The Many Lives of a French-American Graffiti Legend

He cut his teeth “bombing” New York City subway cars before carving out a niche on the French urban art market and in the biggest museums in the country. In the run-up to his exhibition The World of Tomorrow, opening in Le Touquet on June 17, we looked back over the career of artist John “JonOne” Perello, who has lived in France for almost 40 years.
© Gwen le Bras

John Perello has left the Paris area to spend a few days in his house on the Ile de Ré. Speaking on the phone, children’s voices and birdsong can be heard throughout our conversation while the artist tends his garden. A brief respite for this highly solicited figure. He has spent several months preparing his exhibition at the Musée du Touquet in the Pas-de-Calais département. In early spring he was in Miami, where he inaugurated a show at the Fabien Castanier Gallery and created an outdoor mural across a wall spanning more than 130 feet. Before that, he spent a week in Montgomery, Alabama, finishing an open-air painting called DNA, just next to the Rosa Parks Museum.

In this city with a complex history, where “you can still feel a sort of segregation, a sort of tension,” his abstract style is a big hit. Instead of painting a new political mural commemorating the civil rights movement, he covered a vast beige wall in rainbow-colored arabesques. “My work provided a little lightness and brought Black and White people together,” he says. “I realized the impact an abstract artist could have on a community. This is one of the most interesting works of my career.”

John Perello started on the streets of New York City. During the 1980s, he equipped himself with a spray-paint can and covered the walls with love notes to his girlfriend at the time. This was followed by tags with thick, round letters on storefronts and subway cars, marking “Jon,” “Jon156” (in reference to the Washington Heights street where he grew up in Upper Manhattan), or “JoneOne,” which became his signature. Around the same time, a friend introduced him to the art world in the south of the city, the galleries in SoHo, and parties at Studio 54, where he met Basquiat and Warhol. “I’ve always been very curious,” he says. “I was lucky to meet the right people.”

In 1987, on an invitation from French graffiti artist Philippe “Bando” Lehman, he flew to Paris. “I was tired of America, tired of being the bad guy,” says the painter, who has Dominican heritage and became a French citizen a few years ago. “I needed new opportunities. If I had stayed in New York City, I would probably be dead, in prison, or in rehab right now. Life in the ghetto… France has been far more welcoming.”

A Pioneer on the Urban Art Market

JonOne found his place in the flourishing alternative scene in the French capital. He listened to Radio Nova, the independent FM station broadcasting from the Bastille neighborhood, and worked in the 18th arrondissement, where the old, abandoned Bretonneau Hospital hosted artists’ workshops. This was where he created his first Abstract Expressionist pieces, which helped launch the urban art market some ten years later. Balle de match, painted with a spray can in 1993, crossed the symbolic 20,000-euro threshold at Artcurial on June 6, 2007. According to Arnaud Oliveux, associate director of the Parisian auction house, the sale was a “defining” event in the artist’s career, “and more generally for the graffiti market.”

R.I.P. Rest in Peace, 1991. © JonOne, courtesy of Artcurial
John Perello at work at the Hôpital Ephémère, Paris, 1993. © Michel Robert
Untitled, 1994. © JonOne
Untitled, ca. 1998-2000. © JonOne
Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, 2015. © JonOne, photo by Bruno Brounch
Ne Lâche Rien, 2021. © JonOne, photo by Bruno Brounch
A Child’s Dream, 2022. © JonOne, photo by Bruno Brounch

Artcurial has played “a major role in JonOne’s market development,” says the auctioneer. “We have achieved great results on both older and more recent pieces.” The numbers speak for themselves: 71,240 euros for R.I.P . Rest in Peace (1991) in February 2014, 77,000 euros for When da Truth Speaks (2009) in June 2018, 80,600 euros for A to the Z in 5 Seconds (1990) in November 2019, and 46,800euros for Spring Time in Paris (1990) in February 2020. The market has since “calmed down a bit,” with sales between 5,000 and 25,000 euros.

The artist’s masterstroke remains the sale… of a Rolls-Royce. In November 2012, he was invited to paint former soccer player and actor Eric Cantona’s car live on the set of Le Grand Journal on the Canal+ network. This artwork-on-wheels was then sold for 125,000 euros, which was donated to the Fondation Abbé Pierre. Around the same time, JonOne exhibited his work at the Grand Palais, the Fondation Cartier, and the Agnès b. gallery. Street art was hot, and the American artist was approached by all the biggest French brands, including Air France, Lacoste, Guerlain, Perrier, Hennessy, and even Thalys, who asked him to paint one of its Paris-Brussels trains!

His official recognition came on January 21, 2015, when his painting Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, a twist on Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People towering at more than 10 feet high, became part of the French National Assembly’s permanent collection. The event took place just a few days after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and became a symbol in itself. “This painting represents struggle, resistance, and refusing all forms of fatalism,” said Claude Bartolone, the president of the National Assembly. “It is a fusion of the most moving aspects of classical and contemporary art.”

Remembering this day, the speeches, and the awards, John Perello hesitates for a moment: “Do I feel French? Do I feel American? I’m not sure… I’m just John, the guy who lives this crazy life.” More than 40 years after taking his first steps in New York City, he will be presenting his latest abstract works in Le Touquet. This series comments on the harmful effects of social media, the disappearance of writing by hand in schools, the importance of dreaming, and our changing world – all backed by the same flood of color. “My work has evolved a lot,” he says. “I’m a versatile artist. That’s how I’ve survived all these years!”

JonOne: The World of Tomorrow
, from June 17 to November 5, 2023, at the Musée du Touquet-Paris-Plage.

Article published in the June 2023 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.