FIRST PERSON: An artist’s ‘obsession’ with New Orleans tradition

ILO Photo/John Isaac Henry Lipkis in front of his monumental mural depicting a traditional parade in New Orleans.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


The International Labour Organization (ILO) marked its centenary in 2019 and as part of the commemoration has launched a photography project called “Dignity at Work: The American Experience”, to document the working life of people across the United States. UN News joined the ILO on a visit to the southern US state of Louisiana.

“My largest mural in New Orleans depicts the parading tradition. Brass band parades are a central part of the cultural heritage of New Orleans. The First Line refers to the main section, the members of the band or club, who have a permit to organize the parade and march in the city. The people who follow the band members, who join in the parade, are known as the Second Line.

I’ve called my mural the Third Line because it is about all the people who, like me, obsess about the Second Line.

The mural itself is a huge crowd of people, dressed in their Sunday best and dancing in the streets. There is a BBQ, there is someone on a horse, people on rooftops, people doing handstands, playing instruments, selling beer.

New Orleans inspired this mural. When I arrived in the city as a travelling mural painter, I heard a tuba playing in the distance. My friend asked me if I had ever been in the Second Line and I had no idea what he was talking about. So, we rushed to the parade and it was a beautiful chaos. The parade peaked under a bridge where the music gets multiplied so there’s an explosion of intensity and people go nuts.

I was blown away in the midst of some of the best music I have ever heard, surrounded by people wearing bright green tailored Italian suits and gator skin shoes. That was the moment I fell in love with New Orleans and I realized I wanted to paint a mural about that culture.

What is special about New Orleans for me is the passion and tradition. I’m very drawn to people who are steeped in tradition, especially those involved in the Second Line and the Mardi Gras Indians, who represent a very old and unique artistic culture in this city.

It was a real honour to be invited to engage with the Second Line artistically. I spent a year getting to know and to understand the community in Bywater and ultimately securing their agreement for me to be able to work on the mural.

Growing up in California, I knew I wanted to be an artist. All kids are artists, all draw pictures, I just carried on.  As a young teenager, I sprayed graffiti and got into trouble a few times. It helped having very supportive parents, which is the biggest blessing.

Work to me, means showing up and putting in the grind. I love all the work I do; some is for money. Painting Mardi Gras floats is my steady work, which covers my rent and bills, and I love doing it. I have one Mardi Gras parade of floats that I design and paint every year and that gives me the freedom to let my other art grow, without me needing to monetize it immediately.

I want my artwork to evoke the magic and majesty that is alive in the world and to see how things can fall apart and grow from the rubble.”

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