If you’ve spent any time on Abbot Kinney and have some eye for style, then you’ve most likely seen Joe. Malibu Joe’s the unofficial mayor of Abbot Kinney and if you’ve ever had the opportunity to chat with him, it’s easy to understand why. It’s not just his look that sets Joe apart, although it’s clear he’s hands down the best-dressed man in Venice. More importantly, it’s his personality, gratitude and his all around state of grace. Indeed, Joe’s sense of appreciation and happiness are as consistent as his impressive outfits. Chances are, if you see Joe you can expect him to be looking debonair with a big smile on his face.
Born in Dakar, Senegal, Joe grew up poor amongst a society with more foreigners than native-born residents. The mix of different cultures and ethnicities helped shape his appreciation for diversity among people and fashion. His sense of style began to expand as he made frequent trips to Paris to visit family and sell clothes he made back home in Dakar. Joe looks back at this time nonchalantly, “I’m a hustler, that’s it.” Coming to America at age 30, Joe felt the pressure of being an outsider, so he enrolled in English language classes to do what he loved most: connect with the people around him. After taking on various jobs as a barista, cashier and contractor in Malibu, he found a group of French-speaking paparazzi that helped make him feel at home. Soon he became immersed with these new friends and the work they did in Malibu, a mecca for celebrities back in the 90s. Astounded by the overwhelming money Joe started to make, he struggled with being seen as the “bad guy” his new title gave him.
But it’s Joe’s technique that sets him apart from the bad guys. More of a friend than enemy to the celebrity world, he plays the game by giving people the photos they want while respecting those he shoots – treating them like human beings or calling them out if need be. This method has turned most of the celebs Joe photographs into friends who end up coming over to his house to enjoy home cooked African dinners. Not only that, he’s probably one of the few paparazzi that has celebrities invite him to movie premieres. Rihanna and Britney Spears frequently compliment his style. Some of them even tip him off, or give the lead to have their photo taken. Dustin Hoffman has helped play the game, saying, “Joe, let’s go make some money.”
Joe is a definite anomaly in the paparazzi world, with a distaste for confrontation and an awareness for the conflicting priorities of beauty and gossip that keep him employed. His propensity to talk back and remind those in the spotlight that we are all imperfect human beings has had its positive impact. He reminds us that when people care, it makes all the difference. “We must have compassion or the ego takes over.”
Indeed it’s Joe’s respect and compassion that continue to make Joe a friend not only to the people he photographs, but to his community. Just try talking to him for five minutes without seeing him greet someone walk by with his signature “Hey mama” or “What’s up brodda?” Surely it’s Joe’s optimism and love of people that is inspiring to Venice. Even when interviewing him for this article, he can’t help telling me, “You’re killing it,” with that smile we’ve all come to know. If one thing rings true in Joe’s philosophy, it’s that – no matter how much he deals being labeled the enemy – “people are beautiful.” And if there’s one thing I’ve learned working on Abbot Kinney for the past five years, it’s that Venice is a better place because of Joe. He is one of Venice’s own.