The night before she was to head back to California for work, I got the chance to sit down with Jules Muck, known widely as Muck Rock. Muck's controversial murals, which can be found throughout Indianapolis, have garnered the attention of local publications since 2018. When I sat down with her, Muck had just completed painting a string of murals throughout the city. She had also gone back to edit a portrait she painted of Larry Bird, under instructions from his lawyer to remove the tattoos she had added to his body. I was able to get Muck's thoughts on the local controversies surrounding her, and her responses help paint a clearer portrait of this contentious, dedicated artist who has left a colorful mark on Indianapolis.
How has your stay in Indianapolis been?
“Hectic. It’s been so crazy, I love it. The only time that I’m ever really not depressed is when I’m running around like a crazy person. I was even telling a friend that I haven’t been depressed the whole time I’ve been here. It’s like I stay busy, but usually I have down time. Here it’s been four to five murals a day every day. I’ve never experienced anything like this.”
How have people gotten in contact with you for work?
“A lot of it is through other people. It’s been some people from Instagram, some from other social media websites that have sent me messages, and then their friends. Some people will just come talk to me. I was just sitting here one day and ended up talking to someone because I had paint on me, and then we talked and went and painted a mural. It’s all different.”
Have you been involved with/collaborated with other artists?
“I think a lot of the people I’ve painted for have been artists in the conceptual sense, because a lot of the people who ask me to paint have an idea and they want something in particular so it’s kind of like a collaborative experience in a lot of ways. As far as painting with other people, there’s been a few times where other people have helped do murals here. Some of the bunnies at some storage spaces, there were about three or four of us painting it. [In Broad Ripple] these neighbors planned out their entire alley by each person picking a different flower and having me come and paint each flower on their garage, so by the end it was a corridor of different flowers… It’s cool to have a bunch of eclectic art, but I feel like it’s a whole ‘nother thing to have one piece made up of all these little pieces. It becomes an environment. They’re calling it Broad Ripple Flower Alley. I want to do these large scale, group effort kind of things.”
The Indy Star reported that Indy has been the second longest stay of your career. What is it about the city that keeps you here?
“When it first started happening, I was like this can’t go on for very long. How many people really are interested? And so it was kind of an experiment, like fine I’ll stay, let’s see. And I’m going to tell you right now I’m walking away from projects because they’re still people asking me to do stuff. So I don’t know when it would end, and I’ve been here almost a month and I’ve done over a hundred pieces. I don’t know if it’s the longest stay, because there are also times when I go someplace and kind of set up residency more, like when I go to New York I’m there for a while usually... But I wouldn’t say it’s the same as when I’m touring the U.S. It’s more fun to keep moving.”
Do you have a permanent residence in Indianapolis?
“I was about to close on a house the other day and they found that the sewage pipe was broken. So that’s probably not a good idea. But I thought that it would be good to have a base here… I might still do it, but it seems like that one was not the one.
You’ve faced a lot of criticism for some of your murals from local publications and residents. Is this backlash on par with your treatment in other cities?
“The media is brutal, man. I don’t read that shit, I don’t fuck with the media, I dont’ read it. I think it’s better to just talk to people face to face about everything, and I’d really rather have a first-hand account of everything. I feel like the media has an angle that they need to support, and they use people’s stories and information to support the angle that they’re trying to do. It’s basically the same as an artist. If I want to make a piece I’m gonna take this color and this color and put them together to make what I want to make. And when I see the media use certain information to like, prop up some story they’re trying to tell, I have to be like ok, this is their piece that they’re making and I happen to be one of the components of their thing that they’re trying to talk about. I think that sometimes they really misunderstand. I don’t think anyone does anything on purpose. I try to be really nice to them because at least we can be cool, because the newspaper people are just other people and you might live next door to them. The other thing is that bad press is good press. The reason I think that I have a lot of eyes on my work in Indianapolis is because of the bad press from last year with the bunnies. A lot of people have been watching my work since then. I think because the Beholder thing got a lot of attention, people started watching my work, and they developed an affinity for it. So when I came to town they were like ‘Oh that’s the work that I like and I want it.’ So that’s a good example of bad press working out.”
