Navani Knows Graffiti: Interview with Artist James Top

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I first met graffiti veteran James Top via The Halftime Show, when he would come on to promote the huge annual Graffiti Show in NYC that pays homage to the culture. He has always been an advocate for the art form and keeping its integrity in mainstream society. It’s always great to come across someone who is passionate about their art and spreading its message to the community. It has not always been easy to gain the respect he deserves as an artist. It has been a long fight to be viewed not just as a common vandal when he started in the ’70s, but a respectable artist. However, you would never know it by his positive disposition. With his work currently in the Schomburg Center as part of the exhibit Cover to Cover: 20 Years of African Voices it seems like he is finally victorious in this fight. I caught up with James at the opening reception to find out what his inspiration was for his piece; how the Internet has affected graffiti art and why he thinks it is the art form of the future:

Why has there been so much resistance on graffiti being accepted as part of African-American culture?

African-Americans have such little knowledge about this [graffiti] art form, not knowing that this art form is our art form. It’s the only art form besides Jazz created by us. It was created in our community and now it is worldwide and a lot of these artists are showing all over the world. We created it and everybody emulated us. It was started and created in our community and then the media connected it with vandalism and criminality and it’s so far from true.

What was the inspiration for your trademark Afro symbol which is in all your pieces and in the cover piece “You Can’t Shut Us Down” ?

When I was growing up in the projects – I grew up in the Louis H.P. Houses in East New York, Brooklyn – it was a project belt. There were project buildings in every direction. So, I never got a chance to see any art. Across the street from where I lived there was a place called Times Square Stores and I would go in there and see these head shops. I would always see these Afro posters of this Black guy with a big Afro with either a leopard or with his girl who also had a big Afro. Those were the only pictures or closest thing to art I would see of Black people. So, I started emulating that. I would go into the train yard which was across the street from my house and I would emulate that afro. That would become the way I would express myself and my trademark. That was my style, my unique thing to stand out amongst other graff artists.

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How important was graffiti art in your development as a man?

My whole thing was to get self-esteem because I grew up in these projects and I always thought, “how do I become different when we are all clumped up in here the same way?” So, I found a way to give myself self-esteem and give myself an opportunity to be somebody – somebody different. I never smoked back then and all my friends started smoking and doing other things. But instead, I started doing graffiti art and today I am here with a lot of other great Black artists and I am very humbled and I am very blessed to be in this circle. For all my life I have been trying to express myself and be someone that represents my community in a positive way.

How did you get involved with African Voices Magazine to do their back cover in 2006?

I had a show at the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration and I met Caroline Butts [Executive Director at African Voices Communications] there. She was saying that the magazine [African Voices] was interested in me. I knew very little about the magazine at the time – that it was one of the leading magazines for African American artists- because my whole thing was to try to get into the Source or VIBE or one of the Hip-Hop magazines. That was where they usually put graffiti art, in Hip Hop and not with Black Culture. But ironically, it was African Voices that gave me my first cover, not any of the Hip-Hop publications. So, Caroline came up to Harlem and did a story on me and my wall called “The People’s Wall.” The wall is no longer up but it featured portraits of Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. That was something I wanted to do with my art – to do greater things and spread a bigger message. For a Black person what better place is there to do art than Harlem? That is our Mecca. That is where Black Culture was born. So, when I came here I didn’t want to be known as that same guy that used to write on the trains and in the streets. I wanted to help beautify my community. I wanted to be a part of the fabric of the community.

Besides being an artist you have also spent time being an educator in the community. Can you tell me about that?

I wanted to teach the youth about this art form. I was the director of art at the Harlem YMCA for about eight years. I also taught at Hostos Community college. I am a very strong advocate of graffiti art and getting it into the fabric of our academic systems here. I’m trying to help tear down the stereotypes associated with this art form. My television show called Graffiti NYC has been on the air for 15 years and that’s where I get a chance to do that. So, over the last 15 years I have been to just about every major graffiti event in NYC. I also got an opportunity to travel to Europe this year as well as Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I was involved in a project with the Museum of Public Art and we did a mural in Baton Rouge as part of the 14th Street mural project.

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Do you think the Internet has helped or hindered the art form?

I think the Internet has helped. It has given us an opportunity to get information out there easily and people can see art work much faster. I don’t get much work from the Internet (laughs). I get my work still by word of mouth. But we can only hope to grow with the Internet like everybody else. Now you can see graffiti shows online, you don’t actually have to be there so I think that’s a good thing because people can see something they might like and purchase it.

What is the future of graffiti art in your opinion?

I see bigger and better things in the future. Spray paint is the medium of the future; painting with paint brushes is out. Of course, it’s always hard for artists, especially artists of color and graffiti artists on top of that. So there’s label on top of label. But you know what, there is no burden you can’t carry. So I always go into all these projects with a certain amount of enthusiasm and just good vibes and energy.

What’s next for you?

I’m currently working with the Schomburg staff to present a James Top & The Odd Partners exhibition in the near future, The Stay High 149 short documentary by me will be showing at The People’s Film Festival in Harlem at the Maysles Theater from May 30th to June 1, 2013 and in The 2013 NYC Graffiti Film Festival at Gallery 69 in NYC in April 2013. The Best of Graffiti NYC is now available, for more info email us: graffitinyctv@gmail.com. I will be doing some more painting in January and I am just looking forward to life.

Where can people find you online and learn more about what you are doing?

People can see more of my work at www.jamestopproductions.com. You can also email me at graffitinyctv@gmail.com. Check out the show Graffiti NYC on every Sunday at 1:30 am on channel 67 on MNN network (Manhattan only) or live steam on the net at www.mnn.org.

You can see James Top’s work featured in the exhibit Cover to Cover: 20 Years of African Voices at the Schomburg Center through January 19th, 2013.