The Job Recovery’s Invisibility Cloak

Aerial view of production line with workers in white coats and hair nets

Tea-leaf reading is far sketchier than economic forecasting, but at least you can brew a cup of tea after divining the future in leaf patterns.

Economists predicting a robust U.S. expansion in 2014 also foresee a rare paradox. Consensus estimates project gross domestic product (GDP) will grow nearly 3 percent this year — not a breakout performance but a hearty gain. Yet the jobless rate, which stood at 6.6 percent in January, according to Friday’s monthly unemployment report, is expected to be little changed come the ringing in of 2015.

How can that be? Chalk it up to “discouraged workers” returning to the labor force, which is expected to mask a strong job-market recovery if one focuses solely on the unemployment rate.

’Discouraged workers’ returning to the labor force will mask a strong job-market recovery…

“You shouldn’t mistake unemployment rate for job growth,” says David Berson, chief economist for Nationwide Insurance. “As the job market improves, many who dropped out will say ‘I really like that regular paycheck.’”

Adds Gus Faucher, senior economist PNC Financial Services Group: “As wages get bid up and employers are more willing to hire the long-term unemployed, we’re going to see those discouraged workers come back in.”

 

 

Misleading Statistics and How People Participate in the Labor Market

At first blush, it would seem 2013 was the breakout year for the job market. The U.S. unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent in December, down from 7.9 percent at the start of the year. That was the fourth-biggest calendar-year percentage decline since 1948, eclipsed only by 1950, 1977 and 1983.

Only about a third of the decline was due to job creation, however. The other two-thirds came from a continuing drop in the number of Americans age 16 and older actively looking for work. As unemployed job seekers grew tired of fruitless searching and gave up looking, the “labor market participation rate” fell to 62.8 percent in December, its lowest level since 1978.

Color photo of people in line waiting to speak to someone regarding a job

Job seekers line up to meet a prospective employer at a career fair at a hotel in Dallas.

Source Corbis

That comparative statistic itself paints a skewed picture. Remember that the year 1978 predates the demise of the single-income household and the ensuing influx of tens of millions of women into the job market in the 1980s. This shift vastly swelled the labor force. And after peaking at 67.3 percent in the year 2000, when unemployment fell to a 30-year low of 3.8 percent, the labor market participation rate kept declining. It continued downward even during the 2001-to-2007 expansion. Why? Because baby boomers began retiring en masse.

What’s missing from the languishing unemployment-rate picture is the job growth that’s expected to occur in the year ahead. Berson projects that the economy will add an average of 210,000 nonfarm jobs monthly, compared with 182,000 a month last year and 183,000 in 2012. That puts total job growth for the year at 2.52 million, approaching the roughly 3 million jobs gained annually during the rapid expansion from 1997 through 1999.

As total employment grows, the long-term unemployed will be enticed back into the job market, Berson says. “The participation rate will edge up and keep the unemployment rate from falling, and may even push it up in some months.”

In its December job-market outlook for 2014, the Federal Reserve predicted the jobless rate would be 6.3 percent at the year’s end. Anticipating a continuing influx of long-sidelined workers, the Fed projects that the rate will drop just marginally further to 5.8 to 6.1 percent by the close of 2015, and 5.3 to 5.8 percent at the end of the following year.

“The unemployment rate is still higher than we want it to be, but the economy will be creating jobs at a decent clip,” Faucher says. “There should be more than enough to account for new entrants in the market, which is about 100,000 a month, coming out of school or coming back from childbearing or childrearing.”

As total employment grows, the long-term unemployed will be enticed back into the job market.

The wild card in all the labor-force prognostications is the baby boom generation, between many who lost jobs in the downturn and those who gave up looking for work and retired early rather than return to the workforce.

“Are we going to see them all coming back in, or are many just going to stay out?” Faucher says. “It could be some of them are close to retirement age now, anyway, or there could be skills atrophy to the degree they won’t be able to get a job. It’s a real concern that what started out as cyclical unemployment could turn into structural unemployment.”

