Friday, July 27, 2012

Johnny U.F.O.'s Love Hate Relationship with Detroit

One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how Detroit can be such a big city and a small town at the same time. Somehow everyone knows each other. Yet, sometimes in this city you can travel among the same venues and same people and never meet one another. Recently, I was perusing the world of Facebook and came across a post on Grande Nationals' page. The post was from an artist that I've never heard of, but instantly became a fan of. 

Johnny U.F.O. (Under Fire Often) creates pieces inspired by old publications and his feelings for Detroit. After visiting his blog, this artist continued to intrigue me, with his face hidden by a  mask in the only pictures he had posted of himself. I decided to contact U.F.O. to find out more about him and his artwork. I found his story so interesting and inspiring, that I decided I had to share it with you in his own words. 

"I wasn't born in Detroit. I was actually born on the opposite side of the state in a place named Benton Harbor. Surprisingly it isn't much different than Detroit, if not in worse shape in some aspects. Let's just say my younger years are riddled with bad decision making and a long road of learning things the hard way. 

High school for me was in the early 90's in South Warren at that time when Hip Hop and Rap were a new thing to the white suburban kid and I was in that first wave of self proclaimed "wiggers". Unfortunately my father is really old-school and a racist asshole, so he made high school for me a living hell until he kicked me out at 17 to live on the street. And I mean literally. I can remember breaking into campers in people's yards for a place to sleep, and stealing change out of cars for food money. Now I don't condone theft, but I definitely don't condone throwing your kid out, not ready for the world either. You know what "Tough Love" is. It's an excuse to not do anything for your kid when they need you the most. As fate can only twist it I soon found myself running with skinheads. I, the proudest "wigger", whose favorite words were "Yo dog!". Bad decisions lead to bad places in life, and it wasn't long before I was in prison.

I knew I had to start over and that something was critically wrong with my thinking. I had turned into something over the years that I wasn't. Could have been my physically abusive step father, or my ass-hole real one. Who knows? My life changed with a conscious decision and an interview. 

When I was 23 I walked into Mongolian BBQ for a job interview and against all logic I opened up and spilled my guts. I told my prospective boss that I was an ex-skinhead, that I was homophobic, had been to prison, and that all my friends were crackheads and in trouble. I told him I had come to Mongolian BBQ looking for a job because I heard there was a large diversity of people that worked there and I wanted to change my life and my perspective. Surprisingly he hired me. Six months later he told me I was the biggest chance he ever took hiring an employee and he was glad he had, because I was an excellent employee and a good person. 

That's where my life changed, in that restaurant. I've never looked back and to add the yin to my yang, if not irony, I live and work in Detroit. My last job was at an all black establishment and I even worked in an all black salon for a while. I love Detroit, because as honest as I am about my past, Detroit accepts me. Not one person I worked with held my past against me. In fact they all will swear I'm not even white, I'm light skinned! Last summer I even opened an After Hours, but between being robbed by the Police of all my liquor in a raid one night and "Russian MOB" types trying to push in on me and make me compromise my morals, I had to leave. But, for only starting with a thousand dollars and an idea, put together with the help of my girl and a couple of partners, I had one of the most popular night spots around, "Grandmas House". My turntables saw the likes of several members of P-funk, Mike Clark, DJ Psycho, Christian Martin, Derick Plaslaiko, and many others. Unfortunately I left everything behind when I left out of there, as to not have any problems arise with my so called "partner" at the time. 

And that brings me to where I am now. Tired of being on the edge of life. I had, maybe have, a daddy complex I'm getting over. It's time to stop waiting for him to be a man. I'm one! One of the most important parts of my life is my 15 year old daughter. Between prison, no license the last ten years, and warrants for things like driving on a suspended license, I have grown far apart from her physically and emotionally (she lives 200 or so miles away). I will settle for nothing less then making everything up to her one day and becoming someone important in her life. She remains my most important motivation. She is a beautiful, intelligent, young woman that deserves the world. 

If you don't help yourself, who's gonna, right? Don't get desperate and find yourself in desperate situations, that's what I did in the past. Be smart and make wise decisions. Prison ain't cool! I hope in the end I have the opportunity to give back to a city that has given me so much. Detroit's A Bitch and I Love her!!!"
I also had the chance to ask Johnny a few questions about his art. Here's what he had to say.

Hip In Detroit - How long have you been an artist and how did you get started at making your own art?
Johnny U.F.O. - "I guess I've been an artist since I can remember. Although due to a number of bad choice's in my life during my younger days, at 21 I found myself on the way to jail in Florida. Everything I owned, including all of my art work was left on the side of the road in a car, never to be seen again. After that, I stopped doing art for over 10 years because I became discouraged with it. I'm 34 and it wasn't till about 2 yrs. ago that I discovered collage making. It's all a part of finding myself  because I'm tired of standing on the sidelines just watching everyone else do things."

Hip In Detroit - What is the inspiration for your artwork?
Johnny U.F.O. - "Detroit of course plays a big role in my art, from the people to the economy. People are strong here out of necessity. It's "D attitude!" Not to mention, I'm constantly surrounded by creative people. I'm lucky in the sense that I live with a world class drummer that plays with George Clinton and I have had the opportunity to meet and hang with some of the most talented musicians and artists in Detroit over the years. Like I said, it's time to find my place. But, it's not fame or money I'm looking for. It's a purpose beyond just working in a factory and it's about doing something for myself. Not to mention, I've always had an authority problem, you could say.

