Outsiders’ art in Butcher’s Hook

Jesse Hazelip and Jon Todd’s exhibition at Yves Laroche brings together two very different styles with a shared commitment to recognizing society’s outsiders.

“Butcher’s Hook,” by Jesse Hazelip.

Butcher’s Hook is a code, but it’s an inviting one. The upcoming Yves Laroche exhibit derives its title from the Cockney expression “have a butcher’s hook,” meaning “to have a look.” A showcase of the tattoo-themed work of illustrator Jesse Hazelip and painter Jon Todd, Butcher’s Hook invites viewers to explore tattooed skin as a legend of images that tell the wearer’s story.

Hazelip’s black and white ballpoint illustrations of bulls, wolves and vultures are a stark visual contrast to Todd’s colour-saturated portraiture. While Todd relishes in finding “happy mistakes” by distressing his multi-layered pieces with chemicals or sanders, Hazelip’s studies celebrate the play between detail-heavy and negative space.

Despite their aesthetically-opposed styles, Hazelip and Todd find common ground through their focus on marginalized members of society.

“The characters for this show are kind of a fringe crowd, kind of like outsiders,” says Toronto-based Todd, who moves into portraiture with Butcher’s Hook. “They’re people I’ve seen in my travels. One portrait is of a homeless man I saw in Shanghai. The portraits I create evolve from my experiences and through the themes that I choose.”

Tattoo art has been one of Todd’s favourite themes since he acquired a book on Russian tattoo art about five years ago and was fascinated by their ability to simultaneously hide and communicate meaning.

“Cabinet Maker Undertaker,” by Jon Todd.

“An image can tell a story about someone’s life. What looks like a bunch of random images is really a code, a hidden way of telling stories,” Todd says. “It’s a way to place meaning in hidden places and disguise patterns within patterns. This work is really a form of storytelling that mixes references from different cultures, and tells stories across a person’s body.”

Hazelip, a Brooklyn-based artist, uses Butcher’s Hook to explore the problems of the U.S. prison industrial complex by incorporating distinctive prison and gang tattoos into his illustrated animal studies and bull skull carvings.

“The tattoos in this series reference prisons or places where conditions for inmates are particularly bad, like West Texas” says Hazelip. “At any given moment, we have 2.3 to 2.5 million people in the system. If that was happening with a sickness, it would be considered an epidemic. It’s an epidemic of poor people disappearing from the streets.

“And the tattoos, these images of gangsterism, go right to people’s core, because that’s how a lot of poor people in this country are raised. Gangs are their family, and if they end up in prison because of it, they have to get deeper into it to survive,” he continues.

Though they’re an aesthetic odd couple, the two Butcher’s Hook artists have more than just a theme in common. They’ve also both given back to their communities through their art, and have benefited in their practice and personal goals as a result.

“Teaching has made me a better artist,” says Todd, who teaches a media class to young artists. “The current style I’m working on now is in large part because of my teaching. I’m always pushing my students to experiment and try new things and because of that I’ve started experimenting with my own art. It’s a great process for me, and I really enjoy it.”

Hazelip has plans to help the Young New York organization provide art therapy programs to young people as an alternative to serving time. Although massive wheatpaste versions of his illustrations bring Hazelip’s message to the streets, recently, a more private form of artistic exchange is driving his desire to change the system.

“I’ve got a friend in prison right now and we’re doing art collaborations through the mail, sending it back and forth. I’m trying to do art therapy through him, and make his voice heard. But there are so many men and women like him, and I have so much to discuss. More than I even know yet, because this is just scratching the surface of what’s going on. It’s very scary, and overwhelming, and I’m going to keep fighting it.” ■

Butcher’s Hook runs June 8-26, at Yves Laroche Gallery, 6355 St-Laurent. Vernissage Saturday, June 8, 2-5 p.m., free.

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