Nikkolas Smith: An American Patriot
By Chanté Griffin
When Black Lives Matter activists asked artist Nikkolas Smith to paint a portrait of George Floyd that would go on a billboard in New York’s Times Square, Smith outfitted Floyd in a black tuxedo and bowtie. The goal, said Smith, was to give Floyd the honor and dignity that he was denied when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25, killing him.
The portrait was hauntingly reminiscent of a college graduation photo, meant to be shared with family and loved ones and to signify accomplishment and the hope of a bright future. Nikkolas painted the piece to grieve personally and commemorate the collective grief that spanned the globe, he said. Since then, Smith has been contacted to paint many more tribute portraits including that of Breonna Taylor, the EMT worker who was killed by Louisville, Ky., police officers in her apartment while she slept, and Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black man who was chased and gunned down by three White men outside New Brunswick, GA.
Smith was first introduced to art by the paintings that lined the walls of his family home in Houston, Texas.
“My mom had the blackest Norman Rockwell paintings, the ones that had the most racial tension,” Smith recounts, including The Problem We All Live With, where a young Ruby Bridges integrates a New Orleans elementary school.
But coming out of high school, Smith didn’t really know what he wanted to do. He liked math and liked to draw, so he decided to attend Hampton University which had an architecture program. It was at Hampton that Smith learned critical design skills, but, just as importantly, the power and expansiveness of Black art. He says his five years at Hampton fueled a cultural consciousness and commitment to community that informs his socially conscious art today.
After graduating from Hampton, Smith spent 11 years designing theme parks.
“I’d go home and sketch and create,” Smith recalls.
Inspired by the hoodie movement that was sweeping social media, he and a friend asked, “What if great leaders throughout history were wearing hoodies?” Smith decided to reimagine the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a hoodie — first in a photo, and then in a painting. The piece went viral, and Smith found himself on CNN alongside King’s youngest daughter, Bernice King, discussing the controversy around her father’s image. Critics accused Smith of making the Rev. King look like a thug, but he said his goal was to depict Rev. King’s dream of not wanting children to be judged by the color of their skin.
“That was the week Black Lives Matter emerged,” Smith remembers.
Today Smith is a concept artist, children’s book author and film illustrator who has created iconic images including film posters for Black Panther, If Beale Street Could Talk, Southside With You, and Dear White People.
He also started Sunday Sketches, in which he creates artistic pieces that speak to what is happening in the country. One Sunday Sketch of Colin Kaepernick kneeling evolved into a billboard spread in Los Angeles that Converse donated space for. Underneath the sketch, in big, bold letters, Smith wrote PATRIOT.
Smith has honored the weekly practice for years, and recently published Sunday Sketch - The Art Of Nikkolas to capture some of his favorites.
“My mission is to inspire Americans to fight for that patriotic idea of justice for all, to address this 400-year issue, this pandemic of racism,” Smith says.