Why NXOEED, Phoenix's invisible artist, leaves his monsters all over town | Phoenix New Times

Why Phoenix artist NXOEED wants you to find his monsters — not him

Phoenix artist James B. Hunt, a.k.a. NXOEED, draws monsters and leaves them around the city. But he's more like a ghost.
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It’s hard to keep up with artist James B. Hunt, otherwise known as NXOEED. Longtime Valley residents have probably seen his work multiple times, even if they didn’t recognize the strange conglomeration of letters, that according to Hunt, is not meant to be pronounced. It simply is what it is: NXOEED.

On a warm February day, we biked through the streets of central Phoenix headed toward Roosevelt Row to hide some original art Hunt had recently created. It was difficult to match his steady but brisk pace, but when you ride everywhere on bicycle, you get good at it, and this is just one of many things, like his art, that makes Hunt instantly memorable. This is, of course, much to his chagrin.

More importantly, though, Hunt has always known he would be an artist.

“Even at 5 years old, I was always drawing. Just drawing and drawing and drawing. I never really considered doing anything else with my life. I was always down to just ruin my life with this shit,” Hunt says without a hint of sarcasm.

Hunt's unique art is instantly recognizable. There's a fascinating allure to his bold yet flowing approach to drawing and painting that disarms the eye and allows what would normally be scary or shocking to be inviting and warm.

An NXOEED work hiding in plain sight.
Tom Reardon

The now 51-year-old has lived in Phoenix for over 40 years, and he knows the city streets like the back of his hand. On that day in February, we weren't far from where it all began; Hunt’s been hiding his art off and on since 1997, when he first did it to help promote a show he had at Alwun House on Roosevelt and 12th streets.

As we head toward our first stop, which is just across the street from what used to be The Lost Leaf on 5th Street, there's a broad smile on his face. It’s clear that he's doing what he loves to do, but there's also something else there, too. A mission, perhaps, and a sense of oncoming relief.

“Sometimes when I’m feeling down, the only thing that gets me out of a funk is to be able to hide two or three things here and there. Knowing that it's hidden feels good,” says Hunt.

To the observer, Hunt did not seem to be in a “funk” when we met in February. He seemed excited and ready to go for a ride. Even though he's tall, a bit stocky and typically dressed in all black, including a worn black cap that would look right on a cigar-chomping tugboat captain, he's not the least bit imposing.

There's a charming twinkle in his eye and when he talks, you can’t help but listen. Hunt is eloquent and easily one of the most creative users of profanity you'll ever come across. He's also deferential in nature, and his swearing is almost always used to enhance his inclination for self-deprecation. Like many artists, he is a natural observer and doesn’t seem to miss anything.

It's probably why he loves riding around town on his bike.

“There’s a lot of freedom in having a bicycle. You can effortlessly go through the back streets. I don’t need to worry about parking. It’s almost like a little piece of youth has stuck with me, like I have this piece of 1985 with me all the time and I’m a kid on a bike,” says Hunt.

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The artist as he wants you to see him.
Though he was born in California and lived for the first few years of his life in and around Orange County, he could be found riding his bike and his skateboard around the Ahwatukee area while attending junior high and high school. Not a great student in a traditional way, Hunt enjoyed drawing way too much to pay much attention to the academic part of school.

“I lasted until my junior year, but I don’t think had enough credits to pass ninth grade. I was just drawing pictures. I didn’t see a point to doing any of the shit that I knew I wasn’t going to do. Even driver’s ed. I knew I wasn’t going to drive. I was going to draw. I still don’t drive a car,” Hunt says with a laugh.

Hunt also found himself attracted to punk rock music as a youngster, especially the artwork that would grace record covers and flyers for shows. He would often buy records based on the cover alone.

“People are wrong. You can absolutely judge something by the cover. If the cover is insane, you’re going to find a way to like that, even if it’s trash. That’s what I did a lot of the time. Most of the shit I bought was because of the cover art. I loved the visual aspect. That’s what drew me to the Dead Kennedys. Those amazing Winston Smith covers ... I thought it was just chaos,” he says.
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James Hunt, a.k.a. NXOEED, rides his bike.
Rhondi Reardon

During these formative years, while he was finding the music that would help fuel his art, Hunt also discovered something a little darker about himself. He began covering mirrors and avoided looking at his own image as much as possible. This practice has followed him throughout his adult life.

Many Americans suffer from body dysmorphia. According to Dr. Katharine Phillips, who has written multiple books on the subject of Body Dysmorphia Disorder (BDD), about 5 to 10 million Americans suffer from BDD. It's a common but often misunderstood disorder. Hunt has spoken casually to mental health care professionals about his extreme reluctance to see his own image, but has never consulted anyone professionally.

