photography

It's Never Too Late to Have a Quinceañera, Especially in the Name of Art by Maxwell Young

Ashley Llanes’ self-portraits will be on view today at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters.

Photographer Ashley Llanes abhorred the idea of a Quinceañera, but eight years later it became the inspiration to her thesis project. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

Photographer Ashley Llanes abhorred the idea of a Quinceañera, but eight years later it became the inspiration to her thesis project. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

La Quinceañera—a coming of age celebration in Latin American culture when a young woman turns fifteen, transitioning to a mujercita. The extravagant ball along with the pomp-and-circumstance is akin to Judaism’s Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, except closely aligned with Catholicism.

Eight years ago, Ashley Llanes rejected her Quinceañera opportunity. A Cuban-American growing up in Miami, Florida, she was surrounded by the tradition and the lineage of women in her family who embarked on the ceremony. Portraits of her mother, grandmother, and great grandmother adorned her living room while her older sisters, who each elected to have Quinceañeras, memorialized their rite of passages, too. Through the task of being a mujercita, there are cultural and gender expectations that Llanes felt misrepresented herself. Wearing makeup and shaving was counter to the girl with the pixie haircut, challenging stereotypes.

“I wasn’t interested in conserving my culture,” the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design alumnus reflected back to her 15-year-old self.

At 23-years-old, however, the D.C.-based photographer has made peace with her “punk-ass” adolescence, and her self-portrait series, La Quinceañera, is a retrospective take on the aesthetics of the tradition. “Now is when I’ve been able to appreciate the tradition and the actual priviledge,” her hindsight is 20-20. “You don’t do this unless you want to look back at your ancestors and say, ‘They did this. Why not me?’”

Personifying the conservative ideals of the celebration and the femininity her parents wanted to see, Llanes’ portraits emulate stereotypical Quinceañera photoshoots. There’s the casual beach shoot and the studio shoot, everything mindful of the cultural notions. I stopped by one of these photoshoots in February to find her hair slicked in a bun, secured by a plentitude of bobby-pins and an encrusted tiara that accentuated her cinderella dress—she was quintessential Quince.

“I shaved everything for this. I became hyper aware of body hair, which was such a weird thing, and for months because I did this project for a year,” Llanes spoke to the vulnerability in the level of vanity she forced herself to maintain; a type of method acting she endured as she considers each of her self portraits performance pieces. “It was torturous because I subscribed to this character for so long.”

Relieved to return to her edginess, septum piercing and all, there is a stark contrast between the Ashley we see in the images and the Ashley who will share her work today at the Human Rights Campaign headquarters for The Latino GLBT History Project’s Voices of Pride exhibition. Come and view her series and stay for the artist talk to learn more about her work with identity.

Voices of Pride

5-9pm (Artist Talk 7:30pm)

1640 Rhode Island Ave, NW

Washington, D.C.

Soon-to-be Corcoran School Alumni Poised to Infiltrate Art Industries by Maxwell Young

Performers in Yacine Fall’s thesis project,  Un Lien , rehearse for “NEXT,” Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s thesis showcase. Polaroids by  Maxwell Young

Performers in Yacine Fall’s thesis project, Un Lien, rehearse for “NEXT,” Corcoran School of the Arts and Design’s thesis showcase. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

Washington, D.C.—Two bronze-cast lions lay await in front of the entrance to the Corcoran School of the Arts & Design. Protectors of the realms of imagination and creative skill—they size-up the foreign body approaching. I am a George Washington University alumnus all the same, but there is a difference between the School of Business degree I received in 2017 and the Fine Arts/Photojournalism/Art History/Interior Design/Theater/etc. degrees that will be awarded to the graduating classes this coming May.

For 150 years, the Corcoran name has been “dedicated to art and used solely for the purpose of encouraging the American genius.” That was the mission of the oldest and largest private art museum in the District of Columbia, when banker William Wilson Corcoran endowed the Gallery in 1869, and it still rings true today as its graduates and undergraduates prepare for their thesis showcase.

“NEXT” is a 30 year-old tradition for the arts and design students. A public display of the art world’s future stars, it’s both an exhibition for employers and art enthusiasts to see fresh perspectives in contemporary art as well as a culmination of the skillsets burgeoning artists have acquired throughout their education. On Thursday, April 25, the collection opens, amplifying work of varying mediums across disciplines.

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of previewing select compositions and installations from several undergraduate seniors. Artists Yacine Fall, Ashley Llanes, Seung Hyun Rhee, and Layla K. Saad explore themes of shared and personal identity in their thesis projects.

