This Graffiti Artist Is Flipping The Script With Clay And Mirrors

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.

So from there you’ve become a bit of a globetrotting muralist alongside the graffiti. How did that come about?

I was taken in by Urban Nation — which is a Berlin based graffiti group — and they took me to Malaysia. It really opened my eyes to a lot of artists I’d never seen before or met before. I decided I wanted to change. I wanted to keep doing the sculptures, but that wasn’t enough for me anymore. I wanted to go bigger and create something more powerful. When I walked away from that, I came up with a couple of ideas that I’m actually working on now.

Is that how you came to do those massive installations in Arizona?

That one is called Virtual Borders Arizona. I went down there and built three large-scale sculptures — one of a human bear trap which was all about immigration reform, one was a fried egg, and one was the world which was melting.

I built those in the desert and illegally dropped them around the Arizona US border. So no one knows which sculptures are out there or where they are. Later, I brought back a virtual reality team, and we virtually filmed all the sculptures so that you could only see my sculptures through virtual reality.

How are these pieces about immigration?

The bear trap was about the trap of the desert and the legal trap when you get on the other side. The fried egg is about people that don’t make it across the desert. And the melting world is talking about how borders are getting redefined again and again and things are constantly changing. The United Nations saw that and they rang me up and asked me if I would help them do a program for them. So we started a program called ConectArte. That sent us to El Salvador where we worked with gang kids for the last three years doing street art, graffiti, and murals through this United Nations program.

I gotta ask man, you’ve got a lot of egg imagery in your graffiti, a lot of breakfast imagery, and a lot of bound birds.

Everything in my life and art is about a conversation. For me, the egg represents a lot. The egg is life and death, you know. It’s the fragility of everything. I love the whole concept of the egg. It’s just something that I don’t particularly choose to do, yet it just keeps falling back into my work.

I was married at one point and it wasn’t an ideal situation. The birds were basically about freedom. I always wanted to leave Australia and travel the world and birds are always free, you know. They’re the ultimate symbol of freedom. So, when I was unhappy, I was doing tied up birds — birds that couldn’t fly. The bird has been a theme all of my career. It’s been something I’ll always go back to and I’ll always love.

You’re currently working on the Graffiti Vanity Project with Mats Christeen. Can you tell us how you got started with this and tell us a bit about your aims for the project?

I originally had done some archeology back in school in Australia and I had gone to a place called Karak in Jordan. I visited the pyramids around this time. I remember climbing all the way to the top of the pyramid and at the very top, somebody scratched in stone, “Giovanni, 1664,” or something like that. And I thought, ‘damn, Giovanni was here, all those years ago.’

I started thinking that graffiti was the original selfie. Even in the 1970s, graffiti was always about putting your name up and being recognized — either by your contemporaries or by the greater public. Graffiti’s became a war of putting up as much as possible so people could be seen as much as possible. Now, we live in this world where we’ve actually taken that too far. We’ve become obsessed with the vanity of ourselves.

Obviously, as an immigrant, I’m very concerned also about the way the country’s going with Trump. So I decided I wanted to do a show and I was working out how to do it and I decided to create graffiti mirrors.

Walk us through that, you’re putting up tags, but using mirrors instead of paint or clay?

It’s done in the old fashioned ’70s bubble letter graffiti writing with large-scale mirrors that are faced out onto the streets. We’re putting them up across the country from LA to New York. They are actually graffiti but they’ll be a mirror so that you can walk along and see yourself. The way I see it is, it’s a selfie on a selfie on a selfie on a selfie. It says, New York. It reflects New York. It reflects the viewer. So it becomes a massive collaboration.

How does that tie back into immigration?

The original work is going into a gallery space. We have some other artists who are going to paint black and white images of immigrants on the walls. Then the mirror itself goes on the other wall so that it reflects the immigrants and as you stand in front of the mirror — and you become one of the immigrants.

Immigration is such a massive issue right now with, I’d say, a real lack of humanity in the current administration that’s seeping into the public’s psyche. How do you feel as an immigrant in America these days?

I mean, just as an immigrant I feel super privileged to be in America. I’m well aware that I’m not the immigrant that crossed ‘the border.’ But with the whole atmosphere that Trump has created … Look, I never wanted to be as political as I am becoming and it’s become vital that we all are. If I’m on the top end as a white middle class immigrant in America and I feel uncomfortable, then what does the guy who crossed the border feel? If an immigrant like myself doesn’t take a stand and use their voice, then there’s more of a problem as well. A lot of us are now coming together to say something because if we don’t say something, who does?

John Lennon said it best, “Apathy isn’t it. We can do something.” You seem to be taking that to heart.

Paola Baldion (my wife) and I decided that this was our year and that we were obviously going to protest these things. So we started a campaign called I Am Migration. We did a viral video that reached nearly 30 million people on Facebook. And we were reached out to by a lot of people and we were encouraged that we should do more.

So what’s next?

A DNA company called My Heritage reached out. They’ve given us 400 free DNA tests. So we’re going to drive across America and hand out free DNA kits to show those people that they’re not originally from middle America. We’re going to do a short 30 minute documentary called I Am Migration across America. And, listen, we can’t save the world. But we can at least do something. It’s time to be proactive is what I’m saying.