If Joff Jones sounds a little worked up as he speaks to Local Santa Cruz by phone, it’s for good reason: on the day of our conversation, has just been released from jail.“I’ve never, ever been to jail in my life until I started showing my art in public,” the 24-year-old artist says. “Jail is meant for people who have done things that are not good for society. What I’m doing is good for society.”
Jones, who has been selling what he calls “free-form surrealist” art on Pacific Avenue for the past couple of years, has gotten to know the local law enforcement all too well lately. He and his fellow Santa Cruz artist Alex Skelton have received four tickets for displaying their wares in areas not designated for Pacific Avenue street artists. Their non-compliance with the City’s citation program has led them to be arrested on three occasions, two of which ended in six to seven hours of jail time each.
Jones and Skelton were first taken to jail on August 20, 2015 after displaying their art outside the Forever 21 shop at 1200 Pacific Avenue. Three days later, they returned to that site dressed as George Washington and Ben Franklin and displaying scrolls emblazoned with the First Amendment rights.
Joff Jones and Alex Skelton dressed as founding fathers.
Jones recalls that he and Skelton were not ticketed or arrested that day. “When we wear costumes, we’re taken seriously, but when those costumes come off… we go to jail?” he says incredulously.
More recently, Jones placed his GoPro camera in the lens of a handmade papier-mâché camera. Dressed as reporters, he and Skelton unsuccessfully attempted to talk to police.
Jones and Skelton are firm in their stance that the First Amendment protects their right to show their art on the street. In Jones’ view, the fact that they’re selling this art is immaterial. “The Supreme Court has ruled again and again and again that it is, in fact, an artist’s right to make a profit from their expression,” he insists. “Just because an artist makes money from their expression doesn’t preclude their right to be expressive in a public space.”
Chip, the single-monikered director of the Santa Cruz Downtown Association, supports the right of local artists to display their work in the downtown area, but he stresses that such artists need to stay within designated areas and adhere to the existing time limit of one hour per site. “It’s about making sure that the Hillary table can set up, and the Bernie table can set up, and neither one of them dominate the conversation,” he explains.
He adds that the City is making an effort to keep the public space available for expression as opposed to commercial activity. “A lot of people are frustrated with seeing people selling stuff,” he contends. “It’s not about free expression—it’s about people selling stuff on the sidewalk, taking up parking spaces [and doing] a lot of cigarette smoking and other smoking.”
While some of the frustration that Chip mentions is coming from merchants in the downtown area, more of the complaints come from the general public. “The conversation is about the kind of unregulated and out-of-control environment relating to a lot of the commercial vendors downtown that are actually exploiting the laws that protect free expression,” Chip contends. “We have a lot of people who are not from here setting up, making a mess of the place and selling all sorts of things, legal and otherwise. It’s an ongoing management issue that we need to continue to try and negotiate.”
The director notes, “I would love to see [Jones and Skelton] find a space and time that’s appropriate and create an art show where they can set up and be there all day. I hope they figure out how to sell their art, because they’re both good artists who deserve an audience.”
As one of several artists struggling to survive in Santa Cruz, Jones plans to continue fighting the City Council’s efforts to limit vending on Pacific Avenue. “They’ve created so much confusion that my brothers and sisters have to quit on what they’re passionate about,” he says. “Now that they’ve obstructed my way of living, I can’t make money, which means I can’t eat; which means I can’t pay for my home; which means I can’t sleep. So we’re going to stop that.”