Justin Tolentino

“It’s my new medium,” Tolentino said, nodding to the flags he found ditched in a trashcan somewhere.


Justin Tolentino’s studio in the Lemp Art Stables doesn’t much adhere to the finer principles of decor. In one jumbled corner there’s an aging “L” couch, its yellow and orange cushions saggy from years of strain. A short wooden coffee table sits awkwardly within the couch’s crook; on it sits the obligatory glass ashtray packed with butts and thick tiers of slag. The only other piece of furniture is the small end table that supports a simple, black boom box, which in turn supports a sloppy stack of CDs.

Everything else in the room either is, or is becoming, Tolentino’s artwork. There are rows of glass bottles (too many to count), some the approximate size of your standard alcoholic grandfather’s flask, the others probably five gallons each. Both sizes are painted with various faces, characters, or animals. On one, what looks like a drunken, deranged cartoon chicken is squawking at nothing. Dominating the studio, though, are the paintings, either hung or leaning in rows against the wall, that span the gamut from 3” x 5” postcards to 4’ x 4’ canvases. In between are the found wooden objects of various size and shape: old oak shutters from a forgotten window, discarded, tired signs from a long-gone era, etc. In other words, anything that will accept several coats of paint.

When I stopped by, there were a bunch of flags draped over two pipes that run just below the ceiling, hanging almost to the floor like a bizarre set of multi-colored curtains. In between the two rows stood Tolentino, his truck-driver cap restricting his wild, neck-length thatch of brown curls. He wore what he always wears: jeans, slick Euro-style shoes, and a T-shirt. He usually has a mustache and sometimes a goatee, neither of which is ever especially full.

“It’s my new medium,” Tolentino said, nodding to the flags he found ditched in a trashcan somewhere. One was from A.G. Edwards; others weren’t immediately identifiable. But there were also a couple Missouri State flags. Tolentino pulled one of these from among the group and, wearing a devious expression that would send any mother worth even half a shit to her early grave, said, “This is really going to piss some people off.”

If it were up to him, Tolentino would still be practicing his craft on an entirely different set of canvases. He started painting graffiti during the eighth grade, after opening up an issue of The Source magazine and seeing photos of tags in New York. “Listening to the music, I felt like I was already a part of this hip hop culture, but I didn’t feel like I was taking part as much as I could. I wanted to do all four elements and just be good at all of them, but because of my background in art, this was the part I focused on.” And for years, throughout high school in Fenton and a four-year stint in Tennessee attending the Memphis College of Art, graffiti was a major component of Tolentino’s life. “There’s no drug that will ever match the feeling you get going out and painting a wall and wondering if you’re going to get caught.”

Property owners, though, aren’t especially fond of graffiti, nor are many city courts. Tolentino admits, “I’ve been locked up too many times to go out any more. It gets expensive. Last time cost me like $1,200, with court fines and vandalism and trespassing fines.”

These days, he spends a lot more time indoors. Now 25 and one of two curators of the ever-revolving collection at the Art Stables, Tolentino’s paintings aim to capture the urban aesthetic of a bombed freight car in a more potable, marketable dosage. His work is like visually matured graffiti, condensed and refined for a smaller stage. Most involve figures—myriad cartoon faces that convey things like frustration, disappointment, constipation, intellectual malaise, a hangover, etc.—against rudimentary, simply colored backgrounds aimed at emulating the textured surfaces of train cars and weathered walls. Many of the images, including the several tobacco-themed works, deal with “mocking myself, mocking people’s vices. Just the things people do.” Others represent Tolentino’s jabs at American culture. Explaining a pair of paintings, one an eyeball hanging open by its lid from a fishing hook, the other an ear plugged with a cartoon cork, he said, “Western culture wants you to see, but they don’t want you to hear. They force you to see everything, and then downplay what’s actually going on.”

There always seems to be a CD playing in Tolentino’s studio. “I listen to everything,” he said, “a lot of raggae, and I do listen to a lot of underground hip hop.” Acts like Slug, Eyedea, and Sole, along with the Anticon crew, who, he says, “allow my brain to concentrate on something completely different than the painting, so my subconscious just streams through my hand. It takes my mind off of what I’m doing.”

Tolentino’s is one of five permanent studios at the Lemp Art Stables (sidebar: if you haven’t been to one of the monthly shows put on by ArtDimensions in the Stables, go as soon as possible). Out of his disorderly studio comes a brand of artwork that likely wouldn’t have found a home had it not been for Davide Weaver and ArtDimensions. Tolentino understands this, and is eternally grateful for the opportunity. “There’s a lot of people out there who can paint really pretty portraits or really pretty landscapes, and a lot of the galleries in St. Louis, that’s what they’re looking for. What we do here, we’re pretty much open to anything.”

Just outside of Tolentino’s studio are two enormous paintings, each featuring a photo-realistic image of what looks to be an Abercrombie or Gap model. Behind them, in an ocean of sepia tones and pencil strokes, are the skewed, misshapen faces and figures that exemplify Tolentino’s artwork. Though from early in his career, the pieces are a perfect summary of the artist: a trained painter capable of realistic renditions of the beauty in our world who would rather focus on the madness that stays hidden in the background. “Those were basically me telling my school to fuck off,” Tolentino said with that devious smile.

Tolentino’s art was born of a culture that defies domestication. Now, with ArtDimensions finally providing a venue for local art that stretches beyond really pretty landscapes and portraits, he’s found a home for his brand of refined graffiti. A messy, crowded, smoke-filled home with a constant soundtrack bridging the gap between consciousness and his rag-tag collection of unlikely canvases. For more info, go to www.studiotolentino.com.

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