Jacksonville’s Visual Vigilante
Words By Ambar Ramirez
On the door to his studio, in red lettering, it reads, “No police beyond this point without a warrant.” Somewhat of an odd welcoming sign, but if you know anything about artist and Jacksonville native Chip Southworth, it makes perfect sense.
While often referred to as “Keith Haring’s Ghost” (more on that in a minute), Southworth’s art does not consist of empty figures like Haring’s, though, he does take inspiration from the late artist’s message and activism. Through portraits, words and paintings of buildings and structures, Southworth’s work speaks volumes of the state of Jacksonville and the world.
Southworth always dreamed of becoming an artist. But it wasn’t until 2011 when Southworth began to get offers to to have his work in on display in exhibits and galleries that he saw his dream could be a reality.
“I took studio art in high school and in college, and I was always completely seduced by the idea, you know? And I loved art,” Southworth said.
High school and college classes weren’t the only experiences Southworth had with art. Painting billboards and signs with his dad had a huge influence on the type of art Southworth produces today.
“I was able to just kind of go and tap into the sign painting stuff and do some like satirical political stuff, you know?” Southworth said. “And then it just kind of became just in-your-face political stuff.”
Satirical or not, Southworth’s work often comments on political issues as well as brings to light topics that are too often overlooked.
“I kind of look at things from a historically empathetic viewpoint. As a white male artist, it’s a strange time, you know? And I definitely believe we’re in the midst of, like, a Black cultural revolution, and it’s been awesome,” Southworth explained. “I’ve painted more to try to make statements to people who maybe don’t fully understand our history or where we are. I kind of sometimes use either comedy or hip-hop lyrics, something like that to just paint a very simple picture.”
Every three years, Southworth revisits a certain subject matter. These days, it’s a subject all too familiar to Jacksonville residents, yet ignored with the everyday rush of life. Bridges.
“I’ve been walking over those bridges or driving over them for my whole life,” Southworth noted. “I’m a Jacksonville native, so I’ve always loved them. I’ve always been mesmerized by all that metal, and it’s always really cool to me and really modern. And in a lot of ways it’s kind of like really old school too, but I try not to go that way with it.”
All of Southworth’s pieces make viewers look deeper than what is on the surface. Even with his Bridge Series, Southworth focuses on certain beams or wires that usually can’t be seen by the naked eye (unless you have binoculars).
But it’s more than just making a statement for the artist. Southworth notes that one of the most important aspects of being an artist is finding your niche. And for him, it is all about the process of painting. It usually takes Southworth six weeks to complete one painting, and even then, as we sit in his studio space, he is looking at his pieces with a critical eye, thinking of what else can he add to the already completed paintings.
“I try to always progress. I feel like every time I revisit this subject matter, I see it a different way and I paint it a different way,” Southworth said. “I think that there are jewels in every series, you know? But I want the evolution of my painting to come out in the series as well as they progress.”
In addition to paint (obviously), Southworth often uses a blowtorch to add texture and dimension to his paintings. He has highlighted that process using different techniques and painting styles in his Bridge Series. In his second series, he was more influenced by Andy Warhol and pop-art. Now his bridges reflect a much more realistic view with the texture created with blowtorches bringing to life the bridges that are unique to Jacksonville.
Using fire in his pieces isn’t the only way Southworth separates himself from other artists. He speaks his truth, whether anyone wants to hear it or not, and has, on more than one occasion, put his reputation—and freedom—on the line.
Southworth did just that back in 2014 when he began a covert public art project with other local artists. The project was spurred by the the trial of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black 17-year-old student who was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, and the murder of another unarmed, Black 17-year-old student, Jordan Davis, who was shot to death by Michael Dunn while sitting in an SUV outside a gas station on Southside Boulevard in Jacksonville. Their senseless deaths —and so many more like them—lit a fire in Southworth who was looking for a way to bring awareness and social action to Jacksonville. He was able to take these tragedies and bring them to light in a way that was easily accessible to local residents and caused them to take notice. His canvas of choice: traffic signal utility boxes.
“Trayvon’s trials were going on and then also Jordan Davis had just happened. So I just kind of took the streets, you know, and was doing it completely anonymously for a long time,” Southworth recalled. “Some other artists were helping me out, just kind of looking out and then [the police] caught me.”
After the police paid $9,000 to get Southworth’s Facebook IP address, they tracked him down and arrested him. But in the face of arrest charges, Southworth decided to use what he was given, his art (and situation), as a way to change the status of some laws surrounding art in Jacksonville. In fact, Southworth, along with the help of other artists and then-Mayor Alvin Brown, changed 18 laws.
“Poverty-stricken neighborhoods had put up these world-class murals, and those whole areas would start to thrive and change completely,” Southworth said. “Part of it’s also gentrification as a result, but there’s give and take with everything, and I think Jacksonville was a much better place with all the art, you know?”
In fact, it was the Southworth and fellow artists from that time who pushed the boundaries of public art and kick-started the renaissance we’re seeing, especially with murals, all around the city. And as with most things, a lot of good can end up being bad, but when it comes to decorating otherwise bland buildings with art that represents each neighborhood and the people who live there, I don’t think we have much to complain about.
Still, at the time, any sort of street art was considered graffiti and, therefore, illegal. But it seems the real reason Southworth was arrested was due more so to the actual art and message he was sending than “defacing” ugly metal utility boxes.
“The project itself was using Keith Haring’s language, nomenclature and what he had created, which is very much like a language, you know? And that’s the way he looked at it too. To use it to kind of poke fun at what was going on around the city,” Southworth explained. “I mean, half of the images were just happy, like a guy holding up a heart or two people with their heads tied in a knot. But there were some pieces about gun violence and stuff like that, that I guess just pushed some of the City Council people over the edge or whatever. It was during gay rights times too.”
Despite getting arrested and having to go to court, Southworth saw what he was doing was getting attention. And even though he was doing it anonymously, in a weird and twisted way, it ended up doing a lot of good for the city of Jacksonville and raising awareness of the importance of bringing art to people who might not be able to visit a museum. Southworth walked so that other artists working in Jacksonville could run.
For any rising artists reading this right now, Southworth reminds them that consistency is key. If you strongly believe in something, it is important to use your voice and art when you can to express that. And who knows… maybe change a couple of other laws while you are at it.