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 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


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

Nate Gski's 'Uptown Story' Comic Serves as a Time Capsule for D.C. by Maxwell Young

Across four issues, Nate G has transmuted his Northwest, Washington, D.C. experience into a fantasized world populated with your favorite hometown musicians, wielding superhuman powers.

The artistic talents of some members of the DMV’s music community have been reinterpreted into super powers by Nate G.

The artistic talents of some members of the DMV’s music community have been reinterpreted into super powers by Nate G.

Uptown Story is a comic series started by Nathaniel Benneton Gray, who was first introduced to InTheRough as an emcee. After purchasing several sketches as well as a t-shirt from his Niga line, the label “rapper” merely scratches the surface of Nate G’s creativity. The artist who has “UPTOWN” tatted on his belly, is time-stamping the people and the places who have contextualized the D.C. he’s known, lived, and loved.

“If I had a camera, a budget, and some actors, I would make this a movie,” he said, addressing the group of people gathered at Shopkeepers in October to learn more about the narrative of his comics. “But I have something better. I have my pen and my imagination.”

Although volumes are accessible via Instagram, Nate G presented a number of large-scale versions in the basement of the cafe/retail space on Florida Avenue. The vivid comic panels were reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s 1963 series, Flash, which chronicled the assassination of John F. Kennedy through screen prints of photographs and texts pulled from various news publications. Patrons took their time reading each piece, the stories developing as they advanced around the room.

Cap’n Uptown is the main protagonist throughout the series.  A sketch by Gray of an omnipotent God and Nubian angels descending a cherub from heaven into the D.C. streets birthed the idea of Uptown Story.  Illustrated shirtless with a red cape, golden bracelets, rings, chains, and the same “UPTOWN” tattoo that Nate bares, the superhero evokes images of X-Men  characters, Static Shock, Mr. T, Luke Cage, and of Gray himself.

“It feels like Saturday morning cartoons,” he said of his comics.

Pittsburgh by way of D.C. transplant  Babyteeth  drawn on a comic panel of Nate G’s Uptown Story. Displayed at Shopkeepers; Photograph by Maxwell Young

Pittsburgh by way of D.C. transplant Babyteeth drawn on a comic panel of Nate G’s Uptown Story. Displayed at Shopkeepers; Photograph by Maxwell Young

This sentiment is particularly evident in the way Nate composes scenes and expresses the underlying tones within Uptown Story.  In one of his panels at Shopkeepers, Cap’n Uptown and Afrovelvet, a long-time friend and frequent collaborator of Gray’s, are pit against one another in a heated tennis match before a surprise missile attack interrupts their set, and they have to spring into action.  Nate creates this drama because the reader is distracted by the intense level of competition we perceive that he depicts through command of angles and depth.  Moreover, the suspense is drawn out as the volumes end with cliff-hanging questions that harken back to the manner in which Dragon Ball-Z and other anime comics begin stories “en media res,” or, in the middle of things.

It is important Uptown Story reflects the culture and flavor of Washington, D.C., which is why Nate G draws people like Mista Selecta and Babyteeth encountering evil villains at places like the Uptown Theater—a landmark in the Cleveland Park neighborhood.  In a way, these Uptown Story volumes canonize the creative individuals, institutions, and identities that have contributed to District culture—from the vernacular to the Foamposites.

“There are small D.C. things I try to make that are very D.C.,” he said.

Uptown Story has invigorated Gray’s artistic output as a whole—the drawing and music-making now informing one another.  Not only are his latest EP covers self-illustrated, but he wants to tie the visual representation of Cap’n Uptown into a sonic one; Cap’n Uptown the album.  That’s what he’s refining these days.  In the first quarter of 2019, fans can expect a sensually immersive experience, consuming both Cap’n Uptown comics and Cap’n Uptown music.  Follow Uptown Story here and check out Nate G’s “Full Moon EP” here.

