Last Updated on September 12, 2016 by Andre Loftis

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Through hard work and many late nights, Nikkolas Smith is forging his own path as an artist. By day he works at Disney Imagineering, designing theme park attractions. By night, he creates powerful drawings and paintings that speak to the social justice issues of our time. An accomplished architect and concept artist, he uses his skills to craft portraits of historic and modern civil rights heroes, including Martin Luther King Jr, Muhammad Ali, Bree Newsome, and many more. And with a keen understanding of pop culture trends he also creates portraits of the most iconic figures in the entertainment industry like Janelle Monáe, Beyoncé, and Prince. In part one of our two-part interview we cover Nikkolas’s early life and education, his career at Disney, and how he chooses subjects for his personal artwork.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”65617″ img_size=”large” alignment=”center”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”2/3″][vc_column_text css_animation=”bottom-to-top”]

I was never the type of kid to say ‘I want to be an artist when I grow up’.



[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]Black Voice News (Andre Loftis): Where did you grow up?

Nikkolas Smith: I grew up in Houston, Texas. We moved into a suburb when I was in elementary school called Spring, Texas, which is actually where Simone Biles is from. I went to school with her big brothers. The last time I saw Simone, she was like 2 feet tall.

BVN: I feel like there’s a joke there somewhere.

Nikko: (Laughter). I’m the youngest of six children. I have two brothers and three sisters. I was always into art and drawing. I collected X-Men comic cards, and I would try to recreate the artwork I saw on the cards.

BVN: Who were your favorite X-Men characters? Did you grow attached to them based on the comics alone, or did you watch the animated television show that aired in the 90’s?

Nikko: My favorite characters were Wolverine, Gambit, and Rogue. The show and the trading cards are what got me interested.

BVN: The relationship between Gambit and Rogue was intense; they developed those characters well. If you go back and watch the show now, it looks crudely animated, but the character development is still there.

Nikko: Yeah, what I liked most about Rogue and Gambit was their strong connection to each other. I used to draw Rogue all of the time.[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”65544″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/2″][vc_single_image image=”65543″ img_size=”full”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]BVN: Do you still have any of those drawings?

Nikko: I was just at home (in Texas) and I was looking around, but I didn’t see anything. However, my mom found some old artwork from when I was 12, and I just posted it to Facebook recently. But I was never the type of kid to say ‘I want to be an artist when I grow up’.

BVN: How did you first become interested in drawing?

Nikko: My brother is also an artist. He would always be drawing when we were younger. I loved his artwork. I still feel like he has more natural artistic ability than me, I learned a lot from him.

BVN: What type of subjects did he draw?

Nikko: He drew a lot of fashion pieces. He was also a rapper in Houston. I guess it’s a totally different mindset, but he did a lot of modern chic fashion drawings. He could do everything. Even his handwriting was in a graffiti style. My own handwriting is similar to that now because I would always copy him.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”65545″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]BVN: Being involved in the fashion industry is the new wave in hip-hop right? We’ve got Kanye West, ASAP Rocky, ASAP Ferg. They’re pursuing their music careers, while trying to design clothes, shoes, and other fashion items on the side. Your brother sounds like he was ahead of his time in that regard.

Tell me about your parents?

Nikko: They’re great. They’re like the rock of our family. They’ve been married for over 30 years. They’re both licensed ministers in Texas, so they were always working in the church when I was growing up. They were actually the ones who said I should consider moving away from Texas for college. Growing up I went to predominately White schools, so they suggested I should try going to a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). I took it into consideration, and I thought it was a good idea too. My oldest brother went to Hampton, so I ended up going to Hampton too.

BVN: Was it your parents who inspired you to get involved with activist causes as well?

Nikko: So imagine me living in the suburbs of Houston, my white friends come over to the house, and the guest bathroom has a big “Colored Only” sign on the door.

BVN: Oh wow…

Nikko: That’s my mom (laughter)…she’s funny. I can never get her to take that down. But she always made sure we knew what they experienced growing up and where we came from.

BVN: Most definitely. That’s important. I admire that your parents were so proactive. I’m often upset by some Black people who at times try to overlook the struggles of the past and say that racism is dead. But these things still have an effect on our country. You can still see the effects of Jim Crow today, and it’s really important to learn that history.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”65548″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_separator][vc_column_text]


[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]BVN: How was your time at Hampton?

