Photo Credit: Seek One Graphic Okayplayer
Philly Artist Seek One Is Merging the Streets with Pop Culture
We spoke with artist Seek One about channeling his love for hip-hop through art, being commissioned and inspired by rap's biggest stars, his creative process in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and more.
Philadelphia-born artist Seek One has made a name for himself by coupling his brand of street art with a love for cultural icons, past and present.
The 27-year-old, who dabbled in art throughout his high school and college years before gaining notoriety via his Instagram account, caught his big break after Migos member Quavo commissioned one of his paintings, opening the door for him to quit his day job and focus on creating full-time. Since then, Seek One's popularity has only increased, with everyone from the Kardashians to NBA superstar like Kevin Durant seeking out his services. In addition to building demand for his work through social media, he has also gained traction through successful exhibits at various galleries nationwide, Art Basel and The White Room Gallery in The Hampton's among them.
While names like reality TV personality Jonathan “Foodgod” Chabon, jeweler Richie Rich, and actress Kaley Cuoco have taken his brand mainstream, he's remained unapologetically hip-hop, evidenced by the incessant nods to graffiti in his art. "I do like the new rap, but I do like to go back to some of my favorites," Seek One says of his musical tastes, via telephone. "J. Cole is one of my favorite rappers, Kendrick Lamar. I like DaBaby, I think he's killing it. Curren$y, Wiz Khalifa, they're always favorites. Kind of mellow vibes. Meek [Mill], I could name everyone, I love hip-hop. Drake fucking killed it. Future."
Having worked with the Philadelphia 76ers organization on multiple campaigns this past year, and a top-secret project with one of rap's biggest stars in the works, the future looks bright for Seek One, who recently scored a new partnership with MAC Fine Art Galleries, and is looking to expand to Aspen before year's end.
We spoke with Seek One about channeling his love for hip-hop through art, being commissioned and inspired by rap's biggest stars, his creative process in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and much more.
When did your love affair with art begin?
At a young age. I grew up skateboarding and doing graffiti so, to me, graffiti is a form of art, which you can see in my work up to today. I always did graffiti, I was into photography and I started to blend them together on canvas using images and stencils and the blending graffiti into the background which developed into this unique style which I'm recognized for today.
You're originally from Philadelphia, which is a city that has a rich history and a strong grassroots community, in terms of the arts. How did Philly help mold your style as a creative?
I mean, I spent a lot of time skateboarding and stuff in the city. I was always around graffiti. Philadelphia, it's one of the largest cities with the biggest amount of murals in the country, so seeing these large-scale murals on the side of buildings was very inspiring. And then just being in the streets and involved in the culture of the city had a big influence on my art, I would say.
Did you have any influences in the local art community that you drew inspiration from?
No, not necessarily. It was more of a broad spectrum for me. I was inspired by people like Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, all the way up to guys who are still working today, like Shepard Fairey, who started Obey, and Alec Monopoly. My inspiration comes from a lot of different places. It can even come from musicians or other types of artists, not necessarily visual artists.
Philadelphia has also produced some of the greatest rap acts of all-time. Who were some of your early musical influences?
I grew up listening to Freeway; I loved Freeway when I was in high school — Beanie Sigel, JAY-Z, who's not really from Philly, but they were all together. And then, as I got older, Meek Mill came out. I loved all the Flamers mixtapes, all that stuff. I've always been into the hip-hop scene in Philly. And then, all the way back to Questlove and The Roots, I love all of that stuff.
When would you say was the moment that hip-hop and art first intersected for you, personally?
I think it's always been together for me, kind of seeing them in the same light. And I think as I progressed as an artist, I started bringing portraits of musical artists who've inspired me into my work. Like I recently just did this large JAY-Z portrait because I just think he's one of the great rappers. Like, I've done Biggie Smalls portraits and stuff like that, almost as a testament to music that inspired me as I grew up.
How would you describe your creative process and the steps you took toward honing your craft?
I went through a lot of different processes. I never went to art school. I took the traditional route. I went to business school and I was at graduate school for engineering when I dropped out because I was doing art full-time and I was studying a lot of exposure. And hand-in-hand with that comes with experimenting a lot because I never went and had formal training in art school. So I started out working on canvases, doing just graffiti and spray-paint stencils, and then I started hand-painting portraits of people. And then I started experimenting with silk-screens on wood panels. And now, today, the process is heavy in mixed-media, where there's a lot of old newspapers and magazines incorporated into the background with graffiti, wheat pastes, and it's all done on wood panel. So, over the years, it's kind of gone through many processes and kinda perfected the style that I wanted to have. I think I'm at that point right now, finally
You initially held a day job and created your art at night, which is a grind many artists can relate to. How did you maintain that balance and what experience or opportunity spurred you to quit that job and go all-in on being a creative?
