Faces and Spaces by ArtLikeUs by Alex Young

 ArtLikeUs | photograph by Alex Young

ArtLikeUs | photograph by Alex Young

Take it back to September 18 two years ago. Photographer ArtLikeUs was set, collected at Stage AE making images of entertainers Choo Jackson, The Come Up, Mac Miller, Quentin Cuff and more in Pittsburgh. Outside, InTheRough handed out stickers and T-shirts to people in line waiting to enter the concert. At this moment, we met this tall kid with a welcoming attitude and supreme afro, sometimes he caged it with a silk head scarf, Yung Mulatto. Put the city's culture into perspective.

Two days later, ArtLikeUs photos from the concert published in an ITR article about some discriminatory mess that went on before the show. ArtLikeUs' photos amplified our words about the injustice to create a legendary piece of journalism that many people championed. The photo of Mac and Q hyping the Stage AE crowd is "one of my favorite photos," ArtLikeUs said.

Two years later, the man behind ArtLikeUs Xavier Thomas is 26 and still capturing images of entertainment and black life in city settings. "I can relate to black on a grand scale," Thomas said. When rap queen Cardi B visited Pittsburgh at Xtaza nightclub, ArtLikeUs was there to photograph. When Levels Agency brought Gucci Mane to the 'Burgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center, people saw the footage on the ArtLikeUs Instagram feed. Once late rapper and Pittsburgh legend Jimmy Wopo came home from a brief jail sentence, Art, camera in hand, was at his "crackin'" welcome home party at the Galaxy Lounge in Homewood. Big Lonn of the native Pittsburgh Taylor Gang rap crew invited Art to photograph his jiu-jitsu sparring sessions. Art bounced around from local podcasts like the Burgh Boyz to The New Wave Podcast to Straight To The League giving them video footage of each episode. All of this and more, ArtLikeUs was deep in the scene creating visual narratives of daily life in Pittsburgh.

In his home office in Greenfield, Pittsburgh, a news clipping of a feature article about Wiz Khalifa in the New Pittsburgh Courier with ArtLikeUs photos tacked to his cork board. Art scrolled through his Twitter account of Tweets from years ago. "My only dream is to be a sought out photographer," one said from 2013. Each one predicts the future. Now, ArtLikeUs is a prominent photographer making images of superstars like P Diddy.

A post shared by Xavier Thomas (@artlikeus) on

ArtLikeUs stood outside the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles on assignment with heavyweight rapper Fabolous for the Global Spin Awards. "Diddy hops out of a truck right next to me," he said. "I tapped Diddy to get a photo." The music mogul's bodyguards muffled under their breaths creating a boundary around Diddy with their arms. "I interjected. I over-stepped. I couldn't let him walk away from me." Art walked away with footage of the Combs family, a private conversation between super producer Pharrell and Fabolous, images of Snoop Dogg and much more. There was "an insane list of people. I don't know how to tell these stories it was so rich," Art said.

I got celebrities all over my page. If you have a list this long you can be trusted.
— ArtLikeUs
 Thomas shared a Facebook memory when prominent publications XXL Magazine, Hot New Hip Hop and The Source Magazine published his photo.

Thomas shared a Facebook memory when prominent publications XXL Magazine, Hot New Hip Hop and The Source Magazine published his photo.

Thomas got his access card to the stars through his relationship with Fab. The rapper had a show in New Castle, Pa. and Art was there making opportunities for himself. Prominent hip-hop magazine XXL published ArtLikeUs photos of Fab from that night. When Fab came to the 'Burgh for a show at the Strip District's Xtaza club, Art linked with Fab officially and even met with him at Bliss Nightclub in Washington, D.C. "I really spent a considerable amount of time with him," Thomas said. He's able to text the rapper and work with him because "I never fan'd out over nobody. I just try to be distinctive and get my shit done." Well, he did fan out once when R&B songstress Teyana Taylor gave him a hug at a Def Jam Recordings party. "Teyana Taylor is one of the prime examples of a black woman," he said.

