Nestled inside the towering marbled Citicorp building on East 53rd and Lexington Ave is an art gallery. Inside the galley is a man sitting at his desk, talking on the phone. He is surrounded by photographs and artwork. The man looks up and says into the receiver, “Ah, I believe my interviewer is here.” He winks and adds, “but if she calls me Mr. Jaffe one more time…”
Jeff Jaffe, 54, is the owner and founder of Pop International Galleries. He is also a sculptor, writer, and photographer. Eighteen years ago, he opened the first of two Pop galleries on West Broadway in Soho. Jaffe explains that Pop is a street level gallery that tackles the concept of pop art. And it has evolved into a gallery that facilitates pop culture, representing such artists as Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Ringo Star, among others.
Jaffe maintains that he is just an ordinary guy. He wakes up every morning and goes to work. He’s married with two children that he says he adores. And he has his hobbies; He owns two motorcycles and about 12 guitars. “I’m just a hard-working guy,” he says. “That’s really all I think of myself as.”
Perhaps Jaffe’s day-to-day routine is ordinary. But his journey, and the way he approaches life, is rather extraordinary.
Jaffe is matter of fact. He speaks directly, unapologetically, and with a slight South African accent. His thoughts are distinctly his own, and he says there isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t engage politically and intellectually.
“I wear my politics on my sleeve,” he says. “I was just arguing with people from the South. Idiots. Former South Africans who might as well still be living in apartheid South Africa from what I can make out—I engage in those kinds of conversations. People tell me I shouldn’t, but I do.” He smiles and shrugs.
Jaffe was born in Johannesburg, South Africa during the time of apartheid. “As a child, one wouldn’t have thought,” he says. “But by the ripe old age of 12 or 13 I really knew that apartheid was abhorrent, that it was a scourge against humanity.”
Jaffe’s home in South Africa, like those of most white families, had servant’s quarters in the back of the house. Jaffe remembers that every Passover, he and his family would speak about liberty and freedom for Jewish people while black people served and waited on them.
“It was always a really difficult thing for me to comprehend,” he says. “It still makes me weep to think about it, even to this day.”
Jaffe knew from a young age that he was an artist. “I was always drawing and making cartoons and pictures,” he says. And eventually his repulsion with South African politics would lead him to resistance art in many forms.
After high school, Jaffe joined the South African army, as mandated by law, and started writing for the military paper, Paratus.
“I forget what it means. I’ll look it up,” Jaffe says turning to his computer: “Paratus is Latin for ‘ready.’ Yea, so they were ready. I don’t know what they were ready for—Ready for being racist and crazy, maybe. It’s just amazing to me that I even wore a uniform.”
Jaffe had no hesitation voicing his political opinions, and his superiors began looking for ways to get rid of him.
One day, he and a photographer were sent out to cover an event. “It was some stupid thing, permanent force wives, I don’t even know, some ridiculous thing,” he says. Jaffe and the photographer were driving in an area that was unfamiliar and soon got lost, missing the event. Because they had racked up miles on the car, and because Jaffe never showed up to the event, he was accused of stealing the vehicle.
“And they wanted to court-martial me,” Jaffe explains. “I said ‘fine, go right ahead,’ knowing what my rights were, which would have meant I could get a civilian lawyer. And they didn’t want to deal with all of that.”
So instead, he says, his superiors tried to send him to the operational area in the Caprivi Strip, where a lot of soldiers were being killed. Jaffe says he wiggled his way out of that through a contact and ended up working in the military museum, traveling the country assembling military art installations.
After his service concluded, Jaffe left for Israel. “I had this group of friends and off I went,” he says. “And then I came to realize I had views about Israeli politics as well.”
After a few years, Jaffe came to the United States. He received his MFA and opened up a studio. To pay the bills, Jaffe taught Russian immigrants English—learning Russian as a consequence—and worked for the Great American Salvage Company.
“It was really an amazing place and I learned about New York because we took apart buildings before they got demolished and salvaged all kinds of things like doors, mantles, light fixtures, bathtubs,” Jaffe says. “A lightening rod was really one of my favorite things; an old lightening rod with a glass ball on it. It’s just beautiful.”
Eventually, Jaffe wanted to get back into the art world. So in 1997 he started Pop, which is now a thriving and successful business, which makes art collection accessible.
“Art is a very special thing. It crosses cultural lines, it crosses social barriers,” Jaffe says. “It’s a universal language that brings people together in a way. It just has this incredibly powerful ability.”
Despite Jaffe’s remarkable journey and success, he paints a picture of his past with muted colors.
“It came about,” he says. “It just sort of came about.”