President Obama called on employers in his State of the Union address not to discriminate against job seekers who’ve been out of work for a prolonged period of time. Since job creation exceeded new entrants to the market throughout 2013, employers already have been drawing from the pool of long-term unemployed, which Berson sees becoming consistently shallower as the year progresses.

As for how much and how fast, Berson humorously acknowledges: “Economists aren’t bad [at forecasting] except at turning points, so they’re not bad except when it matters. I still think we’re better than the weather forecasters.…”

In other words, the U.S. job-market forecast for 2014 might be translated: “Sunny, with a chance of fog.”

The Miyawaki Method

Melissa wearing a dark lace top standing in front of yellow backdrop

Miyawaki’s method involves planting hundreds of seedlings of various tree species at random. Only species that are native to the region are planted to avoid disturbing the existing ecosystem. The trees then undergo natural selection, so that only the hardiest plants survive. Meanwhile, their close proximity promotes mutually beneficial relationships between them. The result? A robust, diverse forest that requires no maintenance after two years and grows 10 times faster than the average forest. At such a rate, a forest planted using Miyawaki’s method should show 100 years’ worth of growth in a decade.

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

2 Japanese olympic team members curling on ice

Gaming the Sochi Games

All those feel-good moments we’re going to enjoy in February are far from cheap. $50,000,000,000 — the current estimated price tag for the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, a figure that will make these the most expensive Games ever. Remember when everyone thought we had hit peak Olympic spending with Beijing?

Think. Again.

 

 

The Edgy Olympics

This winter, the games go on steroids: Olympic programmers have added new iterations of nontraditional ski and snowboard events like halfpipe and snowboard cross, staples from the X-Games, ESPN’s action sports fest. “Extreme” athletes like Shaun White have crossed over to the Olympic Games, winning gold medals and becoming household names.

The Sochi Olympics will have 12 new events, including freestyle skiing halfpipe, freestyle skiing slopestyle and snowboarding slopestyle. Some are more traditional – like team figure skating and team luge, but come February, you’ll be seeing a lot more skiers and snowboarders soaring through the air, showing off some next-level jumps, twists and tricks. 

Curling: You Know You Want to Try It

Yeah, no one ever knows what curling is – but Ron Burgundy checked it out, so you should too.  Curling is a top contender for the most accessible sport in the Olympics, full of people you could easily picture having beers with you or teaching you how to play their sport. But plenty of Americans can envision themselves curling, and they have taken up the sport, fueled by plentiful broadcasts on NBC’s networks with every Olympics. This year, NBC will once again spread many hours of curling coverage across CNBC, MSNBC and USA. The challenge for USA Curling is to convert that quadrennial boom of viewers and players into a lasting presence — and top-flight national teams.

That’s MisterWives, to You

Publicity image of Misterwives.

As a band, you either Make It – cash, fun and fame – or you don’t.

But when you do, you’ll know — because then the pieces fit just right, and things move fast. Dizzyingly fast.

Just ask NYC indie-pop-soul trio MisterWives, who recently dropped their first EP, signed with Island Def Jam, kicked off an East Coast tour, and started recording their debut album — just a year after they began performing together.

“We all met pretty randomly,” said Mandy Lee, MisterWives’ bubbly frontwoman. Lee was belting ’80s covers for a friend’s 18th birthday party when she ran into bassist Will Hehir. After the two started jamming, Lee invited drummer Etienne Bowler, who worked at a vegan restaurant a block from the vegan joint where she worked, to join in.

“It took one rehearsal, and we all became really good friends,” said Lee, who had hopped from band to band before finally settling with MisterWives. “It was like hitting the jackpot.” The bandmates recorded a few songs in their Bronx apartment in PJs and uploaded them to SoundCloud, which earned them thousands of plays and loads of indie music blog love. Their first show in Manhattan caught the eye of a Photo Finish Records agent — and the rest is a pretty significant step toward all of that cash, fun and fame.