In L.A. and other big market cities, "getting in a room is usually the hardest part," Art said. But working diligently and "doing good work" will get you in that room.

Already in rooms photographing the major culture out West, ArtLikeUs worked with Taylor Gang honcho Wiz Khalifa for a week in L.A. Art featured on Khalifa's "420 Freestyle" record screaming "We don't know!" Clips inside the studio promote music from Taylor Chevy Woods. Once, Justin Bieber pulled up on Wiz in a stout Mercedes G-Wagon. DJ Khaled had celebrity guests to his new House in Hollywood Hills, L.A. ArtLikeUs was there with Fabolous and his crew, like Fab's manager Big Fendi. So Art grabbed looks at Khaled's ginormous shoe closet and a family photo of Busta Rhymes, DJ Khaled and Fab. Notoriety stretches in ArtLikeUs photos from cool people like music entrepreneur YesJulz, comedian DC Young Fly and radio DJ Funk Flex.

Although Thomas has built a foundation in Pittsburgh, speaking to his well-known camera talents and the family he's created, he needs more and "I'm willing to go get it," he said. Just then, his youngest son toddled toward a slice of pizza on Thomas' living room table. "I need to get paid like I want to. The budget for music projects here isn't industry standard and I need industry standard," Thomas said.

A post shared by Xavier Thomas (@artlikeus) on

So far in 2018, Atlanta and Los Angeles have facilitated Art's financial goals. The big markets with pools of entertainment can support talent in multiple industries like photography. But, "my come up was here in Pittsburgh," ArtLikeUs admits. "The Pittsburgh art community super fucks with me," the scene just needs to grow so that local heroes and talented people don't feel like an "A1 prospect playing in the D League," Thomas said. After all, people in some Pittsburgh entertainment industries, like musicians, say making money is nearly impossible. The Pittsburgh Music Ecosystem Study by Sound Music Cities states that 69% of musicians here earn less than $10,000 per year from performing or selling music. 10% of musicians earn $35,000 and above.

Something must be done to expand the scene because "this is about me achieving my dreams and not compromising," Thomas said.

ArtLikeUs: To get paid like I want to I have to leave. I'm not trying to get paid $10,000 per shoot, but I literally get paid by companies here [Pittsburgh] $100 to shoot. I'm going to grind and get something out of this photography. 'I gotta get this money. Understand me?' (Chief Keef "Sosa Baby" lyrics)

InTheRough: Do you think Pittsburgh is able to sustain your dreams or do you think Pittsburgh is capable of paying industry level budgets for photographers and other artists?

ArtLikeUs: Yes, once my industry is broader. You need to pursue weddings if you're a photographer. If you want to be a good photographer and guarantee to make money get into weddings. I'm looking for entertainment though. I'm into the hip-hop scene. I'm into the urban. I'm into Black on a grand scale and Pittsburgh isn't that. It could get there one day with the way music streaming is going. I'm just saying the people that have money to spend on foolish shit aren't in Pittsburgh. We don't take that and build something here. Say Wiz built a club or Mac opened a restaurant. People would gravitate towards that. But people hate so hard, so I get why people wouldn't come back.

ITR: What is it that you need from the city to come back whenever you make it?

ArtLikeUs: I need the city more geared toward youth. This is an old ass city. We don't have anybody that represents us in politics or the stuff where the power is really at. It's not geared toward us. This is currently geared toward settling down. If we could broaden the technology stuff people talk about here to other business sectors that would be lit. If we get recreational marijuana here that will change a lot. That's when our money will matter.

 Thomas at his home in Pittsburgh | photograph by Alex Young

Thomas at his home in Pittsburgh | photograph by Alex Young

ITR: When you look back at the photos you've taken, especially of stars like Wiz, Fabolous or Gucci Mane, which one sticks out?