“I’m going to tell you right now. I haven’t seen my reflection in two years. I got good at knowing when a reflection is coming, so when I’m passing a building that looks like it's going to be very reflective, I know not to look. I’m very good at avoiding my reflection. It’s been like that for a lot of years,” Hunt says.

Hunt describes the idea of seeing himself as if it is a physical pain, almost a momentary jolt of reality, akin to putting your tongue on the two poles of a 9-volt battery. Even seeing pictures of his hands, for example, can be jarring to him because it doesn’t look like what his hands feel like to him.

“I don’t know if that’s the reason I’m painting a lot of monsters. I don’t think I’m a monster. I don’t understand what I’m looking at when I’m seeing myself. It doesn’t make any sense to me, so I just avoid it. Other people don’t look like monsters [to me] and I’m sure, to the world, I don’t look like a monster,” Hunt explains.

“Monster” is an interesting word for Hunt to use, as much of his most recent work revolves around drawing and painting what most people, including Hunt, would call "monsters." During our conversations, Hunt repeatedly denies that he considers himself to be a "monster" but there's clearly pain, frustration and sadness in his voice as he talks about the prospect of seeing his own reflection.

In his parents' home, for example, there are pictures of Hunt as a child. He regrets that when he does visit, usually during holidays, he avoids looking at the pictures that line the hallway of their home. Hunt isn’t certain if his parents understand how he feels. He does understand, though, that they would want a picture of him, and as a father, he enjoys pictures of his own twin children.

“It’s not reasonable at all. I’m aware of how unreasonable I am with this. Things would go a lot better for me if I were comfortable being in front of my paintings, getting my picture taken, making a face or something. There are a number of things in my life that I have made harder on myself. The name, NXOEED. You can’t pick a worse name to be, but at the same time, it’s very Google-able. If you Google my name, James B. Hunt, you get the ex-governor of North Carolina,” he says.

Hunt remembers being asked several years ago for a self-portrait and ended up painting what looked like a monster to him.

“The thing that got me on the path of illustrating or painting monsters, which is almost exclusively what I make now, it all started because somebody wanted me to do a self-portrait, but I knew I was not going to make a self-portrait. So, I started doing this monster, but I dressed him like me,” he recalls.
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Untitled work by NXOEED.

More recently, it’s been harder and harder for Hunt to say, “No, thank you. I don’t want my picture taken.” Even Hunt’s children, who recently turned 21, don’t even have a picture of him. If there is anything positive to take away from Hunt’s reluctance, though, it’s that he does seem comfortable with being uncomfortable about his image or having his picture taken.

“I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m finally over it. I don’t want to be in a room, sitting at a table with like 20 people and be OK with it. To me, that’s terrifying. I understand that it would probably be better for my loved ones if I resolve it, but the thought of it sucks. I’ve always sort of wanted to be invisible ... to be in the background. Nobody needs to know who I am,” Hunt says.

Hunt says that he will die not having any pictures of himself taken publicly. He doesn’t see himself ever being comfortable with having his picture taken.

“I mean, I should probably have a picture for [my family] when I am gone. But I also don’t see it happening. I don’t know how to get there from here, I guess. It’s a conundrum,” he says.

Luckily for Hunt, his art can provide images for the rest of us, even if we can’t ask Siri to show us a picture of him. As a teenager, he began earning a little bit of notoriety (but hardly any money) creating artwork for local bands in the form of flyers, album art and even a drumhead or two.

“My first gig, I guess they paid me. Well, they paid me with the ability to go see their shows for free. It was a progressive rock band in Tempe called Celtic Reign. I was impressed that they all knew how to play really well. Their album was recorded and mixed the way a capable adult would record an album. I did their album cover and painted their drum head. I was 18 or 19 and going to Boston’s, and seeing the thing I painted on the drum set was a big deal to me. It was very exciting,” Hunt says.

While he says that he knew he would never have a linear career, he feels strongly that his work would always be tied in one way or another to music. He enjoyed the creative freedom of making flyers and drew confidence from being able to share them with the world in record stores and on telephone poles.

“I didn’t know, back then, that you could just say, ‘I’m a painter’ and hang some shit on a wall and now it’s an art show. You get a lot more traction out of a poster on a telephone pole than an art show. Maybe 50 people will come to your show, but how many people pass a telephone pole every day, even if they’re not paying attention? If you do it long enough, maybe people will start wondering ‘Who’s this fucking guy drawing this shit?’” Hunt says.

In the early '90s, Hunt met the late Michael 23 (a.k.a. Michael Hudson), who died earlier this year. This meeting was fortuitous for Hunt in many ways. For one, it eventually led to Hunt’s first solo show at 23’s Phoenix gallery, Thought Crime.

