Since I started working the street art beat, I’ve kept a list of every artist whose work I admire, with the ambition being that I will, at some point, interview them. J.T. Liss has been on my list almost as long as I’ve been writing about art.
We first met while I was covering an article on Alpha Workshops, a pilot program geared toward introducing LGBTQ+ youth to street art and graffiti. Liss was one of the guest lecturers. I watched as the students listened intently while he explained his process – developing complex and interwoven narratives with photos and words.
To call J.T. just a photographer is to sell it short – he’s an educator, an activist, a poet, a father, an artist of the highest caliber, but above all, he’s a storyteller.
After a series of near misses, train traffic, and technical errors, I finally made it up to East Harlem’s Dear Mama café to sit down with Liss and hear his story.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
Snapshot of a Style
T.K. Mills: When and how did you become a photographer?
J.T. Liss: I started 10 years ago after moving to East Harlem. I started walking around the city and capturing everything I could see. It started off as street photography, and then I wanted to find a way to differentiate myself from other photographers. From there, I started working with layers.
“I call it photographic art. It’s a combination of portrait photography, street photography, cityscape photography, all layered with images that I’ve taken from walking around New York.”
Your art often combines several elements, mixing foreground and background imagery. Given that you pull from different schools of thought, how would you characterize your art?
I call it photographic art. It’s a combination of portrait photography, street photography, cityscape photography, all layered with images that I’ve taken from walking around New York. Things like cracks on the concrete, eroded subway advertisements, paint splatters on walls — things that have been neglected or not given a second glance. They possess life in them, and I want my work to tell their stories.
Many of your pieces use poetry to convey a narrative. What led you to add that kind of lyricism to your work?
I’ve always written poetry and worked on the written form. I’m not the type of artist who would just ask someone “what do you think this artwork is?”
I want to tell them my perspective — It’s important for my work to have intention, for my work to have a story behind it. It’s exploring those narratives and trying to show people where I’m coming from.
Are there any themes you find yourself coming back to a lot?
I try to make my messages relate on a broad scale. The ills and triumphs of society; both the shitty things and great things that humans are capable of. My piece, ‘Face Value’, combines both aspects of that idea.
What usually comes first, the poetry or the photography?
It goes back and forth. Sometimes I create a poem and then the art work to go with it. Sometimes the artwork is created first, and the poetry follows. There’s been some rare moments where the planets have aligned and I was able to create both simultaneously, and those have been my best pieces.
Cityscape as Surroundings
How did you end up in New York?
It was a relationship. I moved out to New York for a girl, and a year later we broke up. I was just walking aimlessly around the city and I decided to grab a camera and listen to some music. I just started seeing the world in frames, puzzle pieces of a much larger picture.
I can’t remember much, but I remember every single photo I’ve ever taken. To put those together, to tell a story, is how I create.
What was life like before you settled into East Harlem?
I grew up in New Jersey, by the beach. I never learned how to surf, even though I grew up by the water in Ocean County. In high school, I played soccer. I kept with it and in college, I played at a competitive level in a top 25 school. A lot of my life revolved around it, but after soccer was over, I was happy to let it go.
Moving to New York gave me that opportunity to explore that creative side that I’d suppressed my entire life. For whatever reasons. Maybe it was the machismo-driven world that I was in, where I felt I couldn’t explore any of the femininity that we possess as men. But New York allowed me to explore it and I’m forever grateful for it.
You’ve lived in ‘El Barrio,’ East Harlem, for most of your New York life. How has it influenced you?
I love that it has a rich history. It used to be a Jewish community, then it was Greek, then Italian. Since the 60s, it’s been mainly Puerto Rican. There’s also a history of activism and action in the neighborhood, such as the legacy of the Young Lords. They were an activist group that pushed for empowerment and organization among the Puerto Rican and Latin community. I’ve always found it inspiring. I try to channel that spirit into my work, to tell the stories that need to be told, that aren’t in textbooks.
“‘If Instagram and Facebook disappeared, would you still be an activist?’ That’s a very important point. Activism, to me, is being directly involved, helping individuals. Not just sharing things on social media.”
On Education & Activism
How has being an educator influenced you as a person and as an artist? What does being an activist mean to you?
Being an educator has made me a better person. It’s made me a more empathetic human, a more patient person. It’s definitely inspired my work. With social work and education in inner cities, you’re constantly in the trenches, in a job that’s thankless, underpaid, underappreciated. But everyone is there for the same reason: to help.
There’s that meme that says ‘if Instagram and Facebook disappeared, would you still be an activist?’ That’s a very important point. Activism, to me, is being directly involved, helping individuals. Not just sharing things on social media.
It means being present with people, listening to their stories, and helping them in any way that you can. That translates into my work because I take those experiences I’ve had, whether with teaching or social work, and I create art work around that narrative. It helps generate dialogue with my audience, even if we don’t agree. If I can make them pay attention to these stories, then, maybe, it can help alter someone’s perspective for the better.
A Storied Career
Can you tell me about the Styles and Storytellers project? How did that project come together?
At gallery openings, I noticed that not everyone was able to speak the artist, or to learn from them and hear their stories on a particular piece. I wanted to bring that opportunity to the forefront, so everyone could hear what the artist had to say.
The idea was to have 4-5 different artists, a small group, all different backgrounds and mediums, but the one thing we have in common is that we’re storytellers with our art. And to have an artist talk at that opening, to really bring everyone together in one moment and have all of us connect and learn from the artists, and each other. Volume 2 is in the works right now, I don’t wanna give away the lineup, but it’s pretty fucking ridiculous.
