Self-portrait by Kristoffer Smith
“Comics, girls, and French fries.” Graphic artist Kristoffer Smith lists his loves while showing his sketches of weight-lifting divas, classic superheroes, and caricatured celebrities. Then he offers a plate of the homemade fries, done to golden perfection. Be it superior fries or a fresh perspective, Smith hones his technique over hours of hard work in his tiny apartment that doubles as a studio. “I think of it as the Silver Factory, but in Rankin, PA,” says Smith, referring to Andy Warhol’s studios in Manhattan, where the Pop artist churned out paintings with a team of apprentices. Smith keeps pace with his idol, but without the helpers. This 26-year-old Pittsburgh native paints murals, publishes his own Web and print comics, designs t-shirts and album covers, and is currently animating a music video for a local hip-hop group and creating a comic featuring rapper D.M.C. from the duo Run-D.M.C. Among his most high-profile work are comics drawn for Bluewater Productions’ Fame series: one starring Lady Gaga, the other the Black Eyed Peas.
As a student at the Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), Smith attended the after-school programs at The Andy Warhol Museum where the museum’s namesake—who he affectionately calls “Andy”—became a major source of inspiration. He remains involved with The Warhol, currently as an educator, assisting in programs such as Urban Interview, a youth-produced magazine based on Warhol’s famous publication, Interview. His work can also be found within the museum walls: He drew the art for the coloring and activity book that’s geared to young Warhol Museum visitors and contributed to the catalogue for Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of Alex Ross, an exhibition opening at The Warhol in October.
How did you get started as a comic book artist?
I began my first comic when I was 13, and it took me three years to finish. I had to make my brain squeeze really hard to figure out the perspective in some of the panels. I found a printer who would print 20 copies and charge me $3 each. So I went around to local businesses and sold ads. I made a little pamphlet, gave them a whole speech, and made $50. That was enough to get started. Obviously, it looks like I drew it when I was really young. But you can pick it up and figure out what’s going on. It has a consistent story. I am still really proud of it.
How did it help you become a better artist?
Learning how to draw is like learning how to swim. With swimming, you have to get a sense of being free in the water and get your strokes right. With drawing, you have to get a feel for anatomy and an awareness of flow and gesture. This first comic helped me get to a place where I could intuitively pull figures out of my imagination, instead of needing to see them first.
When did you start doing murals?
I was 16 and really into graffiti. My buddy and I were doing graffiti in Homewood. This van pulled up and a man yelled out of the window, “Hey! What are you doing to my car wash?” We didn’t know anybody owned the building! We took off running. I pulled my buddy into an alley and hid behind some trash cans. After a half hour, I told my friend, “Dude, it’s chill.” As soon as we stood up, the van drove past us. This big guy got out and pulled us into the van. They took us back to the car wash and dragged us out. They were shouting, “Look, Dad we got ‘em!” I said to the owner, “Mister, you have to get the building painted anyway. I will paint the whole wall for you. I paint stuff all the time, I'm an artist.” I showed him my comic and he was like, “Not bad.”
Did he hire you to paint the car wash?
No! He said, “I was going to pay someone, but apparently you're willing to paint it for free.” He told me to paint “God lives in Homewood.” He said there must be a God because if I had been a couple of years older he would have killed me. You see, I was really small. I was like Mickey Mouse—a little guy with a big bag of paint on my back. He must have thought I was younger. I took my time on that mural. I wanted to do a really good job so nothing bad would happen to me. It’s still there on Hamilton Avenue.
What made you realize you wanted to be a professional artist?
Before I went to The Warhol, I thought the fine arts and the real world were separate. Seeing Andy on Saturday Night Live gave me faith in the arts as a profession. No artist did what Andy did; he put fine arts and commercial arts together and made it a worldwide phenomenon. Andy Warhol made art cool.
As an arts educator, what do you try to communicate to your students?
Kids are interested in how artists can make a living. They always ask, “People pay you to draw stuff?” I tell them you can make a living as an artist, but it’s not easy. It’s a commitment, like committing to martial arts or committing to be a solider.
Not many of the kids I work with will grow up to be artists, so what’s important is that they experience creativity. Most people are never in the moment creatively; they float through life like ghosts thinking about what’s on MTV. The art programs give them a chance to appreciate creativity. I’ve noticed a lot of the kids who go through the program have more productive lifestyles. They’re like Boy Scouts.
What was it like to work on a coloring book about one of your favorite artists?
It was fun. On the cover, I drew a picture of Andy eating a bowl of soup because his mom would make him a bowl of soup and a sandwich every day. He loved his mom for it because they were struggling people. Seeing the final product made me proud because it tells kids that, despite the fact that a museum can be a scary adult-professional place, they can still apply their creativity to it and have fun.