Photos: His Ahmaud Arbery portrait went viral. How he’s captured the L.A. experience through art

Nikkolas Smith combines personal storytelling with issues of national significance in his work.
(Ross May / Los Angeles Times; Nikkolas Smith; Vanessa Crocini)

Instead of Ahmaud Arbery smiling in a bow tie, a painting of him in the same formal outfit, but with his eyes forever shut and mouth open with words he’d never speak again is what several on social media chose to share as a representation of the pain they felt at Arbery’s death. Nikkolas Smith, the artist behind the viral image, likes to paint happy memories in tribute of people who have tragically lost their lives. But not after hearing how the 25-year-old black man was shot and killed while out for a jog.

“Today I will not draw joy... Today I draw Pain. Today I sketch Injustice. Today I paint a prayer... ‘If I shall die before my run, I pray the Lord my case is won,’” Smith wrote for the caption of his Instagram post on May 6. It quickly became his most-liked painting with more than 28,000 double-taps in less than 24 hours. The image was shared by Melanie Fiona, Lecrae, Michael Rapaport and Iman.

Nikkolas Smith's portrait of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was shot and killed while out for a jog, reflects the pain of the black community.
(Nikkolas Smith)

The Los Angeles-based artist combines personal stories with issues of cultural significance. With the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the nation, the importance of his work is heightened as he continues to raise awareness about the disparities between races in America while also uplift any who are hurting.

As a black man, Smith has taken a special responsibility as an “artivist” (artist + activist). Along with the Arbery painting, his sketches of Atatiana Jefferson sitting happily in her living room before being shot and killed by police and Colin Kaepernick kneeling in protest of police brutality are among those that have traveled farthest. He was even blocked by President Donald Trump for speaking out against the head of state’s treatment of the San Francisco 49ers’ then-quarterback.

Jordan could win the adoration of white America, but only as long as he didn’t talk about what it meant to be black in America.

But his purpose is not just to support the black community. He paid tribute to the Jewish community that was shaken when there was a shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue. A striking painting of a child from Aleppo confronted people with terrors in the Middle East. Many of these popular drawings stem from Smith’s Sunday Sketch series. It started as personal therapy and is now the source of strength he uses to reach people of all backgrounds who need comfort and hope.

Smith spoke to The Times about his timely work and personal journey as an artist. The conversation has been edited for length.

As a black man in America, I know it’s important to you to raise awareness about the issues of social injustices and police brutality. How have you been able to use your art to bring awareness in that arena?

That’s one of the most I guess bittersweet things about my artivist career is that there’s so many moments of pain in the black community. My main thoughts surrounding the hate crime against Ahmaud Arbery are that no person on this planet, due to the color of their skin, should ever have to be afraid of going out for a daily jog and not making it back alive.

With Atatiana Jefferson, I wanted to show her last moment of joy where she was just playing video games with her nephew and next thing you know, she’s been shot and killed by a cop. After my Atatiana piece began going viral, Representative Marc Veasey decided to use it on the floor of Congress to help his argument against systematic police brutality. And after all of that, Atatiana’s family reached out on Facebook to thank me and say how much the art meant to them. I was truly blown away!

"Atatiana Jefferson"
(Nikkolas Smith)

Also with Nipsey Hussle, it’s like I could create an art piece of his death or I could create an art piece of the time he spent hanging out with kids in Watts and giving them books and school supplies and all the things he was trying to do to help the community. Rihanna somehow saw that and posted it on her social media. I think when stuff like that happens and you’re so heartbroken, but then you see something uplifting, it really helps people.

"The Marathon Continues"
(Nikkolas Smith)

At the same time, my art is for all people. There’s so many moments where I just want to help communities that are grieving. I have this one piece called “Meet As Many.” It’s basically saying meet as many not-like-you people as you possibly can in life. It has all these different hands from different communities shaking hands together. That’s one of the things that I’m always trying to hit home with my art is that we are all in this together. So often, we can easily divide ourselves up and everybody picks a side. Then we’re at war with each other when it’s like there shouldn’t be a conflict here. We’re all one human race.

