A Neon Night Out With Live-Action Illustrator Van Jazmin
Visual artist Van Jazmin has quickly made a name for himself as a kind of underground documentarian of the Los Angeles nightlife scene. With a brash, energetic style that attempts to capture not only the imagery but the movement and vibe of whatever party he’s attending, his live-action art serves as a kind of kinetic realization of the experience itself.
Part mad scientist, illustrator, documentarian, and straight-up music lover, Van is unlike anyone you will ever meet. With a palette of markers up his sleeve, a sketch pad in hand and a headlamp on his head, he could very well be seen in the crowd at your next massive or intimate club night, furiously at work with broad strokes and colors that then morph from a seeming blitz of scribbles into a wild and jaw-dropping work of art. It’s an amazing process to watch, and while Van has found support and a level of notoriety—working with artists as varied as Riff Raff, Kill the Noise, and Jack Ü—there is something humble and refreshingly open about the artist that just seems to draw people to him.
A few weeks back, we thought we’d put Van Jazmin to the test with the raucous Basscon crowd, and the results were astounding in their intensity and in Van’s ability to capture the unique, raw energy of the night. Check the images interspersed below, and join us in broad conversation with Van on the twisted path that led from growing up in rural Pennsylvania to his current home on the dancefloors of Los Angeles.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up, and was anyone in your family artistically inclined?
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania—in a household of musicians, actually. Everyone except for my grandfather, who was a businessperson, and my grandmother, who is a multidisciplinary artist, were musicians.
That’s fascinating! We can see how music and art were an important part of your development even then.
Yes, exactly! Music has always been an important part of what I do. Growing up, even my friends were musicians. When they would jam and improvise, I wanted something to do. So, I started doing improvisational drawings of them making the music, if that makes sense. It was sort of like in jam bands, when musicians look at each other and shoot energy back and forth; it became an energy exchange where I’m pushing a lot of energy into the performers [and] at the same time, I’m getting a lot of energy from them.
It sounds like a wonderful space for a young artist to develop.
It was definitely a very pro-art environment that I grew up in. The only place I got in trouble for doing art was in school! I used to draw so much that I would get in trouble, as I guess they thought I wasn’t paying attention. But I’m sort of proving now with my work that drawing is actually a form of listening and observing; it’s actually a state of hyper-listening. But the whole time I grew up, school gave me problems for it. The fact that they wouldn’t let me draw made me decide not to pay attention, and I rebelled against the school system at a young age and ended up being home-schooled. That helped a lot.
Eventually you ended up in Florida and back in school; how was that transition?
Where I grew up in Pennsylvania was a very rural, backwoods kind of place; I grew up on a farm, basically. When we moved to Florida, I was in my teenage years, and it was a very small town—like a village, really, but it still had more houses than where I was born. I had an art teacher in high school who was like my nemesis, because I would paint something that I found interesting, that I thought was intense, and she would tell me that no one would want that in their living room. She would say things like, “That picture’s agitating.” I remember how much that used to piss me off.
How do you go from that space to ending up in the club scene on the West Coast?
I really got involved in trying to make things happen in the city where I was living. There was a lot of pushback, as I was struggling to create the kind of artistic environment and community I was looking for by having parties and throwing gallery events. It got really exhausting, and it probably didn’t help that it was a retirement community. So I was struggling with that, and I just happened to see a music video—we were hanging a gallery show, and this kid came in off the street and showed us a music video—and it changed my whole life. It reminded me that there was something out there more than what I was experiencing.
What was the video?
It was a Riff Raff video. At first I was like, what the hell is this? I had the same reaction that most people do when they come across a Riff Raff video from his Soulja Boy era. It was just so foreign to me, but I remember thinking, if this guy Riff Raff can be that colorful and outrageous and get out there like that—why can’t I do that? Why do I have to wear a tie and talk to the Chamber of Commerce? Why can’t I be that neon icon? It was a feeling more than anything.
I remember he wore a lot of ‘80s vintage neon stuff, and I really love that look, so I started revisiting a lot of ‘80s and early-‘90s fashion and started creating work in that style. Eventually, Riff Raff’s sponsor at the time found my Riff Raff–inspired work that I did in college, and we worked out a deal where I flew out to California and began to work at the office. From there, it went very quickly from being a fan art situation, inspired by him, to having Riff see it and us working together. I eventually became his official brand artist and learned a lot about branding and the needs of an artist at his level. Going on tour for the first time was a huge inspiration for the artwork, because there will be long stretches of time where you’re on the bus and there’s nothing really going on, and it’s a great time to draw and capture things.
