Artivist Nikkolas Smith Seeks 'Positive Change' with Powerful Portraits of Black Lives Lost
PEOPLE’s Voices from the Fight Against Racism will amplify Black perspectives on the push for equality and justice
Nikkolas Smith is as an artist based in Glendale, California. In 2013, his piece featuring Martin Luther King, Jr. in a hoodie went viral, and he’s since developed his own method of artivism that inspires awareness among his audience. A former Disney Imagineer, Smith’s Sunday Sketch series tackles current events, and in May, his portraits of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were shared by Michelle Obama. Here, Smith, 35, talks to PEOPLE about the inspiration behind his moving work, and how he hopes it will inspire a new generation.
I describe artivisim as using my art as a way to grab people’s attention and inspire them to make a positive change. I feel like it’s a little bit of a step beyond just art purely for entertainment. It has a goal of looking at what’s going on in the world that’s broken, or what isn’t working right, what can be fixed, and highlighting that broken thing, then trying to get people to wake up and say, "Oh, maybe I can do something about it."
For me, it started about seven years ago when I created a piece featuring Martin Luther King Jr. in a hoodie. That was the time when Trayvon Martin had been murdered, and his killer was found not guilty. The piece was basically going off of Dr. King’s quote of not wanting anyone to be judged for their outward appearance, because some guy saw Trayvon in a hoodie and thought he was a threat, a thug. It was almost like a social experiment to see, "What reaction do you get when you see this image?" — and it soon went viral.
The piece was also to say that Trayvon Martin could’ve been the next Martin Luther King, Jr. We don’t know, and there’s so many of these Black lives that are being taken unjustly, and we don’t know what type of a leader, what type of person they could have been. It's not that they could have been the next MLK for their life to have mattered. He didn't have to be any of that. But it was just also to say that it was that social experiment of, "Why is a hoodie on a black person threatening?"
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I went on CNN to talk about what it meant, and that was when I was like, ‘Okay, the artivism that I can create can actually make people think differently.’ That’s really where I feel like the journey began for me. I was going through a divorce and it was the worst time for me, so I decided to use my passion for art as a therapeutic tool.
I started creating weekly sketches, which I call my Sunday Sketch series. I was like, ‘Every Sunday, I’m going to create one new art piece and post it. I don’t care if it looks terrible or what people think, just post it.’ That was seven years ago, so now I have hundreds of Sunday Sketches.
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I grew up in the suburbs of Houston, and went to a predominantly white school. Sometimes I was the only Black kid in the class, but I also grew up in a Black church. There was always that mix of these two different ideals, or cultures, clashing. Because of that, I decided that it would be best to go to a Black college, and went to Hampton University in Virginia.
That was a totally different experience completely opposite from high school and middle school. I became the political cartoonist at the school newspaper in 2004, and that was when I really started to look into the world and see what is happening, and how I can reflect that. Later on, with the Sunday Sketch series, it became like that Nina Simone quote: “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” That’s really where it started, at Hampton.
From growing up in Texas and going to college in Virginia, to working at Disney after college, it all helped to develop my philosophy of meeting as many people that are not like you as you possibly can. It’s something that I really try to put into my art, to show people perspectives from other cultures.
I’m seeing a lot of positive changes right now. It’s really encouraging to see how many activists are out there, how many protesters are out there. If there’s a system in place that is constantly bringing more pain and tragedy, people are tired, and they’re ready to tear that system down.
I think we’re going in the right direction, but it’s never really fast enough or soon enough. Still, that just inspires me to create more art, shout out, try to get people to wake up and make change happen faster by getting them to take the time to put themselves in other people's shoes.
One of the great things about artivism is it’s even more effective when there’s a call to action added to it. It allows people to become aware of what’s going on, and then you can direct them to create actionable steps where you can do this, and you can add your name to this petition.
I always try to encourage young creative folks by saying that you have the opportunity to create the world that you want to see. You have the opportunity to paint the thing that is broken, and show what the world would look like if it’s not broken. The goal is to not have anything to paint.
- As told to Elaine Aradillas
To help combat systemic racism, consider learning from or donating to these organizations:
• Campaign Zero (joincampaignzero.org) which works to end police brutality in America through research-proven strategies.
• ColorofChange.org works to make the government more responsive to racial disparities.
• National Cares Mentoring Movement (caresmentoring.org) provides social and academic support to help Black youth succeed in college and beyond.