Drawing a blueprint for art

Local artist Aye Jay Morano breaks through with his Gangsta Rap Coloring Book

INSIDE HIS WORK <br>Aye Jay (as drawn by his friend Matt Loomis)

Aye Jay (as drawn by his friend Matt Loomis)

“Lazy is lazy, no real way around the basic concept.”—Aye Jay Morano

There must be at least one way around it. If you believe his self-characterization, then Aye Jay Morano must have either found a way to turn lazy into gold, or he doesn’t fully see that his passion for drawing has become an actual discipline. What was once “just for fun” is now a viable source of income and is something he can actually refer to as work.

With the inspired creation of his Gangsta Rap Coloring Book, Aye Jay’s (the last name is out, just like Cher) work is actually paying off. More than 4,000 copies have sold worldwide, and everyone from Robin Williams to Zack De La Rocha (Rage Against the Machine) has picked one up. Even greater than the financial reward is the cultural currency being generated. GQ, Jane and the San Francisco Bay Guardian are just three of the 20 or so national and international publications to take notice. And cable television network Showtime (which approached him) wants to use the coloring book as a prop in the Spike Lee-directed pilot of its series, Sucka Free City.

A selection of the artist’s illustrations (above and below) from local band posters and his two books.

Resting atop his foundation as a prolific poster/flier artist, local music hero and a happily married father of two (daughter Greta was born Aug. 8), the ideas have been stockpiling in Aye Jay’s brain. Now that this humble record store clerk has tapped a promising vein of exposure, his creative juices are flowing and the possibilities are just starting to bubble over.

The man was created by this town, and his appreciation of what Chico has done for him is at the heart of everything he does. “Before all of this, I [already] felt I had made it,” Aye Jay explained, adding, “By the time I was 18 I had been in a Blue Room play, done a bunch of flier work and played music.”

Starting in elementary school, Aye Jay was the “the art kid,” as he puts it, or “the kid who people ask to do drawings.” His style, black ink on white, progressed through a combination of broad and local influences that sent him down this road. “The mainstream acceptance of Frank Kozik and R. Crumb, and being exposed to [locals] Dylan Hillerman and Steve Ferchaud,” are the most memorable markers he points out.

“Steve Ferchaud, he doesn’t get enough credit,” Aye Jay says of the prolific artist, whose work has graced the covers of this paper for many years. “In junior high, I drew caricatures of [his] Woodstock’s ads.”

As Aye Jay’s work evolved, his fun interpretations of the recognizable cultural touchstones of his generation made for some very noticeable images. Whether it was an L.L. Cool J album cover, or a Simpsons-style replica of local rockers The Imps, you could identify (and read) an Aye Jay flier from across the street, and his buddies in rock bands made the connection real quick.

The successful marriage of his work with the proliferation tendencies of rock band fliers boosted his profile in Chico and beyond. Fellow local artist and music store employee Matt Loomis discovered Aye Jay’s work early on while growing up in Weaverville. “I used to come to Chico,” Loomis shared, “I had Aye Jay fliers all over my bedroom walls.”

Loomis eventually moved to Chico and the two developed, as Loomis puts it, “a symbiotic relationship.” Sharing projects and ideas, the admiration between the two is mutual, with Aye Jay going as far as pronouncing Loomis “by far, I think, the most talented artist in Chico.”

His musical connections go beyond the rock bands, though. Following in the footsteps of his musician father, Spark and Cinder co-founder Jerry Morano, Aye Jay started what has become one of the longest running bands in Chico, the hip-hop duo The Becky Sagers.

“It started as a joke—ha ha, we’ll become rappers,” Aye Jay recalls when tracing the origins of his partnership with longtime friend Jeremiah Wade. “It’s our friendship,” is the explanation he gives for the duo’s endurance. Performing under the stage names of MC Shecklove and MC Heathakilla, the stand-up rap style hasn’t garnered much of a rap fan base, but the area’s rockers have always embraced them.

“It never seemed daunting to me, because of my dad,” he recalled. “It was a big moment for me doing the concert in the park. I had been going there to see my dad play for my whole life.”

“It was equal parts, ‘this is genius', and ‘it will never work,'” is how Loomis remembers reacting to Aye Jay’s plans for the Gansta Rap Coloring Book. Inspired by time spent coloring with his 2-year-old son Cohen, and featuring the likes of Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg, that one simple plan has turned into quite a lesson in following through on your ideas.

“I drew pictures and laid it out; I printed up a bunch; I made a one-sheet; I sent 50 to 100 out to stores…” That explanation is a pretty simple blueprint, but it’s worked. Gradually responses began to trickle in. “I got some responses, Turntablelab.com [based in Brooklyn, NY] sold out, and I got a couple of write-ups.”

As the word spread, the coloring book eventually was picked up by a couple of distributors, even making it into the hands of hip-hop royalty. On the British talk show, So Graham Norton, Queen Latifiah reacted to being shown the cover of Aye Jay’s book by saying, “Look at the nine-millimeter on the cover. I wanna keep that!”

Capitalizing on the success, his upcoming projects include the Heavy Metal Fun Time Activity Book, a tribute to Shel Silverstein, and more immediately the follow-up to the coloring book, Indie Rock Connect the Dots.

“I’m wanting to do something interactive still, but not trying to recreate that [the Gansta Rap thing],” Aye Jay says.

His distributors aren’t as crazy about the new book as the last ("I don’t get it?” was the initial response), but Aye Jay has aimed his sights a little lower than the comparative home run of the first book. “I’m just wanting a solid single.”

Parenthood, he says, has grounded him and Aye Jay credits his relationship with his wife Meeka and the support of his in-laws for pushing him to this next level of success. “I feel really lucky,” he admits, “they help me focus.” Meeka, in particular, is involved with the work. “I call her my litmus test. A lot of times, by showing her pieces, her opinion will confirm something I was already thinking or help me get a different perspective on it.”

As is evidenced by this support and promotion of local artists such as Loomis, Aye Jay is very appreciative of Chico’s influence on him and pays his respect by regularly advocating the art of others. His hope is that other Chico artists can benefit from what he’s learned and get a sense of confidence about their ability to create something for themselves, and that it’s possible to be compensated for your art and live in Chico.

His optimism is resounding: "It’s not that hard. I’m pretty lazy."