ArtLikeUs: Definitely Fab and definitely Wiz. Fab, I got to him first. My first time shooting Fab's image went to XXL, Hot New Hip Hop and The Source and hella other blogs. That was amazing People were hitting me up like, 'Yo! It went to XXL!' I was like, 'What? That's my picture?' I couldn't believe it. I shot Wiz in Atlantic Records' studio in New York. Man, I was the biggest Wiz Khalifa fan since a long time ago. That was a personal thing. When I first moved to Pittsburgh and got into the scene I was like, 'I think I can get to Mac and Wiz if they come to town.' And I got to both of them. I got to go to New York with Wiz. Just because of those things that happened to me I don't doubt my path anymore because I didn't expect that. That shit happened to me by accident. I was just doing shit and that's why I keep doing shit and shit keep happening.

ITR: I've heard you say you look up to Dan Folger.

ArtLikeUs: Dan Folger is probably my primary reason for getting a camera, especially with what he was doing with Wiz Khalifa in the "DayToday" episodes. Besides photography though, Dan Folger was on his grind. He had a job and was doing this photography. He was on the Galaxy [Galaxy Lounge] grind like I was. He was doing things I do now, the behind the scenes stuff. That was really cool for me. Cam KirkJohnathan Manion, and Terry Richardson are a few photographers who are big inspirations too.

ITR: What did you want to be when you grew up?

ArtLikeUs: Bro, I wanted to play basketball and just be rich.

ITR: Where are some venues in Pittsburgh that you liked to shoot?

ArtLikeUs: The Spot and Galaxy Lounge, they're gems. If you know, you know. Owey had it crackin' and same with Hardo and Wopo. I want you to go there. It's a bit harder, but you have to get the whole city.

ITR: What tips do you have for networking?

ArtLikeUs: I don't mind expressing an idea that somebody might steal. I want to express something to somebody so they know I'm trying to grow. Don't be a weirdo and just talk to people.

ITR: What about your photos makes them so good? What's your talent in image making?

ArtLikeUs: I want the moment to last. The other day I saw an image of when my son was first born. That was lit. I have a really good family album or life album of shit, and now there's all this entertainment and poppin' shit that fills in there. It's crackin'.

Definitely, keep up with the ArtLikeUs Instagram page. Check out his photos from the Pittsburgh stop of Wiz Khalifa and Rae Sremmurd's Dazed & Blazed Summer 2018 Tour and more content as Art follows music star Hardo on the tour.

The Landing: an Audio Visual Experience by Maxwell Young

 Mr. Wisdom AKA The Oracle practices his soliloquy. Photographs by Russ R. 

Mr. Wisdom AKA The Oracle practices his soliloquy. Photographs by Russ R. 

More like a crash landing because what Uptown Art House presents at the Kennedy Center this Thursday, The Landing, is more than an audio-visual exploration, but an exposé on who has been pushing the arts community in Washington, D.C. over the last several years. 

 Flyer designed by  Richard Mijangos .

Flyer designed by Richard Mijangos.

Jamal Gray, the master curator of Uptown Art House brings together an experienced group of creators across the entire spectrum of the local arts ecosystem.  Featured players Maps Glover, Maya Sun, Mr. Wisdom, Ashley Shey, Ra Nubi, and Yacine Fall have been driving the performance art scene in the city, at times collaborating together in public and private exhibitions.  They are joined by Nag Champa Art Ensemble who is no stranger to playing in hallmark institutions like the Kennedy Center, producer/writer extraordinaire Britt Sankofa, wardrobe designer Afrovelvet, and the man behind the far-out psychedelic visual projections you will see during the production--Jimmy Keith.  Individually these artists have strong movements in their various disciplines.  Those hip to the scene would have experienced their work at venues such as Capital Fring, Black Cat D.C., The Philips Collection, Torpedo Factory or at DIY venues including The Bee Hive, Rhizome, and Uptown Art House.  But together as a troupe, they create a chilling, impactful piece that conveys the power of the arts culture in Washington, D.C.