Transformer Auction Party - “Wherefore Art Thou, Olympus?” by Maxwell Young

Silhouettes of Ashley Shey (left) and Yacine Fall (right) during performance piece “Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” by Maps Glover at the 15th annual Transformer Auction Party. Photograph by Maxwell Young

Silhouettes of Ashley Shey (left) and Yacine Fall (right) during performance piece “Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” by Maps Glover at the 15th annual Transformer Auction Party. Photograph by Maxwell Young

Since mid-September, Maps Glover and Uptown Art House have been curating programs and experiences in conjunction with Transformer Gallery, a non-profit art studio in Logan Circle amplifying the work of burgeoning artists around the Washington, D.C. creative ecosystem. What began as a six-week exhibition dubbed What We Leave Behind: In the Name of Art, culminated in a final performance during Transformer’s 15th annual auction party on Saturday night.

"Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” was an exploratory piece considering the spectrum of value civilization has placed on black bodies and images. More specifically, “It was about reaching for an idealized sense of acceptance from white society,” said Jamal Gray, who was a part of the performing troupe.

Glover and Gray along with Yacine Fall, Ra Nubi, Ashley Shey, Sifu Sun, and Hipster Woods were clad in dark tunics and skirts, enshrouded by masks and headdresses made of metal wire. Fastened to a chain that ascended the temple-like steps of George Washington University’s Corcoran School of Art, the sextet moved up and down the grand staircase in tandem with one another, striking poses, tying one another up, and manipulating the chain with their bodies. It was a stark contrast to a predominantly white audience in a predominantly white space raising questions of what this performance was about.

Figuratively, this group of artists who debuted together in Uptown Art House’s audiovisual experience at The Kennedy Center last March, The Landing, transformed themselves into “black deities,” Glover explained, recounting his performance. Coupled with the neoclassical architecture of the Corcoran building, the piece alluded to the idea of white acceptance mentioned by Gray because of the white connotations associated with western mythology. Gods and goddesses represent the epitome of social constructs like beauty, power, and knowledge that black people have been historically disenfranchised from, whether through slavery, racism, or the erasure from history. It’s as if the masks and chains worn by the troupe symbolized the conformity and constraining that happens to black bodies as they navigate this white, western world.

“We can’t exist in this paradigm of America and not address it,” Gray said.

Oscar Cole pictured far right and members of Millennium Arts Salon. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

Oscar Cole pictured far right and members of Millennium Arts Salon. Polaroids by Maxwell Young

Oscar Cole, however, pictured on the far right, had a different perspective of the performance he witnessed at the auction party, telling me disapprovingly, “We must be aware of the images we project.”

Cole, who was sitting with several elder African American members of the Millennium Arts Salon, an organization promoting cultural literacy through art programming, was generations removed from the freedom of expression that he saw Saturday night. Born in 1943 in North Carolina, Cole fought for racial equality, participating in sit-ins. Cole is also an alumnus of Howard University and he also holds a PHD in psychology from the University of Michigan. He could not remove “Wherefore art thou, Olympus?” from his personal context in America—one of long-term resistance to oppression. He saw the six black bodies on the steps and he saw the chains they were bounded by and he was reminded of slavery, a topic in 1943 that could have close ties to his ancestral history. And in 2018 with President Trump condoning images of prejudice, Cole saw an insensitivity to the current times and intolerance minorities experience.

“We’re all slaves to something,” Ra Nubi told me after I shared with her Oscar’s story. “The idea of being a black woman, there’s a type of inescapable truth to what it is to be here and experience this black body. Just because I was born into this doesn’t necessarily mean that I claim it as my identity. However, showing these images is also reiterating a structure that people want to pacify. It’s like, ‘No, we can’t see this because it’s too painful.’ We triggered a sense of trauma in him. And I can understand why he believes that we shouldn’t, but it’s to make him feel comfortable and safe.”

But can black people make art that is devoid from racial context?

“To control the narrative fully, we have to know about the lighting, we have to know about the music, and we have to know about the entrance…” Gray finished.

Stay tuned to InTheRough for more developments on Uptown Art House’s theatrical productions headed into 2019.

