By Michael Aushenker
Even if you don’t know her name, if you live near Venice you know her work: the signage outside Venice Love Shack; the LSD tab of Felix the Cat heads inside TRiP on Lincoln Boulevard; the marquee Main Street mural “Freedumb,” depicting premature drug-related death icons Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin, Sid Vicious and Marilyn Monroe.
The green-obsessed work of Jules Muck is arguably the most ubiquitous and recognizable public art in Venice today.
“Jules Muck plays a big part in crafting the look of modern-day Venice beach. She’s a great mix of playful and edgy. I see her signature green faces style all over the place,” says Josh Wiener, TRiP’s former booking agent, who saw the Felix mural come to life in 2012.
Now Muck, 36, has crossed a line: What is she doing inside the classy, historic Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica for a week in early December?
What she does best: tagging up a wall.
This time it isn’t her usual pop culture references or cherub faces but five nettipattam aana — decorated elephants, such as the ones found in South India — set in a winter wonderland. Between the bright (yes, green) elephants on several panels in the center of the hotel’s expansive lobby, across from diners and the piano bar, Muck sticks in some Rankin-Bass worthy fluffy-tailed reindeer while peppering the blue sky with red hot air balloons.
And like many events in Muck’s rough-and-tumble life, the gig came out of a happy accident: while “hitchhiking” (actually Lyft-ing) cross-country, word about the artist boomeranged from a fellow ride-share passenger to his acquaintance Armella Stepan, a marketeer for Casa del Mar, less than a mile from Muck’s Venice home.
On this chilly December evening, Keith Battle, a gaunt-looking Venice musician originally from Tucson, Az., keeps Muck company. As Muck offers the photographic evidence on her phone, Battle recounts how he invited Muck to bomb his small Japanese car with one of her signature females, based on a topless photo of his then-girlfriend. When Battle caught flak from The Man for indecent (albeit artistic) exposure, he invited Muck back to paint a black bikini top over the bare breasts. Then Battle broke up with his girlfriend, so Muck re-painted it again: replacing his ex’s head with Darth Vader’s.
“She’s got skills,” Battle says of his friend’s work. “I’m a fan of anything kinda illegal.”
Painting public spaces, by invitation or covertly, does have its drawbacks.
“I’m always driving around the city, fixing things up. It’s constant maintenance,” says Muck, who has lost several murals to redevelopment, including the TRiP piece and one by Bank of Venice on Windward Circle. “It goes with the territory.”
But with this Casa del Mar gig — destined to be disassembled by the end of the year, the pieces disseminated to local schools — she’s preparing to meet a group of Santa Monica High School students the next morning.
Mucky-Pup vs. the World
Perhaps Muck enjoys connecting with young people because her youth was not exactly halcyon.
Born Jules Veros, Muck is of part British and part Greek heritage. Her cartoony surname is a derivative of her childhood nickname, Mucky-Pup, given to her by her maternal grandmother.
“My British grandma used to call me Mucky Pup because I was so messy. I was always covered in something,” Muck says.
The England-born Muck bumped around the world growing up and by 1999 was living in Manhattan, where celebrated graffiti artist Lady Pink took Muck under her wing.
Initially, Muck wasn’t spray-painting murals but tags, desecrating the sides of businesses.
“I had never painted anything except ‘MUCK,’” she recalls.
Eventually, some Bronx rooftop art Muck did got her noticed and soon she was doing legitimate mural work on restaurants in Astoria, Queens, working in other styles such as a Tamara de Lempicka-esque art deco.
“I was still doing my stuff illegally on the side,” she says.
In 2008, approaching her 30th birthday, Muck bolted to California with her beloved Chihuahua Tula (who died recently at age 13) and planted her flag in Venice — again, serendipitously.
“I ran out of gas on Electric Avenue [at California] and I stayed there,” she recalls, laughing. “[Tula] lived in my jacket when I was homeless.”
Muck briefly lived out of her car so she has empathy for people in such situations.
“I was a car dweller. We are not just a drain. I’ve done my best to give back. You have to look at each person individually. Everybody is a person,” Muck says, alluding to local anti-homeless sentiment that fomented further after this summer’s court ruling that legalized living in cars.
During Muck’s homeless period she would often hole up at Abbot’s Habit. During the holidays she ran Christmas lights out of a window of the Abbot Kinney Boulevard coffeehouse for illumination while working on large canvases at night.
Six months after arriving in Venice, her solo show at Abbot’s Habit sold $6,000 worth of paintings.
Muck continued painting murals locally, where merchants took a shine to her art. Venice Love Shack owner Udi Levy says Muck was among the artists instrumental in visually overhauling his Lincoln Boulevard storefront into its current bohemian incarnation.
In another sign of her street-smart, rebellious streak, Muck recalled how she and a friend rented a space at the Love Shack and “we’d sell garbage we had picked up in the alleyways of Venice, pick up these rusted items and sell them to people.”
