He might be the last cowboy in Brooklyn. Like those adventurers of yesteryear, Jamie Toll (that’s MRToll to you) wandered to a new land seeking adventure and opportunity. An immigrant from Australia, Toll moved to New York in 2003 and quickly rose from local bartender to worldly artist to social justice guru. His work has spanned continents and mediums; his cracked-open, silicone eggs scattered about the US border highlighting the fragility of the immigrant experience caught the attention of the United Nations who employed Toll to travel to El Salvador and Turkey to build community through street art. Alongside his wife, Toll is also crafting a documentary called I Am Migration. Based on their cross-country journey handing out free DNA tests, the film aims to unearth the perceptions of whiteness and blood purity, tackling racism and xenophobia along the way. Meanwhile in Greenpoint, he creates jubilant birds and clay eggs and cartoonish skulls that are peppered around the neighborhood as Easter eggs for residents to discover.
Toll is simultaneously planning, tackling, and executing a number of projects. Before this interview, he said he prefers to delve into just one and discuss its impact as opposed to scanning over many and diluting their effects. And so we discussed his one true love: Brooklyn. (“I’ve never put up art in Manhattan,” he says with pride.) He’s forthright, but don’t mistake this for harshness; Toll exudes compassion, is masterfully warm, and radiates an envious amount of charisma. Maybe it’s the Aussie accent, or the casual way he sipped a whiskey during our interview. He was in his own bar after all — the summer hotspot and winter hideaway Northern Territory, located at 12 Franklin Street. Perched on a barstool, he’s excited yet at ease, and it’s contagious. After getting to know Toll for an hour or so, it’s not hard to feel gravitationally bound to him, even as he tells you that in two years’ time his cozy bar will close. Come March 2020, Northern Territory’s lease won’t be renewed and the building will make way for a high-rise office space. This is just another verse in the dirge of local bars being bought out, but as with cowboys, another adventure is always on the horizon.
GP: Much of your art exists around the neighborhood on public facades. Do you need to obtain a permit to do this, or were you commissioned by anyone?
MRToll: It’s all illegal. Everything I do other than the large installations with mirrors, where I need to get on people’s rooftops or use cranes, is my own doing. Now that I have a bit more of a reputation, now that the profile is higher, I’m moving from some efforts being less illegal. One of the biggest revolutions in my life was working with the UN because it legitimized me.
GP: What’s it like to see people interact with or come across your art?
MRToll: It’s interesting to see how people react. Generally it’s two types of people: the young innocent ones who see the art as beauty, or the art hunters trying to steal it. There’s also a naive person who doesn’t know what it is or who the artist is, but they found it and want to take it.
The first steals because they want to put it away for 20 or 30 years, thinking they’ll get some value out of it, and the other thinks it’s pretty and takes it and breaks it. Usually you’ll break if you try and take them. I was recently told a friend went to someone’s apartment and saw five pieces of mine in the home. It doesn’t bother me…if you can get it off the ground, God bless you, but some artists get really concerned about their work being stolen. I believe the street is the gift. And this is my gift, and once I put it out there I have no control. That’s the nature of the beast. I think people who disagree with that are in it for the wrong reasons. It’s a public place.
GP: People have different perceptions of what public art and graffiti are.
MRToll: Right. I don’t know if you saw the piece about the Bansky piece getting graffitied. They covered up the Bansky (an anonymous British street artist) to protect it and cleaned up the graffiti, but it’s graffiti getting graffitied. This is the ironic thing about human nature, they’re missing the point. It was already grafitti, but it’s about perception. That’s what the intuition of the work was, to interact. Someone graffitied over illegal graffiti and people are complaining that fine art was ruined. It wasn’t fine art, it was graffiti.
GP: You refer to your own mirrors and clay as graffiti. Graffiti is often thought of as spray paint, but yours is a bit more tactile. How do you adhere your clay objects to brick or other surfaces?
MRToll: There’s a science to glue — never would have expected. Depending on what time of year it is, the weather, how quick the job is, I usually use industrial ground sealant. It’s the strongest stuff you can get, but it doesn’t dry quickly. So the piece can be picked up, which is not ideal, so sometimes I use a combination of that particular glue and a two-part epoxy resin. It’s a clear, super-fast drying adhesive. That holds the piece while the other glue does the bonding. Now with the new mirror sculptures going up, they’ll be bolted but we will use some glue too.
GP: Can you discuss your latest mirror project? It’s located in Transmitter Park and is getting some attention.
MRToll: The original idea of mirrors is graffiti. Before we had a cell phone… I’ll tell you a story. I wanted to be an Egyptologist. I went to school in the Middle East studying archaeology. I remember climbing the Pyramids for the first time, and I get near the top, and I see “Giovanni 1669” or something hand carved into the rock. And I’m thinking, “F8cking Giovanni was here in 16-something!” Graffiti’s purpose was showing someone’s vanity and putting a name out there over and over and over. Graffiti was vanity. Everyone has a camera on them now, but graffiti is the original selfie before we went to technology. Youth went out and rebelled and put their name out over and over.
So the mirrors reflect New York City. You take a photo, and it’s a photo of you inside New York City inside a selfie inside a selfie. It’s you inside my work, having fun in New York. My idea originally was to put it up in buildings and it would reflect nature. We’re going to be producing in LA making mirrors there. Selfie mirrors for the year of 2018. All of those mirrors are made at Foundrywood in Greenpoint. They send them out all over, and I’ll install them as time allows. Mirrors: they’re graffiti and fine art and street art.
GP: So the mirrors take on a political tone, reflecting our times.
MRToll: It’s about a discussion of the vanity of the times were in. Everyone is self-obsessed. If I put a mirror up in Times Square, you know how many people would take a picture with it? Tons, and that’s kind of the point. The vanity of us all. It’s an interesting project because of how vain we all are, including our president, and we haven’t hit rock bottom yet with it. I truly believe in society that we need to hit rock bottom. We’re starting it, and I think our children’s children will have to deal with people not living up to Instagram’s standards. We’re all a product of it.
GP: Where do you work?
MRToll: My studio is here in Northern Territory. It’s a 7,000 square foot building. Three stories. There’s studio space upstairs, and I hosted (Australian artist) Vexta in there; I try and support artists and give them free space if possible. I build the clay here or at Foundrywood. A lot get ripped off. All the clay pieces on Manhattan Ave have been taken. There’s a beautiful bird and skulls outside the bar. They’ve been out for a while. I always do birds because the parakeet is native to Australia and they represent freedom. It comes up again and again as a throwback to my country.
GP: It seems both of your main jobs, as artist and bar owner, succeed in fostering community. Do you feel very attached to the neighborhood?
MRToll: Greenpoint is the world to me. It’s given me my business, it’s given me my life, it’s given me my home, my art. Even when we’re doing more international projects, Greenpoint is home. I’m super grateful. I think GP is a very special neighborhood. The difference between Williamsburg and Greenpoint is Williamsburg was industrial warehouses and developers could come up and buy entire blocks, but here the streets are residential. Yes they’re building up the waterfront because that has warehouses, but you don’t buy up blocks of homes. In 50 years time, Williamsburg will have crazy density, but Greenpoint will always be like an East Village. Even the train system makes Greenpoint this beautiful little pocket that can nurture itself.