An afro explodes from his head like wild disco ball, along with a smile just as wide. Even in a room full of eccentric-looking artists, DJs, and party goers, he sticks out like a broken skateboard deck on one of his canvases. It also helps that he tends to be surrounded by people watching him live paint an expansive mural in the front of the room.
Keith Smith, otherwise known as Afrokilla, wears his easy-going personality well. Even as he sits in his apartment — used spray paint cans and half-finished canvases littering the floor — and explains the poignant story of earliest influences, this bright energy never falters for a moment.
“My dad would send me art he would do in prison — and I was always influenced by that,” Smith says. “That was the breeding ground for my art.”
He continues, “He would draw people. That’s why I started drawing people. While we were kids, we never saw him, so he would draw pictures of us and send them to us. They were always exactly like photographs too. It was insane! I was like, ‘How the hell does he do that?!’ so I always looked at his [drawings] and tried to copy it. I developed a lot just by looking at his stuff.”
With a father in prison and little other artistic influences in his rural hometown in Creston, Iowa, Smith found creative outlets where he could, eventually turning to skateboarding as well as art.
“Skateboarding has been a huge influence for me,” he says. “I’ve been skateboarding for 15 years so it’s a big part of my life.”
It’s no surprise that even with skating, small town Iowa didn’t offer much of a creative space. There was no skate park. No rails to grind on. No empty pools to tag and ride in without a neighbor recognizing you.
So Smith did what made sense to him: He created.
“Me and my brother hosted a lot of fundraisers to get a skatepark built in our town.,” he recalls. “My mom and the city council actually got a group of us skaters to go to Tony Hawk’s Huckjam tour and surprised us by letting us meet Tony Hawk.”
He continues, “We met him and told him we were trying to get a skatepark built, and he literally wrote a check for $5000. So we got it built by the time I left for college in Chicago.”
Smith carried this innate desire to create to the Windy City. Drawn by the city’s vibrant art scene, he moved to Chicago and ended up “bouncing around people’s couches for a while” along with earning a degree in graphic design. It was during one particularly long winter when Smith couldn’t skateboard that he started to form the spray painted, in-your-face foundation of his style.
“I had been smoking a ton of weed,” he recalls with a laugh. “So I was super high and one of my buddies had a ton of paint and all I had were a ton of old skateboards. I’m a hoarder of old skate equipment, so I had a stack of deck sets. I just looked at the paint and looked at the boards and said, ‘Oh shit, I’m just going to paint on the boards.’ So I worked all day, painting these skateboards.”
As unconventional as the medium was, it allowed Smith to marry two passions — both born out of the need many artists feel to provide an outlet for their creative impulses, especially when surrounded by a less-than-creative environment.
Since his experiment painting on skate decks, though, he’s been able to find the connections necessary to gain ground as an emerging artist.
In other words, he’s blown the fuck up.
With a reputation as an up-and-coming artist to watch as well as a proficient live painter, you’d think he’d trip over his own ego like so many artists and performers before him. However, he’s still ever-humble — often lending his services to live paint at events, producing installations for the prolific You Are Beautiful art campaign, and even occasionally canvassing for progressive politics.
“I went to a Bernie Sanders event on the street and had the idea to live paint on the street next to the canvasser,” he recalls. “It made people stop and he was able to talk with them about Bernie. He said he had done a lot of canvassing events and THAT was the most he’s ever had for responses and signatures and talking with people.”
That’s just typical of one of the most signature aspects of his work: How it draws the attention and engages everyone watching. In fact, it’s something that Smith actively seeks out whenever he paints.
“I’ve been more influenced by having people around me while I’m painting,” he explains. “A lot of people ask if that’s distracting, but it’s so not. I’ve had people interact with me during the piece saying stuff like, ‘Oh, you should add some red’ and I’m like, ‘Fuck it. Why not?’ Having that organic flow makes the piece more true.”
Perhaps then, it’s this communal aspect that makes watching Smith work akin to hearing a symphony — the broad strokes of his spray paint dancing with all the fluidity of conductor at the podium, and yet, with the vigor and life of a dancer exuding from every motion.
No two movements are alike and neither are the results — but that’s the point. Colors and ideas will disappear as fast as they arrived only to be replaced by another beautiful movement.
It’s a love letter to the idea that the impermanence of beauty can be beautiful itself. It’s gratuitous movement fused with gratuitous community, and it’s a style that’s been drawing the attention of many, including some unexpected patrons.
“Last summer, I did a mural on this really luxurious rooftop in Lincoln Park,” he recalls. “I had never done a mural that big before but [the rooftop owner] was excited and thought my colors would be dope. He said, ‘Just have fun! I don’t care.’””
For the next two days, he laid down layers and layers of spray paint down — but typical to his style, he couldn’t help engaging the audience to help with the final product.
“Me and the guy I was painting for were talking while I was just laying down colors,” he recalls. “He said how he was really spiritual and Jewish. The Hamsa hand was a really powerful symbol for him. So after I put all these layers down, I just put that on the mural right in the middle — and he just loved it.”
“It’s crazy,” he continues.
Whether it’s his art or his life, things are pretty crazy — though in no small part due to his new(ish) home of Chicago. Smith works as a social media producer and creative associate for the You Are Beautiful project, organizing the large installations frequently seen around Chicago.
When he’s not working to spread goodwill through You Are Beautiful, Smith is in a state of constant motion — painting, networking, and creating in city that adopted him and helped him find his style.
“I love people’s attitudes in the Midwest, so having that mentality was something I wanted influencing my art career,” he explains. “People keep telling me, ‘Come to LA! You can skate here every day.’ That’s not what it’s about to me. I want to be around cool people and people who can be humble. And I find that in Chicago.”
If he were to look back and give that young, fresh-faced Iowa skateboarder who just moved to the Big City some advice, his suggestion is simple: Connect.
“Put yourself out there more,” he explains. “Back in 2008, when I was starting out, I was partying more than focusing on what I was creating and what I wanted to become.”
He continues, “I would tell 2008 Keith that you should be proud and tell people you’re an artist. He’d make better connections, and, most importantly, grow into something.”
Luckily for anyone with eyes and a love for art, they’ll be able to watch Smith grow even more, like brush strokes on a mural — or hair on an afro.