Pop Culture and the Pandemic: How JJ Adams defined a moment

Pop Culture and the Pandemic: How JJ Adams defined a moment

JJ Adams is one of the UK’s most exciting contemporary artists. His work reinvents popular culture. As the coronavirus pandemic has forced us all to endure unprecedented social and cultural upheaval – the work of artists such as JJ Adams dissects what it means to be “normal”.

Cutting right to the heart of British cultural values, JJ’s work presents movie stars, musicians and members of the royal family covered in tattoos. They smile and sit calmly in front of crumbling landmarks covered with graffiti and grime.

Just as the past year has fostered an acute sense of transformation, so too does JJ Adams’ artwork. It shifts the known and the familiar into something new. It forces us to question our assumptions not just on “iconic” imagery, but also everyday life.

Who is JJ Adams?

JJ Adams is a mixed media artist from South West England and Cape Town, South Africa. With a daring, assertive style, he transforms celebrity images and iconic landmarks – blurring the lines between advertising, pop culture, fine art, digital art and photography.

Emigrating from Plymouth to Cape Town in the early 1980s, JJ was inspired by the work of South African artist Derric van Rensburg. It was here that he discovered his love of bright, bold art – studying graphic design at Cape College whilst working in a busy tattoo studio in the city centre.

Returning to the UK in the mid-1990s, JJ Adams planned on becoming a tattoo artist. He instead studied commercial printing at Plymouth College of Art and Design. Here, Adams was influenced by artists such as Normal Rockwell, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Peter Blake.

Working in the South West, he honed his skills in professional sign making and began exhibiting in local galleries. It took until the 2010s for him to have his “big break” with a series of black and white tattooed celebrity images.

JJ Adams now works from his home studio just outside of London. Reflecting his strong sense of humour and authenticity, Adams reflects: “The key for me is not to take myself or my work too seriously, just have fun creating and experimenting and ignore any criticism and keep your feet on the ground… I create artwork for other people to enjoy, I have fun doing it and I don't attempt to save the world with a message that I don't truly believe.”

JJ Adams’ Tattoo Series

Reflecting the recent cultural zeitgeist, JJ Adam’s Tattoo Series interrogates “normality”.

Take just one example. Created in spring 2021, “A Liz in Wonderland” invites the viewer to consider that “everything’s got a moral if only you can find it”. As the nation recovers from over a year of lockdowns, personal and public health crises – many will be searching for just this.

The “LIFE” magazine cover depicts Queen Elizabeth II (complete with full sleeve artwork) in an Alice in Wonderland setting. The painterly background is juxtaposed with anarchist scrawlings of “Monarchy” and “Rule Britannia”, whilst a Ziggy stardust rabbit looks on. It’s difficult (and perhaps impossible) to define the genre – pop culture meets advertising, portraiture and the fine art establishment.

In his Tattoo Series, JJ Adams also tackled the pandemic head on. In 2020 he produced “Stay Home Save Lives”. Reimagined from a previous piece, it was created to raise money for the NHS.

The iconic figure of Mary Poppins – that symbol of stability, domesticity and a by-gone era – now wears a blue surgical mask. The rallying cry of “votes for women” is transformed to “saving lives” whilst “STAY HOME” is tattooed across each of her fingers. Her piercing blue eyes reflect the logo of the NHS.

The artwork was sold as 195 prints available in both large and small sizes. Proceeds went to NHS charities, which together with the sale of the original artwork – raised over £14,000. A further fifteen prints were given away free to NHS workers.

Art with a social conscience

In utilising his artwork to raise money during the pandemic, JJ Adams is in esteemed company. Banksy’s work “Game Changer” (an original work on canvas depicting a child playing with a toy nurse), raised over £16 million to “support health organisations and charities across the UK that enhance the care and treatment provided by the NHS”. It was sold at Christie’s 20th Century Art Evening Sale on 23 March 2021 – exactly one year after the UK’s first national lockdown.

Damien Hirst also produced two new poster artworks (entitled “Butterfly Rainbow” and “Butterfly Heart” – crafted from digital bands of photographed butterfly wings). Like JJ Adams, one version was given away for free, this time as a download “to raise the spirits”. Limited edition prints were then sold to raise money for the NHS.

Art with a social conscience is nothing new for him. The artist has been prolific raising money for numerous UK charities. In 2014, he sold a painting at auction raising £5,000 for the Willow Foundation. Over £3,000 was raised for the British Liver Trust in 2016 when he released a portrait of David Bowie. In 2018, artwork was auctioned for the “Remembering Audrey Hepburn” event in London, raising money for Lymphoma Action.

Defining the moment

JJs work remains true to the roots of his style and influences. It is both accessible and intelligent, giving iconic imagery entirely new meanings. Through challenging the orthodoxy of familiar figures, JJ invites viewers to consider their own responses – and ask why the imagery is shocking.

The past two years have witnessed the widespread reimagining of identity, society and culture. JJs uncannily familiar images suggest that the future isn’t something we can neatly control. Instead, it has to be actively imagined and created. If ever there’s a defining moment to capture from the pandemic years, it’s this – and pop culture has a key role to play.

The Artmarket Gallery is an award-winning independent gallery, based in the village of Cottingham, East Yorkshire. We pride ourselves on our friendly and knowledgeable approach, with a team that deeply care about helping people find artworks they love.

With some of JJ Adams’ finest limited edition prints and originals, get in touch today to discuss these true masterpieces of contemporary art.
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