Last November, I curated an art show at the Oakland Museum of California that exclusively featured memes. Beyond the subversive pleasure of seeing a chronological study of the Arthur fist meme at an art museum, what that drove me to do this work was a commitment to crediting and recognizing the creative products of young people, usually black teens, who are at the magnetic center of culture-making online (and offline as well). Memes are an endless source of affirmation and joy for me, but the ephemeral quality of social feeds make them exceedingly difficult to archive.
Someone who’s taking on that difficult work brilliantly is 26-year-old artist Alim Smith. The painter recreates famous memes on canvas using a surreal, distorted style of portraiture. Though each of his portraits receive a dysmorphic treatment, Smith has an incredible talent for preserving the original emotional composure of his subjects. His painting of battle rapper’s Conceited’s face, for example, still symbolizes the acute doubt that we’ve come to know in gif and jpg forms. It is a testament to Smith’s attention to detail — the accuracy of the strap on Conceited’s Gucci hat is worthy of note — and his talent for capturing the essence of a moment in his paintings.
Outside of his meme series, Smith’s body of work concentrates on iconic black imagery: Janet and Tupac’s Poetic Justice, Lauryn Hill with her locs from the Miseducation era, and other black folks from the artist’s personal life and imagination. If there were a term to categorize Smith’s work, it would be black pop art: his is a genre that centers and pays homage to popular black culture in playful and reverent way.
Smith’s formal arts education came from the Cab Calloway School of the Arts, a magnet school he attended in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Towards the end of his senior year, he was diagnosed with epilepsy. His episodes were primarily triggered by a lack of sleep, so when he was the only one of his classmates that didn’t get accepted to the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, he took it as a blessing. “I was like, you know what, it’s probably not even a smart idea to go to school because I would be up all crazy hours not being able to get sleep,” he tells me over the phone. “I’d probably die having a seizure or something.” Instead he focused his energy on developing his signature surrealist painting style.
When I chatted on the phone with Smith, his exuberance tricked me into forgetting it was a very early Monday morning. We talked about how he ended up painting memes, drawing inspiration from Soulja Boy, and his ambitions to make adult children’s books.
When did you start approaching art seriously?
When Obama won [in 2008]. That's the first time I realized that I could make money with art. Me and my friend, we drew this print of Obama and we were convinced we were going to make a million dollars off of it. We had a bunch printed up and we went to the inauguration and we were just trying to sell them everywhere. Just off of some ten and twenty dollar prints, we made some decent money. And that's when I realized like forget trying to sell originals, if I can just make prints, I'm good. Just make prints that people enjoy, it's lit.
Your In Living Color: My Black History series is a great ode to the '90s. What was the reaction to that like?
That's really what keeps me going. It's just, "Oh that's Erykah Badu." The first series I did that I was vending with hard was the In Living Color series. I realized it was like a coded language. If you didn't know '90s culture and hip-hop, you might think the pictures look cool but they wouldn't resonate with you because you can't identify any of the characters. So I realized that it was a coded language and people really responded to that. They'd walk past like "Oh that's cool, oh shit that's Snoop. That's Lauryn Hill." It was like a guessing game thing. That's usually the experience of that. I fell in love honestly.
Memes are that sort of coded language too. Were they natural transition for you then?
Yea, 'cause I realized like how much that spoke to people. I look at art a little bit differently. I don't feel like it's about what I need or like or about what I like, but it's more about the people. If it was just for me, I would just paint a whole bunch of boobs probably. Just naked girls, that's it. But I feel like I have a skill that people enjoy for some reason so I just wanna keep doing things that speak for the people and represent the people really.
"I can make things look accurate and exact, but why not just have fun with it. If it's still looks like what I’m trying to draw, then I did what I’m supposed to do. It’s the same with slang. If you understand what I’m saying, then I said it right.”
There's a specific style to the portraits you’ve painted — both the meme series and In Living Color series — from the colors to the distorted, surrealist elements. How did that style come about?
I could always draw really good detailed portraits but sometimes they would just be leaning. Like if I was drawing on a straight surface, I'd pick the paper up and the whole picture would be leaning to the side, like an optical illusion. But you looked at it from above, it looked perfect. So I realized I should just maximize on that. I can make things look accurate and exact, but why not just have fun with it and stretch it out a little bit. If it's still looks like what I'm trying to draw, then I did what I'm supposed to do. I feel like it's the same with slang. If you understand what I'm saying, then I said it right.
How do you pick what goes in the backgrounds? The Uncle Denzel portrait has the grill in the park.
It really depends on what the picture's saying to me. Like just the fact that everybody was calling it Uncle Denzel, like I had to put him at a barbecue. With Keshia Johnson, her face is all turnt up and she looks mad. I was just thinking like "Life's a beach," which is corny; I hate that phrase. But I felt like if I put here in a really serene environment, it would make this really weird contrast to her emotions.
Have any of the folks in the memes seen the works of themselves?
Conceited reposted it and showed a lot of love. I don't even think I tagged Denzel ‘cause I know Denzel don't even like that picture. And I know Michael Jordan hates that picture. I don't even know how to reach Keisha Johnson.
