In a gray T-shirt and jeans, Tyler Ballon leads me on a virtual tour of his studio at the Mana Contemporary Arts Center in Jersey City. The artist is humble and unassuming. Each time our Zoom call disconnects, he waits patiently as I tinker with the Internet. When I discover he’s only a month older than me, I recklessly exclaim, “Holy shit!” He lets out a chuckle and cracks a disarming grin that puts me at ease. He’s just an average 24-year-old, I think to myself. But, the truth is, he’s far from average.
For most of our discussion, he is perched on a stool with a massive, life-like painting behind him. It’s one of his most recent pieces, entitled “Apple of My Eye,” and it might as well be a photograph. It depicts a Black mother, wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. She is prepping her daughter’s hair for braids. It’s an intimate scene that is likely happening in thousands of households at this very moment. I’m awestruck by the painting’s sheer size and the angelic aesthetic of its characters—it’s truly a sight to behold. I experience a flood of emotions: love, fear, pride, joy, empathy. I don’t yet know it, but the reaction I’m having is exactly why Tyler paints.
As we delve deeper into our conversation, the painting behind the artist comes into focus. Tyler’s art is the culmination of a unique set of circumstances. Every experience—from Catholic school in Jersey City to the country’s most prestigious fine arts program—has forged the content, style and inspiration behind his work today.
Jersey City Might as Well Be Bethlehem
Tyler Ballon was born and raised in the Greenville section of Jersey City, which is considered one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in the area. He began drawing as a hobby when he was four-years-old, but as he grew older art became a form of meditation.
“It [art] was always something that was fun for me, but after a while, it became a coping mechanism for a lot of things that were going on,” he explained. “I grew up in a rough environment and my only escape was to make art. That was like my safe place.”
Today, Tyler lives in the same Jersey City neighborhood he grew up in. But, rather than escape his surroundings through art, he uses it as inspiration for the content of his work.
“My art was influenced by my environment, like stories around me,” he said. “Most of my best work, I felt, came from conversations with people who didn’t know anything about art, you know?”
The youngest of four, both of Tyler’s parents were local pastors who raised their children in the Pentecostal church. However, his parents never saw the merit of art in a religious context. In fact, it wasn’t until Tyler attended Catholic school—first St. Patrick’s and then St. Aloysius Elementary Academy—that he discovered the artwork that would inspire his pieces today.
“I wasn’t really confronted with religious artwork until I went to Catholic school,” he said. “It’s really where it all started for me, looking at early Christian artwork and being confronted with artists like Michelangelo.”
To his dismay, none of the figures Tyler admired in biblical art were Black. That’s why today, his paintings focus on portraying people of color as characters in the Bible. In doing so, he fuses the everyday life experiences from Greenville, Jersey City with scripture—finding God in every waking moment.
Tyler describes this dynamic—the fusion of the Black experience with scripture—by showing me one of his paintings that was recently displayed on the walls of City Hall in his hometown. The painting is entitled “Emancipated.”
“It’s a prisoner being set free, like the Apostle Paul or Peter being set free from prison in the Bible,” he explains. “But really I’m speaking to Black males in America who are put behind bars unjustly, but they’re given their freedom and that freedom comes from God.”
Ultimately, in telling these stories from the Black community through the relatable context of the Bible, Tyler hopes to spark a dialogue and create empathy among people who aren’t familiar with these experiences. As he writes of himself on his website, “By painting this and bringing exposure to these problems, he is creating work that represents the pain of all people of color…Also informing individuals who’ve never been through these experiences.”
Taking His Craft to the Next Level
Though Tyler started drawing for fun at a young age, it wasn’t until he attended Snyder High School that he began taking art seriously. At the time, he was creating elaborate drawings using colored pencils, when a fateful trip to Los Angeles changed his trajectory.
“I was inspired by a painting I saw by Kehinde Wiley in a museum in LA and the scale that it was on,” he said. “I realized it would take me forever to try to do that with a colored pencil.”
The painting by Kehinde Wiley would inspire a major shift in his creative process. He dropped colored pencils in favor of painting, which enabled him to create pieces on a much larger scale. Today, nearly all of his figures are life-size or larger, which he believes makes his work more impactful.
However, Tyler didn’t become a first-class painter overnight. He worked relentlessly at his craft, practicing day in and day out until he was satisfied with his progression.
“I wasn’t good right away, but I was determined to be the best painter I could be. So I just did it every day until I saw improvement,” he said.
Tyler also notes that an A.P. art program, the Jersey City Arts Program, helped point him in the right direction. It was no walk in the park, but during this experience, he discovered the resolve and dedication to maximize his abilities as an artist.
“If you show that you’re dedicated and passionate about what you’re doing, they [program mentors] will give you insight,” he explained. “But, I really felt like you just learned to be a better artist the more you put in.”
After high school, Tyler was awarded a hefty scholarship to the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA)—one of the most prestigious fine arts programs in the country. Although he had offers from other distinguished art schools, MICA’s painting department was the perfect fit for Tyler.
“They gave me the best scholarship and I was really impressed. I heard a lot of good things about their painting department and I wanted to be a painter, so it only made sense for me to go to MICA.”
It was here that Tyler truly came into his own as an artist. He was also introduced to various artists and faculty members who helped hone his craft. Such as Amy Sherald, who is known for her portrait of former First Lady Michelle Obama. Sherald, who became a mentor of Tyler’s, bonded with him over a common yearning to see Black figures in paintings. Today, Sherald has a studio just a few floors up from Tyler’s at Mana Contemporary.
By any empirical measurement, Tyler Ballon is already a huge success. The 24-year-old sells enough paintings to maintain his studio in Jersey City and support himself as an independent artist. He’s also gained an extensive following, with various profiles written about him in digital publications, video segments in the news focusing on his art and well over 13,000 followers on his Instagram page. Not to mention, his work has been displayed in his hometown’s City Hall and, more impressively, in the U.S. Capitol.
But as I speak to Tyler over Zoom, it’s abundantly clear that these accolades are merely icing on the cake. For instance, when I ask him about Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube—debatably the most iconic artists in hip-hop—reposting one of his paintings on Instagram, Tyler’s response is impressively modest. Although no one credits him for the painting online, he’s just happy to know he’s moving in the right direction. For Tyler, what really matters is that people receive his message.
Earlier, I mentioned the painting behind Tyler because the response it drew from my heart is why he’s an artist. I’m a white male with a completely different background than the figures portrayed in the painting. But, as I gazed upon the mother doing her daughter’s hair, I immediately empathized with the characters. I recalled my own mother washing my hair in the bathtub and how fiercely she loved me as a child. It isn’t any different than the intense affection displayed in this painting.
After speaking to Tyler, I’m convinced that moments like these are worth their weight in gold for the artist. Through his biblical depictions of the Black experience, Tyler Ballon is creating empathy at a time when we’ve never needed it more.