Seated in his sun-soaked Brooklyn studio, LA-based artist Gianni Lee recalled growing up poor in West Philly. His mother, Eileen, modelled and held odd jobs to make ends meet for Lee and his older sister, Brooke. From an early age, Eileen recognised her son’s talent for drawing. She saw the arts as a way to keep Lee off the streets and away from the wrong crowds, so with the extra money she could scrape together, she enrolled him in various arts programmes.
An imaginative kid, Lee aspired to tell stories through his art, but he never thought professional art school was for someone like him. “In the arts, there aren’t that many people of colour, so it was hard to fathom going to, say, the Rhode Island School of Design as someone from the ‘hood. When you have a white person telling you, ‘You can do it, too,’ it’s not the same as hearing it from someone that looks like you,” Lee said.
He opted to go to Temple University, a liberal arts college on the north side of Philly, instead, where he studied communication and broadcasting while making art on the side. His sophomore year, inspired by Pharrell Williams’ entrepreneurial spirit, Lee founded streetwear label Babylon Cartel, known for its jackets printed with Japanese characters and beloved by celebrities like Rihanna, Young Thug, Kehlani, and Jhene Aiko. In 2016, when Lee decided to shift his focus to DJing and painting, he abruptly pulled the brand off the internet, sending the fashion world into a frenzy.
In April 2017, Lee held his first art show in Brooklyn. Then, on July 1, as he was finishing up a DJ set at the Regent Theater in LA, 12 police officers showed up backstage and wrongfully arrested him for an assault that allegedly occurred five months earlier.
He spent three harrowing nights in an LA county jail, before a lawyer friend bailed him out. The friend told Lee that because of the way the system works in California, if he hadn’t made bail, he could have been imprisoned until his court date – almost a month later. The experience of being wrongfully jailed for a crime he didn’t commit was traumatising and left Lee reeling.
“Our country makes money off of black bodies by keeping them in jail,” Lee told Vice, pointing to the 2.3 million people, the majority of them black and brown bodies, currently behind bars, and America’s disturbing distinction as the world leader in incarceration. “When I was arrested I realised, Wow, I was a part of that system. Before the arrest, I felt so far removed from that stuff, but after the arrest, I realised how human I am. Anyone can be thrown away and locked up.”
Though he was later acquitted, the experience left Lee severely depressed. At the advice of a friend, he picked up his paintbrush in an attempt to express “inner feelings on issues [he] couldn’t put into words.”
His acrylic paintings envision a distant dystopian future and grapple with issues like fatherhood, racism, capitalism, and PTSD. The works eventually became part of a ten day exhibition at the Dock Gallery in LA called They Sat Back, They Let It Happen, a nod to what Lee perceives as American apathy towards social justice.
Dominated by pink and green hues, the paintings look like a cross between street art, animation, and Dalí-esque surrealism. Numerous eyes and creeping vines represent humanity. “Sometimes we let our own demons, wrongs, or thoughts consume us and get into our heads,” Lee said. Blue skin is also a recurring motif, representing ancestry.
According to Lee, painting led to a self-awakening. “I didn’t find myself until I started painting. Painting opened me up to these things called emotions, which I didn’t even know I had since I’ve been running away from them for so long. Growing up in the inner city, you’re always taught to be tough. I always had trouble handling my emotions. So now I have a canvas in front of me, I realised my power, I can just put what I am feeling on that.”
The piece Self Destruction by the Hands of a Glock, Lee said, represents him the most. “In a way, this painting represents how people see the black man. He is hurting on the inside. He is crying blood. He is trying to shoot this ‘sickness’ off of him.”
Lee, who is spending the summer in Brooklyn painting and seeking inspiration for an upcoming exhibition, hopes his work will incite a new consciousness in its observers. “In America, we are constantly dealing with capitalism. There are evil forces at work trying to keep us controlled and spending money, especially people of colour. For example, our buying power is so high, [if] we mobilised and [didn't] spend money somewhere, it could just fuck their whole business up. We need to understand our power and take that back.”
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
Follow Genel Ambrose on Instagram.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.