You can’t miss it. You are compelled toward it. As if by otherworldly powers. And it sits there resonating with majesty and power on the left bank of the Seine.

The Bourbon Palace, so named because it was constructed by Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, the legitimized daughter of Louis XIV, is one of the most storied buildings in Paris.

It was seized and nationalized during the French Revolution, and from 1795 to 1799, it was the meeting place of the Council of Five Hundred — the executive branch of government that defined the new foundational tenets of France.

And of these tenets, the three most important were liberté, egalité and fraternité. Popularized by Maximilien Robespierre, liberty, equality and brotherhood would come to have profound poignancy for all those who would come to France, one, in particular, a graffiti artist named John Perello.

And if you were to have told him in the late ’80s — when he’d moved to Paris, enchanted by tales of Picasso and Montmartre, and of the innumerable artist studios that littered the city — that one day he would be asked to paint the new interpretation of Eugène Delacroix’s legendary oeuvre commemorating these values, he might have found it a little implausible.

Because John Perello, better known by his tag JonOne, grew up in a part of New York City that was as far removed from the Bourbon Palace as imaginable. He explains, “I grew up around Washington Heights but I tell everyone Harlem because they’ve heard of Harlem.”

But just as the French Revolution has created a seismic shift in social structure, America was founding its own new cultural revolution, one called Hip Hop.

Says Perello, “I grew up during the golden age of Hip Hop. With Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang, Afrika Bambaataa. But there was the other side of New York, the early-’80s clubbing scene with places like the Palladium, Danceteria, Fun House, Roxy, Area, the Limelight and so many more.

It was like this collision of high and low culture. It was more egalitarian then and that’s what made it special. Nowadays, to get inside a club, you have to have the symbols. The more symbols [of wealth] you have, the more they let you in.

But before, if you didn’t have those symbols but if you were cool, they would let you in. Now you can buy your coolness. Before, you had to earn your coolness. You couldn’t fake it. They wouldn’t want regular-looking people in the club, they wanted to have freaks. Now you can’t be a freak.”

Regarding the first moment Perello started to notice the street art called graffiti rising up around him on the concrete edifices of the city, surging each day with electrifying power, he states, “I used to see graffiti in the streets. And I was mesmerized by it. I wanted to know who was doing it. Where I grew up, it was where graffiti was born.

Today, you see it everywhere but imagine being in the exact place where it was born. And I would see the very first tags, like FDT 56, Barbara 62, Japan 1, Fats 153, and so forth. I asked myself who’s doing this and why are they doing this, because it was so cool to me.”

For taggers, the artists emblazoning urban surfaces with stylized versions of their names, “tagging” was a form of expression as vital as thinking was to philosopher René Descartes. And while Descartes’s famous philosophical proposition is “Cogito Ergo Sum”, you could say in terms of empowering them with the power to be heard and seen, for taggers, their proposition was, “I write, therefore I am.”

Says Perello, “The tag was underground. It was like a language that was being invented that talked to people like me. Let’s say, those people that didn’t really identify with tradition. It was the tags, the music, the dancing, the clubs, with the way of dressing: it was a way for you to identify yourself as part of this new thing called Hip Hop.”

Interestingly, Perello’s initial motivation to start tagging was romantic in nature. He explains, “My first tag was a love story. Because the real way I got into it was I was writing, ‘Jon loves Rosanna’, everywhere in the streets.

I was in love with this girl in my neighborhood and I would write ‘Jon’ with a heart and then ‘Rosanna’, to get her attention. And eventually she saw it and I went out with her. She was the prettiest girl in the neighborhood.

She was Latina, Dominican like me, but she had this different flavor. She had these green eyes. She had this incredible hair; everybody was in love with her.

So eventually I got her because of ‘Jon loves Rosanna’. Then she cheated on me with one of my best friends. So she broke my heart. I was in little pieces.”

Tagging then became a form of deep immersion therapy fused with critical self-analysis for Perello. He recalls, “So after that I couldn’t write Jon with a heart and Rosanna anymore. And since I had a lot of time on my hands because I didn’t have no girl, I started writing just ‘Jon’ but it didn’t have the right feeling to it.

