Nefarious Graffiti Artist Goes Legit
by Peggy Bair
Saturday, under a noonday sun, Jester Frost is at David Brewer Park in Leavenworth, KS with a roll of cellophane and a red wagon filled with spray paint. A woman with several children are hanging out watching him as he stretches the plastic between two posts at a picnic shelter. It takes him only a few minutes to spray paint the word “PLAY” in three foot white letters with a hot pink background.
He looks around for a second spot to do another painting. This one would simply say “SMILE.” Two young people wander by to admire the finished product.
Jester’s own smile welcomes the audience. His iridescent plume of red hair glistens in the sunlight. Swirls of artful gray tattoos adorn his neck and arms. As children huddle close to the drawing, he gently reminds them that the paint isn’t quite yet dry. Amid the chaos of 2020, Jester Frost is an artist bringing bright spots of happiness one paint at a time.
Josh Rickert is the alias Jester Frost, a graffiti artist who has recently – in his words – “gone legit” – giving up his “nefarious” ways.
“I used to do this (graffiti art) for fun – late night shenanigans,” Rickert said. “That used to be fun. But I’m almost 40 years old. I’m not going to go to jail just because I wanted to paint something. I’m not Banksy. I won’t get away with it.”
Jester is a nickname from high school and Frost is from a character in the Marvel movie “Blade,” he explained.
Up until a couple of months ago, Rickert had a group he painted with in Kansas City. Such groups or crews do painting that is generally referred to as “nefarious” because it’s…well…it’s not legal since it is considered – for the most part -vandalism. The illegality and rebellion is also – for artists – part of its appeal.
The definition of graffiti is “writing or drawings made on a wall or other surface, usually without permission and within public view.” It can be simple written words or more elaborate paintings. It dates back to ancient Egypt, Greece and the Roman Empire. Evidence of what may arguably be modern style graffiti is found in the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (now Turkey) (1)
Ancient Maya graffiti is recorded in over 50 Maya sites in several clusters, especially at Tikal. “Some examples are found in obscure locations, such as dark corners and narrow passageways,” according to George F. Andrews in his document “Architectural graffiti and the Maya elite” published in 1980. (2)
Rickert said that there are people who hate his work and don’t consider it art. “I’ve had one person say ‘It’s not art, it’s graffiti,'” Rickert said. “I’ve tried to sit down and talk with him because I want to know about his opinion but he won’t – which is fine. But to me, this is art, this is graffiti art.”
Rickert moved away from the nefarious work, though, and changed his work into a legal means of graffiti painting. The present form involves wrapping cellophane between two uprights, then spray painting on the removable medium. The art can then be easily taken down by the city or anyone who just wants to easily remove it.
“I do (the painting) this way because we had a kid in our paint group who got popped for vandalism,” Rickert said. “He happened to hit [painted on] a building where he did over $1500 worth of damage to get the paint off. He’s 13 years old, serving five years probation and he’s got all this restitution.”
“He’s an amazing artist and now he’s probably never going to bloom like he should simply because his parents are probably not going to let him go back out and paint, you know? He just cost them all kinds of money,” Rickert said. “If he would have had outlets like this [legal means of painting graffiti art] – where he could have honed his skills and done something – who knows where he could have gone?”
Unfortunately, the young painter broke some unwritten rules about graffiti painting, Rickert said.
“You don’t paint schools, you don’t paint churches and you don’t paint personal property,” Rickert said. “What he ended up doing was some back alley painting on the back of a church. Unfortunately, this church came down really, really hard.”
After that happened, Rickert said, he quit painting with the crew he had been with in Kansas City. “I still associate with these guys. They more like the fun of getting away with stuff. And I’m trying to go more legal.”
Rickert explained that some of the young graffiti artists come from troubled homes and when they paint, it gives them a release. “It’s their way of reacting [to their home life],” Rickert said. “Society would rather not see it [the family struggles]. But you put art up there on the wall and people can’t not acknowledge that it’s there.”
Rickert said he did not have that troubled background. He moved with his parents and sister to Bonner Springs a couple of decades ago from California, when he was in fourth grade. He graduated from Bible Baptist School in Bonner. “My biological parents are still married, been married for 37 years,” Rickert said. “I had a good upbringing,” Rickert said.
He got in trouble at 18 nonetheless and ended up getting into big enough trouble that he served three years at Nortonville for taking part in setting a fire at an abandoned building.
“You know ‘Idle hands are the Devil’s playground’ – We were 18, we were up all night playing, doing whatever…not old enough to go to bars, not old enough to really be out,” Rickert said. “My parents couldn’t tell me what to do,” he added, rolling his eyes. “Turns out my parents weren’t as stupid as I thought they were.”
Rickert admits to being a nerdy kid who got A’s and B’s. “I’d say I was in the top three in my class but there were only three of us in my class,” he laughed.
At 38 years old and the father of two girls, Rickert said he has evolved into a balance since between producing graffiti art and adult responsibilities. “I got a good job working for the Union 1290 Laborers,” said Rickert, who has been with the organization for the past 15 years.
But the urge to produce the larger, highly visible artworks has remained strong for Rickert. Graffiti has been fit for that urge.
“What an artist in that arena does is tag with their name in a high traffic area and hope that it will stay up a long time before the city comes along and “buffs” it – paints it over,” said Rickert. “Then the artists race to claim that blank spot as soon as possible to get their names seen. The quicker you get there to claim a spot, the quicker it’s yours before the city buffs it again.”
There is, Rickert said, “honor among thieves” in the nefarious work, though. “You’re not supposed to “side-bust” a piece, which means if somebody claims a spot, you can’t go up right next to them.”
“There’s a new guy [in Kansas City] just now starting out his nefarious activities,” Rickert said, “but he’s writing over artists who have been here for 30 years. Artists like Chewy, Pansy – these guys have been painting for 30 years and never been caught. And this guy is taking his stupid name and writing over their work.” Some of the work in the art district in the back alleyways is not legal (nefarious). “He’s going back through there and he’s trashing them. Well, the city’s going to look at that and they are going to paint over history. There’s years worth of graffiti back there. He has no respect for those who came before him.”
Rickert, who moved to Leavenworth from Bonner Springs, has been doing his legitimate graffiti work the past couple of months. His popularity and notoriety has skyrocketed as he posts his paint projects and their locations on social media. The attention has garnered some solid commercial work. He has a gender-reveal party on Sunday, Sept. 20 and a birthday party at another park later in the afternoon.
“It helps pay for the paints, which is definitely nice,” Rickert said. He had just come from purchasing his supplies, including 26 cans of paint, amounting to $112. “It’s not a cheap hobby.”
Mostly graffiti artists prefer working with spray paints because they are fast, he said, but he also does brush work. “It just takes a lot longer,” he said.
The mural he did for the local Leavenworth business, Karma Cakes, for instance, took 13 hours because it was all done with brushes, he said.
Now he’s looking forward to possibly doing more mural work that will be a completely new direction as he considers taking part in the Passageways project in Leavenworth. Passageways is a public art initiative by the Leavenworth Main Street Design Committee. “It offers half of 13 passageways to local and regional artists to create interest and an excitement down by allowing their creativity to shine.”
Rickert said he is comfortable with his decision to move towards legitimate graffiti work. He said his mindset has shifted in the past four or five years where he feels more at home with what he termed: evolving. “Maturing and evolving works for me,” said Rickert, “even though I’ll always be a kid at heart. At the same time, I’ve got kids I’ve got to look out for. It’s not just me.”
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