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Hebru Brantley

The artist, 40, on his deep obsessions and crippling anxiety and how the protests are informing his work

Illustration by Kathryn Rathke
Illustration: Kathryn Rathke

I didn’t watch a lot of the protest coverage. What’s happening isn’t a wake-up call for me like it is for people who’ve been intentionally or unintentionally ignorant. But it made me look at the things I was creating and rework a few ideas. And it took away a tremendous amount of fear I’d had for so long without realizing it — fear that comes from a sense of complacency. The art world is a fickle bitch, so it’s like, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But Romare Bearden said an artist’s job is to be the storyteller of their time, and I honestly don’t know if I’ve totally been doing that. So I want to lean in and engage in some heavier conversation, but still with humanity and humor.

As a kid growing up in Bronzeville, I was into comics, sci-fi movies, video games. I wanted to be Spike Lee mixed with Tim Burton, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. I was obsessive about it in a not very normal way. So while there was a constant feeling of discovery, it was this never-ending feeding frenzy. I had few friends who liked the same shit I was into or could articulate their affinity in a way that made for meaningful conversation, so it was extremely isolating.

My mom was a great motivator. I had a yearning, but she was the one who always kept art in front of me as a possibility. She also presented opportunities and challenges that kept me engaged. One thing she always stressed was that you have to be shark-like. When sharks stop moving, they’re dead. And sharks aren’t violent beasts by nature, but when they’re hungry, when they’re locked into something, you see that ferocity.

I’ve been told that I’m very humble, but that can be a detriment at times. Humbleness can be perceived as weakness.

My father and I didn’t have a strong relationship until I grew older, became a father myself, and got some perspective. I lived under his shadow, because he was a big, handsome ex–Northwestern football star who was super personable. He moved to a predominantly Italian neighborhood off Taylor Street, where he was known as Big T, for Terry. I was only there on weekends, so when I got in scraps with neighborhood kids, that saved my ass: “Oh, that’s Big T’s son.” My son goes to high school in Atlanta, and he’ll walk past somebody in the hall who’s wearing one of my Flyboy T-shirts. Some of his homies are my biggest fans. But he grew up seeing the blood, sweat, and tears. And we constantly have that conversation about him not feeling the pressure to outdo me.

I was around 12 when I started doing graffiti. First it was little areas on my bedroom wall that I’d hide with posters, then more and more on books and magazines. As teenagers, my friends and I were tagging. One time, my buddy’s mom had to get us all out of lockup. But I never was a vandal in the traditional sense. I never painted on private property without permission. And if I did a throw-up on city property, it would already have some tags on it. I call it artistic gang life. It’s like campaigning: You get your name up and seen on as much real estate as possible.

When I lock in on something, I have to consume it until I’m spent from it. Like, if I eat a good meal, I want to eat there 19 more times. I’m also an impatient person. I want to challenge myself, but growth isn’t instantaneous, so that’s part of the problem. Sometimes the anxiety is unbearable and too controlling for my liking, to the point where I lose a day or two from being in a perpetual state of panic for no reason. That happens a few times a year. I can almost set my watch to it.

I’m not übercompetitive, but I’m definitely in strong competition with myself. I want to leave something when I go. I want my existence to mean something. Not just to my family or my immediate circle, but to generations to come.

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