So then I started to write ‘JonOne’. Because I wanted to say I was still number one even if she had dumped me for my best friend. My tag was saying that even though I was all alone, I was still OK.

It took me a long time to analyze my behavior and understand why I was doing things. Because I would ask myself, ‘Why am I writing my name on the wall? Why am I in a tunnel in the middle of the night doing this?’ Or, ‘why am I in a studio doing this when it’s such a nice day outside? Why can’t I be a normal guy?’

It’s sunny out but I’m in here writing ‘JonOne’, ‘JonOne’ over and over again. One of my friends told me, ‘Maybe you’ve been doing this for years as a way for her to know that you still exist.’”

And soon Perello was tagging incessantly, becoming one of the most prolific street artists in the New York scene. He acknowledges this period as one where he was searching for raison d’être. He says, “People compare my work to surrealist automatic painting where you’re trying to free your mind from conscious control through repetitive writing. For me, particularly in the beginning, I was always this machine, on this war type of mentality.

Going to the tunnels by myself. Painting by myself. Always in this attack mode. Often people would try to slow me down and say, ‘You paint too many trains; you do too many things. You should slow down.’

It’s always been my way. It’s what’s inside me. It consumes me. I’d be like, ‘I painted the whole tunnel this weekend, I should be satisfied.’ But I wasn’t.

I’d paint another tunnel the next weekend. And another one and another one. And one weekend you’d look around and see all these works done by me.”

As Perello’s reputation grew, he also started to forge a signature style, a fluidly compact mimetic tag combined with an iridescent combination of hues. He says, “People started to see my name. I was really talentless. I had no training, no history, no culture, nothing.

But little by little, people started to notice me and notice my blend of colors. And I even got this nickname, “JonOne, Master of the Blazing Blends”. From there, I started to meet artists.

I started to go outside of the graffiti comfort circle where the mentality was, ‘I want to fuck everything up, I want to destroy this city, I want to make them pay.’ I met people who had a more-personal approach to what they wanted to do.

So I started going to shows, to galleries, visiting studios and museums, and meeting dealers. And I started thinking about taking my thing and applying it to my own art. To make it more personal. Going from graffiti, which was a reaction to art, which was expressing a feeling.”

As graffiti started to make its way past the vigilantly patrolled borders of the high-art world, Perello decided to try his hand at painting on a canvas. He recalls, “I was looking at what Keith Haring was doing and Basquiat. So I went to the same store where Keith Haring bought his tarps. It cost me like 45 dollars, which was a lot of money, then I went up to my roof and I painted my first tarp. I did it on the rooftop of my building, which, for a lot of guys in New York, was their first studio.

I was lucky enough to get inside some group shows, and I like the feeling of people coming to see the art I’d created. It was completely different from painting trains, because trains are imposed on the viewer, you’ve got to see it, it is in your face. This was a different exchange — people would come to see you.”

But as the ’80s drew to a close, Perello started to feel a sense of change in the Hip Hop scene. The crack epidemic has made the once-united cultural scene fractured and divided. He says, “I moved to France in the late ’80s. I knew I was at the end of what I could do as a graffiti bomber.

A lot of my friends were going back to school or getting real jobs. They started painting over the trains and I could feel that the golden era of graffiti and Hip Hop in New York was finishing. Even the music was changing: it was like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers, whereas I had grown up on KRS-One.

Music was changing. The clubs were changing. And then there was the crack epidemic. And a lot of people who were in the scene had become drug dealers because it was all about the money. Before it had been about love and creating a culture. Now it was about robbing someone to get that rock. A lot of people were dropping.”

Perello had always dreamed of moving to France — in his eyes, the land of the greatest artistic sophistication and culture. He says, “I’ve always had this romantic dream of France. I had this image of Montparnasse, and of studios and Picasso. It was like if you could make it as an artist in France, because of its history and culture, you were at the top.

I had a friend who showed me the street-art culture here in Paris, guys like Bando, so I met them and I’d seen what they were doing, so I said I wanted to paint a wall. I loved it here and I wanted to stay.