‘Black Dove’ by Elijah Williamson, Perfectly Imperfect by Maxwell Young

Elijah WIlliamson stitches back ripped canvas of his “Aunt Jemima” portrait,  Black Dove.  Photographs by Ashley Llanes

Elijah WIlliamson stitches back ripped canvas of his “Aunt Jemima” portrait, Black Dove. Photographs by Ashley Llanes

What do you do when the oil portrait you’ve worked on for a year falls out of the back of a pickup truck, onto the highway, and rolled over by oncoming traffic?

For artist Elijah Williamson, that moment was just the beginning of a beautiful journey to his installation, Black Dove at Maps Glover’s exhibition, What We Leave Behind: In the Name of Arta six week endeavor that ended October 20 at Washington, D.C.’s Transformer Gallery.

Black Dove is a portrayal of “Aunt Jemima,” the matronly or mammy-figured black woman synonymous with thick, fluffy pancake batter and sugary syrup sold in any non-organic supermarket. 

“She,” as Williamson refers to his work, has an overwhelming pureness to her composition.  Jemima’s classic bonnet, usually plaid, is painted white while her brown face is bordered by more strokes of white, creating a stark contrast between light and dark.  The ear was a main focal point for the Corcoran College of Art and Design graduate.  In the decades that Aunt Jemima’s packaging has evolved, her ears have been omitted—stripped down perhaps for lack of necessity.  It’s as if  Williamson plucked this logo from his syrup bottle stashed in the cupboard and humanized “Aunt Jemima,” aggrandizing the black existences of Nancy Green & Anna Harrington whose likeness were manipulated by The Quaker Oats Company.

When you consider this exploitation—the allusion of Southern hospitality brought to you by the hot fixings of your loving ex-slave/negro cook—the rips, smudges, and tatters of the canvas, in a way, seem more fitting for a final piece than the clean, idyllic image Williamson had originally foreseen.

The commercial graphic designer spent the afternoon and evening of Glover’s final Saturday service in October stitching together the torn parts of canvas and re-stapling the composition back to a wooden frame.  It was ceremonious as bystanders helped to hold the frame in place.  During one moment, Williamson sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gon’ Come,” eliciting feelings of an antebellum period.

He reflected on this traumatic journey via email:

InTheRough: Working on a painting for a year takes a lot a of persistence. I find the endeavor interesting because I don't know you as a fine artist. I know you as a graphic designer. What was the impetus behind your undertaking?

Elijah WIlliamson: Yea it’s crazy, I’m actually a fine artist turned graphic designer. When I told one of my drawing instructors in college that I was a GD major, he responded,“I don’t know. I think you may be selling yourself short for a paycheck.” I’ve never forgotten that moment but now that I think about it, I’ve always found a way to marry the two.

For this piece however, it started as a response to my senior thesis project at the Corcoran College of Art and Design at George Washington University. I was investigating pieces of graphic design created during the Harlem Renaissance and was struck by the differences in how Black Americans were portrayed depending on the artist demographic.  I came across a number of stereotypes cast upon the African American community; the first was the “mammy” caricature. I began drawing sketches of Aunt Jemima and around that time, there was an ongoing lawsuit around royalties and proper compensation to the women who reportedly spearheading the morning and then it fed this brand. The story was all too familiar, yet ironic at the same time.  

Visually, it struck me that the representation of Aunt Jemima was never depicted with an ear. I also learned that the character was inspired by a song written by a black minstrel performer. These things coupled with other readings and conversations around Black women in America, I wanted to contribute something that attempted to fill the gaps created by negative stereotypes of black women. I also wanted to contribute to the commentary of costume. It was important for me to remove the headscarf. In so many ways it represented nothing of personal note. It was utility, almost costume. I wanted to challenge the visual perception of how we see “Aunt Jemima”, who for a long time, is how Black women are viewed in America.

It took a year to complete for a number of reasons, the main being my constant attempt to juggle a full schedule but mainly, I wanted to take my time. I was creating other Jemima pieces and I wanted the series to grow and express itself over time. Different portraits went in different directions and meant different things.

ITR: Walk me through the moments after your painting fell out of the truck. How do you rebound from that experience?

