Artist Bio

…nomadic artist, educator, & advocate for social action…


Joel Bergner (aka Joel Artista) is an artist, educator and organizer of community-based public art initiatives with youth and families around the world. He works in acrylic and aerosol, creating elaborate paintings and public murals that explore social topics and reflect a wide array of artistic influences. Joel has facilitated community mural projects in Syrian refugee camps in the Middle East, juvenile detention centers in the US, and the shantytowns of Kenya, India and Brazil. He earned his BA in Sociology from the University of Illinois Chicago and has a background in counseling youth with various mental health issues. These experiences inform his current work addressing issues of trauma related to violence conflict, displacement and social marginalization. For each project, he partners with local residents and organizations to give a platform to people in highly challenging circumstances to explore issues that are important to them, learn valuable skills and uplift their environment through public art. These social projects have featured partnerships with dozens of local and international institutions, including UNICEF, Mercy Corps and the Open Society Initiative. Joel’s work has been featured extensively in media, including Al-Jazeera English, NPR (National Public Radio), Arise TV, Reuters, AFP (Agence-France Presse), Voice of America, the New York Times, TIME magazine, and the Washington Post, among many others. His work has also been published in the books Street Art San Francisco and Mural Art Volume 3.


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In 2015, Joel joined forced with his frequent collaborator Max Frieder to found and direct the Artolution, a community-based public art organization that is founded in participatory and collaborative art making. Its unique approach empowers artists, youth and communities to be agents of positive social change, explore critical societal issues and create opportunities for constructive dialogue.

Artolution believes that the process of creating collaborative art is a powerful tool to bring diverse communities together in the face of conflict and social turmoil in order to address challenges that they face. Artolution projects engage youth and communities that have faced social exclusion and trauma, including refugees, street youth, the incarcerated, people with physical and mental disabilities, and young people living in areas of violent conflict or extreme poverty. These projects have been organized and facilitated in partnerships with local artists and educators, grass-roots community groups, schools, religious centers and international institutions in over 20 countries across Latin America, Africa, North America, the Middle East, Europe and South Asia.

Check out their projects at


Joel’s artwork is heavily inspired by his community-based work in many US cities and abroad, including positions with a variety of non-profit organizations. Joel has taught at juvenile detention centers and has worked with foster youth, the disabled, refugees, the homeless and the mentally ill. He spent 4 years counseling youth who were struggling with issues such as violence, prostitution, suicide and drugs in a treatment center in San Francisco. Joel was a teacher with organizations in El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, and in the shantytowns of Brazil (favelas) and speaks Spanish and Portuguese fluently. He was an International Election Observer for the 2004 presidential election in El Salvador.

As a teenager Joel experienced several difficult years and became a father while still in high school. Although the relationship did not work out with his son’s mother, Joel has maintained a close relationship with his son ever since and has always been active in his life. His son has moved often because his stepfather was in the military, and Joel has often traveled long distances to see him and even moved across the country several times in order to live close enough to visit regularly. His challenging experiences as a teenager and experience as a young father have greatly influenced his community work with youth, as he empathizes with their struggles and helps give them hope for the future as they deal with incarceration, disabilities, poverty and violence.

Joel grew up in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois, where he had a passion for art even as a young child. He spent many years living in Chicago in the Mexican-American community Pilsen, which greatly influenced his direction as an artist. After years of creating his own personal artwork and dabbling in graffiti, he painted his first public mural in a cafe after his friend who worked there convinced the owner to allow him to paint the wall. In 2002, after spending time in the Dominican Republic doing volunteer work and then working in New Orleans, Joel moved to San Francisco’s Mission District, a vibrant community with a reputation for “the most public art per capita in the world,” which was a big influence on him. Knowing no one and with no job prospects, he spent many rough months living in his car and job hunting. One bright spot during this period was the opportunity to paint his first outdoor mural, which led the way to a series of pieces around the neighborhood, which were all published in the book “Street Art San Francisco: Mission Muralismo” by Annice Jacoby.  During this time he developed his style as a public artist and worked as a counselor for troubled youth in a treatment center.

After leaving California, Joel spent several years being based in Washington DC and now Brooklyn, though his art and community-based work often keep him traveling the majority of the year. Since 2005 he has been to Brazil many times, and usually spends part of his year living and working there. He often stays with a community of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé in Salvador da Bahia, which has been an inspiration for his life and the artistic imagery and style of his work. He also regularly lives and works in Rio de Janeiro in the favela (shanty town) City of God, where he stays with a local family with whom he is close. His work in the City of God has included teaching Art and English and doing educational public art projects with teenagers through a local church and various youth organizations. He has also led community mural projects in India, Israel and Palestine, Kenya, Mexico, South Africa, Poland, Sweden, Mozambique, El Salvador, Germany, the UK, Cape Verde, Peru, Belgium, Brazil, the Za’atari Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, and has participated in three international art festivals in Cuba.

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