“I had never seen Muslim artwork on the walls of a gallery,” Saad admitted to me as we observed her seven-piece installation, United States of Being. Elements of wood-work, 3-D printing, quilting, and print making inform her project. The New Mexican-born artist’s Muslim heritage is intertwined with Native American culture as well as Egyptian-Lebanese lineages. When the Corcoran’s mission was written centuries ago, I doubt the encouragement of the “American genius” included the work of people who looked like Saad. “What about the Muslim kids who are interested in artwork? They don’t have this imagery to reference. They have Michelangelo. They have Picasso…all of these other artists who are interesting, but they don’t have something relevant to their identity.”

This re-contextualization of culture is evident in the respective work of all four artists. In addition to Saad’s installation, Yacine Fall debuts a performance piece, Un Lien, that uses burlap rope, clay, and the physical presence of eleven other bodies to connect histories and individual experiences together. Ashley Llanes’ La Quinceañera seeks to find the balance between her teenage self, who wanted to challenge stereotypes, and her current self, who values the conservation of culture, through a series of self portraits that evaluate the aesthetics of quinceañera tradition. And Seung Hyun Rhee’s Homesick uses manual and digital collage of K-pop stars to juxtapose his described "militant” music interest against his daily routine of American life as reflections of his desire to return home to South Korea.

Keep your eyes peeled to InTheRough pages as we dig deeper into these topics in individual articles. We will unveil more insight into the artists and their work while the “NEXT” exhibition is displayed until Monday, May 20. Admission for “NEXT” is free and open to the public. Don’t miss the opening Senior thesis show on Thursday from 6-9pm.

“NEXT” Senior Thesis Show

April 25, 6-9pm

Corcoran School of the Arts and Design

500 17th St, NW

Washington, D.C. 20006 

Tyler Calpin Completes His First Solo Show as an Artist by Alex Young

Tyler Calpin standing in front of his pieces part of the “Searching for Jenny” exhibit at Social Status on Jan. 25, 2019. | photographs by Alex Young

Tyler Calpin standing in front of his pieces part of the “Searching for Jenny” exhibit at Social Status on Jan. 25, 2019. | photographs by Alex Young

Mid-show, he stops the conversation to cross the room and adjust one of his art pieces that shifted out of position from the significant crowd moving about the exhibit. Tyler Calpin was living out his dream of achieving his first solo show at a relevant destination for culture and community in Pittsburgh, the Social Status streetwear boutique. “It’s very surreal right now,” he described his emotions.

Inside the shop’s Downtown location last Friday, Jan. 25, 2019, Slim Tha DJ spun records for the young audience of artists and tastemakers supporting Calpin in his moment. Calpin showed “Searching for Jenny,” a photography exhibition dedicated to his hometown Youngstown, Ohio.

“Jenny” was the name of the last working blast furnace in the United States of America. The steel industry was vital to Youngstown’s economy and once it was shut down on September 19, 1977 it left a financial depression in the city. “There’s still a lot of stuff left over from it in terms of architecture or structures that are remaining that were around from that time,” Calpin said of the deteriorating, midwestern factory settings he photographed for his art. Calpin’s great-great and great-grandfathers worked in the Youngstown Steel mills. The work in “Searching for Jenny” connects Calpin to his family roots. Though his images focus on a past dead and gone, the colorful collage aspects to his art breathe life back into the buildings and parts that were lively about the Youngstown community before.

Honestly, Calpin is grateful for being able to leave Youngstown for Pittsburgh and add something to the culture here. While he’s doing his job at Social Status literally as a sales associate, the Pittsburgh transplant is also aware of the opportunities he has at the business platform to advance his own brand.

“For me, it’s just bringing people in and furthering the idea of community,” he said. It feels that way when potential customers walk in feeling welcomed, observing the sales associates, who are often local movers and shakers like Tyler Calpin or rapper My Favorite Color, openly converse about contemporary culture. “Whether it’s through fashion, sneakers or art… It started for me through skateboarding,” he explained. “All of these communities, as I’ve gown older, I can see how they all blend in a lot of ways.” Calpin’s location at Social Status makes him a familiar face when it comes to linking with other artists in these various scenes. “It shows people that we’re accessible and that we’re human,” he said. Calpin made the decision to utilize the shop for his artwork once he saw his college peer and fellow photographer Sharimar Cruz display her work there.

