WORDS: Yahdon Israel PHOTOGRAPHY: Julien Roubinet
It was James Baldwin who believed that “all art is a kind of confession.” For Atlanta born, Brooklyn based artist and graphic designer Adrian Franks it was a revelation. As the youngest of five, Adrian’s first revelation came at four. He placed his hand on his parent’s wall, traced around it and wrote, “Hi, my name is Adrian” within its borders. Many children often discover their creativity by mistake. Unique about Adrian: he seemed to know what he was doing.
Intent is a hard quality to ascribe to children particularly because it suggests a certain precocity few adults are prepared to deal with. Some find it difficult to manage as it hints towards early signs of trouble. I doubt Adrian was looking for trouble when he was writing on his parents’ wall. Apparently Adrian’s father felt the same. Against Adrian’s mother’s urging to clean the wall of his artistic introduction to the world, Adrian’s father appealed to his wife they leave it. The doodle stayed on the wall for close to a year. What started as an introduction became, for Adrian, a constant reminder of who he was and what he was capable of creating: a space where he could discover himself while introducing himself to others.
The best way to meet an artist is to look at their work. I was first introduced to Adrian through his work. A mutual friend put us both on a panel. When I told the friend I didn’t know who Adrian was, he sent me a link to one of Adrian’s pieces. It was the silhouette of the Jordan IVs, transformed into a vessel—holding the bodies of men and women of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The shoe takes on the context of a slave ship; an image too indelible to erase. That was Adrian’s point. He wants us return to history. It’s the one of the few ways to ensure we never forget it. Much like he never forgot his own hand. I first met up with Adrian at No. 7 Restaurant in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, then again at his art studio in Red Hook where we talked about his first make and inspirations as an artist, how he uses art to engage social commentary, and the revelations that occur in the process.
What was the first thing you remember making?
I remember drawing my hand on the wall at four. It was this notion of expressing myself. The first thing you learn is your name. I think any kid’s natural inclination is to draw on a wall, cause it’s there. But I didn’t want to just draw anything. I really wanted to draw something that was representative of me. So I traced my hand and wrote my name inside the hand— “Hi my name is Adrian.”
My mom was mad. But my dad told her, “Don’t get mad with him. He can potentially be an artist.” So the drawing had been allowed to stay there for like a year, enabling me to reflect back on it periodically.
Me being an artist wasn’t immediately revealed but it was definitely the beginning of a trip. Even as a kid, drawing outside the lines was foreign to me. My goal was to create this boundary. This thing that said this was innately my real estate and claim it with my name. By ten I really got serious about wanting to be an artist. So my father was right.
Would you say it was your father who inspired you?
I wouldn’t just say my father, it was my mother too. Both of them are blue-collar people, and blue-collar people naturally make stuff. In the case of my mom, she was a seamstress. She made clothes, she made drapery, she made pillows and she used to draw a lot.
My father was a master machinist - he would build machines that fixed other machines. They were both makers so it’s hard to talk about early inspirations without talking about them.
What’s your process when you’re making?
The process of creating begins with an idea—What do I want to talk about? I start doing some research in order to find new insights. Once I gather enough information I like to come back to my studio and start over, almost. I come in and do a deep clean. Sometimes I start rearranging stuff in my studio to fit the idea itself. From there I just keep working on pieces, till I feel like I’m done. Your work often tells you when you’ve done all you could. Then you move on to the next thing.
Ultimately for my creative process I surround myself with reference. I go to museums; take long rides on my bike. I just try to be influenced by things outside of my studio. As much as I love my studio, sometimes I like to not be here.
Do you have any mantras, credos or philosophies?
I go back and forth between “going with the flow” and actually having a strategic goal. Making, or the idea of being a maker, means having to consider who is going to view your work and engage with it. I don’t necessarily concern myself with what an audience is going to think but I am considering the language I give them to do so.
But that’s my perspective as an artist. As a graphic designer it’s a bit different. As a graphic designer I am thinking more directly about who am I creating this for and how is what I’m designing, going to add value to your life. Art can be so relative and subjective, sometimes. Having intent keeps the work grounded without giving away too much.
What were some of your earlier projects growing up?
I used to airbrush all throughout high school for money. My mom wouldn’t allow me to work at a McDonald’s. Being the youngest, moms was a bit more protective. And the McDonald’s I would’ve worked at was always getting robbed. But I still wanted to make my own money. I had friends who were buying their own gear—and, you know, teenagers are teenagers regardless of how creative you are.
