Jenna Morello does not like labels.
The 31-year-old New Jersey native has been painting vibrant murals all around Sunset Park, adorning drab walls of industrial buildings with bright roses, fierce animals, and bold patterns, but she’s reluctant to call herself an “artist.”
“You will never hear me say ‘artist.’ I just feel it’s kind of cheesy [to say] ‘I’m an artist,’” she explains from the Bay Ridge home studio she shares with her pit bull mix Handsome, her bulldog Presley, and cat Derek. “If I turn around and say, ‘I’m an artist,’ [there is] this stigma that comes with that… so I just stay away from it…. I’m probably most comfortable saying, ‘I’m a street artist’…I’d rather just let my work speak [for itself].”
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She continues, “I paint 6-story murals [in my] day-to-day life. I know that’s not a normal thing…. It’s much easier to have [the] work stand behind what you do than try to explain what you do when you do this. It’s such a random occupation.”
Born in Patterson and raised in Kinellon, New Jersey, Morello is the middle of 3 daughters of a retired school-teacher mother and graphic designer father. She had a happy childhood growing up with her close-knit family on acres of land surrounded by woods and lakes. She believes her love of the outdoors plays a big part in her career as a street artist. “I think most of my skills for being a street artist come from growing up in the woods…from building forts and all sorts of stuff—just being outside,” she says.
“I think a combination of growing up in the woods and just my ADD, being all over the place…I used to just make things…. My dad’s a graphic artist and he makes a lot of things, so instead of watching TV, we had to be outside.” She adds, “How it became street art…it just kind of evolved…because I like being outside and because I can paint and work around elements and do all that, that’s kind of how I fell into it.”
When asked why she chose this particular neighborhood to serve as her very large canvas she replies, “Sunset Park is nice because there are no murals around there. It’s industrial and there’s not really people [around]…. I could easily go paint in Manhattan or Williamsburg but then I[‘d] have 20 people at my back the entire time, which is nice, but it’s like trying to think and have people watch it [at the same time].”
Morello, who’s been painting murals for about 2-3 years now says it takes only 2 to 3 days for her to complete one of her large-scale works, not wanting to invest too much of herself into pieces that are transitional. “That’s how street art is, you work pretty quickly. If I put in a crazy amount of time into something and someone comes and tags over it…I know that it’s art that can rotate…,” and might be covered or altered.
This short-term nature of her chosen medium seems to suit her: “The statute of limitations on my work that I like is very short. So I’ll do it, and then I’ll immediately be over it, and if I already have a wall…[I can] just keep painting on it.”
In case you’re wondering, Morello does ask before painting on someone’s wall. As she says, “You need permission, unless you want to get arrested,” so she spends a lot of time hunting down building owners to get their approval.
Inspired by what’s happening around her, Morello felt compelled to paint a wide-mouthed hyena on the day that Donald Trump was inaugurated. An earlier series she created of hearts was an emotional response, “A lot of the heart stuff was a tumultuous relationship…[I] found what I could do with that [was] make something that kind of embodied how I felt at the moment, then I could be done with it and move on…. All the stuff that was flying around I’ve now honed into a physical thing that can be shut and done.”
Though she paints hearts and is probably best-known for massive rose murals, one in Sunset Park and one in Miami (which will be featured in an upcoming Macy’s catalogue), Morello’s work does not come across as twee or girly at all. A friend once aptly described her work saying she “paint[s] feminine things in a masculine way,” giving it a stylish, badass edge.
Considering the scale of her work, Morello’s work process is surprisingly instinctive and spontaneous. “I don’t ever really pre-sketch and I don’t know what I’m doing until I show up to the wall.” When you watch her paint, she says, “You’re seeing it go from brain to hand. You’re seeing that thought process that fast. As soon as you’re seeing it is when it’s coming to me.”
Morello works on many commissions but will only give clients a loose idea of her proposal. She tells them, “Trust me, I got this,” and might give them a very preliminary sketch and a “roundabout idea” of her plan. She likes being able to paint what she wants and deliver her interpretation of what the client wants.
She adds, “You have to learn to just go with it because it’s that type of art. There [are] going to be curves and elements, or the wall’s going to absorb paint weird…. All walls are different [and] all paint is different. That’s why I can’t stress about it that much until I’m there and I’m working and I see what I have to work with.”
Nicholas Galletta, a friend, neighbor, and one of Morello’s biggest fans, praises her artwork, “I think what sets Jenna apart from other artists is that her talent is truly innate. She isn’t calculated or planned when she paints…. Most of the design comes to her on the spot. It just flows out of her with little effort. It’s pretty amazing to watch her process.” He then offers the highest accolade, “I would describe her art as a visual high I can’t get enough of.”
Comparing her work process with that of her friends and other artists, she says, “People start to grid…but I’m just not good with it. Some people paint in a way where it’s perfect top to bottom, they waste no paint, it’s like a printer. I just kind of throw it and then I just kind of hone it in…” For a 6-story elephant mural she painted in California, she buffed the wall yellow and then used a power washer filled with orange paint and “just started to whip it” and then refined it as needed.
She admits, “I screw up all the time. I’m sure I waste a crazy amount of paint [but] I’ve gotten better, and I’ve also learned that what I look at as a screw up, 9 out of 10 people won’t even notice.”
Morello once read the line, “My mind is more my roommate than my own,” which she says best describes her very active, non-stop brain. She says, “It’s not going to stop, so I can either work with it and hang out with it or I’m going to go nuts. And that’s the reason that I operate in the way that I do…my brain doesn’t stop.”
She reigns in her over-active mind by continuously working and learning to make new things. She’d like to learn welding, glass blowing, wood carving, “just to have in the arsenal” to create more work. She also wants to “electrocute furniture with a microwave —you can run the current through wood…it’s basically like lightning, and it makes these beautiful patterns.”
She also enjoys working with fellow artists on collaborations saying she likes “working with different people…doing different things and seeing how people make things.” She’s collaborated with many artists she admires, including Ron English, to which she humbly states, “The fact that I’m even in the company of some of the[se] people…it’s not lost on me at all.”
Always keeping herself busy, Morello’s currently working on a line of merchandise that she sells on her website including pins, and, as she calls them, “dad hats,” slightly floppy baseball caps emblazoned with her symbol of a crown.
For the future, Morello would like to travel around the world adding murals in new locations along the way. “I’ve been thinking that I probably need a 5-year plan but all of this has now happened in 2 years…. I don’t want to be loaded, but I want to be able travel and paint. I want to be able to make what I make and do this and have my bills paid. But I can’t bitch because that’s done now…so I guess [for] the future would be a family and a house and be able to support all that.” Thinking about it a little more, she adds, “I definitely think I’m on the right path.”