Scrolling Instagram, strolling Disney theme parks, or serving on the floor of Congress—any of these activities are liable to have been your first introduction to the work of Nikkolas Smith. The Houston-born, Los Angeles-based illustrator uses visual art to challenge perspectives on social issues, from immigration to police violence to self love, and as his images continue to reach larger audiences, Smith has begun to help other creatives find their voices, too.
Early Life and Career
The youngest of six children, Smith grew up in Houston, Texas, and cultivated his passion for art from an early age. “I think I was born an artist, as pretty much everyone is—always drawing, painting, creating,” he told Creative Action Network in 2015. “I just never really stopped.” After high school, Smith applied that visual sensibility at Hampton University in Virginia, where he worked toward his Masters degree in architecture and drew cartoons for university paper The Script along the way. “To see the students open up the newspaper and see my art and laugh or think about something in a new way, that changed everything,” says Smith, who used the role to dabble in satire and political commentary for the first time. “I think that’s really where it all started for me.”
Imagineering at Disney
Smith’s time at Hampton would also lead him toward his first big career milestone when he entered the Disney Imagineering ImagiNation Contest as a student. “That’s how I started realizing that there’s more than just residential architecture,” he told Fame Freak Studios in 2019. Smith would go on to work as an “imagineer” at Disney for 11 years, designing the very theme parks and experiences at Disneyland that could inspire the next generation of free thinkers—and he credits the program for opening his mind to previously unimaginable career paths. View this post on Instagram
Freelance Illustrating and the Sunday Sketch
As Smith worked designing theme parks by day, he also spent his down time pushing himself creatively by sharing weekly illustrations he dubbed “Sunday Sketches.” Many of his most popular works reimagined well-known cultural figures in different circumstances—the Obama family as ‘The Incredibles,’ for example—and allowed him to work through headlines and issues in new and unexpected ways.
As Smith’s weekly drawings became routine, the work resonated with larger and larger audiences, often going viral as politicians, celebrities, and activists shared his illustrations. His art even graced movie posters: After screening Dear White People at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Smith sent a sketch inspired by the film to director Justin Simien in 2014. “I sent it to him through Facebook inbox. I was like, ‘Maybe you guys could use this,” Smith told NPR. The drawing appealed to Simien so much that he used it as the poster for the movie’s theatrical release later that year.
Art and Activism
In 2019, Smith left his role at Disney to focus full time on illustration. Now, he focuses mostly on “artivism,” blending activism with the persuasive power of visual art to provoke conversation. “Art is one of the most effective forms of protest,” he says. “You can not only stop people, but also inform them about something that is very important; not only preach to the choir, but speak to those people on the other side of the opinion and put them in the shoes of someone else.”
Martin Luther King Tribute
One of the first times Smith saw the viral power of his work was in 2013, when he worked through his feelings around the murder of Trayvon Martin by depicting Martin Luther King, Jr. in a grey hoodie. “It kind of turned into this social experiment,” Smith told Skillshare earlier this year, “where you look at this image of MLK in the hoodie, and the question is: Do you see him as more threatening now? Do you see him as a thug now?” Shared countless times and seen by millions, the image and the outpouring it inspired helped Smith himself see just how much a single image can challenge perception and drive a conversation. “It was one of my most shared art pieces ever,” he said. “I was just glad that it really helped be that talking point. It helped be that conversation starter about what it means to judge a book by its cover.”
When news broke earlier this year that Black Panther star Chad Boseman had died after a battle with colon cancer, fans around the world mourned the loss of far more than an actor. “To millions of kids, T’Challa was a legend larger than life,” said Smith on Instagram, referencing Boseman’s character in the smash-hit Marvel film. “There was no one more worthy to fill those shoes than Chadwick Boseman.” Smith’s tribute to Boseman, a mural at Downtown Disney in Anaheim dubbed King Chad, depicts the actor kneeling in a “Wakanda salute” beside a child in a Black Panther mask and a hospital gown—a nod to Boseman’s volunteer work with terminally ill patients at children’s hospitals. The mural stands to remind a generation of fans of the different ways they can be superheroes in real life, and Smith is using it to honor Boseman’s legacy in other ways, too. Prints of the image are available for purchase on Smith’s website, with a portion of the proceeds going to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and St. Jude.
Earlier this year, Smith gave Joe Biden and Kamala Harris the portrait treatment, depicting the two candidates mostly in black-and-white with bright blue campaign buttons. “This art was created to remind us to VOTE,” Smith said on Instagram, “and to vote for the America that represents all of us.” The images were so popular that the Biden campaign transformed them into buttons, offering them to supporters in exchange for a small donation. It wasn’t the only time Smith found inspiration on the presidential ticket this year, either. A more recent cartoon, which shows the running mates bumping fists on the steps of a Washington, D.C. building, riffs on comparisons between Biden and Mr. Rogers—complete with a red sweater vest on the former VP. Smith called the work Joe and Kamala’s Neighborhood.
Classes with Nikkolas
Smith’s commitment to artivism goes beyond sharing his own perspective. From teaching children to sharing a primer on establishing creative rituals, Smith encourages creatives of all stripes to use their talents for positive change. His Skillshare course, Artivism: Create Inspiring Art for Change, takes students on their own journey with illustration, from finding inspiration to communicating their perspective effectively. “For me, a great way to get inspired is to get informed,” he says. “The more facts you have, the more inspiration you’re going to have to create clever visuals that really help people to see exactly what that problem is.” Learn how to employ shapes and colors to evoke a certain emotion, then experiment with dimensions and layers to add additional depth or commentary. “The end result,” he says, “is making a piece that people really relate to, and really strikes a chord with people.”
In the News
“My art didn’t just help me: it started to circulate in ways that blew me away,” Smith told TIME in August. His Martin Luther King tribute has been featured on CNN. Michelle Obama shared his renderings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd on Instagram. And when Texas congressman Mark Veasey argued for police reform on the House floor, Smith’s portrait of Atatiana Jefferson’s final moments was on full display. “Soon,” Smith continued, “I saw them on protest signs in New Zealand and other places all over the world.”
With the exposure came opportunity. Smith’s series on Olympic gold medalists caught the eye of Barnes & Noble, leading to his first children’s book, Golden Girls of Rio, and subsequent releases like My Hair Is Poofy and That’s Okay, a picture book promoting self love. “It’s been so unbelievable. I’ve had book deal opportunities and created movie posters and I got a letter from the president for some of my art,” Smith told LA Times. “Now, it’s not just the art and illustration, it’s also going to schools, teaching artivism, teaching how to create superhero movie posters, and speaking at conferences.” From Rihanna’s Twitter feed to traditional coverage in the New York Times, Smith’s art resonates with more people every day—and it’s allowed him to help others make a difference, too.
On Social Media
Fans can follow Smith on Instagram to keep up with his latest images—or to tag him and share the way his work has inspired their own artivism. For more, visit Smith’s website to purchase his work—books, t-shirts, greeting cards, and prints are all on offer—and keep up with the latest workshops and speaking engagements.
Explore Nikkolas Smith’s class on Artivism
Learn how he makes art for change, and use his class as a springboard for your own creative ritual.