You were like a documentary filmmaker with a pad of paper.
I like to think of myself that way, yes! I actually wasn’t there to do art officially; I was just doing art as well. Officially, I was taking care of merchandise and being a tour manager. Probably the most typical job I ever had, and yet one that I learned the most. The second time I went on tour, however, was with Kill the Noise, and that time I was brought on specifically to be the tour documentarian. It was so great, because I didn’t have to organize things and pick up money—all the nerve-wracking details—I could just focus on art exclusively. It was extremely fun.
Is this where your club artist/documentarian style first took hold?
Actually, when I was still in Florida, I did caricatures at museums, weddings, parties—that kind of thing. I was doing nightlife photography for small shows and also drawing at these fancy corporate events where I was being paid to draw drunk 50- and 60-year-old people. It was always different aspects of event-related art. I had a company for a while where the service was that I could be hired out by myself or with a team of artists who would go to a business or corporate retreat and draw everything that happened for the company. That actually worked out pretty well. So really, the skillset I use today developed from that. Once I was in L.A. and there were parties and people I was being introduced to in my various roles working with Riff Raff and Kill the Noise, etc., it just seemed a natural fit to combine that experience with my interest in electronic music and live music in general.
It’s definitely a unique role and one that makes you part of the performance as well. Do you have any creative rituals you follow to get in a proper mindset the day of a show?
I know that I have to expend a lot of energy over a long period of time, so typically what I do is get lots of sleep and make sure that I have worked out how I am going to get into the show. As far as creatively preparing myself, I have to make sure I have all my materials prepped. Honestly, I destroy supplies. I run through them so fast, as I’m very forceful with them; I break crayons, I break pencils, I destroy markers constantly. It’s like a drummer constantly breaking his drumsticks, I guess. The rapid drawing really does wear down supplies, so I have to go and basically buy new material every time I go out.
Since I almost always have a lot of problems with security, I have to get to places very early. Even if the promoters are the ones who have personally asked me to come out, it’s a constant battle with the venues. I have had to petition to be able to get into venues like Avalon, and they still haven’t budged on it. For a while, I actually started just using crayons and extra-washable Mr. Sketch markers, thinking that I could just explain to security that it washes off with warm water and soap—but they don’t care.
At Basscon, it was pretty awesome to watch you dive right in. Sometimes you were off to the side, taking it all in, sometimes you were right in the middle, but people always seemed interested in what you were doing. Are you aware that people are watching you? Does that interfere with the process in any way, or is it a kind of validation?
It does both. I’ve had people interfere with the process, but sometimes that gives it more character. There’s so much stimuli going on that me interacting with others can totally change the direction of a piece. I often incorporate dialogue, quotes from people, reactions. I draw photographers who then come and take photos of me—it becomes a kind of game. I draw everyone with their cell phones, and they’re snapchatting; it’s like endless loops of interaction, which I really enjoy. I’m extroverted; I like people. The only thing I don’t enjoy is when people grab the pen out of my hand and try to draw in my sketchbook, or people tell me that I can’t have my markers. If you just give me my markers and let me do this, I promise I won’t bother anybody. It’s okay, people don’t understand it yet.
With your Basscon work specifically, I had the sense you were constructing a narrative. Do you have a kind of plan in place before you arrive?
I go over themes in my head—kind of like documentary filmmaking—where I’m thinking, I need a shot of this, and I need that angle, I need this subject matter. I always go to the bar first; I check out the space. If I get there early enough and there’s a line outside, I’ll draw people outside. Then it’s just watching people come into the event, and from there, I wander further and further into the crowd until I’m either frontstage or backstage with the artist, and then I go back out into the audience. I try to get different perspectives: the bar, the lighting, the house, the audience, people onstage. Preferably I have all-access so I can go and explore, see the performers, people behind the scenes—that is ideal, because then you have the full story and it’s not just from one perspective. It’s how I prefer to do it.
What kind of advice do you have for aspiring artists out there who may be stuck in a small town with no support system?
Don’t underestimate doing what interests you. When you’re trying to do something that’s interesting to other people, that’s when you might really lose the enjoyment for yourself; that’s when things start to feel like a job. So many people have a gift that they really shine at because they enjoy it so much; but then all of a sudden, something happens where they are convinced they have to focus on making art or music or whatever aligns with what they think other people will be interested in—and that’s when something special is lost. People are going to tell you, maybe you should try this, or why don’t you do that? The whole idea of trying to create something that people are going to like or dance to—I would flip that and create something that I want to dance to or a kind of party that I would want to attend, or the art I want to see. That’s magic.
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