Deep down, everyone loves animals. At least that's the hope of Brooklyn-based graffiti artist and activist Jesse Hazelip. With Americana animals like bison and eagles as the central focus of his art, he seeks to steer the public eye toward contemporary issues, such as mass incarceration, police brutality, and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. Through street art and tattoos, he creates both ephemeral and permanent social commentary. He feels the animals in his work lend an accessibility to the masses. "Everyone has their own relationship and interest in animals, so it's a safe platform to start a conversation about issues that are divisive," he tells Creators. "I feel it's important to try to include everyone in the conversation about social issues, and not to just preach to the choir. Animals are a good bridge to begin to speak with people who might normally shut down a conversation when confronted with sensitive subject matter."
Hazelip witnessed prejudice and bigotry at an early age. Raised in Cortez, CO, a small and predominantly white border town of nearby Navajo and Ute reservations, he was two years old when his parents adopted his younger brother. According to Hazelip, "He was the only black child in our corner of Colorado. I witnessed racial attacks on my brother starting when he was in kindergarten that persisted until we left the state." By then, Hazelip had left his white peers for Navajo and Ute friends. He later realized the impact those experiences had on his art. His early exposure to human rights issues associated with Native Americans coupled with the ostracism of his little brother shaped a foundation of activism that went on to fuel him creatively.
In Hazelip's work, there are often tribal patterns merged with contemporary typography, religious iconography, and slang. He also dresses animals with tattoos or replaces their heads with military equipment. "My concepts initially come to me as visions," he explains, "often entrenched in metaphor, and slowly reveal the meaning throughout the process of execution. Most of my work is very time-consuming, and in the time I spend conceptualizing it and working with it, I begin to see the extent and depth of the vision." Similar to his creative process is the experience of the work itself. Hazelip's creative intricacy and detail tease the viewer closer, offering a granular effect that takes time to reflect on. All the while, the entirety of the piece slowly reveals a deeper meaning.
Recently, Hazelip traveled to Standing Rock. He recalled his visit as life-changing, saying, "I was exposed to ancient prayers from many indigenous cultures on the sacred land of the Lakota. I began hearing the prayers wherever I was in camp, even if it was just in the wind and everyone was asleep. I could feel the spirit of the place. There was a functioning society there that was based on survival and protest. There was no room for ego."
At the crux of Hazelip's art seems to be the eschewing of the ego for a greater good. His animals are vehicles for compassion and conversation. They are a means to a better ending, a kinder one, where people converge on a common love instead of retreating with singular hate, hurt, or confusion. It is this hope for progressive conversation in the current political climate that drives Hazelip to define his role as an activist and as an artist: "Think of me as a dishwasher," he says, "who came to work and found that all of the dishes have been broken and there are no replacements, so I have to put all of the shattered and fractured pieces back together."
To see more of Jesse Hazelip's artwork, check out his website, here.