The Landing is inspired by the 1984 science-fiction film Brother from Another Planet, the philosophies of Sun Ra, and the literature of Octavia Butler, though it is a completely original work.  Lyer (played by Maps Glover), an alien from the planet Sept, arrives on Earth searching for his companion Layan (played by Maya Sun) while experiencing foreign stimulants for the first time.  It is narrated by The Oracle, Mr. Wisdom, who offers a range of thoughts suggesting this intergalactic adventure is pre-ordained by a higher power.

Planning for this hour-long performance began in December.  Having watching several rehearsals, it is a reactionary piece.  Spectators are encouraged to participate, and during some of The Oracle's soliloquies, you'll think his words pertain to you--perhaps they do.  But beyond the improvisation that occurs, the players are feeding off one another's energy and movement.  Its been a resounding sentiment amongst the artists that what happens on stage is a visceral response to how they make each other feel in those moments.  As individuals, they are both actively experiencing the performance and the expressions of their peers, inspiring a totally new understanding of the theatrical piece.

"There's this interesting dichotomy when you are trying to portray this experience or emotion within your movement or gestures alongside other people who are also having this internal experience," said Glover.  "What makes it rich is when you can be inspired by peoples' movement at the same time.  Everyone is going through these internal experiences whether it be them exploring their characters through words or how they're articulating their ideas.”

The Landing: an Audio Visual Experience debuts at the John F. Kennedy Center Millennium Stage on Thursday, March 15 at 6pm.  The event is free.

Stop by Uptown Art House following the show for the after party.

Kennedy Center Millennium Stage

2700 F St. NW

Washington, D.C.

DIY Arts Scene, Uptown Art House on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show by Maxwell Young

Uptown Art House founder Jamal Gray joins The Kojo Nnamdi Show. 

 Photograph by Mark Williams Hoelscher

Photograph by Mark Williams Hoelscher

In the arts community, DIY ('Do-It-Yourself') spaces are integral to the prosperity of the artists and sustainability of the collective conscious. Homes, warehouses, breweries and repurposed restaurants along with their dedicated collectives support the advancement of creatives and organizations in the spheres of activism, art, and music.  These aren’t new refuges.  There was Club 57 in New York City--a haven for Keith Haring and other starving underground artists.  And we can't forget about Warhol's Factory either; the scene was just higher profile given the benefactor. These cultural hubs where people appreciate art and music, uninhibited by society’s parameters are alternatives to the traditional gallery spaces and concert halls where consumerism, popular/mainstream culture, and big business take precedent.

On Tuesday, musician Janel Leppin, Arts Editor of the Washington City Paper Matt Cohen, and Jamal Gray, founder of Uptown Art House joined The Kojo Nnamdi Show on NPR to discuss the DIY arts scene in Washington, D.C.

The independent arts scene in the nation’s capital has been nurtured by DIY venues including Rhizome, Paperhaus, Electric Maid--a legendary punk rock venue--Uptown Art House, and many others.  The problem due to gentrification and rising rent prices, though is that these venues struggle to stay open for a sustained period of time.  You may have heard of, or better yet, been to Art Under Pressure, Bohemian Caverns or Union Arts where District culture flourished.  Unfortunately, however, these historic landmarks no longer exist--extinguished for swanky redevelopment projects.

Listen to the perspectives of Janel, Matt, and Jamal as they speak with Kojo about the impact of the DIY community preserving Washington's heritage, and how it’s changing nationally.

