City street culture of the 1980s. He grew up in New York and a lot of people don’t realize that they have seen his work, but they are not aware that he was the artist. He made graffiti acceptable for wider audience. 

In My Feels 40x30

‘In My Feels, 40×30

 Banksy, anonymous England-based street artist, and political activist, ‘stole a lot from graffiti artist. That’s why a lot of graffiti artists from the graffiti art community don’t like him. But I think what he did for graffiti culture was very important because he made graffiti popular and more acceptable for public. What was Jean-Michel Basquiat for urban art, that was Bansky for street art. Bansky merged the gap between graffiti and street art. He made that more acceptable for galleries and collectors and that is a great service for other artists.’

Street art and graffiti are not the same. ‘It is a misconception that graffiti always need to have some sort of political message and fight against political and social injustice’, John said. ‘Street art expresses protest, graffiti express more brotherhood. It brings the community together. When I was growing up I made so many friends through graffiti because we all share love for that art, style… When I was growing up art was taken away from the schools and that was our way of saying: ‘f… you!’ you are not going to silence us!  For us, that was the competition who can be the best. For us, that was the art form.’

~ Milica Puric © ~

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