Jules Muck was sick so she called up the only doctor she knew at the time, her estranged friend’s father. Her lungs had filled with fluid and had lost 73 percent of their working capacity; the hospital staff said she was dying. She called to hear a familiar voice and, maybe, reassuring words. Instead, the doctor told her, “You’re probably going to pass [away] tonight if you do any more heroin,” then hung up.
“He was so matter-of-fact about it. Heart doctors — they’re like that, I guess,” Muck says.
It was 2013 and she had relapsed in New York, where she'd briefly returned for work. By that point, Muck (@MuckRock on Instagram) had made a name for herself as a prolific street artist in Venice and throughout Los Angeles, but occasionally returned to her roots. Muck spent her formative years as a graffiti artist in the Bronx, painting her way through New York’s subway tunnels and apprenticing with famed muralist Lady Pink.
Right before the relapse, Muck had been making more money than ever, painting backdrops for HBO shows and for movie sets. She decided a new lifestyle demanded a new look and arranged to have cosmetic dental work. The dental work led to prescriptions for painkillers, and when she couldn’t find painkillers anymore, she looked for heroin.
“I almost died in New York within three weeks of starting to shoot dope again,” Muck remembers. “And I just decided not to do it anymore. … I gave all my shit to my friend and I said, ‘OK, here I go, I’m going to kick it,’ and I haven’t used since then,” she says.
Her first 30 days sober were spent in Connecticut, where her friends had nursed a previous relapse. But this second attempt at sobriety in New Haven was harder, and after an argument erupted over the unfinished job she'd been working on in New York, Muck was fed up with the East Coast.
“I just started driving,” she says. “No license, no registration, no insurance.”
After a long car ride, she landed back home in Venice, where it’s impossible to walk more than four blocks without running into a MuckRock painting. Her pieces are sprayed across storefront walls, fences and Dumpsters. Muck’s distinctive style — a nod to Lady Pink’s mentorship — often features vibrant flowers and butterflies, women and celebrities painted in a radioactive shade of green. Pizzas and hamburgers take shape on abandoned sidewalk sofas and broken laundry machines.
There are chains, skulls, cats, musical instruments, soulful eyes and inspiring messages sprayed across trailers, Airstreams and larger-than-life canvases turned into billboards that sit perched above the streets of Venice.
Back in 2008, while living out of a car on California and Electric avenues, she built massive canvases, some of them 8 feet tall, and brought them to life in the middle of the street. Working while sitting on sidewalks, where she feels most relaxed, forced a lot of socialization with people Muck didn’t know but who lived in the community she would eventually call home.
“If I was in an art studio, I probably wouldn't have met that many people. I mean some people basically tripped over me. It's always been that way doing street art … you get forced into talking to people because you're out in public,” she explains, later admitting that it’s one of her favorite things about the craft.
Muck hasn’t always welcomed the attention. Especially not after returning to Venice following her relapse in New York, when she felt as if her creative powers had flagged.
“I remember the first few months, I was like, ‘Oh Jesus, I lost it. I can’t fucking do anything. All this shit is whack.’ At this point there was a lot of people’s focus on me and I sucked,” she confesses.
Then came a wall that changed everything. Arguably one of Muck's most distinctive pieces in Los Angeles, the Freedumb wall spans an entire block just north of the Windward Circle roundabout. It features celebrities who died young, including Sid Vicious, who famously died of a heroin overdose; Jim Morrison; Marilyn Monroe, who also overdosed; and Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide.
“I painted that in two days, and that’s when I knew I was back,” she says.
Since then, Muck has felt a renewed sense of purpose. She's created art on behalf of nonprofit organizations, including Harmony Project L.A. and the Miami Juvenile Center. She has helped her own community by creating a space in her home where friends can get sober.
Studies show community support can have an overwhelmingly positive effect on people fighting addiction. Leonard Jason, a community psychologist at DePaul University, led a research project funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which found “individuals with substance abuse problems who are living in a collaborative housing setting will have their addiction treated more effectively than abusers not residing in a community-based facility,” according to Forbes.
“I love that I’ve been able to hold space in this town,” Muck admits.
She says few places in the world have felt the same way. Her tatted fingers point up one at a time as she lists them: Taos (a small desert town in New Mexico), New Orleans (where she fell in and out of love), Ojai and, of course, Venice. But Venice, she says, has an “inspirational energy” that’s hard to capture with words.
“I don’t know where it comes from but when I’m here I know what to fucking paint. I’m on it, I’m driven, things work,” Muck says.
Maybe it’s a product of all the creative energy in Venice coming together. Maybe, she says, this is where the weirdos come and, because they never leave, that energy lives on and feeds other artists. But that’s starting to change a little. She’s not sure how many, but “people are leaving all the time,” she says.
Muck has witnessed a lot of the gentrification firsthand. The changes brought on by the juggernaut of Silicon Beach happened under her nose, between the alleys in which she used to paint. New shops that charge $11 for a bottle of pressed juice have popped up only three blocks from her doorstep.
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Some locals don’t even use Snapchat around here, because of the tech giant’s land grabs that are driving people out of their homes and businesses. Muck insists that she doesn’t have the app on her phone. Still, even with Venice’s changing landscape, she says she isn’t worried.
“As far as I can tell … I still feel the good stuff. I still feel the creative energy here. Venice is my favorite place in the world, and my house is my favorite place in Venice.
“To me, it’s the closest you can get to the best of everything.”