The business scene at the Trenton-based company TerraCycle is routine for 99 percent of the year, even though the company built on recycling consumer products is known for innovation. Employees come to work, perhaps have lunch on the outdoor picnic tables (one of the company’s products made of recycled plastic), and then leave.
But once a year that one percent transforms the company’s parking lot, walls, courtyard, and delivery areas into a venue for a capital city phenomenon: The Jersey Fresh Jam.
Organizers call it New Jersey’s premiere hip hop festival, and who can argue? The Jam attracts hundreds of graffiti artists as well as young musicians, entrepreneurs, art supporters, and visitors to Trenton for a day of emcees, bands, and the main attraction: aerosol art.
This year 100 spray artists will climb ladders and scaffolds or just stand and deliver to display talents and signature styles on the thousands of square feet that make up TerraCycle’s outside walls.
Held annually “at the twilight of summer” since 2005, this year’s Jam is set for Saturday, August 10, from noon to 6 p.m. It is free and open to the public.
“Graffiti helps to keep us hip and cool. It helps to keep us tied to our roots.” That’s from Albe Zakes, the tall, thin, 20-something vice president of media relations at TerraCycle, the internationally known company that transforms consumer waste materials into eco-friendly, affordable products — picnic tables and backpacks made from juice pouches.
Zakes is standing in the company’s headquarters and manufacturing center — a former newspaper delivery service warehouse — at 121 New York Avenue in Trenton, sandwiched between Route 1 and Capital Health Regional Medical Center. The interior boasts section dividers made of repurposed plastic soda bottles, wall display units fashioned from old bureau drawers, and graffiti art — lots of it.
“Graffiti has always been part of TerraCycle,” says Zakes about the project’s origin. “Tom Szaky, our CEO, has always been into art and has a great love of graffiti. It is sometimes considered a crime, but it is an art form. And Tom wanted to give the artist a safe and legal place to paint. Tom met Leon Rainbow [New Jersey graffiti artist] at an event and made the offer.”
Zakes — a Philadelphia native who grew up with his lawyer father and baker mother in Bucks County and studied English literature and psychology at the University of Boulder — says that his first job at TerraCycle was to work on the 2006 Jersey Fresh. But graffiti and hip hop were not new to him. As a volunteer in Colorado, he participated in both environment awareness initiatives and the Colorado chapter of Hip Hop Congress. The latter’s parent organization “provides the hip hop generation and the post hip hop generation with the tools, resources, and opportunities to make social, economic, and political change on a local, regional, and national level.” It was developed by merging artists, students, music, and community, says the organization website.
The term hip hop (“hip” as in cool or current and “hop” as in moving or bouncing) signifies an artistic self-expression rooted in urban, mainly African-American, street arts: graffiti, rap music, and breaking (a dynamic and fluid combination of dance styles and athletic movements). It is, perhaps, best thought of as a sensibility rather than a fixed definition. However, there are some constants: honest or frank expression and an inclusionary mixing of cultures and traditions.
Talking about how graffiti and hip hop artists are often taken less seriously by the mainstream — even though the Museum of Modern Art in Los Angeles broke attendance records with a 2011 street art exhibition — and sometimes seen negatively, Zakes says, “The image of graffiti art is a misconception. They’re serious artists.”
The company is equally serious about its support of those who use the medium to explore techniques and ideas, rather than just deface a wall. In addition to giving both its exterior and interior walls to the art form, the company arranges insurance for the day and allocates between $2,500 and $3,000 — giving a portion to Vicious Styles Crew (VS Crew), the nationally recognized Trenton-based artists collective that coordinates the Jam, to purchase paint and other supplies or support materials.
TerraCycle also provides the manpower for security. “We don’t have extra security. We use own crew of interns and employees, just a skeleton crew. We come and hang out, give tours, and give away TerraCycle products. We have never had a fight or anything stolen,” says Zakes. “The only fight is to see who make the most beautiful art.”