“Because his name was ‘23’ I knew that he and I had intersecting interests. A few years later, he had moved to Phoenix, and I asked him if I could do an art show at his new space. He gave me my first solo show and he only did it because I asked for it. He could probably see in my face that it took a lot of courage to ask for a show. That was everything to me. He was nothing but supportive to me. Most places at the time were not that supportive. He had a rare ability to support other artists. I saw that right up until the end, too,” Hunt says.

In keeping with the tradition that Michael 23 had passed on to him, Hunt is also supportive of other artists. He's been involved in setting up a number of art shows around the Valley, including his nearly annual sticker drops, where other artists are invited to show their work. These include established artists, but also artists who are just getting started. Hunt is humble about this, but when you hear him talk about this aspect of his life, it's clear that it's extremely important to him to help curate Phoenix’s art scene on some level.

“It was almost like a blank check of support. You don’t even know if the person is worth supporting yet, but you’ve got to see if they are going to earn it,” Hunt says.
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Untitled work by NXOEED.

Hunt is nothing if not prolific, even if he doesn’t always enjoy every aspect of his work.

“Painting is not something I really dig. Well, that’s not true. I enjoy it sometimes. I get more out of the paper and the drawing. There is something to that. Maybe the portability of it. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to take a bunch of paints to a coffee shop,” he says. “Painting for me is a kind of palate cleanser. For every 20 or 30 things I draw in pen and ink, I need to do a painting. It sort of clears my head, but I don’t like to paint one thing and go directly to another painting. I don’t like to spend much time in color. There is something about color that I don’t, I don’t know — it sort of puts me off.”

Hunt's work has become quite sought after.

Mark Henderson is a fan and collector from Southern California. A sushi chef by day but artist by night, he grew up in Phoenix and began purchasing Hunt’s work several years ago after seeing it on a trip home.

“His work is so different than anything I had seen. It honestly made me reevaluate the way I look at and make art. I love how his line work shapes his pieces and almost gives them motion. I also love how he uses color. The contrast of a floating head or a three-eyed fish painted with bright, inviting colors is an amazing mix. I hope to collect many more of his pieces,” Henderson says.

Over the last few years, Hunt has also been producing zines. He met Matthew Thompson of the zine Fluke in 2016 at what was then a Kinko’s Copy shop on Central Avenue. Thompson remembers the meeting well.

“I look over and I see this guy ... You know how a jazz drummer is just all over his kit or a sous chef is just dancing with the pots and pans? ... That’s exactly what I thought of when I saw James. He was working with his drawings and his copies. He was like a drummer, just methodically doing his thing. I thought, ‘I gotta know this dude right away,’” Thompson says.

The two decided they would collaborate that day, and indeed they have. Thompson dedicated Fluke #16, which is still available at fluke.bigcartel.com, to Hunt, using his art on every page and including an interview with him as well. Hunt has contributed art to several more issues of Fluke, including the upcoming Fluke #20, which will be out in September.

Also out in late September will be NXOEED #3, as well, which Thompson will publish under Fluke Publishing.

Thompson says that Hunt’s desire to do a zine of his own influenced him to start Fluke Publishing here in Phoenix.

“It was right before the pandemic hit and I met up with him at The Lost Leaf and I asked him what he was working on. He said he was going to do a zine, like 25 copies, and I said, ‘How about you let me publish it and I’ll get it out there all around the country? That’s how Fluke Publishing started, so I owe James for Fluke Publishing’s birth.”

According to Thompson, Hunt’s NXOEED zines are among his best sellers and have been a huge hit. While the two were in San Francisco in June for Hunt’s art show at Fallout SF with Dominic Davi of the band Tsunami Bomb, they even walked past the Bound Together Anarchist Bookstore on Haight Street and saw one of Hunt’s NXOEED zines in the store window.

The future looks bright for Hunt. He’s been featured on multiple shows outside of Phoenix in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles and Boston, and has friends hiding his art around the world. Christina Nunez of The Darts is a good friend of Hunt and, according to Hunt, she has hidden things for him while her band toured in Europe.

NXOEED #3 drops in late September and then on Oct. 21, Hunt is doing one of his “sticker drop” shows at Danelle Plaza in Tempe, where he also has a semi-permanent art installation. Hunt invites local and national artists to share stickers featuring their work and usually has a few surprises up his sleeve for these occasions as well.

Even though he’s done a ton of interesting things, Hunt isn't jaded. He's thoughtful, loves his hometown of Phoenix and is a truly dazzling artist. He also sees things the way they are, even if one of those things is not often himself.

“As an old punk, you kind of figure out how to make it work. Sometimes you’re just barely keeping it together, and sometimes ... well, we’re not barbarians. I guess we’re lucky people.”
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