Hip In Detroit - How would you describe your work to someone?
Johnny U.F.O. - "Well my art is definitely traditional, but I like to think I put a twist on it a little and make it more relevant and modern. It reflects the old and new of Detroit. I believe there is a Love Hate relationship that most people have with this city. While on one hand there is so much creativity and possibilities, there is no denying the overwhelming poverty and lack of education. I myself see it first hand with only a 10th grade education and lack of life skills. But, life's what you make of it and if you don't sacrifice and do what it takes to make a change, no one will do it for you. Persevere is what I hope it says!"

Hip In Detroit - Where do you find the images you use for your collages?
Johnny U.F. O. - "I gather the images for my art all over the place, except off my printer. I feel like that would be cheating. In my "Detroit's A Riot" piece, I used a real clipping from the news paper in the 40's about the riots and the K.K.K.. I like using old 1940's and 50's Sears catalogs and Saturday Evening Posts, along with Real Detroit and Metro Times. I've even used 1960's Playboys and I have incorporated clippings from a giant 1800's Bible I found in the ruin's of the Brewster Projects a couple of years ago. Everything I do my art on is salvaged from the city. Most commonly, I like to do my art on old cupboard doors I rescue (they look neat on the wall). Detroit is about recycling and doing it yourself."

Hip In Detroit - There are a lot of catchy phrases that you use in your work, one of my favorites being "Detroit's a Bitch and I Love Her". Can you tell us the meaning behind some of these phrases and your feelings on the city?
Johnny U.F.O. - "Well the phrases are kinda where they start. Sometimes it's a feeling or thought I'm having at the time about the city, and others are things I've said for a long time. 

Take "Detroit's A Bitch" for instance. There couldn't be a truer statement in my eye's, yet there's an undying loyalty a lot of people have for her no matter what shit she put's them through. That's the... "and I Love her" part. In essence it is "Love Hate Detroit". 

Look at my piece "Detroit Dies Hard". I think a lot of people don't understand that one. So many people don't know the meaning of "Die Hard" I guess? But, when something is Die Hard that means it won't die. To me "Detroit Dies Hard" is a reflection of that persevering attitude Detroit has, and her refusal to give up as a people (because that is who she truly is, the people). 

Or there's the, "For A Snitch Free D". People have this whole stop snitching thing confused. First off, a concerned parent or citizen is not a snitch. You have to be involved in whatever it is that your telling on to be a snitch. And second, people seem to think it has to do with drugs or something illegal. That's not true. It's anytime you sell out your boys!"

Hip In Detroit - You also just started your own T-Shirt Line - Love Hate Detroit. What can you tell us about this project?
Johnny U.F.O. - "Well the T-shirt line is "Die Hard Detroit" and "Love Hate Detroit" is one of my designs. I have several right now, including a couple of different "Detroit's A Bitch... And I Love her" tee's. Again this is part of finding my own way and expressing myself. I'm working on a budget doing everything with pennies to make it happen, so we will see. Everything is made in limited number in my basement as funds come along. Fortunately, I have been blessed with a great support system in my friends and couldn't ask for better people in my life, so I have faith it will work out in the end. By the way, I actually got the honor of officiating two of my very good friends wedding a couple of years ago. That was really cool."

Hip In Detroit - Where can someone purchase your artwork? Your shirts?
Johnny U.F.O. -
"At the moment I can be found on Facebook under johnnyunderfireoften and I'm in the middle of setting up an Etsy Shop, "DieHardDetroit". That should be up by mid-week or so. I'm new at this aspect of it. Up 'til this point it was just my art, and to be honest that's all it was to me. But my friends kept saying that they love it and encouraging me to do more with it."

Hip In Detroit - We like to ask everyone we work with what are some of their favorite places in the Detroit area. So, what's your favorite bar, shop, restaurant, venue, etc.?
Johnny U.F.O. - "I'd have to say there are a lot of really good places in the D so it's hard to pick. As far as bars go, I have always had this special place in my heart for Cliff Bells. I used to explore those buildings over there years ago, but it's also a very beautiful place. They have done a great job with it. In the burbs I like Gusoline Alley. If you wanna talk food, there is this great little authentic Mexican restaurant on Vernor called Taqueria Lupita's where portions are quite large and the price is fair. I suggest stopping in. It's a bit of a dive, but well worth it. Can't say I do a lot of shopping lately, but I love the shops at the Guardian Building, which includes Pure Detroit and Pewabic Pottery. As far as favorite venues go, they are unlistable, even some unnameable. Being the ex-owner/operator of a popular after hours, I love those small intimate places off the map. Those places that you gotta know someone to know about it, like the Breakfast Club in Brush Park. If you missed that, sorry to hear about your luck. Talk about great food and some good entertainment."

As you can tell, Johnny U.F.O. is quite a bit different than many artists out there. This is just a small sample of his work. I highly suggest you visit his Facebook page and tumblr to see more of his work. His Etsy shop is now up and running. So head on over and show your Love Hate for the D.


1 comment:

  1. Johnny Underfire Often, you are the most surprising, inventive person I may have ever met! I am amazed by your ingenuity and am so impressed every time I hear about your new venture! Thanks Hip in Detroit for showcasing such a phenomenal force of nature~*

    Very Sincerely,

    Michelle *~Me~Shell~* Jordan