I think consistency is important in photography whether it’s pictures of yourself or consistency in your content.
— Tyler Calpin

Now, Calpin makes it work for himself in a “do-able” climate that’s not too busy or overwhelming like in big markets such as Los Angeles or New York. He meets his goals in Pittsburgh by “building genuine relationships, being yourself, and being consistent around those people,” he said. One of the relationships he’s continued to cultivate is with rapper Choo Jackson of ForeverKool Records. Calpin shot cover art, and merchandise looks for Choo. Next, he worked on Choo’s “Anime 2” album art with another artist Travis Carter. “I like to work with people who trust my ideas wholeheartedly,” Calpin said. “Be on the lookout for ‘Anime 2’ because that shit’s about to be fire,” he promoted.

Calpin wants to be known as “The King of the Midwest” stressing the value in regional notoriety rather than the coolness you get from being internationally or nationally recognized. With features in more shows, like those at Artists Image Resource gallery on the North Side on February 15 and April 12, he looks to expand to other cities like Chicago or Philadelphia. “I just want to keep producing work at the highest level possible,” he finished.

Tyler Calpin behind the sales counter at Social Status | photograph by Alex Young   Read the transcript of Tyler Calpin’s interview below.

Tyler Calpin behind the sales counter at Social Status | photograph by Alex Young

Read the transcript of Tyler Calpin’s interview below.


InTheRough: You have the infamous selfie mirror over there. Please talk about that energy.

Tyler Calpin: So, I started taking the mirror pics everyday just to show off what I was wearing and to show people I was in the store. See if I could bring people in through my Instagram, which sounds so corny. It became one of those things that people started to respond to it. I was like oh this is actually kinda fun. It’s something I can do consistently. I think consistency is important in photography whether it’s pictures of yourself or consistency in your content. It was just one of those things. As soon as people would come in the store and tell me, “Oh, I saw your pic. I saw you were here. Oh, that’s a dope fit.” I was like okay I gotta keep doing this everyday. The daily fit pic (laughs).

ITR: How do you try to use your role at Social Status to further your brand?

Calpin: Ultimately, I’m just a sales associate, so I’m just here to help customers and make sales. For me, it’s just bringing people in and furthering the idea of community whether it’s through fashion, sneakers or art. That’s really important to me because all of those things are tied together in a lot of ways. It started for me through skateboarding. All of these communities, as I’ve gown older, I can see how they all blend in a lot of ways and how they take things from each other to kind of further itself. I always use the example of “clout bags.” You know, the shoulder bags. People in skateboarding were using those two or three years before hypebeasts or anyone like that.

ITR: Before rappers.

Calpin: Yeah, it’s something you can throw your camera, a bottle of water, your phone or your wallet in. Sling it across your back and just go.

Basically, my role here is bring people around and get them hip to shopping here. For me, I’ve always wanted to work here since I came to Pittsburgh. I bought my first Bape tee here. I was hooked. Being able to do that for other people makes me feel very validated in a lot of ways, which is crazy to say just working a retail job, but making someone happy through a material good is super awesome.

ITR: It feels like the new-age barbershop in here. You guys are in here choppin’ it up and when you come in that’s really happening.

Calpin: That’s how it is and that’s what’s really important to me. I want people to feel like they can come in here and just say hi and hang out for a little bit. Have a conversation whether it’s about personal things or they want to chop it up about the culture, sneakers or whatever. That’s basically what we’re here for and that’s what’s really important to me. It shows people that we’re accessible and that we’re human.

[Playboi Carti’s “Yah Mean” plays in the background.]

ITR: How does it feel to achieve a goal? That goal being your first solo art show at Social Status because you’ve been striving for this for a couple years.

Images from Youngstown, Ohio by Tyler Calpin

View more work at his “@lil35mm” Instagram handle.

Calpin: It was one of the first things when I was living in a dorm room at Point Park [University] and I started coming here and being able to look at this stuff I couldn’t afford it then but it was so nice to be able and come and look and not feel like I wasn’t welcome here. Once I started to see they were part of the gallery crawl and it doubled as a space that was not only for sneakers and fashion culture, but for art as well it was important for me to get my work and myself in here. What really inspired me was seeing Shar [Sharimar Cruz] do her work here. She went to Point Park and I was in classes with her. Seeing how accessible it was to people that are around in the Downtown area, but Pittsburgh in general. I came here, I saw what I could do, and I set out to get that goal. It took longer than I wanted it to, but that’s how things go sometimes.

