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The Triumphs and Hardships of Black America are Illustrated by Artist Nikkolas Smith

"The Golden Girls of Rio," a book by Nikkolas Smith, puts female athletes front and center.
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Cover of Nikkolas Smith's book "Golden Girls of Rio."
"The Golden Girls of Rio," a book by Nikkolas Smith, puts female athletes front and center.

"I really wanted to make a children's book," says Nikkolas Smith. So, the 31-year-old, Burbank-based artist spent the bulk of this year working towards that goal. He made contact with agents and learned how to revise his style to appeal to younger audiences. He brainstormed story ideas, making notes on which ones he could develop into a book. He adds that "one or two" of those ideas are mostly-complete stories that he could still pitch. But, when Smith did land his book deal, it didn't have anything to do with those ideas he was formulating. Instead, the deal came about as a side-effect of viral internet media and the Olympics. 

A little more than a week before the November 15 release of "Golden Girls of Rio," Smith is sitting inside a bookstore cafe, earbuds hanging from the collar of his shirt, but unattached to his phone. He swipes through the images that resulted in his first hardcover. There's a digital painting of Simone Biles, the champion gymnast who, like Smith, hails from the Houston suburb of Spring, Texas. The next one shows Biles fist-bumping Simone Manuel, the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in swimming. Tracee Ellis Ross, the star of the TV show "Blackish," shared that piece on Instagram, where it racked up over 82 thousand likes. 

In the midst of the August Olympic games, Smith's images gained so much online popularity that he was fielding requests to illustrate more of the athletes. He opted to depict the American women of gymnastics and swimming in a piece that was styled to look like the cover of a children's book. On Facebook, he asked if people were interested in the book. At that point, he didn't have a book deal. But Shaun King, the activist/writer, shared it on Facebook and the image picked up 11 thousand shares and 33 thousand likes. "This was bigger than I could ever imagine," Smith says. Bigger yet, Smith got a call from Sky Pony Press. Could he turn this into a book? Could he do it in two weeks?

"I was pushing for all year, in all different avenues," says Smith, "but now that it was in front of me, I was like, there's no way I can back out or not follow through with this." Smith said yes.

Olympians Simone Manuel and Simone Biles celebrate their gold medals in this Nikkolas Smith illustration.
Olympians Simone Manuel and Simone Biles celebrate their gold medals in this Nikkolas Smith illustration.

By day, Smith is an architect who works for Disney. He kept his usual Imagineering hours and spent mornings and nights working on the book. He focused on a few different athletes — both Simones, record-breaking swimmer Katie Ledecky and shot put champ Michelle Carter. "I was on cruise control," he said. After working the equivalent of two full-time jobs for a couple weeks, he finished the book. 

Smith had learned digital painting as part of his day job and with that came the realization that he could make art, as well as architecture. He has spent three years-worth of Sundays working, churning out approximately 150 digital works that he thought "maybe" could one day be in a book. Along the way, his worked gained more and more recognition online. A fun video game-centric piece that merged the character Pac-Man with the CBS logo — originally, part of a group show at Echo Park gallery iam8bit — had a fair amount of success on the social media art circuit. But his big hits were often pieces that reflected the triumphs and hardships in black culture.

Nikkolas Smith re-imagines the Obama family as characters from "The Incredibles."
Nikkolas Smith re-imagines the Obama family as characters from "The Incredibles."

A pop culture mash-up depicting the Obama family as characters from "The Incredibles" has once again racked up the shares as the president's second term comes to a close. Despite the positivity of the image, Smith's piece rattled some internet trolls. "I thought the Obama thing was not going to be controversial," he says, adding with a touch of sarcasm in his voice, "Just making an image, turning the Incredibles into a black family, that's too controversial."

In other instances, Smith's work has been more overtly political. On the day that George Zimmerman was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, Smith's image of Martin Luther King Jr. in a hoodie went viral. "Conservative heads were exploding," he recalls. "People thought, why are you turning him into a thug? Proving my point, to say, why does a hoodie make somebody a thug?"

Smith had gone to Hampton University, a historically black school, and was a political cartoonist for the school paper. "It was the early seeds of activist art and trying to express something politically through my art," he says. "It didn't really take shape until the Martin Luther King piece and the whole Black Lives Matter movement starting."

Nikkolas Smith's image of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing a hoodie went viral following the court decision that found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin.
Nikkolas Smith's image of Martin Luther King Jr. wearing a hoodie went viral following the court decision that found George Zimmerman not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin.

Smith has tackled hard stories in his pieces. He made an animatic called "Finding Ferguson," a "what if" story that doesn't end in Michael Brown's death. Smith eventually had to disable YouTube's comment section on his channel due to racist remarks. He made a portrait of Bree Newsome, who took down a Confederate flag from the South Carolina capitol. This action brought out the proponents of the Confederate flag. Smith, the youngest of six children, says that being part of a big family that debated with each other helped him take on the commenters. "I will take on droves of Confederate flag supporters," he says. "It will be me versus all of these people and I will go at it for a long time."

As the Black Lives Matter movement became better known, so did Smith's art. His pieces turned up stories from major news outlets like Washington Post and New York Times. 

"People keep saying that I have a way of expressing what people want to say, even if they don't know how to say it," Smith says. "Sometimes, like with the activist art, it's the frustration that people are feeling with police brutality. People keep saying, I wanted to say that, but I'm so glad you expressed it."

But, a lot of his work is lighter-hearted too, like the Obamas/Incredibles piece or a portrait he painted of actress Lupita Nyong'o or the digital paintings of the Olympians. 

With "The Golden Girls of Rio," Smith says that he was tapping into what is amazing about the U.S. "I think one of the things that people wanted to express was that America is already great. America is diverse. America is amazing. Having that image of all those girls from all different backgrounds being so triumphant and succeeding, that was something that people wanted to see," he says. "There's not always an outlet for people to see these images and when something like the Olympics happens, this is the perfect time to show the world that America is awesome, despite what a bunch of people have to say about it."

Whether he is capturing a glorious win or a horrible tragedy, Smith says there's an element of patriotism that motivates him. "An image of all of these girls representing America, that's patriotism. I think that's, it's a very patriotic piece," he says, "but, also an art piece of Philando Castile — who was a free, unarmed man — I think being able to stand up for justice for all is also a patriotic thing."

Smith adds, "All of the art pieces I've made, I feel like they come from a place of love and freedom and patriotism. They just are shown and expressed in different ways."

Portrait of artist Nikkolas Smith
Portrait of artist Nikkolas Smith.
"Lemonade" Beyonce by Nikkolas Smith.
"Lemonade" Beyonce by Nikkolas Smith.
Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o is depicted as Cinderella in this illustration by Nikkolas Smith.
Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong'o is depicted as Cinderella in this illustration by Nikkolas Smith.
Nikkolas Smith, "Kendrick and Lucy."
Illustration of Kendrick Lamar by Nikkolas Smith.
Nikkolas Smith portrays boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Nikkolas Smith portrays boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
Illustration of Prince by Nikkolas Smith.
Illustration of Prince by Nikkolas Smith.
This triptych by Nikkolas Smith showcases athletes Julio Jones, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler.
This triptych by Nikkolas Smith showcases athletes Julio Jones, Carmelo Anthony and Jimmy Butler.
Illustration by Nikkolas Smith.
Illustration by Nikkolas Smith.

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