There’s something about a can of spray paint that seems gritty, utilitarian, even illicit — the tool of laborer or a criminal, not a fine artist. Yet the inelegant can of spray paint is Reno artist Joe C. Rock’s tool of choice, one he uses to help transform neighborhoods around Reno.
In fact, it could be argued that Midtown’s distinctive vibe wouldn’t be the same without its murals … and the vision of some of its business owners.
“Those young business owners taking over businesses came in and realized, ‘I can hire a painter to come paint this wall gray and probably get graffiti written all over it,’” Rock pointed out. “Or, for the same amount of money, they can get someone to come paint artwork on the side of the building. It probably won’t get touched by graffiti. It’ll get photographed and Instagrammed, and it’ll create talk in the community.”
It was this power to instantly beautify, command attention from and become part of the community that led Rock to try mural art in 2010. His style, which he calls “street art” and which tends to address social justice issues, was often characterized as “lowbrow” by gallery owners with preferences for nonthreatening landscapes. It was the mural work that, ironically, fueled growing interest in his small-scale paintings, leading him to receive invitations to participate in shows. Still, he prefers murals.
“When you paint a mural on the side of a building, everyone drives by it every day, and even if they aren’t always paying attention, they start to recognize it,” he said, explaining that murals have given him memorability. Plus, there’s another benefit: “When I finish a mural, I get to walk away. I don’t have to try to sell myself over and over. But with canvas work, you have to store it, post it, put it in an art show, and keep reminding people it’s there.”
Developing a voracious appetite for art
In Rock’s memories of his childhood, he always had a pencil in his hand, doodling and practicing his writing at his mother’s urging. By age 5, he was tracing comic books, mimicking the comic art style, as well as being influenced by his older cousin, a graffiti artist.
While a student at Wooster High School, he began exploring a wide variety of mediums, from drawing and painting to ceramics, stop-motion animation, metalwork and woodwork. The more he learned, the more voracious his appetite for it. He began borrowing library books about masters such as Picasso and Pollock and becoming deeply influenced by Dali’s surrealist style and Rembrandt’s portraiture. With passion and practice, he taught himself to produce photorealistic portraits, which merged with his graffiti and type treatments and the vivid colors and framing of comic books to become his distinctive style — found in the roughly 50 murals he’s produced in and around Reno.
The last few years have brought him considerable success, with invitations here and around the U.S. to exhibit his work in shows. His most recent exhibit at Sierra Arts Gallery, Gone South, featured a collection of works inspired by his travels in the Southern U.S. and South America.
But like most working artists, he’s kept “day jobs” to supplement his unpredictable artist income, from running the cash register at Junkee Clothing Exchange in Midtown to his current apprenticeship at Lasting Dose Tattoo & Art Collective. It was at Junkee, in fact, where he first attempted mural work in 2010. The difference between painting on canvas and the side of a building was more dramatic than he’d expected.
“I was painting small portraits, signs, stuff like that, and then I got commissioned to do a mural in front of Junkee,” he said, laughing. “I thought I knew what I was doing, like, ‘Oh, I can paint portraiture, I’ll do that, just bigger.’ But it was harder than I’d thought it would be.” It turned out that the details he labored over to make his small paintings lifelike didn’t quite translate into large-scale murals. “I was able to make it a cool painting, but it was not what I’d been trying to do.”
But as his mural opportunities grew, so did his understanding of the genre. Murals, he said, can be done more quickly than small paintings, since the tools of the trade — spray paint, large paint brushes, rollers — can cover more area, and there’s little need for intricate details. “With a mural, you need to be 10, even 50 feet away to be able to see the whole thing, whereas with a canvas you’re going to get your nose right up in front of it, so you can see every little stroke and detail,” he explained.
It’s the surprises inherent in mural work that he loves — the imprecision, the need to be distant to fully grasp it. “I love my murals being very messy up close, like they’re just splatters of paint and weird lines,” he said. “Then when you step back, you see the creases in their skin, the sparkles in their eyes. You can’t really get that across on a canvas.”
Black man with a paint can
Despite its many advantages, though, mural work carries associations that can be troublesome. There’s the lack of clarity over what walls can legally be painted with a mural. Then there’s the debate over whether graffiti is art or vandalism. Murals frequently reference society’s ills, which can cause controversy. And, in Rock’s case, there’s the simple matter of being a Black man in a parking lot holding a can of spray paint.
In summer of 2020, Rock came face to face with all of these concerns when he produced what could arguably be called his most-recognized, most-controversial work to date.
Following the death of George Floyd, as Black Lives Matters protests took place around the country, rioters hit the streets of downtown Reno, smashing doors and windows, spray painting buildings and setting fires. After the considerable damage done to Reno’s City Hall building, plywood and temporary metal railings became its battle scars. Rock reached out to his longtime friend, Reno Mayor Hillary Schieve. “I was like, ‘Hey, if you guys want me to paint over any of this with a good message, something to get behind everything that’s going on, let’s do that.’” He explained that, in many larger cities such as Austin and Miami, boarded-up windows had become a popular canvas for muralists, turning blight into art.
It took some time for the City to come around to his proposal, and when it did, he back-burnered another commission for the opportunity. But he had conditions.
“I said right from the beginning what I wanted to do,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to paint a butterfly on the wall. I want to paint something relevant. I want to paint a fist. I want to paint Colin Kaepernick.’ And they agreed from the beginning … but then more people started getting involved and didn’t like it.”
Before long, his sketches were given to the police, who opposed the images, which included a version of NWA’s memorable “Fuck tha Police” album cover, with “BLM” replacing “NWA” and the group members’ names replaced with BLM touchstones Alton Sterling and Eric Garner, among others. “I was trying to paint something for the people it mattered to, but the whole thing got blown out of proportion,” he said. “I got cease-and-desist letters. I was told I was painting negative and inappropriate artwork. I got hassled by the police like 10 times. I was harassed by people every day, coming up and telling me, ‘All lives matter.’”
The final array of images came together to spell out “Unity,” a message quite different from that he received from some members of the community, which brought the reasons for the protests and riots into sharp relief for Rock. “I knew what was going on,” he said. “I knew I was a young Black man with gold teeth and tattoos all over me, who paints graffiti and street art. I knew how people saw me in that situation.”
Though he received only a fraction of the payment he would usually receive for a mural of this size, he managed to negotiate for ownership of the work after it was taken down, which was only a few weeks later. But though some of the most vocal feedback he received was negative, many others were moved by the work and responded positively. Rock has since displayed the plywood mural during the Sierra Arts show and feels proud of the work and its message.
“This was something that was historic, something that I put my heart and soul into because I thought it would heal the community and bring it together,” he said.
Photos: Kris Vagner
Joe C. Rock’s murals are visible all over Reno, on Instagram, and on the artist’s website. @joecrock13 or his website. You can also learn more about his work on one of Art Spot Reno’s mural tours on the second Saturday of each month.This article was funded by a City of Reno CARES Act grant and produced by Double Scoop and the Sierra Nevada Ally. Together, these news outlets are working to increase the amount of quality local arts and culture journalism.