ITR: Yeah, time.

Calpin: Time is really important. Believe me, when I was 17 years old, I would’ve loved to have solo shows. But I didn’t have the knowledge. I didn’t have the resources. I didn’t have any idea of what it really took. Now, five years later I’m 22 years old and I have that knowledge. I have those resources and I have the capabilities and the ability to cultivate the opportunities to make those kind of things happen. Being able to have my first solo show here means a lot to me. It was that first place that really struck me I was like, “I gotta do it.” It’s very surreal right now. Seeing it on the walls is just crazy right now.

ITR: What does it mean to debut “Searching for Jenny” in Pittsburgh? Obviously you go to school here and you lived close by being from Youngstown. When’s the first time you saw Pittsburgh as an opportunity?

Calpin: I would say I saw Pittsburgh as an opportunity the second I started coming here. My friend Ben and I would come out on random Saturdays. We would come out when it’s this cold outside. For the record, it’s like single digits right now. We would come out we’d go to the South Side. Go to the skate shop. Get Primanti Bros. Go to the Strip District. Stuff like that. It just seemed like one of those cities that it was do-able. It’s bigger than Youngstown, but it’s not like L.A. or New York where things are so overwhelming or super busy. Once I got to Pittsburgh in 2015, I started to see people who I was close with getting opportunities. I was friends with a lot of the juniors and seniors when I was a freshman. That was when they started to get their solo shows and group shows and their opportunities. As soon as I started to see it work for other people, I knew it could work for me too. All it took was talking to the right people and being genuine. If I could tell myself that years ago, I would run with that information. Truthfully. If all I knew it took was building genuine relationships, being yourself, and being consistent around those people…

ITR: That’s the big part about it.

Calpin: Yeah, it’s really important to continue to cultivate those opportunities. It goes back to that community that we have here. When people stop in once or twice a week that’s awesome. We have people that come in if they’re Downtown they’ll stop in just to say hi. That’s really important because those are people that I know that care about us as human beings and they know we’re something more than just sales associates. We’re human beings and creatives as well. When people can see that about you and they’re more interested in your personal life than what they can get out of you at the store, that’s really important.

ITR: What’s your ultimate goal?

Calpin: My goal is to keep doing this shit man. I just want to keep producing work at the highest level possible whether that’s conceptually or just producing a lot of things. I have my hands in a ton of stuff right now. I want to keep it that way. I just want to keep it moving and see where it takes me because that’s what got me going in the first place and that’s going to keep me afloat. Ultimately, my goal is to keep doing shows whether it’s a group show or a solo show. Ideally, I want to be the king of the Midwest. I want my work to be known in a region. Being national and international is so cool, but that takes a lot of time. My goal after Pittsburgh is going to somewhere like Chicago or Philadelphia. I want to do some stuff in Cleveland and especially in the Youngstown area. I do plan to show this work in the Youngstown area because it would be so stupid to not show it there. Not only do I want the people of the area to see it and appreciate it, but I just want them to see someone from Youngstown started there, went somewhere else, did something with their life, and is paying it forward in a lot of ways. I’d like to see myself curate shows as well. That’s something that I do like to do. But, yeah, I just want to expand regionally before I start to make the jump nationally or internationally.

ITR: What’s your role with Reviving Real?

Calpin: Specifically with Reviving Real, I do a lot of the photography work almost all of the photography work. You know, just pushing the product and getting people hip to the idea that we’re not only a clothing brand, but we’re a media platform at this point. The clothing is more like merchandise to the platform We do artists’ spotlights, blog posts, and we just partnered with Matt’s Music Mine. I know he’s a great journalist so that merging of music and journalism and culture it’s really important. We make promotional videos. We help people build electronic press kits. People that are looking to expand how they advertise themselves and what they do whether it’s through music, photography or art. We help people get the resources to make those things happen. We also consult people. We’ll sit down and have a conversation with you for a small fee. That knowledge is so valuable. What’s 50 bucks for a two-hour conversation that could turn into 500 or a thousand dollars in two months if you really use that to your advantage.

Alex Young (left) and Tyler Calpin (right) in front of the infamous fit pic mirror at Social Status. | photograph by Tyler Calpin

Alex Young (left) and Tyler Calpin (right) in front of the infamous fit pic mirror at Social Status. | photograph by Tyler Calpin

ITR: How else do you plan to add to the Pittsburgh culture. You’ve worked with people in the scene like rapper Choo Jackson or you’ve done lookbooks for brands like vintage shop Senseless. How will you continue to use yourself as a resource to the community?

