In the third step of our Creativity with Purpose Toolkit, we discuss what it means to put our creativity to action. Yasmine Cheyenne discusses the historical relevance and impactful storytelling of Nikkolas Smith’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. illustration. Then, we sit down with Nikkolas to explore his work and journey as an artist. At any time, head back to find all of our creative resources and get started with Nikkolas’ Artivism Toolkit.
Everyone can picture the photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC – fervently pointing out to the crowds of people surrounding the reflecting pool, sharing his ideas, beliefs, desires, and intentions around equality and freedom. Preparing a nation and sewing seeds of hope into the young, old, and many generations to come. Dr. King was and remains a radical, loving symbol of hope. But at the time, he was not revered by those who fought against his ideas of equality for all.
Like Trayvon Martin, his humanity and truth were distorted. It’s through engaging with photographs of public and private moments, videos of interviews and speeches, and his writing that, years later, we were able to reconcile his truth and shine light on the incomparable human and activist that he was. For Trayvon, who was only 17 years old when he was murdered, we needed to undergo the same process: a posthumous vindication of his humanity as a loving young boy.
Fast forward to 49 years after Dr. King’s assassination. The first African-American President of the United States, Barack Obama, solemnly and personally addresses the nation when Trayvon Martin’s murder became national news, sharing “You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.” (1) A sentiment and burdensome reality that most Black Americans can relate to and somberly reflect on each time we learn of a new story, a new injustice.
This powerful artwork from Nikkolas Smith showing Dr. King in a hoodie evoking Trayvon Martin, shows the realistic connection between them, reminding many of us that although 49 years passed between the time Dr. King was assassinated and Trayvon was killed, there is still immense work to do. Although the image of Dr. King now stands, forever, on our National Mall, the words and beliefs Dr. King spoke of and the freedoms he put his life on the line for remain unmet through the injustice of so many like Trayvon, Breonna, Ahmaud, Sandra, and unfortunately so many more.
The images of both Dr. King and Trayvon spark emotion of the legacy of racism that still exists. Through creative activism we can share their stories, carrying the torch that will hopefully light the way to lasting change.
Read more from Nikkolas Smith on his journey in artivism, and how this impactful piece came to be.
How do you define artivism?
I define artivism as using art as a tool to inspire people to make a positive change in the world. [It’s like] Nina Simone’s quote that it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times, always pulling from what’s happening in the world and holding up a mirror to ourselves to say: this is what’s going on. It’s about trying to visually capture people’s attention to motivate them to fix what’s wrong.
Was there a moment that you remember considering yourself an activist?
That would probably be the moment seven years ago when I created the Martin Luther King Jr. in the hoodie sketch. At that point, it was just a Photoshop collage that I made. Being on CNN and on live TV, trying to explain the purpose of the message regarding Dr. King’s dream of not wanting anybody to be judged for their outward appearance, being able to have the art right there, and also to be influencing people and hopefully inspiring people — I think that was probably the moment that I would consider myself an activist or an artivist.
Are there certain figures you follow or publications you go to to prepare for your Sunday sketch series?
I follow a lot of different activists and folks on Twitter like policy analyst and activist Sam Sinyangwe; he has so many amazing facts and figures that are related to all these injustices. The more information that you have about these things, the more you can incorporate them into your art pieces. Artist and activist Paola Mendoza – she’s amazing. She’s documented a lot of what was happening at the border with asylum seekers, and inspired me to create my piece called Rosa. There’s folks like writer and poet Clint Smith, everybody that’s really just out there dedicating their life to organizing movements that are going in the direction of justice.
Let’s walk through the MLK piece. Can you take us through it step by step?
I’ll start with the Photoshop version of it, which was just a very simple collage. First, I found a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. that I felt like could give it a serious tone, and might create the effect that I wanted. It kind of turned into this social experiment 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? The expression on his face in the photo that I chose felt like it was perfect.
Then I found a hoodie that resembled Trayvon’s and mashed the two images together. I wanted it to feel like an older photo from the 1960s, so I weathered it a bit, added some texture on top of it so it gave you the feel that you’re actually standing in front of MLK in real life, and he has a hoodie on. That was pretty much it; it was one of the most simple pieces that I’ve ever created.
A few years later, I decided to create my Sunday Sketch painted version of it. So for that, I got into my semi-abstract painter mindset. These are the digital paintings that I create most often, but I wanted it to feel like I was standing in front of the canvas just throwing paint at it.
