Trinidadian Artist NAMxKeel on Making It in Miami: "You Gotta Start From the Bottom"

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The sound of Lil Wayne's "Beat Build" pumps through the speakers inside of TSL Lounge in Wynwood. Like a mix between skater Terry Kennedy and Trinidad James, minus the leopard slippers, Akeel David leans on against fence wearing gold Reebok Classics matching his gold grills, three gold necklaces, a couple of gold bracelets and a gold watch.

"I like gold, but honestly, in art I like black. I like contrast," said David.

Better known as NAMxKeel, the 28-year-old artist grew up in Trinidad and Tobago before moving to Crown Heights, Brooklyn, at the age of 12. He then made the permanent move to Miami at 14.

See also: Autumn Casey Remixes Her Childhood Memories in "Agalma" at Primary Projects

Over the last couple of years, the artist has created a buzz with his colorful interpretations of celebrity portraits, ranging from Betty White and Kanye West to Charlie Chaplin and Jimi Hendrix, all the while never attending art school, hence the acronym, NAM, short for No Art Major.

We caught up with the Miami artist to talk about biographies, Trinidad, the Army, and more.

New Times: Talk about how you started painting because of having nothing on your walls.

Akeel David: Man, that played a huge part in it because I [lived] in a house...with just white walls.... I had a Michaels right around the corner. So, I actually started decorating the house and coming across a lot of artwork. And I'm like, "Yo, I could do this. I could do that." And that's how pretty much it started. Being bored and not having the income to spend on $250 pieces, when I could go to Michaels and buy the same canvas and do it for half the price.

What were you doing at that time as a job?

I was on active duty, going to school, just started college.

What did you do in the Army?

I'm a truck driver. Ninety-two Alpha. That's supply specialist. So, it's a pretty good job. Pretty entertaining. I hate driving now that I'm driving a lot.

Why the army?

Honestly, being an immigrant, I really didn't have my papers straight, so I started off in life kind of late, meaning I was 20 years old when I finally got a social security card. Army was the best thing at that time. Pretty much that was the life I chose. [It] put money in my pockets; helped me through college.

What were your plans after the army before you started painting?

That's a good question. What was my plan after the army? To be honest, not to just put me on, but to put on a lot of other people from where I'm from, because I feel like there's a lot of talent besides me. Even if I don't make it to one of those high points where I'm popular, at least [I'll] be established for what I did do; say for instance a gallery, but then put on people with a lot of talent. That's probably my main goal: Get to where I need to get first financially, and if I can't go any further, at least put on people that I know have potential.

You used to watch many biographies on TV growing up. Who would you say led the most interesting life?

Ray Charles, because he came from a background where racism played a huge part of his life. Plus being blind and disabled, but having a talent where he could explore. So, I think he played a big part of my life. Growing up watching a lot of biographies such as Tina Turner, because coming to the United States you gotta fit in. You gotta see who is who. You gotta start from the bottom.... I had to know how to start; how to blend in. People like Tina Turner, Ray Charles played a huge part. UPN played a huge part, I'll be honest, having no cable.

What was it about biographies that caught your attention?

I really think it's great stories, especially the Ray Charles story. How [he] came about being blind, but being able to play music; having a disability and still having it work to your advantage [and] seeing how you overcome those disabilities. So, it was great to see how those people came about, seeing how that could help you in your path.

What's the one thing you remember about Trinidad the most?

Man, that's deep. My grandma. My great grandma. She tried hard. I remember growing up across the street. We had two houses. One across the street, my grandma stayed across the street, and she was so old she couldn't fall asleep by herself. So every night I would go over there and sleep with her. I remember going back in January and the moment I went in the house it was like I just broke down, because she was everything to me. My mom left us at 5 or 6. She was the only one that was there for us.

You're known for painting a lot of entertainers. Actors, singers, rappers. You have one of Basquiat, Jay Z. Why?

Entertainers -- let me give you an example. Basquiat, that's one person I can compare myself to, being an immigrant coming to the United States. But the thing about Basquiat is he took advantage of all the opportunities he had being with Andy Warhol and actually doing something; that's just inspiring. If I was growing up in the Basquiat era and I see Basquiat being in my situation, where I'm a immigrant and he can make it that far, I mean, that's a role model to me. I want to take advantage and do what he did one day.

They're great mentors to me. People who went through a lot and used that to overcome all their struggles and still stuck through what they did and became something positive. I think that's why I do a lot of celebrities. They just remind me of places I come from.

You've described yourself as a fugitive pop artist. Why?

When I mean fugitive pop artist, I don't like the boring realism of a person. So, when I say pop it means more like entertaining, that's the word...

I don't want to do too realism, I feel like that's boring. Honestly, no offense to anybody, I just feel like it's more boring.

When I was actually trying to display art for Art Basel, I ran into this guy -- matter of fact his studio is right here. I asked him, "Hey, do you have any room for Art Basel?" he said, "Yeah, I kinda do, but it depends on what your art is." And I showed him some samples, and he said, "Oh, you're a fugitive pop artist." I'm like, oh OK. I never heard that title before, but I'm going to run with it.

If your art became mainstream and more recognized, wouldn't you fall into that category?

Hmm... Fugitive pop artist?

Any one, because when I think of "pop," I think popular.

The thing is, I feel like I don't have a piece that could be [seen] as a brand. Let me give you an example: PaperFrank, Delano. He has something that can be branded. I feel like I just don't have something, yet, that can be branded, and say, "OK, that's NAMxKeel." So, to that question, I don't have something, yet, that'll make me popular unless somebody says, "That's a NAMxKeel piece." Would I fall into that category? I hope I do I fall into a popular category.

How far are you away from your own studio?

I say a year and a half. Why? Finances and doubts. You know, "Will this put me in debt?" "Will I have a hard time paying for this?" "Will my art be of great income?" Doubts.

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