EW: Ah.. wow. I had a buddy of mine help me transport it from my place in Virginia to the Gallery. I was constantly turning my head to make sure things were good. One moment it was there, the next it was gone. We pulled over and I immediately took off running back up the shoulder of 395 against traffic. I ran maybe a quarter mile before I saw the piece on the ground, off the stretcher, being ran over by traffic. I remember hearing the wood rolling against the asphalt as it was hit by the rubber of rolling tires and the crashing of vehicles against the canvas. I screamed, “No!”. I was waving my hands trying to stop the traffic until I was able to retrieve the canvas as the cars responded to my hysterics on the side of the highway. After I quickly gathered the remains of what was left of my piece, I headed back up 395 to find the truck. I remember taking a breath on the guard rails on the side of the road and thinking, “What The Fuck!?”

It really was the support and encouragement of my close friends who, in a way, carried me through that experience. I was in a state of shock for some time and really didn’t want to discuss the incident. There were a number of other factors going on that weren’t exactly encouraging. My name was omitted from the list of artist on the first set of postcards for the show, and Maps Glover, my best friend and curator of the show, had been having concerns about whether the exhibition was the right show for this piece. Needless to say, I wanted to drop out of the show. I was pretty shook. A lot of emotions were at blows with each other; shock, anger, pain, wasted time, shame, embarrassment - it was rough. We didn’t know how it was going to work, but I had already been compensated and made the commitment. It was a horrible situation to be in. But we pressed on. The opening was that weekend and it was a hit. My performance wasn’t scheduled for another six weeks. I don’t think I was able to really move pass the fall until the day of my performance. It was still fresh - for me - up until that day.

ITR: How did you arrive at the idea for your performance, which closed out Transformer Gallery?

EW: That performance was about as organic as it gets. I knew I wanted it to be interactive and I wanted to engage the audience. Outside of that it was just about telling the story in a way that was as complete and authentic as necessary. It wasn’t lost on me that this “feminist attempt to present a whole image of black woman” was being lead by a black man. In an effort to subdue myself in light of the content, I chose to have excerpts from the artist statement read aloud by the participants of the show.

Visitors at Transformer Gallery helped Williamson reframe his painting. Photograph by Ashley Llanes

Visitors at Transformer Gallery helped Williamson reframe his painting. Photograph by Ashley Llanes

These excerpts were taken from the Combahee River Collective Statement. A document written by a group of black feminist and lesbians responsible for one of the first introductions of intersectionality into political and social conversations. The name, ‘The Combahee River Collective’, refers to the Combahee River Raid - an expedition of 150 Union Troops lead by Harriet Tubman. The raid lead to the destruction of several South Carolina Estates and plantations. Harriett Tubman is the only woman known to have led a military operation during the American Civil War.

ITR: What songs were you singing? I was eating, so I only heard. Your portrait and your voice transported me back to slave times, especially looking at the images Ashley caught of you sewing it back together. It truly was a spiritual moment. Jemima plays this mammy role and to be canonized in an iconic brand image is very much exploitative.

EW: Yes it is. And the act of revealing that kind of exploitation was what I was trying to execute; exposing this disenfranchisement towards Black Americans, specifically, Black American women—and that does date back to slavery.

The song I sang was ‘A Change Gon’ Come’ by Sam Cooke. It had been with me for a few days that week and it just made sense to perform it. The lyrics really captured a part of what I was trying to say in relation to the subject matter.

ITR: Watching you perform all of these exercises around the portrait: sewing it together, framing it, and celebrating it--the whole experience seems like that's how it was supposed to happen. How do you feel removed the experience?

EW: It’s still pretty surreal. From like the fall to the stretching. I do find a lot of symbolism in the different phases she [the painting] went through. I don’t know if it was ‘supposed’ to happen like that (laugh). But I do believe what happened happened for a reason. I’ve definitely learned a lot from the experience as a whole. I’m extremely grateful, man. It was quite the journey but I’m glad I stuck through it.

ITR: What’s next?

EW: Right now I’m getting settled in DC. Moving in the district will be a big move for me. I’m still painting.  I want to get through this series.

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.