My name is Damon Smith. I'm 28 years old, my pronouns are he, him. I'm from Portland, Oregon, born and raised, grew up mainly in Beaverton. I'm of mixed background; I have a black father and a white mother, which informs my art in many different ways.
Things that influenced me have always been comic books and stuff like that, very animation-influenced growing up. I didn't get into doing murals and street art until after I had received my first box of comics from my dad, who was in prison at the time. It was one of the first gifts I had received from him after probably 8 or 9 years of absence growing up. I cherished those comics and really dug into them. I had this golden vision of him being this really great guy, and I wanted to make him proud, I did all I could to learn as much as possible about the comics he sent me, and in turn, I was already into art. My mom is an artist. She didn't take it professionally, but she's always been painting and influencing my art, as well as my grandmother before she passed.
Once I got the comics, it was kind of this combination of I want to draw these things and being inspired by something my dad gave me. I really want to make both of them proud, and I really thought it'd be a good idea to see how comics are made. That's when I started getting into comic books. It wasn't until about a year or two after that my mom showed me the movie Beach Street. 80s movie about hip-hop all elements, rapping, and graffiti, break dancing, and to this day, it's probably still my favorite movie. She showed me that because my dad was an old school big boy, he was a breakdancer, and dancing was always my hobby as well at that point. I did dancing and art a lot growing up. Once I saw Beach Street, it kind of made me want to push the art in a graffiti direction.
I had this comic book background already, now meeting, seeing those characters in a graffiti typesetting, I thought they look similar, they're very vibrant, very poppy and your face. I wanted to do as much hip hop and art-related things with comics as possible, which was my main focus. All growing up, I was into break dancing. I moved up to do dancing for Nike, and they flew me around here and there to do certain events for them while doing graffiti forum later on for a little while.
It wasn't until about 6 or 7 years ago that I decided that I should transition into only artwork because I saw its longevity. I saw that I could do this the rest of my life; unlike break dancing, it's a minimal timeframe. I was really enjoying break dancing into it. Still, I felt the need and call to really get into doing art entirely. That's when I started expanding into painting portraits and using different mediums, playing with oil, acrylic and trying all sorts of other things. I was doing concept art, comic books, life studies, and anything to advance my skills.
My focus and how I've gotten into art is about trying to make my parents proud. Then I found out I have a real passion for art, and I noticed it was affecting other people; they were enjoying it, it was bringing out different conversations that I might've been afraid to have through my art. That fed the fuel on the fire, kept me going, and that's kind of how I got to where I'm at now.
When I was 16, I lived in Beaverton, and I had a buddy in a gang. I was his best friend; I knew him since I was 5 years old, we always did art together, he was still into break dancing with me, and it wasn't until high school that gangs appeared. It basically came down to his initiation being a robbery of another opposite gang. I got caught up in that. I was there when the initial conversation happened. I was stuck between not feeling like I could tell an adult, and as an adult now, I realize I had different routes I should have taken, but I didn't feel like I could tell anyone. My mom was a single mom, my dad wasn't really around at the time, and I was alone a lot. I felt stuck between trying to help my friend and doing the right thing; I ended up getting caught for the robbery (burglary), I was actually severely beaten, I was stabbed through my hand and pretty beat up by the people in the house, I was left in the place by myself.
But that's what happens. I don't make any excuses for it. I got what I deserved in my eyes. I'm not angry about that. I don't blame any of my friends for leaving me there because I didn't want to be there either. It was a horrible situation to be in without feeling like I had a way to get out of it. Once I was incarcerated, I was sentenced to 5 years, I started receiving mail from my mom while I was imprisoned, and she would send me comic books every week while I was in County jail. That's when I really thought this could be my way out, and this could be something that I can find peace in while I'm in these walls, and it would help me to explore different worlds, different ideas, and study art at the same time, and I ate them up.
I read as many comments as I could, and I would draw pages from them all the time continuously, and the entire time I was incarcerated, I focused on art solely. I ended up only doing 3 years because I got out for good behavior, I had half my time, but then they had to take another 6 months or something to get you situated and find a place to live. I did about as good as you can do while in that situation. I wasn't in any more trouble, I didn't cause any fights, I kept my eyes down and focused on my work. Luckily, many people, regardless of background, respect artists, wanted things for their mothers, for their girlfriends. I didn't have issues as far as gang affiliation or anything like that. I am always about respect. If I give respect, I expect it, and that's a pretty level playing field for everyone. You know, if I'm respectful to them, they were totally fine with me, and I didn't bother anyone, because I was always drawing the whole time.
While I was in there, I got my GED right away, and then my high school diploma. I even started getting some of the college credits as much as I could, all in there. My senior project was what career path are you going to take? I said, multimedia artist. I'm trying to live up to the thoughts I had of myself while I was away from the world.
I did the life of Frederick Douglas graphic novel with a guy I met at Rose City Comic-Con, named David F Walker. He does many professional comic books. He was a mutual friend of another guy, Abraham Mustapha, another Portland citizen who does comic books that were also a breakdancer growing up. That's how we knew each other. It was through dancing. It wasn't until years later that we realized we were both into art. But he connected us… he had a deal coming up for a book that he wrote, and they were looking for an artist. He threw my name in the hat, he told me they had gone through like 20 different artists trying to figure out who and kind of how I was like the last resort.
