The Evolution Of Christophe Roberts
On a crisp, sunny Thursday afternoon in late March, Nike fans from around the globe made their way by foot, bike, bus, subway, cab, and Uber to a massive warehouse on the border of the West Village and TriBeCa in New York for Air Max Con.
For two hours, thousands of sneakerheads stood in line to enter a convention we didn’t know much about. Everyone had their best Air Maxes, Jordans and Flyknits on for the momentous occasion. This was the first time Nike had put on a convention of this magnitude for a day (Air Max Day) that they created just three years ago to honor the legacy of ground-breaking NIKE AIR technology.
Once we entered the warehouse, there was much to take in. NYC powerhouse Kith set up a cereal bar. There was a SNKRS store. Women (and men) were getting their nails done in a salon. The young Spaghetti Boys were signing posters. Nike designers were holding seminars. And all throughout, OG Nike Air Max running shoes hung on the walls like pieces of art.
What caught my attention the most, however, was the massive pigeon hanging from the ceiling as you entered the convention. He was constructed completely out of orange Nike boxes. Wings spread, his foreboding visage staring down on us, the caption in front of him read boldly, “Air to the Throne.” I had to learn more.
As I walked through the exhibit, there were more animals created out of boxes. A savage creature that resembled one of the Gorillaz band members sat in front of the SNKRS store. A bear head hung on the wall, like it was the prize of some esteemed game hunter. Amidst the creatures was a hip, friendly gentleman being interviewed by Fuse TV, with a massive Nike promotional sign hanging above him that read CHRISTOPHE ROBERTS. I snapped some pictures, found his Instagram account, and moved on.
Flipping through all my photos from the day a few hours later, the work of Mr. Roberts continued to stand out. I decided to reach out to him in an effort to learn more about his work. After a few emails back and forth, I was invited to see his studio in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn - an area I knew nothing about.
On a much warmer Sunday afternoon about a month later, I requested an Uber on my iPhone and was soon on my way to Clinton Hill. “Ah Brooklyn, that’s my home!” said the driver. I was glad someone knew where we were headed. The driver dropped me off on a semi-abandoned street lined with warehouses and sped away. I was a half-hour early for the interview, so I decided to get a bearing on my surroundings.
Across the street from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on Waverly Avenue, there was an undeniable dichotomy. On one side of the street sat a Jewish school that looked more like a truck repair garage. On the other side, street art featuring monster zombie rats covered the brick façade. Next to the rat art, a band that looked like a blend of Boy George and the Insane Clown Posse was filming a music video. Around the corner sat a Fresh Fanatic grocery store featuring locally crafted beers and artisanal kimchi. On the other end, an old dive bar had been converted into a sleek Brooklyn Roasting Co. coffee shop. This block was raw and conflicted, but progressive. It was Brooklyn Juxtaposition at its finest. And midway up the block on Waverly Street, in a small warehouse art studio, Christophe Roberts is part of the evolution.
Roberts’ studio producer, Corece, soon arrived and we made our way to the workspace. We passed the rat art and the Insane Clown Posse video shoot and headed into a warehouse stairwell. Up a few flights, and winding through some dark hallways, Corece opened the door to a room where the madness took place.
The studio was not large – maybe 300 square feet – but the same primal glares of Roberts’ creatures that were on display at Air Max Con were also present here. An eagle, again with wings spread, was hanging from the ceiling. A chimpanzee was lurking in the corner - both trapped in the space, but also guarding it.
A few minutes later, Roberts arrived. Donning a black tee, ripped bleached jeans and Air Force One “Wheats,” we exchanged pleasantries and talked about his favorite Jordans (the 3’s), and the fresh pair of Air Max 1 “Safari’s” sitting in his glass case.
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.”
What makes Roberts’ sculptures especially intriguing are the stories behind them. Take the chimpanzee, for example. “When I did Killa Trent, I was watching Oprah and some chick was on there and her face was gone – like ripped off. This chimp named Trent was living in captivity, poorly kept for years in Connecticut. He got out and tore this woman’s face off. That’s where Killa Trent came from.”
Roberts believes that when animals like gorillas are mistreated, there’s a price to pay. “That’s why he looks so mean - what do you expect? It’s closest to us emotion-wise and structure-wise, and you treat it like that. They think like us - we evolved from that.”
Roberts’ logo – a set of sharp, jagged teeth, is also inspired by this savageness. “My logo is all about harnessing the aggression and the anger that I’ve had, just from personal things that I’ve dealt with - with family, and things just not working out the way I’ve wanted them to, and taking that energy and focusing it in a more positive light.”
If you look closely, the bottom teeth resemble Basquiat’s famous crown. “I didn’t think of the Basquiat connection until after, I will say that. And I was trying to draw teeth – there is that connotation. I have a short temper, and it draws into all that. Art is a form of psychology, a therapy for me. No family is perfect, I love everybody but I’m just angry about a lot of stuff, as we all are.”
Harnessing that anger and channeling it into future projects is the key for Roberts now. He plans on creating more lower-priced sculptures for his sneakerhead fans. “The sculptures start out at $5,000, so not everyone can afford them. I want to find a price point that’s a couple hundred dollars. I want everyone to grab a piece of this movement and get involved. Making prints, more animals, other subject matters. The clothing line is going to be out in about a month. This line is called Loyalty Is Everything (LIE). I also want to look at a lot of religious stuff – Indian religions, African tribal stuff. That should keep me busy for years.”
At this rate, Roberts is going to need a bigger studio.
For more information on Christophe Roberts and his work, visit http://www.christopheroberts.com