Hot Takes

+  "Art spaces reflect whatever we're going through at the time." -Jamal Gray

+ "Money is speaking louder than art in D.C." -Matt Cohen

+ "DIY is about cultivating and incubating artists to be able to take their work to the next level." -Jamal Gray

+ "If we could have some sort of rent stabilization, so we could have a place that stays put for more than five years..." -Janel Leppin


Yung Mulatto Illustrates the Hip-Hop Sound from Pittsburgh by Alex Young

 Yung Mulatto photograph by Alex Young

Yung Mulatto photograph by Alex Young

Yung Mulatto can't help his native Southern Charm. He's the type to brew fresh tea leaves for a house guest. Tea time is one of Mulatto's hobbies, "just like doodling has always been," he said. The transplant makes a good impression upon Pittsburgh's resident artists and cool makers. 

Officially named Miles Saal, 20-year-old Mulatto speaks optimistically about his time in the city. "Pittsburgh is nothing like my hometown," he said. "There weren't a lot of arts programs at my magnet high school in Jacksonville, Florida." When he moved to the 'Burgh in 2013, Creative And Performing Arts High School opened the doors for Mulatto to explore his artistry and ingenuity. "A lot of agreeable people here" get his vision.

As an illustrator and music producer, Mulatto satisfies his desires while "trying to connect people with other people," he said. 

At eight-years-old, he handled the piano and the double bass. In high school, he played the trumpet. Since dropping out of the Indiana University of Pennsylvania where he studied music and film, Mulatto began to produce hip-hop. "I wanted to know more about the local scene beyond Mac and Wiz," Mulatto said.

He adores Pittsburgh for the creative people he meets. CAPA is the reason Mulatto met young rapper, James Perry. The big city, small town vibe familiarizes Mulatto with social circles. Although, SoundCloud digging and the unification of his drawing and musical skills puts Mulatto in the center of Pittsburgh's underground hip-hop community.

Mulatto's sphere of influence grows from drawing cover art for rap mixtapes or Local 412 Trading Cards done on coffee sleeves that idolize the 'Burgh's hip-hop heroes, like Pk Delay in a fur coat from his "M's" cover. Mulatto shouts out the scene regularly and casually. He doodles when he's working at the Jitters coffee shop in Shady Side. He selects local rappers, like Patches, to play through the shop's speakers. What goes in Mulatto's ears travels out of his hand on to the trading cards. The coffee sleeve drawings depict the life of the hip-hop scene and its actors like cartoons. "Danny Phantom, Anime, and Adventure Time are huge influences on my drawing style."

Importantly, Mulatto's work archives what is happening now creatively in popular Pittsburgh. He wrote out a long list of everyone he knew who made hip-hop here and the list travels as a beacon throughout social media space. Wait until the radar detects it.

The respect Mulatto has for the music community breathes organic collaborations with other artists. He drew the "Astro O2" album art for youth rap star Blackboi, and Mulatto sent him beats. Another rapper in Akono Miles received a storyboard cartoon about textbooks from Mulatto. "Cover art is the visual connection with music." Additionally, he joined with lifestyle label Reviving Real to release a mix featuring 15 local artists. He also drew the mix's artwork and placed some of his beats on the project. 

He knows the rap history. "The Bushnel is one of my favorite spots in Pittsburgh," he said. A lot of musicians throw house parties at that venue in the Oakland neighborhood. "I heard extensively about the Shadow Lounge when I moved here."

While exploring the landscape, Mulatto has become a fan of R&B artist Amir Miles and boom bap producer C. Scott.

[I’m] trying to connect people with other people.

Further, Mulatto's beat tapes are tranquil. His production matches the realism in his doodles. Listeners hear suave trumpets. His sounds come to life, and diverse instrumentation builds his music. "Producers shape where the sound will go," he said. "Sampling is big," too. "I kinda want to make the weirdest hip-hop possible. The kind that makes you turn your ear and say, 'This is amazing!'" For a reference, Mulatto likens himself to legendary hip-hop acts like Danger Doom, Outkast, Lil  B, and Tyler The Creator.

Ultimately, Mulatto calls himself a "big picture guy" and must thank the community he engages with and honors. "Pittsburgh has been really good to me," he said. Good times continue on September 16 at The Bushnel where Yung Mulatto hosts a birthday show.


