Atlanta Artist FRKO Is More Than Rap's Go-To Illustrator — He's A Contiuum Of Black Art [Interview]
“I know that Donald Trump is a reincarnated nigga.”
Atlanta artist FRKO is recounting the punchline to a joke he told at a comedy show recently.
“Trump’s soul once was black, because no one could pull the shit off…and not be black.”
The joke wasn’t well-received — it incited boos from the audience — but the interaction reflects the delightfully bizarre, and at times offensive, charm of FRKO.
Born Richard Montgomery, FRKO’s work has come to define Atlanta’s contemporary art scene. The 29-year-old’s love for drawing has been with him since his childhood, his mother and grandmother nurturing his artistic roots. After graduating high school he attended Howard University on a full ride scholarship and majored in painting and minored in sculpture. Although he ended up dropping out, the school served as a catalyst for discovering and experimenting with the style of art he’s known for now.
FRKO’s art is the product of someone who grew up in Atlanta in the ’90s. Colorful but crude cartoons such as Ren & Stimpy and Rocko’s Modern Life were on TV; Freaknik was at its peak. Hip-hop culture, pop culture, and Atlanta culture are all accounted for in FRKO’s art. Whether it’s drawing cover art for Action Bronson — FRKO first rose to prominence when he did the artwork for Bronson’s 2015 album Mr. Wonderful — Gucci Mane or EarthGang; making fun of Drake and Pusha T‘s feud, or highlighting the best place to get wings in the city, FRKO’s work is the artistic manifestation of his charm drenched in a bottle of his liquor of choice — gin.
Okayplayer spoke with FRKO about his time at Howard, why he misses people using the word “Funk,” how MF DOOM influences his art, and his dark comic book series, Nigga X.
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Okayplayer: How did you get into art? What was the original foundation?
FRKO: I got into art subconsciously. When I was a kid I would just start drawing on stuff — drawing on paper and doing creative things. My mom definitely saw it because her mom’s an artist. My grandmother was an artist and she said, “Yo, this one’s different, this one’s special. Make sure you keep him nourished and doing shit.”
By the time I was five all the way until graduating high school it was like, “Yo, he’s creative. He’s going to do things a little different and he’s gonna think outside the box.” I grew up in a black community that nurtured that shit.
You went to Howard University. Did you already have the art style that you’re known for now while you were there?
Man, when I went to Howard I went in with a blank canvas. I got to Howard on some fluke shit. I got accepted super late. My SAT scores sucked but I had a really good GPA because I came out of a hood school. I ain’t gonna lie — these motherfuckers just gave good grades, you know what I’m saying? I had a three point eight GPA when I graduated. But one thing I did in high school was I worked at my craft at home and I made a portfolio with 16 slides. I sent it to Howard, sent it to Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). SCAD accepted it but Howard turned it down. So I went up to Howard and was like “Yo, here is my fucking portfolio. SCAD accepted me and sent me an $8,000 scholarship, what y’all going to do?”
After that shit bro, they were like, “Okay.” The dean was like, “Yeah, we love your work. We’re comparing you to the great Charles White. You do illustration, you do black and white drawings — a lot of good painting. We’re comparing you to one of our greats here. So let’s bring you in.” When I got there I didn’t know what I was doing. So I came in on a blank canvas of learning.
I think around my sophomore year they realized like, “Oh, he’s a little nutty. He’s a little wild. Where is that energy in your art?” My professors were like “Who are you, bro? We’ve heard people call you FRKO. Who’s FRKO?” I got the name in seventh grade. It’s my nickname. They were calling me by my real name but then it was like “You’re FRKO. That’s what I’m going to call you.”
So I think it was the halfway point of my college career that I broke out. I broke out doing my own thing, painting this shit and doing my stuff and really getting into my art. Howard gave me a foundation to be who I am now, and I like to give them credit because they employed all these great teachers. They also gave me a platform for being cool with all these people I know now in D.C., Baltimore, and New York, and being able to bounce around all those cities up there. So I’ll give Howard credit — not as an institution but as a place where I lived and met all these people.
Last time I spoke with you, you said Atlanta is missing a lot of funk. That word means a lot to you and it reflects in your art. There’s a charm, humor, and strangeness to it.
Funk is an Atlanta word. Funk is Atlanta. I always say funk. I’m getting older because I said that shit to some younger kids and they were like “What the fuck are you talking about funk?” Funk reminds me of my childhood and the wild colors I saw growing up. Pink, purple, lime green — all types of blues and reds all over the place. I just saw all these wild colors on murals and old school cars.