How’d you get the airbrushing kit?
My mom and dad bought it for me. I started with a dual action Paasche airbrush. Then I used to watch all the guys who came from New York to Atlanta, who was airbrushing back then. It had gone out of style in New York but it was taking off everywhere else—including the South. These guys would come to all the different flea markets to airbrush anything you could think of—sweatshirts, overalls, sneakers, visors, hats, and beepers. So I learned a lot of this stuff at a very young age. I’m talking like 12-13 years’ old. Either at the house or the flea markets, and learning how to draw, being creative and entrepreneurial at the same time all because my parents didn’t want me to work at a fast food joint.
One of the things that struck me about your work is its ability to engage social commentary. There’s often this reluctance, especially if you’re planning to sell it, to make art political. You seem to embrace it.
A lot of the guys I admired—the old school graphic designers, Milton Glaser, Saul Bass—were from an era where to be in graphic design you were first and foremost an artist. A lot of the work they produced, whether it was commercial or just personal, confronted social issues. Social commentary was baked into the work. Whereas you fast-forward from the 60s and go into the 80s—when graphic design became more accepted and you could go to school for it—the work became a lot more commercial and less political. For me, I do enjoy a lot of the designers from a certain era that actually had something to say. So I try to create with social commentary in mind, because it’s important to me.
But that’s the difficulty right? Walking that fine between art as commerce and art as social and cultural commentary. There is a guilt that goes along with purchasing an art piece that’s about Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, or Sandra Bland because in essence you’re purchasing death.
It’s funny you mention that because I saw that. I personally didn’t want to profit from someone’s death.
I consider that whole “Suspicious Prism” series to be something akin to public art. The main way that series was consumed was on social media. True enough I did a big installation at 40 Acres and A Mule with Spike Lee but even he found about it via Instagram. My wife Nicole always reminds me, and I keep forgetting, I’d been working on that series long before Eric Garner. But I had always thought about the series as public art because a lot of how I found about many of the people being killed by state violence was through social media so it became my way of giving back.
What’s always intrigued me about art is the call and response between artist and audience. How much of an influence does audience have on your work? Do you think about it?
When it comes down to work that’s not affiliated with a brand: No. And I’ll tell you why. Brands do require you to target around particular demographics. You have your target audience, your main users, etc. These are things you consider when creating for a brand. When I’m creating for myself, I don’t necessarily consider the audience in terms of what they’re going to say but more so about the conversations the audience may be having. Case in point, the “Keep ‘em In Line” series.
This is what I mean about that fine line between commerce and commentary. You have slave figures filling in the silhouettes of Jordans. Slavery and sneakers are billion dollar enterprises built on exploited labor. What messed me up about the piece was it did nothing to deter me from wearing Jordans. Getting people to not wear Jordans may not have ever been your point, but that piece showed me my own complicity with a system and history of exploitation—particularly of the black body.
We all have those things that we like. But when you get to a point where you go from liking something to spending your last $200 to buy it—when they don't cost nearly as much to make—that takes the mentality of a slave- type, symbiotic connection, which changes the conversation. It takes it to another level.
When I put it out it got a lot of good reviews and was received very well but it got a lot of hate too. People were like, “How dare you take something as sacred as slavery and turn it into a sneaker?” And my thinking of it was, “Is a slave ship truly sacred?” For me, a slave ship was a vessel of death. I felt I should be able to take that and repurpose it.
Who would be some of your recent inspirations?
I’d say some of my high school & college art teachers like Ray Shed, Cheryl Bryant. Mr. Shed introduced me to a guy named Charly Palmer. Now Shed is a white guy, cool white guy, looked like the colonel from KFC. But he understood the plight of black graphic designers who came out of his program.
He introduced all the black designers in his class to Charly Palmer. Palmer was the very first black graphic designer I ever met. He’s still my mentor to today. Shed understood the importance of having mentors who would help us navigate our careers as designers, not just the art. When Shed introduced me to Charlie Palmer, he opened up my world to other black creatives.
When are the best times for you to make?
Whenever it hits me.
What’s the last thing you made?
The last thing I made was some new signage that’s going to be used to commemorate the life of Muhammad Ali. I did some initial treatments but you can’t really change Ali. The photography speaks for itself. So I designed around the photography. You want to remember somebody for who they were, and I don’t want to change that.