Meanwhile, a Venice house she moved into in 2010 became a crash pad for too many squatters.
“The City gave me 20 code violations. You’re not allowed to display art, have cushions on your yard. I had far exceeded [the limits],” she recalls.
While Muck isn’t thrilled about all the impacts of gentrification in Venice over the past several years, she acknowledges that her personal financial well-being has managed to grow along with it.
“I got gentrified along with the whole district. You just have to go with the flow.”
Spoons over Needles
Muck still lives gig-to-gig, but somehow the assignments keep coming. Case in point: Casa del Mar.
“We’re so happy,” Stepan says. “We wanted to show that this is not a stuffy place.”
The elephant in the room (or five elephants, rather) is Muck’s drug-and-alcohol fueled past. But like the pachyderms in her mural, these demons are out in the open. Muck, a longtime devotee of bands such as the punk-rock Agent Orange and doom-metal Electric Wizard, appears to have calmed considerably from age 17 to 27, when she consumed hard drugs.
To paraphrase Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, Muck appears far, far away from those city lights. She reached sobriety in 2005. She’s gone vegan and lives healthy.
It is, however, with relative nonchalance that she mentions her near-deadly heroin overdose during a March 2013 relapse in New York, landing her in a hospital on a respirator. With the help of friends such as Battle and Alcoholics Anonymous, Muck insists she’s once again abandoned these vices.
“I used to do a lot of drug-related stuff. I used to paint a lot of needles. People were like, ‘enough already.’ Now I paint spoons. It represents feeding people. It’s nurturing,” she says.
September 2013’s “Freedumb,” with its four cultural icons lost prematurely to drug abuse, “was the first mural I did sober, off everything — including meds — that I was really proud of,” Muck says. “It let me know I was OK without anything.”
Muck adds that one of her more famous mural subjects, Lindsay Lohan, has purchased one of her paintings.
“I know she has a piece of mine above her bed, but I don’t know if she knows me,” Muck says of her painting “I Love Sex,” depicting a Playboy bunny hugging a Teddy bear.
In early 2011, Muck painted Lohan (in her signature green) on a Lincoln Boulevard wall with the message “Welcome to Venice.” The piece made headlines after a tagger added a swastika on Lohan’s forehead as the actress faced shoplifting charges. Muck says she repaired the mural and eventually made off with the wall it was painted on in order to preserve the piece.
“I love painting things [and public figures] that people recognize, but I love painting everyday people, too,” she says.
Muck’s obsession with the color green goes back to 2001 and came about for pragmatic reasons: a limited budget, limited amount of paint and “the green just popped out. The gradation makes it look hyper-real.” When you see black-and-white photos of the work, she says, “it looks really smooth.”
Please feed the artists
Muck has lived all over the world, but with its climate and cool people, she still prefers Venice.
“We get stuff done,” she says, quoting someone who observed “nobody ‘works’ in Venice.”
“You don’t know who’s homeless and who’s a millionaire because they all dress the same,” she adds with a laugh.
Muck’s murals are now popping up citywide: 48th Street and Western Avenue, Silver Lake and Sunset boulevards, and collaborations with Smile South Central.
When Bitcoin security outfit Gem came to Venice, they hired Muck to muralize their Abbot Kinney Boulevard headquarters.
“They wanted me in their space because they want to be a part of Venice,” she says.
When a local beautification movement tapping Westside muralists enters the conversation, Muck says bluntly that she chose not to participate because the work was all-volunteer.
“It’s important to pay artists if they want us to stick around,” Muck says, defending her talent and time as a valued commodity: Artists need to make a living.
Just then, Muck’s elephants catch the eye of a pair of ladies from Pacific Palisades finishing up dinner at the ritzy Casa del Mar’s hotel restaurant.
“I like the elephants but I also love the deer,” says Cindy Simon.
“We’ll send all our friends from the Palisades here,” friend Colleen Morrissey promises
Muck smiles. Taking her brush, she quickly conjures up a fake tromp l’oeil taped note on the corner of her mural: “Jules Muck painting all this week!
Come say Hi!”
It’s not, perhaps, what you’d expect from a self-described recovering junkie street artist.
For the last week of December, Muck is in Idyllwild adorning the bottom of a swimming pool at the home of Paz Lenchantin, The Pixies’ current bassist.
Then the artist returns to create work at Casa del Mar’s sister hotel, Shutters on the Beach.
After that, who knows?
“I don’t really plan too far ahead,” Muck says. “It’s a miracle when I get another one. I always think it’s drying up.”
Then, after explaining how she and Lenchantin recently visited the California desert, where Muck painted on the side of dilapidated structures, she drops a bomb of insight into how her life operates.
“On the day I got the call from Shutters, I got the call from Joshua Tree about to press charges for felony vandalism,” Muck says, chuckling, before adding
how she also got calls from two Joshua Tree residents with offers for prospective gigs.