And that sense of serendipity echoes through their tracks, whose blend of folk, soul and disco somehow sounds right, without even trying. Think The Lumineers’ stomp-clap cadence meets Walk the Moon’s sparkling synth-pop hooks, thrown in with a dash of Lee’s sassy Aretha Franklin vocals.  

The result? A fun, infectious sound that has MTV ready to crown MisterWives The Next Golden Children of Pop. Most of the tracks on their Reflections EP will make you want to shimmy and sing into your hairbrush – like the title track and the band’s most recent single, a dance-y anthem about getting over unrequited love (which, by the way, was featured as an iTunes Single of the Week and spent three weeks on Spotify’s Most Viral Tracks chart). Meanwhile, “Coffins,” a haunting ballad mourning the loss of a friendship, reveals the band’s somber side.  

Despite their whirlwind success, MisterWives doesn’t take themselves too seriously, from Lee’s wide-eyed giddiness to their stories about Utah residents taking offense at their band name — inspired by Sister Wives, a reality show that documents the life of a polygamist family in Lehi, Utah. “We reversed the genders, so it’s like I married all the guys,” Lee explained.

 

Likewise, their songs “are nothing deliberate,” said Lee, who studied opera at a performing arts school in Manhattan and pens all the band’s tracks – often in her basement at 4:00 a.m. (Did we mention she’s only 21?) “I can’t force myself to write a song,” she said. “If I say ’hey, I want to write a song,’ nothing happens. Ever. It has to be in the moment.” 

Next up, MisterWives is Austin-bound for their first SXSW in March, followed by a spring tour with The Mowgli’s, on top of recording a debut album, which is scheduled to drop at the end of this year. “It’s been a wild experience,” Lee said. “We’re still pinching ourselves. We hope it just continues to develop more and more.” So do we.  

We Can Make You Better Off, Like it Or Not

Obese African American woman walking with cane towards right of frame with McDonald's Chain behind her

Meet Billy. He is a heavy smoker and excessive drinker. He also tends to overeat, and the medical profession would classify him as being obese.  

But Billy has a social conscience. He never bothers anyone with second-hand smoke or gets behind the wheel of a vehicle if he’s intoxicated. His family has the means to cover his medical bills, which are well above average due to his many indulgences, so he is not a financial burden to the health insurance system. 

Billy is a heavy smoker and excessive drinker. He’s also 14 years old.

Still, one can easily argue that Billy is harming himself, and maybe we should consider a social policy that would protect Billy from his own indulgences. This form of policy intervention is considered paternalistic — policy not designed to protect others from Billy, but to protect Billy from himself. 

Paternalistic policy intervention has traditionally been largely ignored by economists. Believing that people fundamentally behave rationally and in their own best interest, why should we care what Billy does as long as he doesn’t bother others?

But I forget to mention one thing: Billy is 14 years old. Does paternalism make sense now?  

As it becomes more palatable for scholars and policy officials to call on paternalistic policy to protect adults from their indulgences, we should look at what appear to be far easier justifications for paternalism — protecting children from themselves. Then we can consider how well these justifications apply to the adult setting. Typically we blame parental neglect for children who indulge to such an extreme degree. But parents are not always in the best position to protect their children. They can’t set a minimum legal smoking or drinking age or impose fines on retail outlets that violate these laws. Nor can they regulate fast food restaurants to restrict advertising directed at children. So parents often welcome paternalistic public policy to protect their children. But paternalism is starting to cast a wider net. 

Who are these paternalists and how can we be sure they know what is in someone else’s best interest?  

The first common justification is that children lack the cognitive maturity to make rational decisions and act in their own best interest. The second is that we make children better off by curbing their indulgences — especially extreme ones like smoking, drinking and overeating. The first justification is sound; the second is problematic. Does paternalism truly make children better off? 

