March 24, 2018
When I met with artist John Hairston, Jr., he was on a ladder above a mob of spray paint cans. He’d been working all day on a mural in the hallway outside Oso Skate Park and was nearly done. He talked a mile a minute, responding at length to all my questions while engaging with every passersby who stopped to compliment his work. Despite the fumes, he neglected his mask for the entirety of our hour-long chat.
Hairston Jr.’s take on the Oso (bear) motif are blue, pink and purple, with crow’s feet and ponderous, grumpy expressions. These are the Care Bears post-adulthood–”post-bills,” as he puts it. His subject matter will make sense to anyone who’s followed his career in the nearly two decades he’s been making art in Charlotte. As a child, his love of comics and cartoons brought out a knack for illustration. While he grew up to be a fine artist instead of an illustrator, the characters of his childhood have remained a presence in much of his work, reinterpreted in eerie, thought-provoking ways.
He showed me the tattoo covering his left arm, a representation of the towering Marvel supervillain Galactus (also the inspiration for his Instagram handle, @jagolactus_). For Hairston, Jr., Galactus’ god-like powers came to represent a kind of supreme adult competence—an ideal to strive for, one he identified with his father, a driven and successful restauranteur. “I always saw my father as the most powerful being in the universe because my dad was able to do whatever it was that he wanted to do.”
But it was his mother who would play a pivotal role in his nascent interest in art. She dragged him to museums, galleries, Discovery Place, and the comic store, and even read his comic books to him aloud. “My mom made it a point that I would be cultured. She was determined that Nintendo was not going to raise me… I hated it at the time,” he said.
There were, of course, people who encouraged him to move away from the comic book/illustrator mode, but at the time, “I didn’t really know another way to do it.” His first glimpse at “another way” came when he saw a documentary on Jean Michel Basquiat. In Basquiat, he saw the stunning potential for conceptual art in a gallery setting. This was the first in a sequence of inspirational figures who shaped Hairston Jr.’s development; the analogy he uses for these moments comes from skate culture. “You see someone do a kick-flip, so you want to try it yourself. You know it can be done.”
The next trick he saw and wanted to emulate was the “painterly paintings” of fellow student Jeremy Davis, during his undergraduate years at UNCC. As his studies forced him to experiment with mediums, Hairston, Jr. realized that he needed to “bridge the gap between what I was doing in my sketchbook and what I was doing in my school assignments.” Still, his idea of an art career remained limited in a way he recognizes in many of his own students, who want to go into the video game or comic book industries.
At 19, he went to his first gallery crawl in NoDa. In the now-closed Swank Gallery, he found a scene of artists who read Juxtapose magazine and painted subjects like “Samuel L. Jackson in a karate outfit.” It was a subculture he hadn’t known existed. Soon he began traveling to Little Five Points in Atlanta to marvel at graffiti, learning what he could about large-scale color usage and feeling like he was closing in on a niche.
When Hairston, Jr. told his parents he wanted to make a career in fine art, they were “scared to death.” They’d never known anyone who’d made a successful living that way. Their fear of his failure was something he learned to compartmentalize and use as a kind of sobering motivation. “I always feel that doubt breathing down my neck,” he said. Speaking from experience, he makes it a point not to sugarcoat the prospects of the field with his students. “You’re basically telling your parents: Hey ma, guess what? I want to be homeless.”
After college, Hairston. Jr. and friend Antoine Williams, another NC native, started an art crew called God City. They pooled their resources to put on the sort of shows they saw in the pages of Juxtapose. In Charlotte, they saw a blank canvas. “One of the hardest things to do is perform a miracle in your own backyard,” he said, reciting an old saying he picked up. The God City crew, however, were determined to make themselves visible right where they were, to bloom where planted. Hairston Jr. compares his Charlotte to Prince’s Minneapolis: the sanctuary, the home-base, a big small town where you can know everybody you need to know. In the long run, he wagered correctly. As a hometown artist with lots of connections, he was ideally positioned in a city on the cusp of developmental explosion.
Similarly, he was a comics-oriented artist emerging just as fanboy/nerd culture hit the mainstream with a vengeance. Comic conventions are still a major source of his commissions. Hairston, Jr. admits that millennial nostalgia expanded the market for his work, though the phenomenon doesn’t exactly sit well with him.
“A lot of it stems from disappointment,” he said. “When you were a kid, the sky was the limit, you could do whatever you wanted to do. When you get older you realize there are limitations, you don’t always get a chance to do everything you want to do.”
The disappointment has less to do with adulthood itself than with a rose-colored narrative of how it’s supposed to turn out. He’s witnessed it in students and younger artists, who aren’t prepared for adversity and don’t know how to process failure. “You can’t really jump these leaps and bounds without putting effort forth. And a lot of times you fall on your face. Some people get up, some people don’t.”
There’s an irony in Hairston, Jr.’s analysis: the culture of nostalgia that’s benefitted his career and helped him realize his dreams is, apparently, often fueled by stalled careers and unrealized dreams. But that doesn’t have to be the case. “Early failures defeat you, and you want to go back to something familiar and something safe. Now, this is where it becomes toxic: you do that and you can’t make any progress, because you’re so busy looking behind you.”
Reflecting on the mural he’s wrapping up, he recalls an early setback in his first public art venture. A diner was set to open and the owner wanted murals by community artists on every wall of the building. Hairston was happy to contribute. Along the way someone forgot to pay their bills and the “whole thing went belly-up.” The city sealed off the building with all of his materials inside and he had to write them off as a loss. It was the kind of disaster that revealed the inherent risk of the vocation, testing just how badly one wants it. “It put me in a funk for a while.”
“Did you think about quitting?” I asked.
“I was down for a minute,” he said. It could have been one of those early defeats that derails you indefinitely. But for this scion of Galactus, that wasn’t an option.