He adds that they have a no drug policy, and while there are food vendors alcohol is not sold. Although, he says, a few of the artists will have a beer while they paint, “We never had an incident.”
In addition to not painting one courtyard wall (it belongs to another business), other rules include no images with nudity, drugs, and anything gang related. “One time there was art with a woman whose breasts were exposed,” says Zakes. “But the artist coma back and put her in a bikini.”
The support and opportunity for aerosol artists to work on a large legal space (or canvas) seems to make participants willing to support their hosts concerns and make sure that there is an embracing family friendly environment. The activity also provides some graffiti artists with a different type of experience that they normally have with the law. “I remember a couple of years ago when two cops showed up. You could see some artists get nervous real fast. And one of the cops could read it and said, ‘Relax, I’m just here to check out the art.’ That’s the type of event this is.”
Trenton-based street artist Leon Rainbow — who is also a computer programmer for Inforest Communications in Princeton — remembers when he first was introduced to TerraCycle, back when the company’s main product was fertilizer made from worm excrement. A friend who worked with Szaky invited Rainbow to a Princeton party. “I was there and there was a little table with some bags with stuff in it. It was some worm shit, and I thought it was crazy. A couple of years later my friend said that the same guys moved to Trenton and wanted us to do some art there.”
Rainbow (his actual family name) says that he, Trenton-based graffiti artist Will “Kasso” Condry (Kasso is short for an early nickname, Picasso), and other VS Crew artists visited the office to paint a test wall. “We painted it, and they loved it. They said that we could paint anywhere outside, but one wall had to be something with TerraCycle.” Zakes calls it the boring wall.
The first jam was mainly for the artists and about a dozen artists participated, including a mixture of respected painters from Philadelphia (including Sew and Enue), New York City, and a Trenton, says Rainbow.
Meanwhile Rainbow had been participating in other hip hop art events and started building his organizational skills while he worked with influential graffiti artist Pose 2 on his major annual hip hop event. “I helped the BBoy BBQ. It’s a similar event (to the Jam), but it’s in Philadelphia. He showed me how he got sponsors, artists, and organized walls,” says Rainbow. “We started to bring those elements to the Jersey Fresh Jam, and started slowly. It’s only been the last four or five years that we had music. When we started to do the music, it started to change the atmosphere to the Jam. It brought a lot of people who were interested in street art, but it brought a lot of people who were interested in hip hop music.”
Rainbow says the event’s name also grew, starting with a suggestion that it had something related to the “worm poop,” but then being referred to as the Trenton Jam. “Then the (State of New Jersey’s) Jersey Fresh campaign got into it. Then it was called the Jersey Fresh Graffiti Jam. We wanted to make it more accessible and added music, and then we began to call it just the Jersey Fresh Jam.”
The partnership between street artists who want to keep creating and a company that wants to keep its edge is a positive and ongoing relationship. Rainbow says, “We really help each other. We just don’t paint during the Jam; we’re there all year round. Some of the walls may run for six months or a couple of weeks. It’s constantly changing. When you paint a mural or wall, no matter how exciting it is, after you walk around it for a while, it becomes part of the background. But if it changes, it’s more exciting. All the walls will change the day of the Jam. And if you go back three months later it will be different. They have a lot of people who come there to do (media) articles, and (the art) always make its interesting shot for them. It’s something interesting in the background.”
The artists, in turn, receive commissions from the TerraCycle and other companies that want graffiti art in their offices; one such client was Inc. Magazine in New York City. “It’s really been a mutually beneficial relationship,” says Rainbow.
As the date approaches, there are routine things that need to be done. Rainbow applies for the event and food permits, and Zakes notifies the neighborhood, saying “We don’t want to foist it on them.” But with weather, people, and creativity, the rest is unknown.