Topless todller smoking a cigarette outdoors during the day

A 2-year-old Indonesian boy Ardi Rizal puffs on a cigarette.

Source Getty

When we ask if Billy would be better off, we need to determine from whose perspective. From Billy’s, the answer is likely no. If you were to intervene and prevent Billy from indulging, would he thank you? If he lacks the maturity to appreciate the effect his indulgences have on his health, doesn’t he also lack the maturity to appreciate policies designed to curb his behavior? If Billy wants to indulge, and we say no, we make Billy worse off in his own mind.   

From the paternalist’s perspective, however, be it the parents or the state, we are making Billy better off by holding him to what we consider to be more appropriate behavior. But who gets to decide what is appropriate?  

If you are new to social welfare analysis, it’s all about finding ways to make society better off. You start with a social objective and then propose policies to achieve that objective. Keep in mind, though, that what you think is best for society is simply your opinion. There is no “correct” social welfare objective. But if you believe society is better off if children don’t smoke, we achieve that goal by implementing policies that don’t let children smoke.  

This is both the strength and weakness of paternalism. Paternalism can protect people who are not in the best position to protect themselves. But then we’re allowing the paternalists to define socially ideal behavior. Who are these paternalists and how can we be sure they know what is in someone else’s best interest? 

We are making Billy better off by holding him to … more appropriate behavior. But who gets to decide what is appropriate?  

And what if Billy is 25 years old instead of 14? Is he now cognitively mature enough to look after his own best interests? If he doesn’t appreciate intervention to curb his indulgences, should we still hold him to the paternalist’s ideal behavior?  

Woman on phone with giant soda in her hand while walking in the street

A woman walks down a street with an extra large drink in a Brooklyn neighborhood with a high rate of obesity and diabetes.

Source Getty

There is a fairly new branch of economics, known as behavioral economics, that argues that even adult behavior is not governed by full rationality but by behavioral quirks and flaws. So yes, the argument goes, some adults may not be cognitively mature enough to protect themselves, and we should design policies to help them out, even if these policies don’t seem helpful to them. 

In the end, behavioral economists believe that in some settings we need to protect adults from their indulgences for pretty much the same reasons we need to protect children. These paternalists are smart, and sincere, but they should tread very carefully before telling others what to do. If not, someone might start telling them what to do, or where to go.

Europe at the Polls: The Continent in 2014

Portrait of Matthew Elliott.

It’s an election year in major nations across Europe. Up for discussion? Plenty, including a new kind of headline-making European right. OZY sat down for a Q&A with Matthew Elliott, chief executive of Business for Britain, founder of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and a veritable British Grover Norquist . As one of Britain’s top lobbyists and conservative voices, Elliot offered OZY a primer on what’s happening in the U.K. and EU — and what to expect from the 2014 election cycle. In sum: You know you need to watch the European right, but what you might not know is that the right has many faces (some more moderate than others). What do they all have in common? An increasingly mainstream skepticism about the very idea of their continent as one coherent body.

A TURNING POINT FOR EUROPE?

OZY: Let’s start with the big picture: What are you seeing across Europe right now — and why should people around the world care?

MATTHEW ELLIOTT: The European Parliament election in May is coming up, and it looks to be a major time for change across the continent. What people should be looking for is what’s going to happen to the two big power blocs, the European People’s Party, the center-right Christian democrat blocs, and the Party of European Socialists, the center-left socialist bloc. Whichever one of those gets the most members this May will have quite a lot of power: They will get to nominate the new European Commission president. And I would say that if the Party of European Socialists does well in the races, it will be terribly bad for the European economy. Already the EU is guilty of bringing in far too many regulations on business, and if it brings in even more regulations, the whole continent will be set back even further in the whole global race. 

OZY: So who should the world be on the watch for in this election cycle and beyond?