What was your take on the response to the Beholder mural? Judging by the media coverage, it’s hard to separate the controversy from your work itself.
“People told me it was mostly bad because of the response. I thought it was all kinds of funny. By the time the shit hit the fan, I was in Ohio painting something else. You know what I think? I think art is meant to make people talk to each other. So when people are talking at a bigger level, that’s even better. Even if people are saying bad stuff, they’re still talking. They talk to each other, they communicate. Someone told me that a long time ago, that art is just to make people talk to each other.”
Can you talk about the process of negotiating with Larry Bird’s lawyer about the mural you painted of him?
“That was so funny because when I first got the note I was like, this is a joke. Someone is fucking with me. Supposedly it was his agent [who contacted Muck] but with the grammar and spelling, I was like this is fake. I sent it to a few people because I get scams all the time, people are always trying to fuck with me. So I said this is bullshit, I’m not calling this person. Then I guess what happened is that my friend took it upon herself to call this person. So then, one of the girls from the local station WISH, she did an interview with me about the mural in general, and it came out that there may or may not be a problem with the mural. And then she called me and said ‘Well, supposedly your business manager is negotiating on your behalf,’ and I was like ‘What the fuck are you talking about? I have no business manager.’ That got a little weird, because then I had to call. The girl from WISH had the actual lawyer’s number, so I called [Larry Bird’s] lawyer Gary. Gary happens to be really cool. The bottom line of this whole thing is this worked out because Gary is cool. He was a good guy, he wasn’t a threatening lawyer type. Because I’m like emotional as fuck, if you start coming at me, I have nothing to lose, I’ll fight this thing. And the building owner is crazy too! He was like, ‘Oh I have a lawyer that’ll take it pro bono, let’s go all the way.’ Then I’m picturing the rest of my life as the Larry Bird whore, like god this sounds terrible, this is not what I’m trying to make out of my fucking time. But also the other part of that is I just felt kind of bad about it. Because at the same time all of the stuff that’s been said about me and done about me, and I kind of thought about how I don’t like it when people portray me as this bad, weird thing that I’m not. And they’ll be like, ‘We aren’t trying to say anything bad, but you’re a gentrifier,’or something like that and I can’t do anything about it, so to me it felt like you can actually make a difference and not be the person who’s making someone else look bad. It’s not even like he looked bad, but for him it felt uncomfortable, supposedly. I thought it was cool because I got to take the power back in a situation where I feel powerless about what people are saying about me. And instead of fixing that I can do it for someone else, and that part felt good.”
I noticed on your Instagram live that while taking down the tattoos today you painted a chain on him before taking it down. What was your final agreement with them?
“The agreement is that we keep one tattoo, and I get to put my name on it somewhere that’s not branding. So fine, I’ll put a chain on it. I was at the coffee shop when I got a response. I changed it and I thought it was fine, it wasn’t fine, so I’m like ‘Really? Just tell me specifically what’s okay then,’ I made them look on my Instagram and pick out what they like. I do a variety of different things instead of just putting my name in the bottom left or bottom right. I just think that’s boring. Now he’s got a thought bubble. This kind of ridiculousness is really, really funny. I don’t know what’s going on in the world that this kind of thing is important. I find it so bizarre. I mean, the rainforest is burning. Everyone’s like, ‘This Larry thing is terrible!’”
What’s your commentary in drawing tattoos on celebrity bodies?
“I’ve painted people for a long, long, long time, and it gets a little boring. Sometimes I’ll do stuff like give them one eye, it gets a little more challenging. It’s basically like dressing things up, putting little twists on them. I think that it’s also funny to put the tattoos on someone who wouldn’t typically have tattoos. I wouldn’t put tattoos on someone who already has them, I don’t think, because that’s just flat. What’s the point? But I always like the idea of dichotomy, the two opposites combining. I guess that’s just about unity, bringing opposite forces together, and I always think that’s at the core of most of the art that I do. I think the core of what I do is try and take opposite forces and smush them together. It’s also amusing and fun. It might be a few different things.”
