It began the usual way, 80 feet in the air on top of scaffolding with an aerosol can. For Jersey City artist DISTORT, who seldom reveals his true identity, this is nothing out of the ordinary. Located just outside of the Holland Tunnel, DISTORT’s “Kingdom” is the largest mural painted by a single artist in New Jersey. This staggering piece took hundreds of hours to complete, spanning the course of about six weeks, which even for him, is an eternity for one project. It’s also the largest of the renowned graffiti artist’s young career—featuring jaw-dropping dimensions of 80 feet by 200 feet.
DISTORT, who began tagging at 13, has focused much of his professional portfolio in the Northeast. Though mural painting has also sent him to Miami, Los Angeles and far-flung cities such as Istanbul, DISTORT’s true canvas is the Garden State. Even with his catalog of almost 100 murals along with several other accomplishments as an artist, “Kingdom’’ may be his most impactful project—mainly because of its location and sheer size.
As of 2016 when the mural was finished, over 15 million cars passed by the building per year, making it an ideal placement for “Kingdom.” Speaking with pride, DISTORT gives an inside perspective of what it was like to make such a massive piece of public art, along with the story behind its meaning.
How do you define success as a graffiti artist? Did you ever envision this career?
It’s hard to define success as a graffiti artist. Graffiti is kind of a medium that you can be good at or always work on. To me, success as an artist, that’s like changing people’s perception. I think there’s a lot of people from the graffiti world that have achieved that. As far as envisioning this as a career, I’ve always wanted to be an artist and really respected the history of art. To be a part of its legacy is a goal of mine to always aspire towards.
Tell me about the creation of “Kingdom.” How did you come up with the idea for the design?
I tried to capture Jersey City as a labyrinth. I always try and think about where I’m painting in terms of what the mural should look like. Jersey City is not a grid at all, it has all these levels and kind of passageways and that’s something I’ve always loved about it. So I was thinking about the mythology of the labyrinth and especially the fact that it’s located at the entrance to a tunnel.
Is there a story behind the human-like figures? What about the tunnel?
The story of the minotaur from Greek mythology. In it, there’s a hero named Theseus and he slays a minotaur—it’s like a man with the head of a bull. In our times, the bull is a symbol for the financial markets and to me, that became the minotaur that’s on the other side of the Holland Tunnel. The mural itself is kind of this passageway for our hero to enter into. In the story, it’s King Minos from Crete who demanded seven young girls be sacrificed to the minotaur and this cannibalism that is being fought, that’s the explanation for some of the figures.
What was it like to create something this large? How different was it from your usual works?
It was actually really fun. I like painting big. I was kind of surprised by how sometimes really subtle marks read from down below. So I could be really high up and just touch pretty lightly with the paint and it would do the trick from down below. It also made it so that I could put a lot of imagery in. There are tons of little pictures within pictures that go through the entire mural and all of them have little meanings to them.
“Kingdom” took you hundreds of hours to complete. What was the biggest challenge with creating it?
It took about six weeks. I kind of just lost track of time but the biggest challenge was actually some of the constraints on the physical location because there’s a lot of traffic. We were blocking traffic to use the biggest boom lift which would get me up high so I could only do the high-up stuff at night. We’d have the police come to block off the traffic. Also, the building itself is a trucking company so the trucks had to be able to go in and out. So just a lot of logistics, but the Jersey City Mural Program really helped coordinate everything.
What does it mean for you to have such a large and vibrant mural of yours not only in New Jersey’s second-most populous city, but just outside of an entrance to the nation’s most populated city?
It’s awesome. I forget about it a lot and then I remember that it’s there and it makes me feel very happy. I go to that Home Depot sometimes and I’ll just be driving up the ramp and you see it in the rearview mirror, it’s cool. If it’s a rainy day and I don’t feel good sometimes I’ll go check it out cause I don’t see it all the time so I don’t really get sick of it.
What does creativity mean to you?
Creativity is a manifestation of the forces in the universe that cause matter to organize itself in ways that can host or help sustain life. Just as the physical world is imbued with these forces, the conscious mind is a vehicle for the same energy. As people, we organize and bring our ideas to life within the world. It is important that we do so because the subjective experiences that we all have are destined to be united and artistic expression is the best accelerator.
Are there any cities or specific locations that you want to get the chance to create a mural for in the future?
All over the world. I have something coming up in Philly soon, hopefully, and they’ve got a great mural program. I’m really fond of that city because I lived there for a while. But I really want to travel. I want to go to Montreal and paint a mural in Europe and Asia and the Middle East and kind of everywhere when all of this quarantining is over.
I don’t know if anyone has ever asked you this but I’m interested to hear from a professional artist, what’s your favorite color?
I feel like it’s like asking a musician what their favorite note is, it doesn’t really work like that. You can say what’s your favorite chord, as in, what colors do you like together with each other. Colors are a lot like music, each combination of colors and even each individual color kind of helps set a mood. Like if you were maybe directing a film, there’s no right or favorite way to shoot a scene, it’s what does that scene mean? I think the more I really get into color, I see that there are infinite variations and they all can be used for very specific expressions. But I like green, for the short answer.
Have another favorite Jersey City mural by DISTORT? Let us know in the comments below
Main image by Greg Pallante