Calpin: Keep doing stuff like that to be honest with you. I don’t like to close myself off from people, but I like to work with people who are genuine, believe in me, and trust my ideas wholeheartedly. Keep doing work with people that trust me to come to the table with ideas knowing that I can produce it and make it a reality. People that are open to me and don’t think my prices are too high and understand why they are that why. I don’t ask for what I ask for just because I have bills to pay. It’s the level of the work that you’re going to receive. I’m not trying to be full of myself. You know what you’re going to get for that price and it’s not going to be some bottom of the barrel shit. You can find someone that’s gonna do it for 50 bucks and it’s gonna look like it’s 50 bucks. If I’m asking 300 or 400 dollars it’s going to look like a three or 400 dollar job. I’m not going to put 20 minutes into it. I’m going to make it my life for a week and a half if I have to to make it the product you want. If we have to go back to the drawing board, then so be it. I want people to be happy with what they receive from me, but also happy with what they’re paying for. I like to sit down with people in a pre-production meeting and talk about the ideas before we even touch a camera or open up my computer and start doing things. I’m very into that idea of making sure I deliver a product that my clients are happy with.

ITR: Respect. There’s nothing wrong with knowing your worth.

Calpin: I don’t know if I can say this, but I did do the “Anime 2” cover in a collab with another artist. His name is Travis Carter. Choo hit me up with idea and was like, “Hey I really want to use your collage style,” and I was like yeah, let’s do it. That’s something that I’ve done for him before. It’s obviously something that people respond to. I made the collage. I sent it off to Travis. He did some things with it and all I have to say is the final product looks really dope. So be on the lookout for “Anime 2” because that shit’s about to be fire.

[Tara Fay, a Social Status manager, offers Tyler Calpin dessert humus.]

ITR: Can you briefly touch on the color in your work?

Calpin: You know, basically, I’m ripping these structures a part in an area that feels slightly deteriorated and it’s not the way it used to be. A lot of things have changed since the steel industry left. There’s still a lot of stuff left over from it in terms of architecture or structures that are remaining that were around from that time, but there may not be a business in it. So, I photograph these structures. By cutting them at these really important seams, that’s why a lot of it is cut at the corners or where things start to intersect, I pull them a part there and I put the color behind it to in essence to breathe life back into it. I feel like color is one of those things it’s very lively. So many of the colors I’ve chosen are really vibrant.

Opening—Brother Where Art Thou—a Portrait Exhibition by Vanessa Dos Santos by Maxwell Young

Arriving in Chocolate City over a year ago, multi-disciplinary artist Vanessa Dos Santos asked herself, “Where are the people from this area? Where are all the black people?”

Photograph by  Vanessa Dos Santos  | Flyer by Maxwell Young

Photograph by Vanessa Dos Santos | Flyer by Maxwell Young

The Mozambican-born, D.C. transplant has answered her own question through her photography exhibition, Brother, Where Art Thou? Opening at The Village Cafe this Tuesday, Santos’ portraits focus on a number of black male artists within the District’s creative ecosystem whose work she has come to know and admire. From performance artist Maps Glover to producers Jamal Gray and Tony Cruise, her subjects represent an experimental aspect of black art that is overlooked by those who consume it with mainstream palettes.

“I think oftentimes with black arts, there is an expectancy of the kind of work we put out that can pigeonhole us,” she said. “I feel like a lot of the men I’ve photographed want to push that.”

Santos herself notes a similar compartmentalization of her own narrative. Originally in school for writing, submitting works to publications like Gal-Dem and Napizium, as well as pursuing acting with the National Youth Theater, the 26-year old acknowledges that she is still learning the tricks of the photography trade.

“I think it’s sometimes hard to admit or tell people I do photography because there is such a large influx of photographers. So, if I’m going to tell people I am one I feel like I need to know everything,” she explained.

Regardless of the technicalities involved with her craft, Santos has an eye for composition. She’s recently been toying with edits reminiscent of the double exposure process. In the photo below on the far left, which is actually two separate shots, she captures herself and friend Sami Cola dressed in nothing but wigs, crouched in an unknown grove. The contrast of Santos’ black body overlaid on Cola’s white body is immediately evident, yet their technicolored wigs and their bare exposure to nature allude to this sense of freedom that trumps any symbolism of race.

We asked her about her first upcoming solo exhibition below.

