Outlaws from the get go, graffiti painters live on the edge. Not just in terms of subject, but in lifestyle, they like the thrill of tagging one of their creations on a large wall that could involve serious legal issues down the road. Damon Johnson is a painter this writer has known for years. Highly talented, with an art history degree from NYU, he eschewed the fine arts for images that are dark and edgy. One reviewer wrote Damon defined urban surrealism, but in some way the mature style looks like a nightmare of Marvel Comics, a Doctor Strange on LSD.
How he got here is a unique story, Damon grew up in Croton on Hudson and while that may sound bucolic, it was home to one of the largest train yards in the northeast. To those that don't know the emergence of graffiti art in the United States, specifically NYC, it was the subways and metro north trains that attracted the thrill seeking painters. Damon has been lauded for numerous gallery shows over the last decade, but his real identity emerged as "Icon" a legendary graffiti artist who tagged those four letters on trains all over the Metropolitan area. This writer even remembered it on highway overpasses. When I asked Damon if it was him, all I got was "maybe."
After college Damon continued to tag, at one time almost became a sports writer, but when that didn't happen he fell in with a bad crowd, as he said "I've been there myself, battled my own addictions. I know what that's like. It's kind of a cautionary tale. It can be perceived as dark, but I think it's self realization. A lot of the work I make is just sort of self-realization. Almost like art therapy in a way. The worst thing I could do is become conscious of what people want in their office or their homes. I'd be depriving myself of what I want to get out of me. A lot of my output for the last five years has been constant. If I don't paint for two weeks I'll go...crazy. It's constant...constant....it's like whatever's in me has got to get out."
When asked, if Art had saved him, he answered, "Without a doubt. Without the art I don't know where I'd be. There was a period in my life I stopped painting for a year. I only made two or three paintings. I was just a total savage. Drugs, alcohol abuse, fights, bumming lifestyle; art is definitely the best. I gotta paint. It keeps you out of trouble. It takes time to do."
Since his reemergence, Damon has had shows in New York City at Mark Murray Fine Art, the Poets Den Gallery and elsewhere. He was even featured on CBS Sports painting a graffiti mural tribute to the US Open in 2010
He paints canvases for a living, but he tags for life, which can make things complicated. He once told me the story of a fellow graffiti artist named, for example, Javen. J was a real player, he tagged many public places, but along the way he pissed off the cops so much, they almost caught him. Had he been pinched, graffiti vandalism is called felony destruction of property. Javen may not have gotten arrested, but late one night he showed up at Damon's door with all of his custom spray paints, asking Damon to hold them for him while Javen went on the run. Eventually statute of limitations kicks in, and it may be safe for Javen to return to the jurisdiction of the City of New York without fear of prosecution. On a similar note, Damon continued to paint canvases from when this writer sponsored a show for him four years ago, but he continued to Moonlight as a tagger. Last year in a rush, he moved out of New York City to the opposite coast, and after the Javen story, I am not sure I want to ask why.