I guess they liked my work and said that they wanted to see me draw quickly — something that I would be able to do really fast, not take much time on. I went on my break, went to my car in the middle of winter, drew Frederick, and sent it in, and then later that week, I got a call saying that I got the job. The book was basically about Fredrick Douglas's life from beginning to end, fighting against slavery and for women's rights and equality for people. It was about how you started out as a slave and ended up a free man and his journey. I mainly worked in pencil for that book. Usually, you do pencil and ink, but the publisher thought it would be a good idea because he like my pencil work to get in there and add hard lines, really sick outlines. I decided to do it in real pencil instead of thinking about it, to give it that texture of being worn down.
I was not super precious about all the forms and everything being precisely correct because I wanted it to convey the mood more than looking pretty. It wasn't a pretty time, and I thought studying old photos that are already grainy, and the expressions on the people's faces that I saw during that time, and the audio that I was listening to, talking to you about the events that were going on and the documentaries and all those things kind of made me feel like I had to do more about a rugged look to it.
As far as the murals I've been doing lately, during quarantine, it's…Because I did that book, I've always been aware of racism and inequality and all these issues. I've had plenty of racist things done in my life. I'm not the darkest skin, but most people know that I'm different, and I had a big fro growing up, and braids and you could tell that I was mixed. I've had people write nigga on my artwork and call me mud and all sorts of stuff like that. When I did the book, I was very aware that it really opened my eyes to even more of the issues and how long everything's been going on because I had to dive into his life. I had to study this stuff for a year.
Once George Floyd was killed, I felt like I needed to do something with my art. I felt called to do it. I couldn't sit around and do nothing. It took me a while at first because I have a 3-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, and I work long hours, and between commissions and whatnot, I didn't have time to really get out there. But when I saw people were doing murals and painting and showing their support and getting it out there for the world to know, I felt it would be wrong of me if I didn't do something to shine some light on the situation or give some hope or anything that art does. I thought I need to go out there and do these paintings and let it be known that these are people, and regardless of any background or wherever you're from, no one deserves to be killed, and everyone should be treated equally no matter what. It's a human right, that's as simple as it gets, and that people don't understand that is where the conflict lies, that's where it becomes problematic.
I'm not the kind to start busting people's heads out there. I respect everyone on every part of the protests going on, but I know I had a specific skill set, and I know that an image can speak a thousand words. I thought I would do that. If it's in your face, you can't ignore it. You're forced to see it, whether you said you did or you didn't. If that can shine some light, then I'll keep doing it, and that's the reasoning behind why I got out there. Because after Frederick Douglas and being stuck in that world for a while, and everything that's been going on lately, I couldn't sit by and do nothing.
I tried to find imagery with good lighting and capture as much of their essence as I'd want to see, or I want people to be introduced to if they have never seen them before.
I did a lot of photo reference, and then went in there with aerosol spray paint and did it very old school, didn't use very many different caps or anything, straight can on the wall.
I tried to make the pieces pop; I wanted them to be kind of in your face. I wanted there to be good contrast of color. The first one I did was a blue man, a head shot of a black man and an orange around him. To kind of get your attention, I want you to look at it. I wasn't trying to do something that you could walk by quickly. I wanted it to be something that catches your eye.
The next one was Breonna Taylor. I thought a grayscale with yellow, bright yellow around her would make her glow. I wanted her to shine because she's gorgeous. I liked that to transfer through to my artwork the best I could, and then the blue is very mellow and kind of welcoming, but then we have the orange around that as well, around the blue lettering to drive it home. Those were the ideas behind that.
The next mural I did was "protect your future," which I did with a couple of buddies I've worked with. On three of the projects, I worked with an artist named Steve Limits. I grew up with him as well, and that was nice.
Then the last one I did was Elijah Woods, and I did that one myself, and I really liked the idea of it being like a purple, cool purple with a bright background to really make you look at him. I wanted you to look at his face, how kind he was, how sweet he was, and how sad it was that his life was taken for no reason.
I would love to keep making art that impacts people and that I feel matters and needs to be seen. My hope is that people that see my work in the future and in the past can put me into a kind of different category of caring for people and know that it's not a way to make money or that I'm trying to draw superheroes in capes, that I'm trying to send a message of equality, and that people need to be accepted, and…I guess my goal is to hopefully make a living off of doing these things, I'm not currently making a full-time living off my art, I'm still in the trenches trying to work my way there. But the goal for the future is to support my kids and my life by telling these stories and continuing to do murals and work on comic books and anything that people can consume and just…I don't want to limit myself to one thing. Right now, I'm teaching myself more airbrushing, trying to learn the digital side of things. I'm doing whatever I can to continue moving forward, creating content that matters.
I've come to realize that if you're not feeling it, don't force it. We're our most prominent critics, right? We don't like our own art. I try to find what's good about it, I try to get pumped upon myself, it's essential to see where you're going, what you've done, what you feel like you can do better, pointing out your own flaws to yourself and seeing what did work. The main thing I try to do is look back through my whole post on Instagram, and see how my videos come together, or mild illustrations, or flip through my book and get into the mindset of okay, I've done this before, I can do it now. What did I enjoy about it, what didn't I enjoy about it, what works, and what was I feeling during that time. How do I like the lines and how the lines came out, how do I like the figure, what about the composition that works? I found looking at your work helps loads.
Obviously, you're looking at people that inspire you. I would do that sparingly because you can also discourage yourself a little bit. After all, you're like, oh, I'm not that good, or I'm not going to be like that, or it's not going to come out how you want, but I would try and capture the essence of what inspired you by their work. Look at someone else's work that you like, and instead of looking at the image or listening to the piece or whatever art form it may be, think about why you like it and what inspires you about it, and then try to put that into your own work. Because I feel like if you're inspired, it's much more comfortable, right? If you're not inspired, if you're sitting there unsure of what to do, you need to get that spark going by seeing something you enjoy, whether it be your work or someone else's.