ME: This is truly the first time that three very big, important nations in the EU — the U.K., France and Germany — have legitimately started building a very strong anti-Euro force. That’s a bit unprecedented. And if everyone in the States assumed Europe was centralizing, well. They’re going to see something very different … not the United States of Europe. There are some new and old players who all look set to top their respective polls.

  1. There’s Nigel Farage,  who leads the U.K. Independence Party — one of two British center-right parties. 
  2. There’s Marine Le Pen, in France, whose Front Nationel Party looks to clearly top the polls.
  3. There’s the new German anti-Euro Party (led by Bernd Lucke) — and they did very well in their parliamentary elections.

OZY: Those are the standard players. Who don’t we know yet, in the U.K. and EU?

ME:

  1. Patrick O’Flynn. Well liked, good on broadcast and has a good instinct for connecting with “Middle England.” With Farage having health issues at the moment, many people are tipping O’Flynn as a future UKIP leader. He’s certainly one to watch. 
  2. Daniel Hannan.  A leading member of the European Parliament, [he] is a man on the up. He’s one of the best orators in the Party, he writes well, he’s got a huge social media following and — most importantly — he’s been proved right on everything he’s said about the EU.
  3. Rachel Reeves.  She has used her position as Labour spokesperson on Work and Pensions to launch some significant attacks on the government for welfare. Untainted by the previous Labour administration, she’s well positioned to be Labour’s first female leader and prime minister.

 

 

 

 

Watch out for Britain’s Rand Paul(s)

OZY: Tell us about British sentiment toward the EU.

ME: Well, you’re going to see these Euroskeptics top the polls, getting more support across the country than any of the other European parties. And this will be a real shock and a wake-up call. The country is very dissatisfied with our membership in the European Union — which is forcing all of the major parties to try to take into account that anti-European feeling. You’ll see the Conservative Party become much more Euroskeptic, but you’ll also see it from the Labor Party and the whole of British politics. The idea that the EU is completely infallible is no longer the case — you’ll see it shaken up. The question of our relationship with the EU comes down to how we see our place in the world. We were the sick man of Europe in the beginning — back when the EU accounted for roughly half the world’s GDP. But now? Many people are asking, where does Britain want to be in 2014? People are saying we need to go back to where we were before, independent of the EU — away from the low-growth Eurozone.

OZY: What’s the biggest surprise in British politics right now?

ME: While nobody expects the UKIP to come first in next year’s general election, in May 2015, they’re going to do far, far better than the 3 percent they hauled last election. And the Party is starting to take votes from the conservative party, fracturing the British right — a bit like what happened with Bush and Ross Perot. You’ve got this populist, right-wing force on the rise in the country. It’s changing things up a bit because Nigel Farage — head of the UKIP — had his party polling in third place in the U.K. polls for the past 18 months to two years now. But in this year’s European elections, his party is actually polling ahead of the conservative right party — they very well could come top. Which has huge implications for the general election next year in 2015. 

OZY: So you’re really seeing a number of new kinds of political mavericks on the scene in the U.K. — even new political parties worth taking seriously?

ME: Well, it’s a bit like the American Tea Party. In the States, too, the right is quite fractious and finding it difficult to coalesce with election-winning candidates. Many people want more moderate Republicans, it seems, but others are pushing in the much more conservative direction. And that’s actually a direct parallel within the U.K. right now: We have one conservative party, but with the Independent Party, the center-right is fractured — much like how it is in the U.S. I believe we won’t have another conservative government in the U.K. until we reunite — and until we have a candidate who can fall in with the centered people. 

Brazilian Badassery + the Jiu-Jitsu It Rode In On

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Rome, Italy

The year was 2006 and the place was Renzo Gracie’s Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) emporium in midtown Manhattan.Daniel Gracie, cousin to Renzo and another head of the Gracie hydra that spawned the International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation and the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) competition, was doing what he does best. He had his arms latticed around his opponent’s throat in what is comfortingly called a rear naked choke, or Mata-Leao (“lion killer” in Portuguese). 

