Brantley—an artist known for creating fantastical worlds populated by youthful characters of color—has a style undoubtedly indebted to the graffiti culture he grew up around. However, his aesthetic manner takes equal inspiration from the things he had/has a great interest in, including comic books, Japanimation, mythology, pop art, and family.
Brantley’s growing up in Chicago’s South Side made his art what it is: bold and colorful, deeply hip-hop, and often—though not extremely directly—socially conscious. Yet it contains an innocence and joy not often associated with that part of Chicago, and it becomes clear why. When asked about the earliest moment of inspiration by a work of art, Brantley responds, “I would have to say, as early as me watching Sesame Street. I consider that a high form of artistry with the puppet works of Jim Henson. I was captivated by it. That has always struck a chord with me and my trajectory as an artist.”
Rather than the more typical tagging and throw-ups of graffiti writers, Brantley’s street art was focused on figures. He was known as the one in the crew who could paint characters—early versions of those that he would become known for: comic book-style urban urchins dressed in fly gear and seeming like they’d come from the future. This interest in painting Afro-futurist figures, in fact, is rooted in his past, and comes from his experience growing up in a big family and being the recipient of the history that they passed onto him.
His roots are in Paris—Paris, Kentucky, that is. “My family was not really into art, but was more into sports. My Grandparents come from Kentucky, and the culture there is horse racing, so my grandfather and uncles were heavily into that. All my male cousins played basketball.” Many of these cousins who played basketball also had artistic abilities, but as Brantley says, “I was the only one to leave the court early to come home early to draw and paint. Eventually, art took over the love that I had for sports.”
Rather than a formal art education, he says he learned to make art via the “over-the-shoulder method,” by watching people who were better than he was, then trying to recreate what he saw in the work that he loved. This sort of training-by-osmosis started right when he was born. As Brantley says, “My mother was a very big reader of all things: from newspaper periodicals, to magazines, to Reader’s Digest, to novels. So a lot of the things that she thought was cool or interesting she would pass them down to me, whether I wanted them to be passed down to me or not.”
“I loved art from the standpoint of comic books and cartoons—you know, the kind of art that kids mostly understand. However she wanted to grow my understanding of art into a lane of high art: the kind that’s in museums and galleries, and she taught me about art movements and time periods and artists.”
As Brantley grew up and got more involved in graffiti, he realized the limitations of the form (and the trouble it can get you in). So he started working with other mediums, such as those more typical of fine art. However, the spirit of graffiti is very present, and links to a form of rebellion and activism that is necessary now more than ever.
“Things are fucked up,” Brantley says when I ask about the status of race relations, the highly visible killings of young black men by police across the country. “I don’t pretend to know the answer and how to solve it, but I definitely know that it needs to be something that’s talked about more. We need to talk about how we treat each other, and art inevitably plays a role in that. The only thing I can do is hope that the work I create strikes a chord with others in talking about what’s going on.”
In the art itself, urban aesthetics are paired with painterly and sculptural methods, exposing the world of a mind consumed with tales of heroic characters and an imagination bent to the future. The characters, with their Anime-like features and pop art flair, are often in transit: they fly, morph, and defy the rules of our own world. And though they seem innocent, often happy, they are radical in that they tap into the lives that are so often taken for granted, mistreated, sentenced to a world so unlike the one in Hebru Brantley’s artistic universe.