Who are some photographers or artists that inspire you?
BK The Artist. He’s a huge inspiration to me, and a mentor. I’ve known him for about 9 years, way back before he was selling pieces to TI or Dame Dash. We would just hang out, and I would learn from him. He taught me how to navigate the art world.
As far as photography, Dex Jones is an amazing photographer. I love his work and his ability to play around with colors and contrast. Also, Jeff Henriquez, whose ability to just strive for excellence and perfection, his hyperrealist work, and his dedication to his craft — it’s something that’s really inspiring to me.
Evolution of the Artist
How has becoming a father affected your life as an artist?
It’s completely changed my process and how I go about creating. I do miss the days where I’d stay up until 7 in the morning just going in. Every creative knows that moment, where you’re in it and you’re hyper-focused. You’re almost in an altered state, where you are no longer you. You’re a portal of this energy, and time doesn’t exist. You find yourself coming out of it, and it’s eight hours later. The sun is up, and you’re like, guess I’ll get coffee and a bagel. You come out of it, and there’s this thing you’ve created.
I can’t do that anymore. But, I’ve taken those experiences and those hours and hours of work (well over 10,000) and I’ve put that into creating my style. Now, when I have a two hour window, it’s execution. I can execute because I’m disciplined enough to know exactly what I have to do to create the result I want.
I can’t wait for inspiration to come, I just need to sit down and do the work. There’s times where my daughter is sleeping and I start going in, and I find myself having those feelings again. But then, she wakes up from her nap, and I have to stop. It was very difficult to do that in the beginning, but I’m getting better at it. I know I can always go back to it, and when I do, maybe I’ll have a different perspective than I did.
“Every creative knows that moment, where you’re in it and you’re hyper-focused. You’re almost in an altered state, where you are no longer you. You’re a portal of this energy, and time doesn’t exist. You find yourself coming out of it, and it’s eight hours later. The sun is up, and you’re like, guess I’ll get coffee and a bagel. You come out of it, and there’s this thing you’ve created.”
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned thus far in your career?
To fight through those dips. A lot of creative careers are just ups and downs. To be able to get through those dips is where you gain character as a human being, and you gain perspective. To grow from the mistakes you’ve made.
Mistakes are a beautiful thing. They’re the only time when a human can reflect on what they’re doing. Those dips, those mistakes, those moments where you feel like giving up, if you pass through that, there’s always something beautiful on the other end of it.
What do you consider your greatest triumph? Your greatest failure?
Two triumphs: Being able to create another human being is a fucking wild thing. I’ve had two years to think about that, and my daughter is growing and evolving with her own personality. Seeing that, and knowing that’s part of you, it’s wild. It’s the ultimate creation.
But, as far as triumphs go artistically, being able to call myself an international exhibiting artist. I had a solo show in Barcelona in 2015. That was probably the highlight of my career.
I had a good friend of mine pass away about three years ago, it was very sudden. He was a lumberjack, Paul Bunyan, tall-tale telling motherfucker that had these great stories. On my 30th birthday, he surprised me with a visit. A couple friends from college came, and we were just sitting at the bar. He stopped the conversation, had everyone pull out a napkin and write three goals they had for someone else. He grabbed mine on purpose. He wanted me to see 10,000 feet, because he was a mountain climber, to be on the cover of a magazine, and to exhibit my work in another country.
I remember looking at this list and going, are you crazy? I’m not gonna do that shit. Then, in 2015, I knocked two of those off, because I was in a plane 30,000 feet in the air on my way to Barcelona for my first solo show in another country. This past year, I completed the trifecta by being on the cover of International Art Magazine. That was a cool moment, a triumph for sure.
My biggest failure? There hasn’t been one big failure. There’s been a thousand little ones. I remember when I first started, I always prided myself on being a good storyteller. There was one piece I was just a little lazier than the others about, and some guy was asking me why I did this, what my intention was, and I didn’t have a proper answer for him.
I felt like I’d been caught. I vowed I would never do that again. I was like fuck, man. I gotta be serious. If I’m saying I’m a storyteller, I have to be able to tell a story with every piece that I exhibit. Just one that sticks out to me. But yeah, tons of little mistakes that have occurred and allowed me to evolve as a person.
What defines success for you personally?
Success as an artist is being able to teach three days a week, instead of five, and having those four days to focus on my craft and grow as an artist, to explore as an artist. That’s success to me. Do I want my artwork to sell, for people to appreciate what I’m doing, for other artists to respect what I’m doing? Absolutely. But I don’t know if I have any desire to be famous. That’s just the ego talking.
When you reflect on your own personal growth, what are the things that stick out to you?
The word that comes to mind is resiliency. There’s been a lot of moments in my career as an athlete, and an artist, where I’ve hit roadblocks, and I’ve been able to push through them. Whether it’s having a career-ending injury, or having a solo show where only one person showed up. Just being able to push through, brush it off, and continue to do the work that I’m meant to do.
To learn more about J.T. Liss, check out his website, jtlissphotography.com
In conjunction with UP, J.T. has offered a special canvas print sale, valid for all 12×12 and 12×18 pieces. 20% of proceeds will be donated to UP Magazine, to help us continue showing you what’s up in the art world. When purchasing art, just add the coupon code: UPMAG