”Oh, come on. You can’t honestly expect me to believe that you want to tap to that,” said the well-muscled and clean-cut Gracie, smiling and beneficient in his clear mastery of the situation at hand. Shamed by the well-meaning but slightly patronizing tone, his opponent turned it up to 10. Which amounted to tapping out 30 seconds later versus 30 seconds sooner, to laughter, cheers, claps and no small amount of suffocation.Squeezing. Slowly. Inexorably. Until the inevitable: His opponent did what is commonly called “tapping out” and submitted, or cried “uncle,” by hitting his hand against the mat.

Daniel's right profile smiling as he teaches a class

Starring Jesmine Latrach

Source Jeffrey Gamza

That opponent? Me. And I was deeply and thoroughly in love.

Not with Gracie, though he was a fine fellow, but with the sport of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Born out of judo’s ground game, it was taught to Carlos Gracie and later his brother Helio Gracie by Mitsuyo Maeda starting in 1917. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is not so much a breakaway derivation from judo as much as it is an expansion of the grappling self-defense art — and it breeds obsessives. With its quiver full of armbars (bending the arm or shoulder opposite from the way it usually bends), kneebars, ankle locks and chokes, it’s not for the non-obsessive.

”It’s life and a way of life,” says 34-year-old Leopoldo Serao, BJJ instructor, five-time Brazilian Luta Livre champ (Luta Livre is a derivation of the jiu-jitsu derivation) and five-time state champ. ”While it’s not for everyone, the ones it’s for? They never gonna be the same.” And coming from the 6-foot Serao, his ears cauliflowered after 20 years in the game, with over 350 winning fights to his credit and a professional mixed martial arts record of 18 wins (including a middleweight championship belt), this comes across as unholy writ.

ESR win

Source Graciemag.com

While the numbers of people taking martial arts in America at any given time are, according to Plunkett’s Sports Industry Almanac, around 6.9 million, or 2 percent of the U.S. population, BJJ is drawing a lot of celebrity heat lately. Mixed in with the tattooed and muscled are doctors, lawyers, engineers, biologists, Silicon Valley CEOs making deals on the mat, Anthony Bourdain (lured in by his wife, Ottavia Busia), playwright David Mamet, the late star of the Fast and Furious franchise, Paul Walker, and even Sam Harris (the neuroscientist, not the Star Search winner), fer chrissakes.  Moreover the UFC, the most reliable stage upon which to see BJJ, just pulled in 1,025,000 pay-per-view purchases for a fight this past December. Up from only 590,000 a year before. So it’s not arriving — it’s arrived.

Leo in AERO sweatshirt leaning against wall

Source Leslie dela Vega

Progression through the ranks can take upward of a decade. Black belts are doled out so sparingly that there’s a website listing every person who’s got one from Gracie. The sport is no easy walk in the park, yet it never loses that effortless, centered spiritual zone called “flow.” And designed as it was to help smaller people get a self-defense edge over larger people, it’s drawing a fair share of women who are deathly serious about it.

”It’s a sport, more so than many, where you have to use your mind,” says longtime practitioner and third in the CCS Girls Wrestling Championship 2013, Grace Robinson (hell YES a relation, and because the fruit does not fall far from the tree, in the name of total disclosure, my daughter). “It’s like puzzles that have to be figured out, and when you’re rolling [BJJ slang for fighting – eds.] you’re not only beating them physically, you’re beating them mentally. So you’re beating them on all levels.”

Monthly national and international competitions foster a communal spirit grounded in the strange, joyful suffering that comes from the conditioning and flexibility required to just not get the moves more wrong than right. BJJ, while not exactly generating the same kind of ease as golf, does create a certain quality of peace.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Rome, Italy

Source Luigi de Pompeis/Alamy

”Knowing I can twist someone’s head off if the situation calls for it,” says BJJ blue belt and social worker Salvatore Russo, ”does impart a kind of peace and peacefulness.” And he laughs. Curiously enough, we know exactly what he means.

