By Wasalu Muhammad Jaco | June 29, 2015 | People
With his vibrant, colorful paintings and a motivational message, Chicagoan Hebru Brantley is on his way to becoming the art world’s next superstar.
Hebru Brantley is an artist on the rise. Since first garnering attention in 2012 at the Scope Art Show (a sister event to Art Basel Miami Beach), the South Side native’s graffiti-inspired contemporary works have been exhibited in LA, London, New York, and at Art Basel Switzerland; he has done work for Nike, Adidas, and Swiss watch brand Hublot; and celebrities like Jay Z and Beyoncé, Lenny Kravitz, George Lucas, and even Mayor Rahm Emanuel have all become collectors of his paintings, which conjure a world of optimism, hope, and youth empowerment. As Brantley recently prepped for the release of his coffee-table book And We’ll Drift Away, he chatted with fellow Chicago artist and Grammy-winning rapper Wasalu Jaco—better known as Lupe Fiasco—about his passion for cartoons and comic books, his proudest moment as an artist, and how the city of Chicago has molded and shaped him.
Wasalu Jaco: What’s good, my brother?
Hebru Brantley: I’m chillin’. How about you?
WJ: Man, I’m good. No complaints, man, no complaints at all. So let’s jump into it. How did you first get exposed to art, and what was the first piece of work that inspired you to say, ‘I want to be an artist’? And do you remember the first thing you created out of that?
HB: To start, it was cartoons, comic books—that was my first relatable art form, and as a kid growing up, [I was] drawing and redrawing cartoon characters over and over again, which brought me to graffiti culture. From graffiti culture I arrived at high art and an understanding of high art, and that came by my mom putting certain literature my way, certain books, and introducing me to Pop Art at an early age. From that, it was looking at an artist like Jean-Michel Basquiat and how primal and, at first glance, simple his work is. That’s sort of like that catalystic moment with young creatives—he is that person for a lot of us, especially for African Americans. I don’t necessarily remember that first painting that did it, but I do remember creating an appropriation of a Roy Ayers album cover—it was basically Roy Ayers and his band looking down into the camera in a circle, and then an allseeing eye looking down upon them. I did a piece like that in my own style. I had a few friends in the music industry, and one of them was DJ Drama; at the time he was starting to get his accolades and respect and a little money. And he was one of the first people who was, like, “I really dig this, and I want to buy it.” And that might not be the exact “aha” moment, but that’s the one I think that sticks with me right now—seeing that I could make this, more than just being passionate about it and loving it, and be an actual working artist.
WJ: It’s interesting that you reference Basquiat a lot in your work, but there’s also a relationship between you and Roy Lichtenstein in the sense of using comic book characters. It always comes back to that idea of the superhero. What is important about the superhero for you?
HB: It’s just like you. You’re an incredible lyricist and artist, but you’re not rapping about selling drugs or killing people, because that’s not what you did. I feel like those who are great at what they do are always true to who they are. I can only paint what I know. I appreciated the stories of the comics. I appreciated the cartoons. I also just appreciated film, and I appreciated storytellers. So being able to express myself and how I feel through different characters, it’s just me being true to who I am. I’m a tall, black nerd. I appreciate a great deal of many things, as you know. We’ve sat and talked about everything, from music to film to literature. And I appreciate all those things, and I want to bring that out in my work.
WJ: Talking about the characters, a lot are children. Let’s focus on one—Flyboy, who’s pretty much your marquee, almost your brand, almost your Nike swoosh—
HB: My Mickey Mouse.
WJ: Your Mickey Mouse—even greater. Let’s ask about Flyboy. Who is he, more importantly?
HB: Flyboy came out of characters of color within popular culture. I hate saying “popular culture,” but it’s really popular culture. I mean you look at cartoons. You’ve got animated sponges and ducks and birds and whatever, and it’s very rare to see a popular character within any medium that is African-American, Latino, even Asian. What I wanted to do was create that, but in a space of high art and be able to have some historical context to that character. So I looked at the Tuskegee Airmen, who were fighter pilots in World War II. They flew successful missions and they never lost a person. But at that time black folks were treated far less than equal. For me, it was important to have that historical context to a character, not to just have one for the sake of needing one or wanting one. As far as it being a kid, it wasn’t necessarily a plan from the outset to create a childlike character; when I create, a lot of times I don’t see kids. I really don’t. I just see them as people. There’s a sense of innocence there, but there’s also a sense of all the other things we go through. What a kid might go through on a playground in certain ways might parallel what a guy goes through in a boardroom in a job day to day.