It’s pretty bright and expressive, and there’s a lot of different colors: pinks and blues and yellows and greens. It’s just very aggressive and passionate and loud. I used my typical process of speed painting that I do in my class. I’m sure I took a little extra time on this one, but it was just recreating that image of MLK in the hoodie, and adding all these different brush strokes to give it that feel of motion.
What was the response like to the piece?
It was one of my most shared art pieces ever. I was just glad that it really helped be that talking point. It was one of those things where you had to stop and take a second look when you saw it. It helped be that conversation starter about what it means to judge a book by its cover.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone looking to create art for change?
Get familiar with the stories of people out there who are suffering. I think if you really start to look at all of these stories of injustice that are happening, especially in America, you can’t help but want to create some sort of statement in response to that. There’s people at the border seeking asylum like Rosa. When I saw the video of them, that’s what inspired me to create like a painting of her and her kids. There’s people like Elijah McClain who are just wanting to walk home in peace, and they ended up dying for no good reason.
There are so many different stories if you just start to research. That is inspiration right there to really make some sort of change. When you hear about what happened with Elijah, you’re going to want to get people to figure out why these systems are still in place to allow law enforcement and other officials to keep these things happening, because they happen pretty much every year, you know?
Then, go check out websites like change.org and blacklivesmatter.com, which place these stories at the forefront and are all about trying to seek justice. Those are great places to get inspired to create some sort of visual response.
What are specific actions you hope people will take after reflecting on your pieces?
I think one thing that I like to do with activism is to create a call to action. I want people, after they see my work, to be inspired and motivated to make some sort of concrete step for real change, like calling your mayor or contacting your district attorney, putting your name on a petition so that these officials presiding over very racist institutions and structures for so long will either be kicked out or some sort of sweeping reform will be made.
There are so many pockets and groups and structures that are in place that allow for racism and xenophobia and all these things to remain. I want all these institutions to be held accountable. I like to create pieces that wake people up and say like, “why is this even still like this? Why isn’t anybody being held accountable? And what can I do to hold people accountable right now?”
How is creativity a unique tool in creating conversations around change?
A thing I love about visual art is that it captivates hearts and minds in one single image. People are scrolling so fast and doing so many things and going 100 miles an hour, but there’s something about a striking image that will get people to stop. People will rally around an image, and, especially during times of protest and unrest, it can be something that people gravitate to. I just love that.
When we see something that is creatively crafted, especially something that speaks to injustice, it seems like it has even more potency and motivates people to make a change or right a wrong.
That’s the thing that takes artivism beyond just art for fun and entertainment. I encourage artists out there who have dedicated their lives to figuring out how to visually draw people in, to take the next step and use that ability and combine it with a very important issue or something that needs to be fixed. When you do that, you’ll have the opportunity to really connect with people on a deeper level.
There’s some things I just can’t put into words. You have to experience them or see them. There’s just something with art that in a split second, it can get you to see an issue and understand why it’s so important, and motivate you to change. All in one second.
Ready to Create for Change?
Learn how Nikkolas Smith uses speed painting to power his artivism.
1. Retrieved from, Remarks by the President on Trayvon Martin, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2013/07/19/remarks-president-trayvon-martin, National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), September 24, 2020
Yasmine Cheyenne is a writer, speaker, and self-healing advocate, born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. She helps people create and strengthen their individual self-care practices by teaching them the tools that empower lasting positive changes in their lives. An Air Force Veteran, Yasmine now focuses on her self-healing workshops as well as her writing. She is a published author and often shares on her Instagram. Yasmine currently resides in the Washington, DC area with her husband, two daughters, and two dogs.
Nikkolas Smith, a native of Houston, Texas, is a Master of Architecture recipient from Hampton University. After designing theme parks at Walt Disney Imagineering for 11 years, he is now a Concept artist, Children’s Books Author and Film Illustrator.
He also creates activist art paintings and Hollywood movie posters (Black Panther, Beale Street, Southside With You, Dear White People, Stranger Fruit). He is a proud 2016 White House Innovators of Color fellow. As an illustrator of color and an Artivist, Nikkolas is focused on creating captivating art that can spark important conversations in today’s world and inspire meaningful change. Many of his viral and globally published sketches are included in his latest book Sunday Sketch: The Art of Nikkolas, a visual journey on life and a collection of more than 100 sketches he has done in the last five years.
He lives in Los Angeles, California.