How was the Indy arts community treated you during your stay? There was some controversy around the Indy Arts Council meeting that you attended.
“I just want to say for the most part a lot of the people I’ve worked for are artists. I know there are a lot of art supporters but I think there is a smaller, more exclusive group that are not into my stuff and they’ve been complaining. It’s really hard to measure exactly what’s going on, and it’s happened to me before with these groups of people who are very actively, vocally against me. I don’t think they’re really gaining too much momentum because it’s not like people are not hiring me or anything. What happened with the Arts Council thing was, well before I even knew people were upset I got a call from one of the women there who asked if I was willing to speak to some of the local artists about my success and how I attained it and give some pointers. I thought it was cool that there was an interest. By the time it got closer to [the event] I figured out what was going on, because there were all these people writing messages like, ‘You better do your homework,’and ‘We’re gonna drive you out of town.’ My thing was that I just need to go to the arts council thing and we can just take care of it face to face, because a lot of the stuff was incorrect. There were a couple rumors that were not true and so I felt like it was really important to go and just show up and tell people what was going on. All the threats made me so anxious about it and then going there felt a little disingenuous because the people that had been saying all these things didn’t say them. But there were kind of more subtle jabs like ‘And that’s why you should get a local artist!’ I have to say I didn’t feel totally embraced. And I mean nobody has to embrace me. There’s always been a rift between me and arts institutions. Like I’m not an art school person, I’m not very good at paperwork, I’ve never really done grant stuff. I’ve never been good at this planning and getting involved in the big production stuff just because I’m not a planner, and I’m not good at filling in forms and waiting. I have probably lost a lot of opportunities because of that, but I do it my way which is more on a person to person thing, like meet somebody and paint for them, paint for their friend. So I felt the rift between myself and the Indianapolis Arts Council, just like they would stand next to me and offer people services and completely pretend like I was, well not pretend, I was not entitled to those services. They were saying ‘We hook up people with murals, and we want to help people do this, and we have grants available,’ and they’re passing out cards and I’m like cool, you know, burn. That being said I’m super sensitive and am also hyper aware of being left out, so that could be part of it. It’s hard when there is a group of people trying to decipher why you’re having any sort of success and none of it ever brings up the fact that you may just be good at what you do, that you may have 30 years doing what you do, that you might be talented, and it’s all focused on ‘Well is it because of Instagram or this or that, you’re not from here,’ like they’re just trying to find my secret weapon to being able to do what I do, which the freaking bottom line is that I’ve just been doing it for a long time. And it’s hard for me to sit there and say that in a group of people that are obviously assuming already that I’m a dick who is full of myself. So I was basically just trying to be helpful with information and be like ‘This is what I’ve done, this is what’s helpful for me, I did this and that,’ and some of that felt good to impart onto people. But for the most part it was very strange.”
Does this attitude towards you match up with that of other cities you have worked in, or has Indy been an outlier?
“I think that situation was just weird, it wasn’t outright mean. Some of the stuff online was mean but that’s to be expected. I’m sure there were people with good intentions trying to figure it out. They were trying to appease people that were upset more than me, so that was kind of the focal point. I understand the most important thing is to get the people that are angry to chill. So whatever they had to do to do that, and a lot of that was to be like ‘Let’s hire local people,’ and that’s cool, I can’t be like ‘No.’ Whenever I go into a city that hasn’t had a lot of different artists coming and painting, like Miami, I have no problem. I think if it’s small it’s that fishbowl thing where you’re too big doing too much and you get too many eyes on you, and a percentage of those eyes are always going to be seeing something bad. The more shit you’re doing, the harder it is, so it’s happened to me before in different ways. Here is actually a lot more civilized, I’ll say that, in the fact that people have not threatened me with violence and they haven’t been too destructive. It’s been worse. I’ve been beat up, I’ve been jumped for murals. I haven’t felt threatened here, thankfully. I also think I’m handling things a little better. When you’re younger and you’re more of a hot head and you say the wrong thing and do the wrong thing and fight too hard for something that’s not as important to fight for, you get in worse situations and I’ve been there. So I’m also learning from my mistakes. You kind of have to know there’s gonna be disgruntled people, but it does bug me out a little that it’s artists. They are technically my people. We all do this shit, and there’s all these people in the whole world who are kind of against art in general and supporting it, so it hurts my feelings. And it makes me want to figure it out, and I can’t figure it out. And that’s where I have to let go… It’s hard, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s sad. But I’m getting used to it, which I don’t know if that’s a good thing or what, but at least I don’t get too hurt anymore.”
