When asked what his occupation is, Alim Smith called himself a “visual philosopher.” The mission of visual philosophy is to express meaning visually and to communicate knowledge with images. That is what Smith does with every piece of his artwork.
As an Afro-surrealist artist, Smith focuses on the images that connect with people from the Black community, whether that’s a rapper, an actress, or a meme. Just check out his social media and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
But his unique art style was not created overnight, it came from years of growing up in Delaware working and improving on his artwork day in and day out. Now, he’s creating art installations for Instagram and creating the promotional artwork for season 3 of Atlanta.
Here’s Alim Smith and how he became the incredible artist he is today.
The Root: Where did your interest in art come from? Is it something you always were interested in or something developed later on in life?
Alim Smith: I started drawing on Mario Paint in first grade. By sixth grade, I did go to art school, Cab Calloway School of the Art, from sixth to 12th grade. But in that school, we didn’t really paint much. It was mostly all drawing like realism. So I got into painting, probably like, two years after graduating, because I was under the impression that that was what people considered real art. So I taught myself how to paint around the age of 20.
TR: What’s the art scene like in Delaware, where you are from?
Alim Smith: There’s actually a pretty nice art scene in Wilmington, Delaware. No one, in particular, influenced my style, but my community influenced me to keep going hard and to keep painting and working. I love being from Delaware because it’s not as big as Chicago or LA or New York. I think the gift is that you are not in competition with everyone. You would think that being in competition would make you more creative, but I don’t know if that actually works when it comes to painting. You can’t rush painting. So I think being from Delaware gives you the opportunity to be in a great environment, chill, sit in the park, take life in and just be as weird and obscure as possible because I’m in such an obscure place.
TR: How did you come up with your unique style of art?
Alim Smith: So Hip-Hop definitely plays a huge influence in me having my own style because I thought that to be a dope artist, you had to be original, you had to have your own voice. That played a huge role in my wanting to have my own style artistically because, for a long time, I just drew realistic portraits. So what helped me develop my style, ironically, was insecurity. So because I went to art school where we had to do everything realistic, and perfect. When I would draw faces, one side of the face would be phenomenal, but then the other side of the face would just be off-center. So for a long time, I would just draw half of the picture. I wouldn’t even draw the other half. And then I was like, You know what? It’s not like the picture doesn’t look like the person, It’s just a little off. You know what, I’m gonna lean into that as much as possible so I’m going to make it super off, instead of hating it and having this insecurity about it.
TR: What led to your artwork focusing more on memes and social media?
Alim Smith: What got me into that was Nina Simone. She has a quote that says, “An artist’s duty is to reflect the times.” Ever since I heard that quote, it has always been in my head to create art that reflects what’s going on now. When I was in school, I noticed how memes got way more interaction and traction than anything anybody else was creating. I was like, you know what, these are still black people, I can still do portraits.
I like that they’re not really celebrities. But because of the memes, they kind of are celebrities. So I decided, I should just paint these memes for Black History Month. Because I think at least I know, black people will vibe with it, they’ll see it and think, this is dope. But I wasn’t really thinking about how viral it would get at all. I was just trying to do something that I thought was dope.
TR: What’s it like going from just painting memes to actually working with Instagram, where memes are shared all the time?
Alim Smith: It’s insane. It’s out of my realm because it wasn’t something I was thinking about doing. They reached out to me while I was working on the artwork for Atlanta. Which is insane because I was not reaching out to people trying to work with them. I’ve been trying to be like an underground rapper with my artwork, just building my buzz as much as possible until people want to work with me. But working with Instagram means that people see the value in my work.
TR: How did you start working on the artwork for FX’s Atlanta and what was it like creating the artwork for the show? Was it difficult?
Alim Smith: A month before the opportunity presented itself, I remember talking with my friend about how I have not been able to use my creative abilities at all. It was a real heartfelt conversation. Then a month later, a bunch of random commissions popped up out of nowhere. But then the Atlanta one popped up and I was like, “This is crazy!.” But I thought it was a joke because sometimes you get big commissions and then they just fade away.
So I started on the project in August and it did not end until February. The process was absolutely grueling, in the best way. I would not want to do that process for a show I don’t love. I’ve been watching Donald Glover since I was in high school. Like I love Atlanta so much that I just wanted to be a part of this because I knew it was going to be huge. But it was a very intense process, I had to do over 300 edits before I even started painting the pictures. Like changing an eyebrow maybe 20 times or changing the color of a shirt 30 times.
TR: How difficult was the creative process for trying to make a piece that best fit the show?
Alim Smith: That was the most intense part of the process. It started off mad surreal and warped. For some people, you might have not been able to tell who the characters are, but you could tell that it was Atlanta.
The process of making it look like the characters were long. I had to draw all of their faces over 100 times and some of the first sketches I did ended up being what they became in the end. But I was so stressed that my artwork would become a meme for the show and people were gonna hate it. I thought I was going to ruin the whole third season. But now I’m able to just be like, “I did my thing.”
TR: How’s it feel to see your artwork on billboards and in the show?
Alim Smith: I’m still trying to fully take it in, it’s still very surreal. Because it was just on my phone for months, I was just looking at it on my computer for the most part. I mean, I’m still looking at it through a screen, but now it’s like being broadcasted by the network. So it’s still surreal. And the fact that it debuted on my birthday, all of it seems not real. It’s crazy.
TR: What do you feel like you bring to the art style of Afro-surrealism?
Alim Smith: I bring myself to Afro surrealism. I think the phrase “Afro-surrealism” encompasses my reality as a Black person. I’ve always been weird. My whole life has been like Afro-surrealism. Everything that I am and how I think is through a weird Black lens. I know that I bring a wealth of knowledge and creativity to that genre of art. This is my lane. I bring creativity. I bring insight. I bring a new perspective. I bring the future to Afro-surrealism.
TR: I see that you have a lot of rappers and musical artists in your artwork. What is the music that inspires your artwork? What musical artist creates music that’s similar to your artwork?
Alim Smith: Definitely Flying Lotus. They are definitely laying down the production in the soundscape for my artwork. But also it would be like Flying Lotus meets Pharrell meets Andre 300 meets Nola bounce meets the early Dipset wave.