Back in the day, thugs played the new music — George Clinton, Al Green, Bobby Womack, Johnny “Guitar” Watson — and hit the streets in their cars. Come up here, turn the corner, turn the other corner — oh, we back on my grandma’s street. I rode in the back seats, bass bumping. I survived the back seats. That’s the funk I’m talking about. Those colors and sounds had an effect on me.
Aside from Atlanta, what else do you try and articulate through your art?
I’m going to get deep, but I try to articulate esoteric knowledge. Artists aren’t supposed to believe that there is the moon, the stars, the planets, and God and Jesus. Artists go further than that. When you understand that this shit was made out of nothing but your mental then you can create anything. I do my art for that reason — for people who feel like that and who get it. And if you don’t get it, that’s fine — you’ll get it one day.
I make my work for the simple fact of art. For art and for the continuum of black art in America.
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How did Nigga X come about?
Last year, I did a course on your spiritual mind. Everyone has evil thoughts. And you gotta know how to go into them instead of being scared. You know sometimes you close your eyes you might think some fucked up shit. You might think of somebody that you like dying or you might think of doing some fucked up shit to someone you don’t like. You dive into that shit in a way where you can handle it. So, me putting out Nigga X was a dark series for my dark mind.
People who got them said it’s some fucked up shit — it gets worse and worse each time. He’s killing motherfuckers — he be killing everybody. But he’s an anti-hero for the black race. [In the series] an FDA agent tries to kill Nigga X because he gave his wife toothpaste made out of semen. Like that’s just funny. But then I made it so dark that people can’t handle it. And the word “Nigga” is such a taboo word for white folks to use, and I love the fact that they want to use it and the fact that some white people don’t even know the origin of nigga. They don’t know that it is an ancient word, and it was not created by white folks.
The word nigga is not a bad connotation. We give it power — giving that shit power is bad. Real talk, it’s a beautiful word to me and I don’t mind white folks using it if they know its origin. So I tell them, “You really know where that shit come from?” I’m not one of those dudes that’s trying to put people on that don’t need to know. I’ll say “Yeah, you don’t wanna know” and I’ll walk away. But if they chase me and grab my hand, they really wanna know.
Some people are just like, “Oh fuck it. I’ll just keep saying the shit underneath my breath.” It’s a weird little taboo situation but it’s fun. It’s fun and it brings humans together. I don’t mind if they say it because I know where it comes from. But if you’re going to say it you need to know. You need to know the fact that black people are first on the planet and white people came from black folks. That’s a fact.
And the thing is, you tell them and they can’t take that shit. They’re like “That’s racist!” How is that racist? If you can’t accept the fact that motherfuckers come from black people you might be racist. So, the whole Nigga-X series turns into a conversation. I like it like that. And it’s silly. It’s silly as fuck.
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How does MF DOOM influence your art?
I discovered DOOM in high school and it was for the “other” niggas in my high school but we were real hip-hop heads. He’s a huge inspiration to my work. His lyrics paint such a vivid image and it’s overdue for me to do some more DOOM illustrations.
Even as your profile grows in Atlanta you’re still so community oriented. You visit students at schools and help out kids at the Center of Hope. Have you always been a community-centered person?
I think I’ve always been that. I’ve always been around the community. Coming from the neighborhood I’m from and going to worse neighborhoods, I have a sense of empathy and I know that they’re like, “Okay, who the fuck is this dude coming in?” I’ll tell you who the fuck I am. I don’t give a fuck about any of y’all. I give a fuck about myself. I tell them that. Then they’ll be like, “Shit, me too. I don’t give a fuck about you either.” So we got something in common. And then that starts the conversation.
I get a joy out of seeing that. There’s a couple of kids I mentored a couple years ago and they’re out of high school now and they’re still in Atlanta but they’re still alive. One day we were playing basketball and they were like, “Man, I ain’t even go to college.” I’m like, “You’re alive. You ain’t in the street, you’re playing basketball here. What’s the problem? You got time, bro. You’re working at it. Keep your mind tight, keep your body tight. Ain’t nobody mad at you.”
It’s a tough time to be a kid in Atlanta. You’re watching your mom struggle. You’re watching the rent prices go up. You’re watching your dad get locked up. You’re watching your dad not be around. You’re watching all types of wild shit happening but you’re still here.