The Joy of Life

This is a photograph I took in March of 1998. The graffiti in the picture (Seo) was painted by Jonathan Lim, a friend of mine, on March 17th, 1998. He was better known as Tie. This is the last thing he ever painted.

After, he walked around the corner and began to climb a rooftop in a notorious drug infested area of the Tenderloin district of San Francisco. As he climbed the metal bars on a window, the resident, a Vietnam vet, came out and shot him in the back of the head. Jonathan was pronounced dead shortly after.

I post this picture because of the enormous impact his murder had on me and others in the San Francisco graffiti community at the time, but more so because of the impact he had when he was living.

As seen in this photograph, he had chosen a visible rooftop in the city centre to paint his 'throw' with the sad face symbol under the fading advertisement “The joy of life”. The ultimate sadness that he presciently anticipated that night is of course painfull. But, I don't think Jonathan was sad that night, instead he was responding to the urban environment by playing with signs and symbols. He had summed up this way of working to me a week earlier succinctly as “opposites”. Or confronting one sense of perception and meaning with a disparate other.

He had drawn prolifically a year or so before, a set of characters that used entirely another established artist's visual language, but in his version the faces were upside-down, bodies reversed, or recombined. He had absorbed and then reduced this other artist's work to a set of symbols that he could repurpose for his own meaning. He quickly moved beyond this phase and began working with more widespread iconography. There was something profoundly direct about his approach.

It is this directness, and the directness in which he applied all his ideas to the city landscape with a highly honed site specificity, that impact me to this day. Like collage, his work was dialectic. Confrontationally and consciously so.