WJ: You have a coffee-table book coming out this summer. What’s the story and the inspiration behind that? What can we look forward to with that?
HB: I’ve wanted to do a book for a while. For me personally, one of my favorite things ever in life is coffee-table books and books with pictures. One of the first times we hung out, you came into my studio with a big bag of books, and it was Christmas. To now have enough work that I can be good enough to be shown in that light, I figure why not? It’s just that time. The whole focus of the book is more Flyboy-heavy; I didn’t want to put a lot of different works in there or different feels. I wanted to kind of streamline it and show the progression over the years and my career, but not to give people too much variation. You look at other art books—you might have a van Gogh of just him and his selfies, like all his selfportraits, or a Picasso book just on the women he painted or his Blue Period—so with this being my first attempt at it, I wanted to keep it very palatable.
WJ: Speaking of the city, what are your favorite hangouts food-wise, shopping-wise, hangout-wise, what have you? I know you love Soho House.
HB: I only have a few spots... Food-wise, I love Au Cheval; that’s the one that comes to mind right away. You know, otherwise, when I do get out of this shell that I live in, just around the city in the summertime, I do enjoy just really any point at the lakefront. I do have a real sort of favorite spot, which is the lake at 31st Street, but it’s not the same anymore—they changed the whole landscape. But yeah, man, lakefront. And then other than that, whatever comics shop or bookstore I can sneak into. What’s that spot in Wicker?
WJ: Myopic Books?
HB: Yeah, Myopic.
WJ: And you’ve got to go to Quimby’s. They’ve got the graphic novels and the zines—Quimby’s is a little more current and edgy. Go to Quimby’s, man. Tell them Lupe sent you.
HB: [Laughs] For sure.
WJ: How do you think the city has inspired you or influenced your work?
HB: It inspired me because Chicago is definitely the city where I landed. Starting my career here, I expected a lot of opposition, but it really wasn’t that. Again, I think I’m honest in my doings and in my work, so I think that the city has responded to that. I’m Chicago through and through, and I think that sort of shows as well. Chicago embraced [me], so I always will show that love back. It helped mold and shape who I am and what I do.
WJ: What is your proudest moment?
HB: This one’s tough because, again, you obviously have moments like your child’s birth, marriage, whatever, but this one pertains to my career. This is what I got for you. Right before my father passed—my father was a businessman, my father was... everything was black or white. It wasn’t gray; it wasn’t a color in between. So he was my last living parent, and he was also the parent that wasn’t supportive of my career choice. For him to be on his deathbed, to tell me he’s proud of me, to sit and talk with me about my art and the fact that he had paid attention to certain pieces, certain decisions I had made... He basically told me in so many words that he was in awe of the talent that I had because he didn’t know where the hell it came from. It definitely didn’t come from him—these are his words. For me that’s a huge accomplishment because that was a huge struggle in my career, in my path, in my life. So to get to that point, I got my father who loved me all the same because I was his son, but I got my father to believe. That’s it.
WJ: That’s a beautiful gift right there, brother. That’s real beautiful, man.
HB: Thank you, sir.
WJ: Where will you be in 10 years?
HB: Ten years is a long time away. [I’d like to be known as] a respected, well-established visual artist. A maker of many things. A filmmaker. A visionary. Dare I might say—though I am not this person, names might be thrown around—like a young, or a more handsome, black Walt Disney. [Laughs] A more handsome, African-American Jim Henson. So again, the greater vision is yet to come and to bring that world forth to people in different mediums, not just painting. This is the start, and the end result will be in different forms. We’ll see, man. It’s a lot to do. I’m trying to get busy, to get to work.
WJ: Thank you. I appreciate you, man.
HB: In all sincerity, you already know you’re definitely my bro and inspire a lot of what I did and do. You blazed that trail first, and I thank you for it. It’s the synergy.
Photography by Petya Shalamanova. GROOMING BY TOM COLLINS