Jesse Hazelip, Brooklyn-based graffiti artist and activist, covers urgent topics like mass incarceration, racism in white neighborhoods, and the latest Dakota Access Pipeline protests in his works. Surprisingly, he uses the images of animals to reach his audience, let’s see how it works.

Hazelip explains why he chose animals to connect with masses: “Everyone has their own relationship and interest in animals, so it’s a safe platform to start a conversation about issues that are divisive,” he tells Creators. “I feel it’s important to try to include everyone in the conversation about social issues, and not to just preach to the choir. Animals are a good bridge to begin to speak with people who might normally shut down a conversation when confronted with sensitive subject matter.”

His works may seem dark and rough, but behind all this, there is a simple idea – compassion towards all the people. “Being able to look at a criminal and love them regardless of their deeds. People in our society are very quick to judge others, especially poor people, based upon their own reality,” Hazelip says in an interview.

His tolerance and understanding for people probably can be explained by the facts from his biography. He was raised in in Cortez, CO, a small and mostly white border town of nearby Navajo and Ute reservations. When he was two years old, his parents adopted another child. “He was the only black child in our corner of Colorado. I witnessed racial attacks on my brother starting when he was in kindergarten that persisted until we left the state,” Hazelip remembers. Then, he left his hometown. The impact that this experience had on him is undeniable. The racism that his family and mostly his brother faced shaped a foundation of his activism and human rights engagement.

Hazelip is also really concerned about the problem of prisoners, who are rejected by society and often have no chance for normal life after their time in prison. He is also disgusted by the conditions and traditions that still have a place in jails: “I had a small taste of it the few times that I’ve been in a county jail facility. I was shocked by the inhumane treatment and the obvious racial bias in the population, and I could guess that it was much worse in higher security prisons.”

His artworks represent his views and opinions. Speaking visually, he usually uses tribal patterns merged with contemporary typography, religious iconography, and slang. Practically all of animals on his pictures have tattoos and also often military equipment instead of their heads. Of course, all of his works are metaphoric – at first, his art simply catches your eye, but then you can’t but think about the deeper meaning of all these things combined together.

We suppose that Hazelip is in the constant process of looking and studying the society and culture. Like, recently he traveled to Standing Rock. “I was exposed to ancient prayers from many indigenous cultures on the sacred land of the Lakota.  I began hearing the prayers wherever I was in camp, even if it was just in the wind and everyone was asleep. I could feel the spirit of the place. There was a functioning society there that was based on survival and protest. There was no room for ego.” No doubts this experience will find its reflection in his next works.

Well, of course, you may not understand Hazelip’s message just at once. Pen drawings of butchered and tattooed bulls, wolves regurgitating chains, and helmeted vultures, all set against bold backdrops of stenciled script or prison blueprints can be quite hard to realize. But still, remember that these are only the symbols waiting for interpretation – use fantasy and don’t forget about urgent topics.

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