Nikko: I was initially going to attend Moorehouse. But at the time their architecture program wasn’t accredited and I would have had to take extra courses at another school. So I went to Hampton. When I got there the architecture program was a five year bachelor’s program. But the day I got there they changed it to a five year master’s degree program, which was amazing. I didn’t have any idea about theme parks at the time. My friends and I started hearing about this guy named Dex Tanksley, who was the first winner of the Disney Imaginations Competition. That was an eye opener for us. And then we found out there was a firm that designs theme parks for Disneyland. So we put together a four person team in our 4th year and entered the Imaginations Competition.

BVN: That experience opened your eyes to the different possibilities in architecture?

Nikko: Yes because at that time students would graduate, begin working for a traditional firm, and start designing skyscrapers, residential homes and things like that. And that’s probably what I would have done. Going back to Texas and…I would have been miserable, I would have hated it.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”65550″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_separator][vc_column_text]


[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]BVN: That was going to be my next question. Considering the work you do in your free time, that doesn’t seem like the work you wanted to do for a career. After designing theme parks and other “exciting projects,” how does it compare to designing urban and residential “boring” projects?

Nikko: Everything we create is basically inspired by the Disney films. It has to look very romanticized and fantasy-oriented, and it all has to last more than one hundred years. There’s a lot of plaster that looks like wood or stone. A lot of interesting facades that you normally wouldn’t create in the traditional field.

Most traditional firms are designing for people to go into a building, sit down, work or eat, then leave. Half of the time we are designing all of these crazy features on the outside, and on the inside, a roller coaster is racing through the building. The structural steel of the roller coaster can’t touch the building’s structural steel or else everything will explode…it’s crazy!

It’s very intricate and difficult and it doesn’t get enough respect in the design world. Some architects simply look at the outside and think it’s child’s play. But it’s at least twice as difficult to create as anything that they’re doing in the traditional world.

BVN: What is your process for translating the artwork from the films into a brand new attraction for Disney?

Nikko: They might want me to create Cinderella’s house for example. So I watch Cinderella and take notes on which pieces of the film architecture can actually be applied to the real world, and then I make the rest of it up. The artist who designed the films weren’t necessarily drawing to code.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”65549″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_single_image image=”65547″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_separator][vc_column_text]


[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]BVN: You guys primarily work on the theme parks for Disney, but is there ever any crossover? Do you ever get to work on Marvel films, for example?

Nikko: There’s not a lot of crossover, but every now and then someone might be working at Disney Imagineering and end up working at Marvel Studios. The closest I got to that experience was when I created the Obama Incredibles artwork on my own time. I got a call from Pixar at my desk at work. They called to tell me they liked the artwork. I ended up traveling up to the bay area and hanging out with them. There are opportunities to crossover and work on different Disney properties, but it doesn’t happen often.

BVN: What inspired the Obama Incredibles artwork?

Nikko: It was 2012. Barack Obama was up for re-election so I wanted to make something iconic to commemorate the occasion. I had been following mash-up trends, and I wanted to do a mash-up at some point. I was telling the NAACP Act-so kids in Ohio recently that to make something iconic, take something iconic from the past and combine it with something that is trending or popular now. The Incredibles were super popular, and the iconic first Black family is obviously popular. I just always try to keep an eye out for mash-up opportunities like that. Mr. Obama has two kids, and Mr. Incredible has a wife and two kids (and one baby). It’s a pretty easy match. So one random Saturday I was like, ‘I’m going to draw the Incredibles now as the Obama family’. And it ended up being one of my most popular pieces. Maybe second to the Martin Luther King in a hoodie piece.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”65552″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]BVN: That’s how it goes right? No artist that I’ve ever spoken with has sat down with a marketing plan and said ‘Okay, this is going to be the drawing that launches my career further’.

Nikko: Really you can’t. You have to follow the trends and the trends change all of the time. With my latest pieces for example, I didn’t know who was going to win the gold medals but I knew once they did win I needed to jump on it. I couldn’t have guessed two Simones were going to win in the same day.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”65553″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]BVN: That’s a great point. You have to hone skills that allow you to quickly adapt to changes in the world. I really think you’ve got it. I know that within 24 hours Nikkolas is going to create artwork about the latest, greatest Black thing that has happened in the world. Or the saddest Black thing that has happened in the world. And coming from Disney, you know how to draw and paint quickly and manage your time effectively.

Nikko: You’ve got to move quickly.[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text]Next article: California Creatives: Nikkolas Smith Part 2[/vc_column_text][vc_separator][vc_column_text el_class=”small”]All artwork © Nikkolas Smith[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]