An artist’s roots are usually the most important part of the story, so that’s where we began. Roberts grew up on the North Side of Chicago in the 80’s. “I was raised by two beautiful black women – my mother and aunt. My aunt ran several different art programs around the city, so that was my introduction into art early on. I started messing with paper really young. I’d take paper plates, flip them, glue them to make a dome, put fins on them, cut windows out of them, and make UFO shapes.”
At the same time, Roberts also hung out with his cousins who were dancers for famous rappers like Heavy D and Busta Rhymes. “Before I knew what cool was, cool was being put on me. It was a crazy time in hip-hop – Kanye West was selling beats on the street. NO ID, Common Sense were big. You’d meet up with like 80 kids in the park, and they’d all have their sketchbooks. Music was my thing, but I was always doing art at the same time,” said Roberts.
Once high school came to a close though, Roberts had to make some decisions. “One of my teachers told me to go check out portfolio day. This school in Seattle, Cornish College of the Arts, looked at my work. They said they’d give me a scholarship and I was like, done.”
At Cornish, Roberts refined his craft and focused on illustration and 3D art. He would spend the next eight years in Seattle making connections and refining his craft. After that, he returned to Chicago in the mid 2000’s.
“I had an art studio at the Zhou B Art Center with this artist, Hebru. We would have these art openings and different people would come through, collectors and so forth. We really started getting a buzz for ourselves in Chicago.”
At one point, in order to make some room for some of his pieces, he had to break down about 50 shoeboxes. “When I took them apart and started looking at all the patterns and details, my first idea was to lay them flat and spray paint over them. When I started bunching up some of the boxes, they came out three-dimensionally, and I kind of got the idea – that looks like a forehead, I could pop that out, next thing you know I went head down for like seven days and I just built this lion head. I don’t know why I started with a lion, I just did. I had that type of ferocious energy – I didn’t do anything else except THIS thing for the next couple days.”
The results were groundbreaking. Sneakerheads and the art community were riveted by his new concept. “At one point, my studio was like a zoo. I was so into it, I built a sculpture that was bigger than the door, so I had to convince the studio to cut the wall open and build a double door for it. We were getting so many people there that they had no problem doing it for us. From there the story just evolves and keeps going.”
At this point though, Roberts experienced some major setbacks. He was about to sign a lease to open a commercial gallery in Chicago, but there were some issues with the building. One evening, he was driving on 18th Street on the South Side and got hit by a drunk driver going 80 mph. He incurred severe neck injuries and had to go through 6 months of physical therapy. The accident got him thinking about his career, though.
As Roberts was recuperating, he got a call from the highly regarded contemporary art magazine, Hi-Fructose. “They wanted to do a piece on me. I’ve been collecting that magazine for years. At this time, I was sick and wasn’t going to the art studio though. I was chilling with my boy Rocky, listening to Kanye. The song about him moving to New Jersey with his mom came on. I had 2K in my bank account at the time, and my boy said something that really hit me. He said, ‘Do you want to be in Chicago when this Hi-Fructose article comes out, or do you want to be in New York?’” It was at the moment that Roberts decided to pack his things and head for the Big Apple.
Roberts had success right off the bat. His pieces were displayed at some smaller galleries on the Lower East Side, and art collectors began buying his pieces. “I haven’t really had to depend on art galleries. I’ve really just been able to work on my own. I have a huge silverback gorilla at the Chicago Board of Trade, Howard Tullman is a major collector, doctors and lawyers buy my pieces,” said Roberts.
Eventually, Nike started noticing as well. “I got plugged into Air Max Con by a marketing agency showing Nike my work. They wanted sneaker culture artists from New York. I had worked with Nike in the past – I did the Kobe Bryant installation in LA at the Staples Center, I did the storefront for 21 Mercer (in SoHo) once. Its such a big company that this was the first official interaction where they got behind me in a brand collaboration.”
Roberts believes he was front and center at Air Max Con because of how authentic his work is. “This wasn’t anything that was fake. This is something I did before Nike even knew who I was. I’ve been doing it for years with no plan on how to make money. I was doing it for the love of it.”