“Each year is a little different,” Rainbow says of using the small amount of funds to pay hard costs and attempting to accommodate more artists who apply to participate. “Last year we built a six by 40 feet wall to paint. This year we’re taking sections of scaffolding and wrapping them in plastic wrap so people can paint on the plastic.” Additional support comes through product and in-kind services as well as some other small business donations.
Each year also engages more artists from around the country and globe. Last year, Zakes says, the event included painters from Brazil, Holland, and Japan. This year artists will come from along the East Coast — New Jersey, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, DC — as well as include Wise 2 from Nairobi, Kenya, and Shiro from Japan. “The dude from Africa will crash at my crib,” says Rainbow.
But one thing is consistent: the desire to create accomplished art. “One of the main things I look for in a good graffiti piece is letter style, use of color, flow, use of the wall and originality,” says Rainbow who also took formal art classes. “Graffiti as an art is full of contrast and contradictions. When someone is new, shaky lines and drips can be a sign of inexperience. In the hands of a master, shaky lines in some areas can be used to show motion and properly placed drips can show homage to the street. An artist needs to learn the rules before they can break them. Anyone can make a mark or go out and do a piece, but to do a piece that is accepted as great by your peers is what matters in graffiti.”
He adds, “I also think it is important for an artist to develop a personal style. If I see a (fellow street artist) Mek or Kasso piece I can tell it’s their piece even from far away, even if I can’t read it, by the way it is structured and painted. Many of the same rules in fine art play a part in graffiti like color theory, perspective, contrast, etc.”
Since graffiti art uses highly developed skills to creation of temporary art — similar to Tibetan sand mandalas or butter sculptures — and not a market product, the impulse to create such art involves a different sense of sensibilities. The internationally recognized street artist Banksy put it this way in a published interview, “There’s a whole new audience out there, and it’s never been easier to sell [one’s art]. You don’t have to go to college, drag ‘round a portfolio, mail off transparencies to snooty galleries or sleep with someone powerful, all you need now is a few ideas and a broadband connection. This is the first time the essentially bourgeois world of art has belonged to the people. We need to make it count.”
Rainbow has his own thoughts and says, “I think the appeal graffiti or painting in street differs from one artist to another. But I think the main thing is it is a way to reach a large audience. Think of it like this, if you put a piece in a gallery maybe at most a few thousand people will see it. But if you put a piece in a prime location like a train line or major intersection in a city thousands of people will see it.
As for his own reasons, he says, “I really like painting in the street because of the texture. The different surfaces — wood, concrete brick, corrugated steel; each wall has a different set of surfaces. The texture of the area we paint in different cities neighborhoods etc. I have painted in rough areas of Camden to doing in stores at Louis Vuitton. Also it is challenging working with paint in different weather conditions rain, snow, and heat and humidity all are difficult conditions to paint in.”
Looking forward to the upcoming Jam, Rainbow looks back and says, “In the beginning, the first Jam was just for us, then after a while it become more and more open. And we enjoy it. It’s interesting for the public to see who we are and what we do it. And we get to understand their point of view. And it’s a good thing to get together and have a good time and enjoy our culture.”
“Even if you are not a graffiti fan, when you come to the Jam, it’s hard not to walk away with only respect for the artists,” says Zakes, surrounded by the art that will be sprayed away and reappear in one brief afternoon, very Jersey fresh.
The Jersey Fresh Jam, Saturday, August 10, noon and to 6 p.m. TerraCycle Complex, 121 New York Avenue, Trenton, free but with donation request for non-perishable food time to support Mercer Street Friends Food Bank drive.
The Jersey Jam pre-event party and Vicious Styles Crew Art Show opening, Friday, August 9, 6 to 10 p.m. at Gallery 219, 219 East Hanover Street, Trenton (with art works remaining on view Mondays through Fridays, noon to 2 p.m., through Saturday, September 7). Free.
Official Jersey Fresh Jam After-Party, Saturday, August 10, 9:30 p.m. to midnight, Artworks, 19 Everett Alley, Trenton. For more information, jerseyfreshjam.com.