Once in blue moon, someone comes along and changes the whole game up. In this case, that someone is a graffiti artist named Jamie Toll, or MRToll if you’re on the streets of LA or New York. An Aussie immigrant, MRToll spent years tagging, until serendipity stepped in and forced him to give up paint for awhile. During this hiatus, inspiration struck and MRToll began tagging the streets of New York with clay. The art world reacted and the script was flipped.
In the years since, Toll has found his American Dream — working with stars of the graffiti world and building a name for himself. But that wasn’t enough for the artist. Now, Toll and his Colombia-born wife, Paola Baldion, have set out to bring a conversation to the world about what immigration is and how it has shaped us as a nation.
Toll has gone from the streets to the halls of the UN with his art, and he’s coming to meet you across America with his latest work on migration. We sat down with him to talk about changing the graffiti game with clay and mirrors and embracing your voice to enact social change across America.
Can you walk us through where your story as an artist begins?
I came to New York to study art at the Art Students League of New York. One of my early professors was Philip Sherrard and he immediately said to me, “You need to quit art school and come work just with me as an understudy.” So I worked with him for seven years live painting on the street in New York City.
That’s one hell of an alternative to art school. How did you two operate?
We’d just go out, find a spot, and set up. Then we’d just paint all day. We would do that twice a week, every week. I certainly got the sort of feel for the streets of New York by being out there and painting on it. You see everything in the streets.
When did you get the idea to ditch paint?
When my daughter came along, we had a very small apartment. I’d been painting in oil paint and my wife at the time said to me that I wasn’t allowed to paint anymore because of the toxicity. So I’m thinking, ‘how am I going to keep doing art and expressing myself?’
I ended up going out to the streets. And there I started doing clay sculptures because they weren’t toxic for my child. Again the apartment was really small, and, now, the clay sculptures were building up really quickly and I thought, ‘you know what, I’m gonna just go start sticking these clay sculptures, my originals, out on the street.’
Within weeks of me posting my first sculpture on the streets, I had magazines writing articles and stuff about how street art wasn’t dead and how it was diversifying. From there, I ended up sticking with the clay. I was always originally a painter and my clay sculptures have a sort of a paint style to them. But, I went to clay and never looked back.
When you look at it really does look almost like impressionistic painting on a wall because you get this depth with the clay. How did people react to this new form of graffiti?
Originally I was doing a lot more 3D sculptures. And people loved smashing them. I would go back and check, and within an hour, it had already been hammered. I thought, ‘what’s the point of putting them out if they really don’t last in any form?’ Some other artists have done installation pieces like that and they take photographs of their work and simply sell the prints. But I was never really interested in that. I don’t try and monetize the sculptures because I really wanted that to be graffiti style and have it stick out.
So then I started making them flatter and sticking them to walls up high. Then I met the famous graffiti artist called Ghost. And Ghost said to me that the problem with the work was that I was going high and that people couldn’t even tell if they were sculptures or not. And we talked about putting them on the pavement and that made sense. From that time forth, I’ve been putting the sculptures on the pavement so people can see more that they are actually made of clay.
So have you had as much smashing since you’ve gone flat, or has it quieted down?
Whenever it happens, I take it as a compliment. They’re not trying to smash it to get rid of it, they’re trying to take it up because they want it and they end up breaking off a piece. Then they realize that they’re not going to be able to get it off in once piece and they give up. But in that process, they damage the work obviously. But I love that because it’s part of the process.
The heart of street art and its third act is destruction. It’s needed in a way.
Exactly. For people to sit there and have protected walls it’s, for me, a little bit absurd. There’s the fragility of the street. It’s about the decay. It’s about that process.