I was working a 9-5 desk job. I was working in real estate and I would come home every night and I would paint 'til like fucking 2 or 3 AM, wake up, go back to my job. I was always thinking about painting, even when I was at work. I couldn't wait to get home and work on these paintings and stuff. And eventually, it got to the point where I made an Instagram [account]; I was doing it for fun, it was a hobby, for me, like, I just liked art. I started getting a lot of recognition through Instagram and one day, Quavo reached out to me. Sent me a DM, 'cause I made a portrait of the Migos and he was like, "Yo, this is dope, would you wanna, like, send this to me." I was like, "Yeah, no doubt." Sent it to his house in Atlanta, they have the portrait hanging in their house and this is one of the first paintings I ever made. So it was kind of crazy to me that someone of his status, the Migos and Quavo, actually liked my work and I was just starting out. And I was like, "Oh shit, I could really run with this if a tastemaker like him was already picking up my style." So we started growing. People were paying me to make custom paintings and buying my original paintings and it got to the point where I was comfortable with how much I was making from art. And I had a plan of how to grow my business [by] pitching to galleries and getting my work in different markets where I quit my job and that was probably almost four years ago and I just been doing it ever since.
You also have a close relationship with the Philadelphia 76ers, and were commissioned for a painting of Sixers shooting guard Josh Richardson at the organization's Crossover event this past November. You've also been commissioned by Sixers point guard Ben Simmons, as well as NBA superstar Kevin Durant. How did those opportunities and relationships come about?
A friend of mine is a photographer for the Sixers, so he has a close relationship with a lot of the players, specifically Ben, and I reached out to him. We came up with an idea of making something for Ben, and Ben was down. So, I used one of his photos from a shoot that they had and we came up with the concept and put it together and Ben loved it. It's hanging in his house, it's in his gaming room. He's a big gamer, so this portrait of himself is hanging in his house, which is dope. And then the Sixers, down the road, came up with the idea of an art show and I was one of the first people that they called in the city. They were asking how galleries work and how an art show would happen so I kind of helped them with putting it together a little bit and then, also, they came to my studio. We filmed a documentary of me making the Josh Richardson piece, and then, I also made a custom basketball hoop with the legends of the Sixers , like [Allen] Iverson and all of the older guys. And they were playing the documentary at the event, and the players were there. I got a picture of Josh Richardson in front of the piece, he loved it. It was just a great experience to work with an organization like that, especially from the city where I was raised and grew up in.
Photo Credit: Seek One
You've gained a reputation for selling out exhibitions, and made a big splash at Art Basel this past year. How do you draw from hip-hop and urban culture, in terms of the showmanship that comes with displaying your own work?
Yeah, when it's at, like, a gallery and you're showing with other artists, like at Art Basel, it's kind of very traditional. But when I have solar shows and it's just my work and I have the stage to myself and I can kind've just curate it, I'll be able to start the music and I play what I listen to in the studio. And then you can also see a lot of the urban culture referenced in my work, with the graffiti and the portraits of people who inspire me, different artists and things like that. So I love when I get to curate the show 'cause I can kind of put my own flair on it and give it that kind've urban, street vibe, which I like.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted all facets of society, including the art world, which had to shutter countless galleries and exhibitions as a result. How have you been coping and adjusting to the current social climate?
When this Coronavirus first happened and the pandemic and the quarantine, I was locked up in my studio. I was working a lot and I was thinking. I seen all of these people, especially in my city, suffering and not having jobs, not having work. And one thing that I thought of — not only thinking of myself or my own business — was, "How can I give back through my art?" And I made a painting of a rose with, like, graffiti around it and it was called A Rose for Relief and I released a print of that on my website. And 100% of the proceeds from that print went to the Philadelphia COVID-19 Fund, which helps to support small businesses, elderly people, less fortunate people. Helps them pay their rent, all sorts of things, and I was able to raise thousands of dollars, which I donated all of, to this fund just from selling a print of one of my paintings. So that was the way I gave back, but as far as sales and things for me, it hasn't really affected me. I've been selling a lot of art, which is good, 'cause a lot of people have been struggling.
What would be your advice to an aspiring artist looking to showcase their art to the world and build a reputation as a force at their craft?
I would say focus on developing your own style. Like, a lot of artists these days, on Instagram you'll see it, a lot of people have similar styles. They'll copy other artists and it might be cool for a second, but it's not something that's gonna last forever, if you create your own style, no one can take that away from you. And once you define that style, start promoting it and push it out to galleries. Try to get into shows, try hosting your own show if you can find a space for it and really just try to push it out and get it in restaurants, bars, stuff like that. See if they'll hang your art on the wall. Coffee shops. It's 50% art, 50% business, you have to think about it like a business if you want to do it full-time. That's how I look at it.
What can we look forward to next from Seek One?
The one thing I'm working on right now is I'm having a big show in The Hamptons with one of the artists who I really look up to, his name's Russel Young. I'm having a show with him at my gallery in The Hamptons, The White Ring Gallery. It's gonna be this August. So, I'm grateful that the gallery's able to be open and we're able to have a show and it's gonna be a big deal. It's gonna be one of the biggest shows I've ever had, so I'm really focusing on that.
Preezy Brown is a New York City-based reporter and writer, filling the empty spaces within street and urban culture. A product of the School of Hard Knocks, Magna Cum Laude. The Crooklyn Dodger. Got Blunt?