Artist Of Mysterious Visual Arts Building Mural Shares His Story
Last week, I wrote about a mysterious mural we found hidden under a stairwell in front of the Visual Arts Building. After contacting multiple members of the arts department and searching the World Wide Web for any information regarding this mural, I didn’t find jack.
But I did find a Jean Carlo. A few days after my story was published, a Penn State alum of that name and from Los Angeles contacted me. He ended up being the man behind this mural. After a few days of e-mailing back and forth, he told me the story of how his hidden masterpiece came to be, on the condition that I didn’t release his last name to protect himself against potential legal repercussions.
“I believe I started the mural the week right before finals in December 2012,” he said. “It wasn’t commissioned or even known about until now. I kept it pretty low-key from everyone until it was done.”
The artist was born in Pasadena, CA and raised in Los Angeles. Art’s always been a big part of Jean Carlo’s life, and part of that was creating graffiti on the streets of Southern California. That didn’t always end well, and it even got him it a bit of trouble.
“I got caught doing graffiti,” he said. “The officer let me go and made me promise to enroll in an art program, so I could paint legally.”
An injury in high school derailed his shot at a college football career, so Jean Carlo decided to keep that promise he made to the police officer. He enrolled in the arts department at Penn State, spending his first two years at the Abington campus before transferring to University Park.
His inspiration behind the mural stems from the homesickness he felt while going to school on the East coast.
“So when I came to the East coast, specifically Abington, I experienced a bland, unseasoned atmosphere,” Jean Carlo said. “I took a lot of things from L.A. for granted, and mistakenly thought they were everywhere, so the piece itself is just a piece of L.A. that I left for you guys.”
Jean Carlo described his days in Happy Valley as living a double life: student by day, rogue artist by night. He said he’d paint “everywhere,” even if his work was eventually buffed or painted over. No matter what, he’d leave a signature “SOMA” tag to mark his territory.
SOMA is Jean Carlo’s signature tag and a word taken from Aldous Huxley’s dystopian novel, Brave New World. As the artist explained, SOMA is a drug given to citizens in the book who “weren’t cooperating or acting accordingly.”
“I use the name because I like the irony and the duality of order and chaos,” he said. “It’s also a mythical alchemist drug for eternal life, and the Greek word for Body.”
Carlo first stumbled upon the stairwell he used for his mural while taking a smoke break outside the Visual Arts Building. He instantly decided to make the stairwell a big project, and spent the next three semesters discreetly painting his masterpiece in the dead of night. He took inspiration from his hometown of Los Angeles as well as sights he saw while walking around campus.
“I didn’t have a plan for it actually,” he recalled. “A lot of what was painted were things I saw that day: A mouse, a pretty girl listening to some music smoking a cigarette while waiting for the bus, then I added some lettering and style to it.
“I kind of wanted to engage the space and make it a break from reality. I think it does just that.”
Painting the mural was therapeutic for Jean Carlo, who enjoyed blowing off steam by working on the mural and distracting himself from the stresses and monotony of being in school. He’s since graduated and now works as a visual artist and graphic designer. Although he obviously doesn’t deal with that mindless boredom anymore, changes may still come to the mural.
“I hope you guys enjoy it,” he said. “I will probably come back and add to it or change it up soon.”
You can check out more of Jean Carlo’s work on his Instagram account.
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