InTheRough: What camera do you shoot with?

Vanessa Dos Santos: I mix between my two cameras: Canon AE-1 and Mamiya 645. For this series I used my Mamiya, which is a medium format camera.


ITR: DC by way of Mozambique...is there anywhere else that you lived that was formative in your creative evolution?


VDS: Every place I lived in has formed my creativity in some way. I feel like my creativity is a huge part of how I understand myself so it’s natural for it to be shaped by the different places I go, if that makes sense. I have lived in New York, Maputo, Berlin, Paris, London and now DC. I think London was the most formative city for me. It’s where I learnt to fail and start again and where I started picking up different things. I was studying writing in school, but acting with the National Youth Theatre, writing for online publications, starting to photograph friends, and work various production jobs.


ITR: Other than their ethnicity, what are the common threads between your subjects?

VDS: Everyone I have photographed does something creative. I have kind of been a wallflower and watched on the side lines some of things people have been doing and admired the tenacity of everyone’s work. Especially because a lot of the artists create sort of experimental work and I think oftentimes with black artists there is an expectancy of the kind of work we put out that can pigeonhole us. I feel like a lot of the men I’ve photographed want to push that. I also think being an artist is to be vulnerable all the time, and I think we don’t think that way about black men very much—as being vulnerable or open.

ITR: Why did you feel compelled to show these series of portraits?

VDS: I wanted to show this work because when I moved to DC I didn’t really know much about the arts community and I also mostly met people from other cities who migrated here. I was asking myself where are the people who are from this area, where are all the black people? This is chocolate city? I guess it was more of not knowing where to look, but I think that also says something that it took me a year to find out about the creative community and the POC who are a part of it.

A portrait of Tony Cruise & an untitled photograph by Vanessa Dos Santos.

A portrait of Tony Cruise & an untitled photograph by Vanessa Dos Santos.

ITR: As you look through the lens what are your next proceeding thoughts? 

VDS: First I try to make sure my settings are right—technical stuff. When I am photographing someone, I hope to capture an essence of the person. I think about about how I can make them feel comfortable. So, I’m usually thinking what pose can I do to get them to feel a bit more relaxed and not so tense. Then hopefully we can start to feel at ease with each other and we can “play” around a bit.

ITR: Are there any photographers who’s work you follow consistently? 

VDS: There are so many photographers that I look to for inspiration: Ronan McKenzie, Rosie Matheson, Travis Matthews, Charlotte Rea, Daniel Arnold, Nakeya Brown to name a few (all you can find on Instagram). I really appreciate photographers that are telling a story through their work. I think a lot of photography we find online is strongly linked to consumerism—and you can find amazing images but it’s about selling something. So I appreciate photographers who tell stories and capture magical moments just because. But I also like cinematographer’s that have a photographer’s eye. I like photos that are cinematic, like they feel like a scene of a film—like there is life before and after the moment you captured.

ITR: You yourself are a self-taught photographer. What aspect(s) of photography are you still learning?

VDS: I’m still learning a lot. Technically, I still make mistakes. I want to learn how to scan my own photos and get back into using a dark room for B&W photography. But I also think I’m learning to trust my own eye, to believe in myself as an artist. I think it’s sometimes hard to admit or tell people I do photography because there is such a large influx of photographers. So, if I’m going to tell people I am one I feel like I need to know everything. I’m trying not to be so hard on myself and enjoy the process of learning and changing.

ITR: What advice would you give to other self-starters?

VDS: The advice I would give to self-starters is to start by asking how to use the camera you have or searching online (Youtube is great). Know your camera and then start shooting as much as you can—first with close friends and family. Then you can shoot people you don’t necessarily know--because if you want to do it professionally, you will have shoot models, couples, weddings, events with people you have never met and it becomes easier for you to figure out how to direct others or to capture moments. I would also say ask other photographers questions, go to photo exhibitions, immerse yourself in the world--but I think that goes with most things you want to pursue.

ITR: Where else can we find your work?

VDS: I’m going to be working on a website for my photography and writing, but for now you can find me on Instagram: @mozwrites. I post everything there but 2019 I want to start actually sending work to publications and taking it more seriously.

Brother, Where Art Thou? by Vanessa Dos Santos is on view at The Village Cafe starting Tuesday evening.

The Village Cafe

1272 5th St, NE

7-10pm

**Photographs taken by Vanessa Dos Santos. The edited image pictured in the carousel was also assisted by Sami Cola.

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.

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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.