"Meet As Many"
(Nikkolas Smith)

You’ve had so many pieces go viral or shared by people with big platforms. Have you had a favorite few moments?

A piece I made of Martin Luther King Jr. in a hoodie was featured on CNN as Black Lives Matter was starting. During that time, I was actually going through a crazy divorce and I was blindsided and I was really down and I didn’t know what to do. So that’s really how the whole Sunday Sketch thing began. Nina Simone had this quote that says, “It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.” It was like I’m just gonna create something, I’m just gonna try to reflect what’s going on in the world every week. So from that 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. That’s probably one of my favorite ones is the Obama family as the Incredibles.

Banksy’s new painting, called ‘Game Changer,’ is unveiled at a British hospital, which has welcomed the art as a ‘massive boost to morale.’

Nikkolas Smith received a letter from President Barack Obama for his sketch of the Obama family as the Incredibles.
(Nikkolas Smith)

I grew up in Spring, Texas, with Simone Biles’ brothers. I was like when she wins a gold medal, I’m gonna make some art for her. So she did and I made some art. Then people were like, “Well, Simone Manuel won a gold medal too.” She’s also from Houston. So I was like OK, I’ll do those two. People were saying, well, all these other people won gold medals. So for that week’s Sunday Sketch, I was like OK, I’ll do one of like maybe 10 or 11 different women who won gold medals. One of the Barnes & Noble reps saw it on Facebook and they basically asked, “We love this art, can you turn it into a book in three weeks?” I was like “Yes, I can.” I had never done a children’s book before, but basically three weeks later, I had created my first children’s book.

"The Golden Girls of Rio" is Nikkolas Smith's first children's book.
(Nikkolas Smith)

With the pandemic changing so much, how has it changed your approach to your art and reminded you of the importance of what you’re doing?

Everything has changed for everyone. I mean, this pandemic, we’re all spread apart, we’re all kind of really, really now relying on screens, right? As an artist, my voice has been amplified. In a way, I’m surprised, but I’ve gotten a lot more opportunities to really get my art out there. Even personally me and [my wife] Vanessa just had birthdays so just creating an art piece of what’s that like on our couch having a quarantine birthday. Or Easter, creating a piece called “Quarantine Sunrise” where it’s these two families who are actually communicating through glass through their separate skyrise apartments. It really has shown the power of art to uplift and just to bring people together in a way that we can’t physically be together.

"Quarantine Birthday" and "Quarantine Sunrise" show life during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Nikkolas Smith)

Other pieces have helped raise awareness about what’s going on, including a piece I did showing a nurse wearing a trash bag and a face shield. A lot of times as an artivist, I’m using my art to really help people see things that they might not have known about and try to just inspire them to act in some sort of way.

A portrait of a nurse wearing a face shield and trash bag highlights the needs of healthcare workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
(Nikkolas Smith)

Also, I was contacted by the family of Frederick Douglass and they basically said we want you to create a tribute that highlights how the black community is unequally being affected by the coronavirus. So I did this piece of Frederick Douglass in a facemask and it pretty much just symbolized the combination of this very current topical struggle but then also the ongoing struggle of racial injustice that we’re still fighting today.

A portrait of Frederick Douglass highlights how the coronaviurs pandemic is unequally affecting the black community.
(Nikkolas Smith)

What was your process to become a full-time artist?

I was a Disney Imagineer doing architecture for 11 years. It was my first job out of college and all I ever knew. It took me a little while to realize that art is my passion and I didn’t want to be an architect for the rest of my life. The thing is, the nights and weekends, I was making art. I was getting calls from folks like Ryan Coogler and folks asking me to create art with them on projects like “Space Jam” and creating movie posters for “Black Panther.” Last summer I decided, you know what, I’m going to officially become a full-time freelance illustrator. 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. Last year, it was going to Germany to talk about what it’s like as a black man creating art from America.

"Black Panther" cast and crew gift poster
(Nikkolas Smith)