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  • Words by The Kiddist, Photos by Dysastrophy

In Search of... Kaili Smith in NYC

As we adapt to the standards governed by society, finding opportunities to speak up for the marginalized or those misunderstood poses a struggling relationship with people that fall under the definition of behavior deemed acceptable to the masses. The availability of many outlets of creative expression allows us to dictate the narrative through mediums such as music, film, or art. I gravitate strongly to art and have been fortunate to collaborate with people voicing their messages through murals and paintings.

I don't know if the stars align for me or what, but opportunities to meet artists I admire seem to magically appear while chillin' on the couch killing time on Instagram. I tapped through stories on my feed, and came across a casting call for a Kaili Smith photo shoot! The opportunity was open to kids living in New York City, but I felt compelled to grab this chance to be immortalized by an artist, whose work I admire, despite living 4 hours away up in Boston ...

With my parents’ permission and multiple DM’s exchanged, I was downright stoked to be invited to Kaili's art studio and have the chance to model, AND conduct an interview with him (*additional bonus being a Sold Magazine Contributor). Fast forward to day of the trip: I was literally bouncing off the walls of my car with excitement as we drove down to New York City ...

The next day I got up, ate breakfast, prepped my questions (because I was extremely nervous), and then set out to interview Kaili. We met him out front of his Parson’s art studio. Entering the building and stepping into a cramped elevator, everyone got up close and personal quick! Hearing the “ding” signifying our floor, I got super excited. When I first arrived at his art studio, I was awestruck. The studio had streaks of natural light coming from above that illuminated every corner of the room. As we passed through the white hallway, works in progress from a multitude of working artists were everywhere.

We then entered Kaili’s section of the studio, and for the 2nd time in a few minutes - I was awestruck again. Kaili’s artwork is pretty amazing when you see it in a picture online, but when it is right in front of you in the flesh ... it takes it to a new level. After a little bit of examining each intricate piece in the studio, we all sat down and started the interview. After doing my research on Kaili, I learned he was from the Netherlands. So the obvious first question was:

“Do you like Stroopwafels?”

With a smile, I pulled out a delicious box of Stroopwafels for Kaili, and proceeded to talk about where I could get a legit Stroopwafel in the Netherlands. During the interview I learned how Kaili’s childhood impacted his art today, and the inspiration for his “Le Petit Prince” series was from his mom; she read him the children's book when he was younger.

Slight tangent to a brief summary of a book called “Le Petit Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that could give possible insights of what Kaili's message is ...

... a story about a little prince that travels from planet to planet and never finds what he desires. Every time he flies to a new planet he finds the same old adult who has lost his/her human nature due to narrow mindedness. "Le Petit Prince" alludes to the contrast between narrow-minded adults who have lost the fun in life with the free spirit of children that take advantage of opportunities regarding the unequivocal joys in life.

In Kaili’s paintings, one can make the connection between de Saint-Exupéry's "Le Petit Prince" and what Kaili coins as youth criminality through his depiction of kids forced into proper attire with hints of a rebellious expression on their faces. In one of his paintings in the series titled "I Had to Make Myself King" ... the children are in what appears to be "proper" clothing from a distant past, but juxtaposed with contemporary items such as a face mask and satchel. This gives the notion that a child's future is still being controlled by parents and their perception of how to behave and fit into society ...

Throughout the rest of the interview I learned about Kaili’s early years as a tagger, and how he's evolved as an artist through subjects like youth criminality and globalization. Many of his works in progress have a red layer painted on top of his sketches. Initially, he said the red was to warm up the tones of his paintings, but now, it has become his signature in some ways. As I examined each piece closely, I started to delve deeper into the meanings behind his artwork, and the feelings of raw emotion that extracts itself from Kaili’s paintings; and maybe how they even relate to my personal experiences.

Art, and Kaili’s pieces for example, has taught me things that cannot be taught by a superficial glance. Looking into a painting and seeing beyond just a “pretty” painting, was a game changer for me. Kaili also taught me that you have to keep working hard, honing your craft in order for your message to become clearer and obviously understood ... a tip I intend to utilize in ANY endeavor I set out to do.

After the interview, we explored the creative process behind modeling for his paintings. Within five minutes of walking in to this costume shop I was already lost. The shop was literally an entire block long, filled with all the costumes you could imagine! As much as I wanted to explore, I had to stay on track with documenting the creative process.

Kaili found an assortment of gadgets, crowns and jackets that looked like they belonged back in the 16th century. After we were done shopping, we got ready to model for his next piece in the series, “le petit prince”! Both my bro and I put on medieval clothing that had a little plot twist in it. I was wearing a face-mask, and my brother was wearing a hoodie with camo pants. We looked like kid thugs from early midieval times!

Some of the poses that Kaili had us do included holding our hands over our mouths and noses while holding a crouching stance. I finally realized how painful it is to hold a pose in the freezing cold for thirty minutes, but at the end this was one of the most memorable moments of my life! After we were done modeling we went back to our hotel, and within two minutes my brother and me were dead asleep on the beds.

Thinking back, as I stared at the magnificent paintings by Kaili Smith, I learned about the world around me and even a little about myself. Kaili’s highlight of youth criminality really brings out the question that most, if not all, children want but are afraid to say to their parents, peers, or just the general public ...

“why can’t you let me be me?”

Perhaps Kaili’s paintings are asking the viewers to forget about all their surface biases set forth by media of what a “proper” or “perfect” child IS, but to see them for who they are, and educate them accordingly. Children, regardless of race, religion, or the environment where we grow up, should be given a chance to discover who we are without fear of being misunderstood by society or people we were taught to trust. Instead of labeling someone as a “thug” or “hoodlum” … before you actually get to know them, sit down and understand them. Youth criminality is just the surface to Kaili’s paintings, but if you look deeper you will find judgmental, discriminative, and unforgiving opinions on who a child should be instead of who they are. A quote that has always resonated with me as I look at Kaili’s work that can bring this article to an eloquent conclusion stems from a lyric by Kendrick Lamar that says:

“let me be me ... that’s the only way I know.”

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