The Sterilization Gap

Bandage on businessman's zipper

Ever since the first prehistoric woman realized coitus interruptus could prevent pregnancy and pushed away a lust-crazed cretin, women throughout the world have borne the burden of contraception. However, with the rise of modern medicine, women’s rights and family planning, that burden became more equally distributed…or did it?

About 50/50

Proportion of men to women who were medically sterilized in the 1970s.

Men and women were medically sterilized, through vasectomies and tubal ligations, in roughly equal numbers in the 1970s. The procedures are among the most radical methods of contraception, but sociologists of the time had no reason to imagine the way those numbers would skew 40 years later.

17% vs. 6%

Proportion of men to women who were medically sterilized recently, according to the National Center for Health Statistics

According to the most recent findings from the National Center for Health Statistics, among women ages 15 to 44, 17 percent have undergone tubal ligation — that’s 1 in 6 — compared to 6 percent of men who have undergone a vasectomy, or 1 in 17.

More than twice as many 21st-century women get their “tubes tied” as the number of men getting their vas deferens ducts “snipped.” One hypothesis as to the driving force behind the shift: the rise in the divorce rate.

 

With half of marriages ending in divorce, many men who might have opted for a vasectomy after fathering several children now refrain, concerned that a future spouse or partner will want children. Meanwhile, more women in shaky marriages opt for tubal ligation to limit the number of children they may have to care for as a single mom in the event of divorce.

Whether or not the changing nature of modern marriage is at the root of this twist, it’s clear that there’s far more at work than empowered women passing on motherhood or men’s queasiness about undergoing “the procedure.”

Art’s Naturel Progression to Big Biz

Painting of what looks like a Michael Jordan pose with man in jeans on dark backdrop

It tends to be a truism that to reign in the art world, you need to be in the cool minority. Call it what you will: rebellion, edge, disruption. But sometimes, the art world’s greatest creators aren’t starving in the streets. And in fact today, some of our most brilliant creatives come from corporations

One such visual visionary is the artist Naturel (pronounced Natu-rel), aka Lawrence Atoigue. His gallery? Instagram. His canvas? The world. His patron? Corporations. His take? Not sorry about it.

Whether or not you realize it, you can see the work of great corporate creatives everywhere, from Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans to Jean Michel Basquiat in a Reebok sneaker.  

Naturel, known for his signature style of “vector” art is for his part, exceptional – making wild waves in both artistic form and the model that upholds art. 

But let’s begin with the art itself: Vector styles use digitally created shapes and shading in computer-generated graphics to eventually produce one larger image. Think of it like a set of computerized puzzle pieces, coming together to make an integrated image.

Painting of what looks like a Michael Jordan pose with man in jeans on dark backdrop

Art’s Naturel Progression to Big Biz

Source Karl Ferguson Jr.

Naturel’s trademark stamp is the larger product of that process, and that product is … risqué. They’re NC-17 images of naked women’s body parts, of skeleton frames seated atop horses in a dark reinterpretation of the Polo shirt logo. Naturel has even dared to reappropriate Michael Jordan’s legs-spread Jumpman logo — you know, the one you’ve seen on every pair of Air Jordan sneakers — and replaced MJ with Tupac, Jay Z and Washington Redskins quarterback RG3. Big business? No railing against it here. It’s his very form of expression.

And he is a businessman in his own right: sales on his site (www.allburgundy.com – where limited-edition prints start at $180) are booming. You could even call him a marketing whiz, able to capitalize on his 30,000 Instagram followers to cash in on a new project via a one-hit social media announcement. 

The Prince George County, Md., native didn’t initially have dreams of being a visual producer. In his early days, he wanted to be a rapper. “I started rapping when I was 10 and started doing art when I was 14,” he says, in a kind of laid-back jazz musician’s tone – one he may have picked up from his father, who played bass in a band when Naturel was growing up.

