The Fresh Prince of street art

Chanelle Tourish talks to 16-year-old pop artist Skyler Grey about his exhibition in Dubai

Skyler Grey isn’t your average 16-year-old. Sure he loves hanging out with his friends, listening to music and watching cartoons, but he’s also the youngest artist ever to be internationally exhibited.

The Los Angeles-based teen, (who has been nicknamed The Fresh Prince due to his love of both rap music and art, just like Will Smith’s character on the ’90s TV show The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) is a rising star and one of the newest fixtures on the LA street art scene. “I’m a pop artist who goes back to the roots of graffiti.

I love the traditional style of art, but I grew up around graffiti, so I like to mix the two,” Grey explains.

His works have been showcased around the world, including at Graffik Gallery in London and The Trace Gallery in Switzerland, and are currently on display on the walls of Coya at the Four Seasons Resort Dubai until Wednesday May 18.

The teenager, who has never been formally trained, often uses pop culture and cartoon characters such as Pac-Man, The Simpsons, The Jetsons and The Flintstones in his mixed media paintings. “I grew up watching Cartoon Network and Boomerang,” says the Baldwin Hills native. “As a young kid, I didn’t have cable, so I’d watch DVD box sets of Fat Albert, The Muppets and Mickey Mouse,” he says.

After the loss of his mother when he was aged two and a subsequent placement in therapy that involved art and drawing, Grey’s father noticed his son’s artistic abilities. He began taking Grey to galleries and showed him documentaries on famous artists such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

“I grew up in a place where people only thought that basketball and sport could make you money, but me doing art is changing the game,” Grey says. “I’m showing people that they can do the things they love, be themselves and still be cool. I’m an artist, and that’s how I express myself.”

With his father’s encouragement and continuous practise in various mediums, Grey has transformed his talent into an extraordinary career and has developed his own distinctive style and artistic concept. “I used to go out on the streets when I was 11. Some kids used to put posters up, but I took the posters and painted them from top to bottom in thick paint – images of Amy Winehouse,” he says. “People would try to rip them off, but they couldn’t.”

It was Grey’s painting of the late singer that got him noticed by the art industry. Inspired by Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe portraits, he decided to paint Amy Winehouse as a queen, and at the age of 13, he held his first art show in LA. “I brought new people to the gallery who would never have been exposed to art otherwise, so that was beautiful. I love that I can inspire,” he says.

It was during that time that American rapper The Game rocked up to his show and bought one of his works, and before long, he found himself with several celebrity followers, including rapper Snoop Dog.

Playing with cartoons, music icons and fashion, Grey’s works at Coya include a portrait of the late Whitney Houston as a queen and images infused with famous brand logos such as Hermes, Ferrari and Chanel. The young artist has also created a special mural at the restaurant titled Life is OK, which he says is down to him being happy. “I’m out in Dubai and I’m painting my favourite characters, so life is pretty nice, it’s okay.”

As well as achieving early success as an artist, Grey has made a social impact on his community, being honoured by McDonald’s in 2014 at the 11th Annual 365Black Awards, which recognises African Americans who have made positive contributions in the community. “I think it’s an artist’s job to send out messages and be the voice of the people. I like to paint things that give people a throwback moment to a happy time. People like my paintings because they feel good when they look at them,” he says.

In the future, the self-taught artist says he’d like to become a hotel designer, and widely known for his work. “I don’t ever feel under pressure. I just feel like this is what I’m here to do. I just want to be a megastar.”

With so much ambition and talent, we don’t doubt his star status. Who knows, maybe he’ll be the next Warhol…

Skyler Grey’s works are available to buy from US$6,000 (Dhs22,000) to US$66,000 (Dhs242,000) and are on display until Wednesday May 18. Coya, Four Seasons Resort Dubai at Jumeirah Beach, Jumeirah Beach Road. To buy, email info@avantgallery.com.

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