A candid interview with Joerael Numina
Active in Santa Fe, muralist and tattoo artist Joerael Numina has taught at the New Mexico School for the Arts, sold his art to City of Santa Fe and Santa Fe Art Institute, participated in a youth art program for the Georgia O’Keefe Museum and worked with the Indian School and School for the Deaf. Santa Fe Institute’s Cowen Campus also displays his complex time images, and he has a piece at the airport. However, his newest work, a 100-year-old train emblazoned with graffiti, a wolf, and a purple dragon is his most ambitious project yet. Steaming between Santa Fe and Lamy through the Galisteo Basin, the train is a moving, vibrant work of art, sparking both love and controversy. To the casual observer it may just look like a splash of graffiti but to Joerael, it is a story of New Mexico, steeped in surreal symbology.
Raised in rural San Angelo, Texas, Joerael grew up surrounded by cotton and oil fields, hippies, bikers, and ranchers. His mom, an artist and costume designer, encouraged him to join his sister in ballet, but it was a television broadcast of the Berlin Wall falling that would fire his nine-year-old mind. “I was mesmerized by the words and colors,” he reminisces. “That was the first time I ever saw graffiti.”
When asked what led him to Santa Fe, Joerael explains, “Though I loved Los Angeles and was having one of the best years of my life doing graffiti, street art, murals, and commercial work, I was at an edge and needed to get out. In that hustle, I was neglecting my inner world. The coolest, most in-depth things I’ve ever experienced have been here in Santa Fe. I have more accessibility to people and collaborative projects. Due to the pueblo revival aesthetic and historic preservation, public art is limited in Santa Fe. However, from here I can easily travel elsewhere to do activation work and murals.”
In 2020, George R. R. Martin, novelist and screenwriter, Violet Crown Cinema owner Bill Banowskey, and Co-founder of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico and New Mexico School for the Arts, Catherine Oppenheimer partnered to develop the Sky Railway. The team hired Joerael to paint their train. He talks about the process and meaning behind what he painted.
“They asked me to paint an ode to George’s books (the fantasy novels Fire and Ice that were adapted into the HBO series, Game of Thrones). ‘The first concept was a wolf and a dragon. Everything else was up to me. It was Sky Railway, so I came up with a theme of the history of graffiti styles. I had painted trains before but in the graffiti movement way, which is called ‘style writing.’ For most people, the word ‘graffiti’ is stigmatized but, in fact, it is called ‘style writing,’ so we are truly writers. The first group to paint engines were the Indecline Collective, who painted a tiger on a BNSF freight engine, calling it the ‘Rail Beast.’ The mastermind behind the Rail Beast was the artist, AWARE However, for the first time in history, our project merged a small spur railroad and graffiti into an alliance. It’s also the first time an entire train has been painted by one artist. No one person has ever painted two engines and eight cars in what is called a Constance.”
Tilting his head for emphasis, he continues, “Since I was interested in complexity science, I made the style I call ‘cloud chamber.’ A cloud chamber is a small acrylic box with flammable alcohol used to visualize the passage of ionizing radiation. You see little clouds being formed in it and the wake of a radioactive particle moving through it. Radioactive particles move in and out of our bodies and the environment all the time. It’s what caused static on old television sets. It is a weird, multidimensional thing. In the cloud chamber, those radioactive particles are ephemeral and momentary, so the train cars are painted in ‘cloud chamber’ style.”
He adds, “The images are also based after a graffiti writer, PHASE 2, out of New York who invented the “softies” or “bubble letters,” which are the big bubbly cloud letters, otherwise known as “throwies.” Within that, there’s also grafuturism, invented by FUTURA 2000, who took the graffiti letter structure and tore the styles inside it apart from the exterior outlines. It’s a wild, powerful movement, and so understated that people do not realize how big a deal it is. Before the Internet, style-writers were ‘pen-paling’ all over the world. In Pompeii, graffiti was social networking. It is a thread that goes back 40,000 plus years to handprints in Indonesia.”
“When you paint on a train,” he emphasizes, “its musicality needs to have rhythm, flow, and structure. In the clouds painted on the train, the history of styles and elemental forms are depicted. Where the clouds separate in symmetry, there are vast skyscapes with no landscape and clouds on the bottom, with wispy smoke forms moving out that connect the viewer to a visceral body experience. In the skyscape there are geometric stars connected to transparent lines that represent constellations. In network science these are called “nodes” and “edges.” The nodes are the points of the stars, and the edges are the lines, resembling flight patterns and their points of landing and takeoff around the Earth. These represent not only the Railroad network but also the global graffiti network. The cars include characters and memorial pieces. There’s no shell outline on the wolf or dragon. Instead, these are breaking through the clouds, representing the unification of the railroad and graffiti.”
Gesturing broadly with his hands, Joereal continues, “From the perspective of Sky Railway and George R. R. Martin, the engines are a wonderful ode to his work and being in Santa Fe. However, the Joerael wolf and dragon came from my imagination. That’s where the collaborative elements came into play.”
Soberly, Joereal observes, “It is a lot easier to paint a train without permission than to work with railroad people who are used to corporate logos on trains. My perspective is that a lot of railroad fans are baffled by what we did. But when people who like graffiti and art see the train, they love it. There are also fans within the railroad. One conductor from BNSF loved it. Another said he used to paint graffiti on his train set.”
He also notes, “We were working with moving parts, and they were fixing them as we worked, removing the wheels. It was crazy dangerous. These were 100-year-old cars and the parts had to be fabricated because a lot of them weren’t made anymore. Clearing that track of 17-miles of weeds and piecing the train together was also hard. I have a lot of compassion for what everyone had to go through to make it work.”
“Riding on my art was nerve-wracking and cool,” he concludes. “It is the largest piece of public art in Santa Fe, 20 rolling murals. I felt the train’s force, velocity, weight, and power. Thinking of the railroad and its imposition on indigenous lands made me aware of how intense that is and of how it can impose on a town and the public. I just hope the way I went about it, and my intention will be both challenging and visually transformational. The Santa Fe Southern Railroad is not what it was, and it will never be that again. It is transforming into what it is now, a new chapter on the wheels of steel.”
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By: Catherine Lenox
Photos by: Seth Jacob