Naturel’s natural (no pun intended) love of the arts led him to the Pratt Institute, New York’s prestigious palace of art instruction, to pursue both passions of art and rap music.

Portrait of artist Naturel

But many a great artist has struggled with time management, and when the question loomed – for love or money? – Naturel answered. He picked the breadwinner: the graphic arts. But welcome to the era when no one dares to call that selling out. Naturel found himself working closely on designs for Jay Z’s Rocawear brand, back when former partner in the company, Dame Dash, was in charge. Shortly after starting there, Jay Z took over operations, buying Dash out. As Naturel explains, “We would present stuff to [Jay Z] 3 days out the week. It was an education working with him. For him to be as big of a [celebrity], but humble as he was with his status, indirectly taught me to be humble. He brings everybody to his level.” Even working with greats like Jay Z will send one on their own road to riches and to explore other opportunities. So Naturel left Rocawear for his own glory.

“I’ve been a designer, illustrator, like an everything guy for different brands. Then I went off and did my own ‘til I couldn’t do it anymore,” he says, and you can still hear stress in his voice. “I was just really burnt out and I took jobs here and there to pay the bills. I had this one job that was on the table that kind of forced me to think in a minimalist way.”

Is this form of artistry a nose-in-the-air to the oft-held view that art should remain not for profit? Many of the current greats – like Futura for his abstract rawness, Shepard Fairey with his entrepreneur skills, Kaws’ tackling of iconic themes – take on projects with corporate entities, interspersing the political stances their creations take with (necessary) prosperity in a promoted project.

Naturel, for his part, doesn’t have much of a political agenda: He’s an artist who seems borne entirely out of the 21st century – of the digital age, in flesh and blood, native to the net, with corporations less something to criticize than to weave into the canvas of his world as he sees it.

Don’t just listen to us, though. Leo Vasquez, curator of the New York-based Sound of Art gallery, weighs in: “It’s a balance between paper and passion. They need money to do what they want to do. Warhol did Dom Perignon bottles and used it to serve as a marketing platform.” And yes, collaborations give access to the masses that wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford their normal price points. “A Kaws piece could run upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but for less than $100.00 I can purchase a Hennessey special and own a piece of art.”

So maybe the intimate relationship between corporations and art is the oldest thing in the book. 

Either way, Naturel is redefining it – and owning it in a new way. Exhibit A: his breakthrough social media exercise, which he called the #30minuteWorkout. The challenge: He would have 1800 seconds to create a themed piece and post it up on Instagram as a friendly challenge with other art creating friends. He began this campaign at first out of necessity for companies that needed quick turnaround times for freelance graphic design work. Accepting the challenge blended passion and productivity and a way to grow his skills while making money with businesses. Kind of like art fitness training. 

“I was trying to take my maximist style and get that minimal sensibility to it,” Naturel says.

Which could be viewed as bringing corporate efficiency to creative process. In doing so Naturel earned himself thousands of fans from this open-door process, all documented on Instagram. And then, inevitably, the big boys called.

So began the laundry list: Nike commissioned him to chronicle a full timeline of the LeBron James signature sneaker series. The NBA super star was so impressed by the outcome that he re-posted the final looks on his Instagram page, complete with a rare artist shout-out. With Levi’s, Barcardi Rum and the NFL as former collaborators you could say that paves a pretty nice road for the future. So, what’s next? More collaborations like the ones with jewelry supplier to the stars Mr. Flawless, footwear with Timberland, spirits (Moet) and galleries showcasing his work.

And where do we leave Naturel? Somewhere in the throes of a still-complicated question. Social media is empowering: the ultimate equalizer, the bullet that can shoot a new artist from the bottom of the barrel to the highest heights. There you get the walk of the walk – but how do you make it on your own? You grind the work out, stay a step ahead and take the big corporations in tow.