Growing Up A Graffiti Artist With A Cop As A Dad

Before I spent most of my time at Bob Cut Mag, I was a student at the University of San Francisco. My undergrad years were, to say the least, four years of non-stop fun.

One of the many people who made those four years so memorable was Justin Barreras. We met in class during our freshman year. I quickly learned that he had a background in painting graffiti, and is really fucking good at it. In the last semester of undergrad, we had our thesis class together. I remember Justin’s project vividly. He stuck to his passion for graffiti and his Bay Area roots by painting a truck and documenting the entire process from start to end. His work has always had a point of view, and I knew he would go places. Two years after graduation, we met up to chat over a pitcher of IPA. 

Q

I’ve known you from our undergrad years and you have always utilized your skills with spray paint into your work. Where did your interest with graffiti come from?

A

My interest with graffiti first sparked when I was in elementary school. I would go to and from school with my mom, and would see these stickers being slapped onto random objects. I’ve always been interested in art, but something about those stickers with tags on them always visually interesting me. I wanted to know what they meant. I even peeled them off and stuck them in my notebooks and started collecting them. When I went with my family to other places I would also recognize these stickers at other places. As I got older and started to explore areas where I shouldn’t be at like abandoned buildings and tunnels, I would see this graffiti and begin to really study it.

Q

So you started to tag at a really young age then I’m assuming.

A

Yeah man, my first tag was in the fourth grade. I remember one time I tagged on the fire hydrant across the street from my house. I felt so guilty because I knew it was illegal so I told my parents and we went across the street and cleaned it off. In middle school, I practiced a lot and picked up some skills and techniques. The 8th grade was really when I started to spray paint. My friends would see them, and that’s when I realized people were pretty into this. Fast forward to high school, that’s when I really started to do this a lot out on the street painting trucks and billboards. People would recognize me from my moniker, I won’t say what it is *laugh* but I got to meet some really cool people and was introduced to this community.

Q

That’s really funny that you felt guilty. Can you explain a little more on why graffiti is illegal?

A

Graffiti at its core is vandalism. You can argue that it is a form of expression, at the end of the day it is defacing property and that’s what makes graffiti…graffiti. It’s interesting because it being illegal is the heart of this form of art. Being in the face of the law and still doing it is the essence of this form of art. If graffiti is not illegal, I would consider that street art.


Justin sketching at a local cafe.Justin sketching at a local cafe.

Justin sketching at a local cafe.

Q

I’m sure you’ve been asked this question before, but if you know graffiti is illegal…why do you do it?

A

You know, for the longest time I didn’t have an answer to this question. Growing up I would get asked this question all the time. There’s a lot of liability doing graffiti, whether it be getting beat up by gangbangers, falling off a building, or getting arrested. Not to mention my work can easily be covered by city officials, or weathered away by natural elements too. There’s just always been a curiosity I had towards graffiti, and until I had actually done it myself that’s when I realized I was in love with the process. That passion I had for the process carried over to my professional career today as well. I genuinely love the act of creating and every single step leading up to the final product. 

Q

I know that the handle @jb.was.here is a big part of your graffiti identity. Where did it come from?

A

When I was painting illegally, what I was not writing jb.was.here. I won’t tell you what it is *laugh* but when I made the switch between painting illegally to legally – which is when you’re commissioned and given permission to paint – that’s when I started to use that handle. JB are my initials, and my mom would call me that, and a lot of my friends have too so I decided to run with it. The funny thing is that so many people would call me JB that they wouldn’t know Justin is actually my name. 

Q

At what point did you think people started to recognize your work?

A

After I got into a lot of trouble for painting illegally, I had to make a choice if I wanted to keep painting on the street or really put my time and effort into places that will allow me to grow. Once I have made that clear mindset, I pushed it hard. It’s funny how when one door closes many others open. I would start doing freelance work, and that would lead me to do other freelance projects, and it kept growing from there. What’s also really funny is when I was painting on the street I was already creating a branding identity with my moniker and I wasn’t even aware of that. When I began to be formally trained in design, I would be creating my own identity as well. 

