One of Joseph the Human's landscape murals at 37th and Hawthorne, Portland, Oregon. Camden Benesh/PSU Vanguard

Creative’s Spotlight: Joseph the Human

Portland muralist talks changing realities of practicing art

For the Portland-based muralist and designer Joseph the Human, art has been a lifelong calling. Joseph, who was born in Brooklyn, New York and grew up in Beaverton, said he was drawn to graffiti at a young age and was determined to go to Portland to practice his creative work.  


“My whole goal was just to get out of the suburbs and get to a place where I can try to go art school and try to do some kind of art,” Joseph said. 


Once in Portland, he enrolled in classes at Portland Community College and Portland State University, until the pandemic pushed his art onto the streets. 


“I didn’t really have a goal of [doing] murals,” Joseph said. “I painted graffiti a lot, but I never really had a goal of making the murals a business really until 2020, when…there was really nothing to do.”


Much of Joseph’s work consists of detailed environments and recognizable Oregon landmarks, but he is comfortable adapting to any task or any style. Besides his mural work, he also creates designer bags that are reminiscent of the ‘70s, as well as a line of equally retro apparel. 


For Joseph, this kind of flexibility is built into his artistic workflow, which he said is changing constantly.


“It all depends on if I’m making art full-time or working part-time,” he said. “Whatever I’m doing, it’s always different…I’m trying to transition back into fully making art and other bags because, right before 2020, I had an art studio and I was making art full-time.”


Joseph stressed the importance of having a space suitable for making art. In Portland, where property prices are going up, this is a challenge. Joseph himself lost his studio space when his building was renovated, forcing him and his fellow artists to take their work elsewhere. 


“Everyone had to leave their studios,” he said. “Everyone had a month to move out of this building, basically, [and] I had to put my full-time production on hold and reassess things.”


For Joseph and many of his fellow artists, the studio space was vitally important to creating art, because the environment provides room for creativity to blossom and flourish. 


“I don’t think that’s considered a lot when people talk about the art itself,” Joseph said. “They don’t talk about the process and the space and everything that it takes—the investment, the money and time, everything like that.”


Besides having a space of his own to work in, Joseph also cited the need for an artist to live a life outside of art. For Joseph, life is all about experiences, and he cited the importance of constantly learning things not directly related to art. 


“I always try to learn something,” he said. “I do many different construction jobs, and I’m always learning from those jobs. It might play into my art sometimes and people won’t even know.”


He also stressed the importance of expanding his skills in a strategic way, in order to aid him in future situations. 


“I want to go back to school and take some…real estate law classes,” he said. “I was thinking since I was going through all this real estate [related] renter stuff I want to empower myself, and I want to be in a position where it’s not just financially empowering.”


Joseph said that being involved in real-estate ownership has been a long-term dream of his, and that someday he would like to get to a point where he could open a gallery of his own. 


“I would like to have some gallery spaces and properties and be able to employ people making my bags as an extension of my paintings,” he said. 


For now though, Joseph is hard at work on his mural installations, as well as creating painted art that is on display in several galleries around Portland. Curious readers can catch his latest work at the Portland Art Museum Rental Sales Gallery, as well as the Hawthorne Gallery.