A lot of the negative discourse surrounding you in Indy has to do with the fact that people fear an artist drawing as much attention as yourself might take away from the visibility of local artists.
First of all, I’m flattered that I’m considered a big artist. Because I know some big artists, and I feel that I have a long way to go. That being said, I’m just flattered when I have work. I’ll paint a kid’s car, I’ll paint a baby’s bedroom, I’ll paint any wall, I’ll paint garbage. I just like to paint. I’ve been doing it so long that I have a bigger following of my art because I’ve just been doing it. That being said, I don’t see how having a prominent artist could hurt a city, especially not its artists because if anything it validates the scene. When you go to places like New York or Miami, you want to paint near the cool shit, like ‘Oh the artist I read about is painting down the street from where I’m painting, that’s awesome,’ I feel like that makes things more valid, not less.”
I think people also have this expectation that when an artist with a larger following comes to a city, there is this expectation that they should use their resources to help the local artists of the community.
“To me it’s the opposite. Usually when I go into a place, it’s the artists that are like ‘You can come do this under our organization.’ The fact that anyone should expect that I should come to their town to help them, it seems crazy to me. I get to town and I’m like, ‘Where am I gonna sleep?’ you know? Like this is raw shit, I have no grant money, no backing. At that point if someone was like, ‘Oh and also help the locals!’ yeah okay, what can I do? What do I have to bring to the table right now when I don’t even have a place to go to sleep?
It’s funny that they think I should come help, but I think that a lot of what I’ve done is helpful. I don’t know if they see it that way, but this is a thing about murals and street art and graffiti is like a lot of times people don’t think about getting them until they see them. So just the fact that this place is littered with a few more murals, multiply that by how many people pass the murals, people are gonna say ‘Oh I want that on my thing,’ It’s not all about me, it’s a mural, so anyone who’s willing to do it can do it. It doesn’t only have to benefit me. I think maybe in the past there’s been a shortage of people wanting art, but right now there’s not a shortage of opportunity. And maybe people just need to realize that before they freak out. I just heard it used to be really different here.”
Do you have any plans to return to Indianapolis any time soon?
“There’s a lot of opportunity here to paint, and that’s all I really want. That being said, the longer I do this, the more opportunities I have in many places, so you kinda just go with the flow and if it seems like it’s flowing somewhere you stay there. I stayed here longer and was like ‘You don’t understand there’s all this stuff to paint,’ and my friend was like ‘I have a feeling that’s gonna happen to you anywhere. You’re gonna be fine,’ But I still live in fear. I was a starving artist and had nothing, no job, sometimes for months and no one would buy my paintings. It was grueling and scary, and borrowing money and being on all the different support systems. All the terrible jobs I had to have instead of doing what I wanted to do. It was a grueling process, so now it’s hard for me to be like ‘You’re going to be okay, you don’t have to do all these murals today.’
I’m just gonna try to go home for a little and do some stuff, see how it pans out over there. It’s a little more relaxing over there. I know that you guys think this is Naptown, but I get no naps. This is busier than New York City for me, this is hectic as shit. Like get out of the car, go here, this smoothie place closes at three so you have to rush to get a fucking smoothie, you know? Everything’s like go, go, go! I guess it’s also when there’s so much opportunity it makes me want to do more. I feel super inspired here too, I’ve never had so many ideas, everything’s flowing. Even when I’m painting I’m like, ‘Wow this looks good already? This is fucking fast!’ We drop big portraits in like half an hour, and everything is just flowing. And I don’t know if I’ve just been working that much and haven’t stopped. I always chalk it up to the place. This is a good spot, right here, we’re on top of a crystal or something. I’m happy to have been here at this time and I hope that the reverb is a positive one for everyone.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.