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Jairus Tonel dries his hands and laughs after installing art at another Sacramento gallery, er, bathroom. Photo: Shoka

Fed up with Sacramento’s galleries, Jairus Tonel turns to the toilet

By Lovelle Harris

Originally published in Sacramento News & Review on 05.20.10

A garbage can brimming with soggy, wadded-up paper towels isn’t usually the first thing patrons notice upon entering an art gallery. But, then again, the bathroom at Midtown’s Naked Lounge coffeehouse isn’t your ordinary venue for an art installation.

Eight framed illustrations hover inexplicably on the wall next to the toilet, begging for attention. These paintings were clandestinely hung by local visual artist Jairus Tonel, whose new project challenges both the Sacramento art community and also coffee-shop owners: He’s setting up guerrilla galleries, unnoticed, in coffeehouse bathrooms throughout Sacramento.

“The scene seems like it’s just a big fashion show now,” says Tonel, frustrated. “There’s no venue to show at anymore, and when you try to show in these other galleries, they don’t want to, because, for one, half of us don’t do landscapes.

“[And] landscapes suck.”

Tonel sighs. “How many times can you paint the Valley? How many times can you paint the Sierra Nevadas? How many times do I have to see the old Alhambra Theatre?”

Tonel’s new project, titled The Cobwebs Series, is part of his mission to provide free art to the masses. The work is intellectually engaging, yet humorous. And provocative, of course, because installing art in the toilet tends to shake things up.

A Sacramento transplant by way of the United Kingdom, Tonel arrived on the local scene in 2005 and quickly made a name for himself among locals.

“I have a friend, Joey Miller; she introduced me to the skate scene—and once you know the skate scene, everybody knows everybody.” Tonel recalls. He quickly exhibited some art. “And in that one show, I got introduced to all the friends I have now, and from there it just kind of snowballed.”

Inspired by ’80s cartoons and illustrations from the 1930s and ’40s, Tonel’s work brings a bit of humor. “There’s this painting I did, called ‘24-Hour Party People,’ and it’s a bunch of grown men acting like little kids wearing cargo shorts and pocket pants,” Tonel explains. “Yeah, I think I put it up in one of those bathrooms.”

Tonel’s “guerilla style” art evolved out of a suggestion by artists Jackson and Laura Hayes, who are doing similar things across the pond to beautify depressed and neglected neighborhoods in England. “[But] they do giant walls on buildings,” Tonel says. “They’ll do it without asking the building owners and whatnot, because they’re more lax overseas.”

Tonel says the two encouraged him to do more guerrilla art in Sacto. “I was talking with them, and they’re like, ‘You kind of mentored us, dude, why don’t you do it?’” He was skeptical at first—Tonel would rather sit around “lazing,” his term, watching reruns of The Price Is Right—but eventually he realized the genius of this suggestion. The motivation: He simply had a ton of art filling up his house.

The aptly titled “Democraps” by Jairus Tonel (mixed media on wood). Find it in a bathroom near you? Photo: Shoka

“[It was the] stockpile of work, dude. I just have way too much stuff at home,” Tonel explains. “And there’s just nobody doing anything like this here. I think that if someone does something like that here, it just might ignite somebody to do something else.”

And Tonel insists that you don’t need formal training; he received a degree in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design in 2004, but rejects an arts education. “I don’t think anybody should go to art school,” Tonel says. “You can learn nowadays just hanging out with the right people.”

Critics have referred to Tonel’s art as “a kid messing around with crayons”; Tonel is undeterred and confident in his artistic vision. “I personally don’t care,” he says. “The moment you start thinking and caring about what people think, you’re not doing it for yourself, and you lose the humor in it.

“I like anything that’s humorous. The moment you lose your personality in your work, there’s no point in doing anything else.”

Tonel sits at a small cafe table smoking a Nat Sherman cigarette. His eyes are hidden behind black-and-turquoise-rimmed Ray-Ban sunglasses. After finishing his last drag, he grabs a messenger bag, which is filled with framed prints and industrial Velcro adhesion strips. Casually lifting himself up out of the chair, he saunters sheepishly into the bathroom. No more than three minutes pass, and then he’s out. Success: Tonel’s undercover art installation is complete.

Tonel says Sacramento will not flourish without a strong and passionate arts-scene backbone. “We were at a point five or so years ago where there was a genesis, almost a renaissance, of young painters that were putting out quality work. And it just seems like the city is stopping that from happening.”

Tonel’s new philosophy is to “just put stuff up and let people have it for free,” he explains. “It’s there and, if you want it, you can have it.”

But Tonel says he’s not trying to cheapen or “dummy down” his art by giving it away or exhibiting it in the bathroom. “At the same time, some people don’t know the work is out there. Some people don’t know that humor is out there, or that conversation is out there,” he explains.

The bathroom is one of the few places where people will stop, look and discover.

Tonel strolls down 15th Street and then heads into his studio apartment. He leaves a drink-coaster-sized creation—made of varnished wood and featuring one of his illustrations painted on—as a freebie on the staircase railing.

“I’m all about giving free art to the right people,” explains Tonel, with a wink and a smirk. “If it’s going to a good home, I’m happy.”

Later, Tonel leaves another collection of eight illustrations in the Old Soul Co. coffeehouse bathroom. The work is in his trademark style: zippy caricatures of people and animals, intermixed with provocative one-word messages such as “striptease” and “sex.”

The 28-year-old artist doesn’t deny the thrill. “I won’t lie, there’s a sort of rush to it,” he gushes. “Just like back in the day when everyone used to do graffiti; you know you shouldn’t be doing it, but being self-centered and being pretentious as most painters are, you think what you’re doing is right.”

So the next time you visit the bathroom at one of your favorite Midtown coffee shops, don’t be surprised if you look up and see a collection of quirky illustrations hanging above that musty garbage can in the corner. Just finish your business and enjoy the view.

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