Even the air was different. I was burnt out in New York, but here it was like the Fountain of Youth. Just being in France and one of the first street artists to start painting on canvas, I found that people were receptive to my art. I always thought my art had value to it and that even if this generation didn’t understand it, the next generation would.”

Soon Perello sensed a major shift in attitudes toward graffiti with some of France’s most respected institutions undertaking group shows and retrospectives on the subject. Says Perello, “One of my big breaks came when Fondation Cartier did an exhibit on international street artists and I happened to be on their list.

That was in 2008. I had home field advantage because I’d been in Paris for almost 20 years by then. That made my career jump even further in France. For the Cartier exhibit, I painted a tree made from my graffiti tag.

I got the idea when I was in Pakistan and understanding the significance of the tree in that culture. The image that I did was sort of based on aboriginal art and very colorful, and I used my name in the shape of different parts of the tree.”

Soon Perello had become the hottest graffiti artist in Paris, with celebrities such as Eric Cantona and Christophe Lambert becoming some of his most passionate champions. It was a time, which charted the meteoric rise of artists like Banksy, and Mr. Brainwash, but while both of these were stencil based, Perello began to truly unleash the extraordinary expressive ability of his automatic writing style.

Soon corporate opportunities such as painting the side of Air France jets came, and soon he was being carried by major galleries around the world. But the call to create a new painting to sit in Bourbon Palace, which is today the home of the French National Assembly, still blew Perello away.

He exclaims, “I couldn’t believe it when I got asked to paint a new version of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité for the National Assembly in Paris. To me, these principles, which I recognized when I came to this country as an immigrant, because it was written everywhere, have come to be really meaningful.

It’s because of Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité that I was able to have success in France. Those are values, which I didn’t really find in America, which is why I came here, like a lot of jazz musicians did.

I hope that a graffiti painting being at the National Assembly will further open doors for street art in museums and have it be more accepted by both France and the rest of the world. It meant a lot to me that next to my painting in the Bourbon Palace are works by artists like Delacroix.

It also meant a lot because one week before we presented the painting, there was the attack on Charlie Hebdo, which was an attack on this thing, liberté, or freedom of expression. So my painting really became a symbol for freedom and a reminder that, for our generation, sometimes we can take that freedom for granted. But it is something that we need to fight for every single day.”

As Perello talks, he often looks down to check his watch, a tonneau-shaped Richard Mille RM 10 in black titanium. It’s a watch Perello always wanted, and while he is normally cautious and frugal, it was something that he had to have.

He says, “I had heard about Richard Mille because I am a fanatic for watches. And I’m very picky about the watch I’m going to wear. I don’t put on a watch because it’s got an expensive price tag on it. I don’t put on a watch because it’s gold or has diamonds.

I don’t put on a watch because everybody else likes it. To me, it’s about the movement, the case, the love that you put into it. To me, Richard Mille is a watch I’ve always dreamed of owning. My particular watch is very pure. It has a black case, which draws your eye to the movement. Sometimes, I like to put the watch against my ear and listen to the mechanism when it’s moving. It’s like music to me.”

But when asked if he has become one of those successful guys with the obvious symbols of wealth on his wrist he used to watch trying to get into clubs in New York, Perello laughs and says, “It’s funny because I was talking about how clubs are not cool today because it’s all about the symbols you have in order to get in.

But Richard Mille’s not like that, most people don’t know what it is. I wear my watch everywhere. And most people that see this watch, they don’t even know what it is. And I like to be very discreet. I don’t like flossing.

This is something that’s more for me than something with diamonds in it that’s gonna draw a lot of attention. People that know about it, they’ll recognize it. But for the most part, people don’t really know what it is, except for the watch lovers.”

And ultimately Perello’s Richard Mille has even greater significance for him. He explains, “One of the reasons I paint is to cheat time. Because I have this fear that my life will be this useless life.

I want to have impact on this life. The Egyptians, they built pyramids; as artists, we paint canvases so that our art will cheat time and they will continue living even when we are gone. I always think that I have to do a lot of paintings so that people will remember me when I am gone.

That’s the way I cheat time and that’s the reason a watch is important to me. Because it’s a reminder that time on earth, every second is precious. Each time I look at my Richard Mille, I’m reminded of that.”

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