Do you imagine they'd have a reaction if they saw it?
I would love to see their reaction if they had any but it's really for the people. And they are the people as well. That's the crazy part about memes. I'm drawing absolute strangers and everybody's like, "Oh my god, I fucking love that stranger!" That's the dope part about memes. I feel like there's this ongoing theme all throughout the Universe, celebrity is crumbling right now. The idea is slowly disappearing because everybody is so reachable. So the new celebrities are these really strange people. Like Keisha Johnson is a celebrity for a second. Which is making celebrity look silly all on itself.
“If Soulja Boy can believe in himself and make his dreams come true, it would almost be disrespectful to myself to think that I can’t.”
What's the reaction folks have to your meme paintings? Is it similar to your other work?
It's way bigger. I was reading about it, why memes are big and why going viral is so big. It was going into the coded language thing but it was saying like memes and meme-like things are all in our subconscious. So that's why when we see them, they strike up so much feeling. It's in everyone's subconscious kinda. That term "a picture is worth a thousand words," that's what memes are. It translates a million times more than anything else I've ever painted because of that reason, because it was something that was meant to be responded to. People are turning [my] paintings into memes, which is crazier.
Are there artists that you looked up to in school?
As far as visual artists, art history was boring as well, but in sixth grade, I remember seeing an M.C. Escher book and I stole it. I still have it. M.C. Escher is one of my favorite artists. Other than that, I didn't want to get too much into the history of art, especially 'cause of how it was introduced in school, it was all boring, old shit. I didn't want to get too familiar with anything because I could easily copy it 'cause I can easily copy things. So M.C. Escher and randomly seeing Dali's work probably influenced me. But you probably can't see the M.C. Escher influence, but it's coming in the later works.
What affirming moments have you had as an artist?
Man, there have been way too many affirming moments that's why things are kind of weird. So [my friend Terrence] and I did these art shows back to back and we had a great turnout. It was 2015. For my art show, I was photoshopping shit, I was making it seem like celebrities were paying attention to my work. All these skills that I learned in school, I'm just gonna us this to make the art show look like it's gonna be poppin’. So I'm editing this video to make it look like Shawn Wayans and Marlon Wayans are talking about my art. And people fucking fell for it. But weirdly enough, after that moment, Erykah Badu actually shared my work. And then I got my work to Chance. And then I got my work to Andre 3000. I got my work to so many people and then all this viral shit is happening. It's been a million weird moments just when we decided, ok let's take it serious. This is a moment! I'm just a nigga in Delaware to you. In Delaware, niggas is losing their minds. Nobody knows nobody in Delaware. People in Delaware seeing me get shit online like, "Oh shit 'Lim you made it!"
What are your aspirations as an artist? You've come this far, how far still do you want to go?
Soulja Boy is my biggest inspiration in a very abstract way. I used to be, well, I'm still into music and writing. I still write more than I paint probably. I could be listening to a beat and then I hear an Andre 3000 verse and I'm like "You know what? I shouldn't rap. I really shouldn't. Because he's doing it good enough. I should chill." But if I hear a Soulja Boy verse, I'll be like, "You know what I really should rap though 'cause I could make it." I apply that to art. If Soulja Boy can believe in himself and make his dreams come true, it would almost be disrespectful to myself to think that I can't. If Soulja could do it, I gotta be able to do it. His level of ambition and self-belief is way higher than his level of skill. If you have the skill and the ambition and will and you can't figure out how to make something work? Then maybe it really isn't for you. I don't know 'cause Soulja Boy out there doing what he wants to do.
Where do see your ambition and will taking you?
Here's the plan: children's arts and children's books. And I have some adult children's books [in mind], like children's books with titty drawings in them pretty much. This is funny goof shit, but actually some of them have a message in them. Thinking about art, I was at Michael's Art Supply store and I was like, "Damn, if Michael's closes down, like I'm not an artist anymore.” So I have to make art supplies. Why can't I have a Michael's or something like that? At least one. Like, google “black art supply stores” — I couldn't find one at all. So art supplies, books, paintings. Paintings are the gateway to everything else. I want to make experiences though. I have a billion ideas and I just need time. I want to host competitions. All I need to do in my mind, I gotta sell like a thousand prints. I've done that before but basically, selling that, investing in property, flipping them, turning them into artist housing, making my own art galleries. I'm trying to go platinum selling prints.
That's real. Why focus on selling prints over the originals?
I don't even think it's ego. I think seeing the market of art and seeing what certain things get priced as, there are people who don't want to buy it or can afford it for how much I think it's worth. It's way easier to get off these prints. And I can only sell an original painting one time. So I gotta sell it for something crazy. And prints, you can get those off for ten, twenty dollars. It's way easier to make money for me. And, because I'm really trying to get in the MoMA or any galleries, so I want to keep all my originals for the most part.
I would love to see your work at the MoMA.
Nigga, if we get in the MoMA it’s a wrap! That’s the plan. Why not?