Twelve Twenty One: Mensa A. Kondo Exhibition by Maxwell Young

 Artist Mensa A. Kondo outside of Uptown Art House.  Photograph by Maxwell Young

Artist Mensa A. Kondo outside of Uptown Art House.  Photograph by Maxwell Young

There's a skateboard with colorful paint blotches lying on the concrete floor of Uptown Art House.  Mensa A. Kondo, who's currently working on his installation for his exhibition Twelve Twenty One, finishes his clementine and kick-pushes over to his mural.  Vivid blue arms and hands, some featuring six fingers, rip through a green chasm that exposes the viewer to a hell-ish dimension laden with gazing eyeballs.  The piece stretches across an entire wall of the Art House evoking images from the 2002 film The Scorpion King, in which Rick O'Connell duels with Mathayus (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) over the abyss of the Underworld and the thousands of demon souls. 

Kondo has been a seriously trained artist since high school where he attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Northwest Washington, D.C.  He reminisces about his old art teachers Mr. Harris and Mr. Easton with Jabari, another Duke Ellington alumnus and woodwind musician while we talk under the night sky.  "I first started my style at Duke.  We all went to Duke, most of us kids in the art scene here," says Kondo.

Twelve Twenty One is Kondo's fifth solo exhibition.  It is an amalgamation of works new and old as well as a "manifestation" of himself as an artist.  "There's pieces in the exhibit that I've had since 2011," he says.  "One was my first really big piece and it's an oil painting.  I don't really like oil painting that much anymore."

Sonics will be provided during the exhibition by local artists including *Discipline 99, Shaka, Luke Stewart with Trae the Drummer, and some familiar names from the Sounds of D.C. playlist like Sir E.U. with RobSmokesBands, Mr. Daywalker, Aquatic Gardner, St. Clair Castro and Dreamcast.  This is also a family affair, as Mensa's sister, Meche Korrect, is hosting the show.

The following is a snippet of the conversation I had with Kondo during his installation process:

MY: It seems like music is a complimentary aspect to your process.  What kind of music do you like to listen to?

MK: I've been listening to a lot of old shit, like some old psychedelic bands.  I like that sound--like 'y'all on hella drugs,' but it varies.  I had a Death Grips period, they're wild; they're on some cult shit, so I can't be fucking with them.  I would listen to them if I had to fight a whole set of people...Pink Floyd...Bad Brains forever.  I've seen them perform four times.  I got to see them here and in New York a few times.  The [mosh] pit was epic.

 Kondo takes a moment to appreciate his Bad Brains tattoo.

Kondo takes a moment to appreciate his Bad Brains tattoo.

MY: Who influenced you as an artist?

MK: There's a lot of people.  It even goes beyond artists.  I like comic artists.  Geof Darrow and Frank Miller--he did Sin City.  I like Miller's art, but I didn't like his writing.

MK: I do have some of Basquiat's things, though.

MY: You have some Basquiat pieces?

MK: No, things, like a jacket of his--my friend gave it to me.  I did find a little bit of hair in it and I threw it away.  I have some photos of him, too.

MY: Where else have you shown your work?

MK: I showed at the Warhol...

MY: Hold up.  You know I'm from Pittsburgh.

MK: I needed to find some more thrift stores up that way.  But yea, I won third place in this print-making competition.  That was the show I was most impressed about.  I've put on a few shows in D.C. by myself.  I rented out a spot on U St. one time, it was $100/day.  That was around 2012.  Now it's a barbershop.  I had something at Art Under Presser when they were still open on Georgia Avenue, and I had something at Union Arts when they were still open.  I was in Philly recently, too.

MY: What's your favorite medium?

MK: I like print-making the most.  You can make the print and just leave it.  I love painting, too, but you can make multiple prints and print on t-shirts.  It's dope. 

Twelve Twenty One

June 24th-30th

Uptown Art House

3412 Connecticut Avenue, NW

Washington, D.C. 20008