Q

You mentioned that you got into some trouble. Can we talk a little more about that?

A

The first time I got into trouble I was in the 8th grade. One of my buddies told my parents that I was staying over at his place, but we were actually painting on the street. The cops showed up and caught me. Thankfully they were being easy on us but every time it happens my heart drops *laugh*. There were a few times that were had to run and hide in trash cans, but that thrill makes me love doing it even more. The time that really was the turning point for me was when I was in the 10th grade and got caught tagging. I didn’t realize that there are teams in the police department that would be dedicated to studying graffiti style, so when they caught me they presented an entire file case of my tags. So if the penalty for a tag is $200, after a few dozen tags suddenly you’re faced with a felony charge. I found myself in a pretty sticky situation and had to reevaluate what I want to do with my life. My father is a cop so getting arrested by his coworkers and having them find out I was his son was hard on my family. My family has been incredibly supportive in my creative pursuit so I had to make the switch, and it has been the best decision because I still spray paint, but now I get paid for it. 

Q

Knowing that is father is a police officer, how does he feel about your graffiti pursuit?

A

You know it’s funny I would jokingly say that I “grew up with the enemy.” My father’s great. He obviously knew that I’ve always had an interest in doing graffiti and would tell me to not do it illegally. He never explicitly said I can’t do it, but did have his suspicion when he saw paint on my clothes. Obviously he wasn’t happy when I got into trouble, so there was a lot of tension between us growing up. What I did was against what he stood for. Now, was it the most heinous crime? Definitely not. But it was very disrespectful towards him and created a lot of distance. But all that said, he has always been supportive towards my passion. We have a great relationship now. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was a mischievous kid *laugh*. I had to get all of that out of my system and now my relationship with my family is better than ever. 

Q

The last time I saw you was over a year ago after our thesis show. How is life post grad?

A

Life has been great. I am now currently working at Liquid Agency in San Jose. The story on how I got this job is really funny actually. So about a month before graduation I was in panic mode. Oddly enough I got a phone call from the CEO’s wife asking if I could paint their son’s bedroom. I jokingly told her sure I’d do it for an internship. Thankfully she talked to her husband, and though he wanted to handle the mural and his company separately, it gave me a foot in the door and the rest just started rolling from there. I’ve learned so much in the past year and the best part is I still get to use spray paint.


Justin in front of one of his murals.Justin in front of one of his murals.

Justin in front of one of his murals.

Q

What’s your ten year plan?

A

I would love to be able to go freelance full time. The reason for that being I find myself in a career that I can work anywhere in the world. I find myself to be comfortable right now, don’t get me wrong I am very happy, but that worries me. I love The Bay, but I want to travel more and meet more people. Who knows I might be Europe in a few years. The long term goal is I would love to run my own agency.

Q

Do you have any advice for kids who are following your footsteps and wanting to pursue a career in graffiti?

A

DON’T PAINT GRAFFITI. Nah, I’m just kidding. I think it’s important that no matter what career path you choose, it’s important to fight for your passion and fight to be inspired. My real piece of advice is really find that passion, because once you do follow that path it no longer feels like work. You’ll definitely have to make some sacrifices, but things will definitely fall into places.  


After we finished our pitcher and said goodbye, I thought about the first time I met Justin five years ago. We were both kids who had nothing but big dreams without a single clue of how to achieve them. Half a decade later, I’d like to think that we’re still those kids but the difference now is that we’re no longer asking ourselves what the future entails for us, but rather focusing on doing what we love. Everything else just start falling into place. 

// Follow Justin Barreras at @jb.was.here; love the story? Don’t forget to give it a share! Photography by Peter Salcido.


Growing Up A Graffiti Artist With A Cop As A Dad
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