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Kobie Solomon
Been to the Morrie in Royal Oak lately? Or Otus Supply in Ferndale? Maybe Detroit Eastern Market’s “Murals in the Market” which the Smithsonian designated as one of the top five mural festivals in the world? If so, you’ve likely seen work by Kobie Solomon, a mixed media artist who is internationally known for large, colorful street art murals. Solomon graduated in 1995 from Bloomfield Hills Schools (Lahser), promptly moved to the city of Detroit, and says the world has been expanding ever since.

“I graduated when I was 17,” explains Solomon. “I actually left early, and I did not have any kind of idea about how big the world of art was when I was in high school. I loved making art, but I was abysmally ignorant of what was out there. What I was making in high school was limited to my awareness and interests. I wasn’t trying to expand and experiment with paint and with colors until after I got to college at the Center for Creative Studies. My classes there were in the same vein, 2D, but my focus was more on illustration and fine art.”

A trip to Art Basel in Miami was a launchpad for the huge murals Solomon is known for producing. Solomon explains, “Art Basel Miami and the Wynwood Walls started off as an annual city-wide art exhibition. Because there were so many artists down there, eventually street artists started going. You can’t put a bunch of graffiti artists together and not expect them to go out and start tagging stuff, especially when you are talking about the best of the best in the world. They’re going to go out, and they’re going to interact and be painting. As a result of that side project, this thing called Wynwood Walls came about which is the great-grandfather of every mural festival that has been happening, especially in Detroit. There would be no Murals in the Market festival without Wynwood Walls. The fact that street art even exists in Detroit is absolutely, 100 percent connected to Wynwood Walls and Art Basel.”

Solomon did four years of projects at Wynwood Walls, saying, “The first year was a straight up piece of graffiti, really high-end street art. The second year I did a really big production piece with one of the members of MSK, which is one of the biggest graffiti crews in the world. The third year, I went down with a couple of Detroit artists, and we did a collaboration on the wall. The fourth year, I did a huge character.”

Still, Solomon remains a local artist, with a residence and studio in Pontiac, a beautiful and inspirational daughter, and an appreciation for Bloomfield Hills Schools roots.

Solomon took 2D art classes like painting and drawing in high school, unapologetically “a huge comics nerd” at the time. Solomon has fond memories of teacher Norm Stewart, for both the most negative and most positive experience in high school. “I was a troubled student, and that’s no mystery,” Solomon discloses. “I was a pain for a lot of people. Mr. Stewart had a supply closet in the classroom. And I would tear through magic rub erasers constantly because I was always using pencils for all my drawings, and magic rubs were the best erasers.

“Well, I pilfered an entire box of magic rubs out of the supply closet. Norm found out about it and kicked me out of the art department. So, there was a semester of me thinking about it and realizing that was really stupid because he probably would have given me a handful if I had asked for them. Look, I’m a screw up. Outside of art I didn’t have a future...and I knew it. So, I went back, and I asked him if he would let me back in. And Norm forgave me and let me back into the art department.”

Today, Solomon focuses on murals or large installation work, but also does conceptual illustrations, comic illustrations, and graphic design. The Photoshop creative suite is the starting point for a lot of design work, but Solomon doesn’t do 3D graphics or motion art. “I enjoy doing large format work a lot more than smaller stuff. There’s a physicality to the large work that does not exist with a smaller work. I’m able to put on music and really tune out when I’m focusing on a large piece.”

The production process for a large art piece is something of a mystery for non-artists, but to Solomon, it’s a normal part of being. “Let’s say you are working on a smaller painting,” Solomon explains, “something that let’s say is the size of a sheet of letter paper. Even though you are working on a smaller section of the drawing, your mind is picking up the total. Because it’s smaller, your subconscious and even your direct conscious is more or less aware of the whole. When you start working on really, really big stuff, what ends up happening is that part of your mind expands to accommodate the fact that you are working with a larger space. Even though you are working on a very small area, your mind is aware of the whole while you are working on that small section. It’s like your whole body becomes your hand, and it’s almost like there’s an eye floating out behind you.”

For today’s artists, social media has changed everything. “Once upon a time, hype had something to do with an artist’s success but it was not nearly a big of a part,” says Solomon. “Overnight, you can become world famous because of a painting and because of a share by the right person or props by the right person or people. It was not like that when I started at all.”

Still, making a name as an artist has been a long road in the Detroit area, especially starting out. Says Kobie, “When I started as a ‘street artist,’ there was -- and is -- a whole stigma about carrying a spray can. For some reason people don’t think we are real artists because we choose to use a spray can. They expect us to work for free because we use a spray can. It’s really obnoxious. When I started, it was a completely different industry, as there was no street art or graffiti industry in the city at all. There were maybe two or three different people getting paid to do that kind of work. It was like pulling teeth to convince people that this art was viable and valuable. Unfortunately, the Detroit metro area is a little bit behind the rest of the world when it comes to the debate. It’s still an ongoing debate here on street art versus real art. That debate was settled in 1985 with Jean Michel Basquiat. It’s 30 years old, but we are still talking about it in Detroit.”

Kobie cautions up-and-coming artists of any kind to focus equally on their body of work and their social media exposure. “I see a lot of people doing either/or. If you focus on the artwork and focus on your craft, most things will follow. Because of the digital age a lot of people get caught up in a social media persona more than the mastery of their craft.” Another recommendation is to make patience part of your toolkit, as much as a pencil or a can of spray paint. “The higher the stakes of the job, the worse the waiting is,” Kobie reveals. “For younger artists coming up, patience might be the greatest single virtue. If somebody is going to take a creative path down the road, learn patience in all things. Zen like patience...with yourself, with your clients, with your work, with the industry. Really, it might be the single most important thing. Because there’s so many things connected with that kind of patience, like being able to keep going when you fail requires patience with yourself, being able to take a project back from a client 20 times until you get it right, listening to clients nitpick details, being able to hear their words of all requires patience.”

As Kobie practices this patience, he also continues to design, experiment, and grow as an artist. “There’s so much more competition that is in-your-face competition as opposed to abstract competition. It’s definitely expanded the audience. When I was growing up, if I did a mural, it might take years for an image of it to end up in Tokyo. Now, because of social media and digital media, I can do a piece and before I even finish, someone in Australia could see it. The audience with social media is insane. Anybody, anywhere in the world can see what you just did in real time. It’s mind blowing, and it’s absolutely changed the game.”

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