How Graphic Artist Kodone Went From Comic Book Store Employee to Bringing Fine Art to Hip-Hop Covers

“I wanted this to be my career so bad I didn’t even care or think about the risks.”
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Kodone, 2018

When you are a true creative, you don’t have a say in the matter. You have to create, against all odds and by any means necessary.

Born and based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, graphic artist Kodone understood as much when he quit his job and dove head first into being a full-time artist. For several years, Kodone worked at a video game-movie-comic book store by day, splitting time working on his fledgling clothing brand, DEATHat5. Though it was the sensible thing to do, the 9-5 life weighed him down.

“I started working so much that it would fuck with my school performance,” Kodone explains over the phone. “I failed all my classes so they made me do summer school for the whole break. I knew I had to bury that shit.”

At 20 and self-taught, Kodone has grown into a refined style that bridges fine art, canvas work, and meticulous detail with poignant messaging and an allusion to the irresistibly grotesque. Most recently, Kodone managed to link up with Atlanta rapper Young Nudy and the media giant that is Lyrical Lemonade.

“Nudy’s one of my favorite rappers so that’s a first,” he tells me. “I just decided the other day I was going to make a Nudy piece and it just happened then and there. All natural and one take. I had a lot of fun with it so I just posted it up [on Instagram] and tagged him. He ended up fucking with it so it was a wrap from there. Sometimes the most natural occurring things are the best come-ups.”

With that, Kodone’s rise in the art world has truly become the sum of his rebellious beginnings, like the time he blew off a school assignment to create an alternative album cover for Drake’s Take Care. While it’s always better to have a plan when pursuing a creative field, Kodone believes his success is a bright light to all creatives who worry that talent might not always rise to the top.

“Never lose inspiration,” Kodone urges. “Stay as ambitious as possible and don’t worry about being a people pleaser. Always do this shit because you love it and you have a lot of fun with it. If you really love something, that shit is always going to find you and it is always going to reward you. If you want it, you’ll get it. True passion always wins.”

DJBooth’s full interview with Kodone, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

DJBooth: Before you were Kodone, what were you doing for work?

Kodone: I used to work at a video game, movie, and comic book store. It was my first job as a teenager. I learned a lot from it: responsibilities and work ethic type shit. It was a minimum wage job I went to right when I got off school, a decent little gig for me. Art was just a hobby to me. I had a little clothing brand I was trying to start off, too.

When did you decide to ditch clothing for art?

I started working so much that it would fuck with my school performance, my time with working on this brand I was trying to start up at the time, and just me as a person overall. I failed all my classes so they made me do summer school for the whole break. I knew I had to bury that shit. I used that as motivation to take my art career more serious and whatever little money I had left from my last paycheck, I put it all towards my brand, DEATHat5. I wanted this to be my career so bad I didn’t even care or think about the risks. I just did that shit.

Were there any visual artists who inspired you to start taking your work seriously?

I have my inspirations on my art style, but the main person that made me take my art career serious in terms of image and presentation was a graphic designer by the name of Father Nico. I saw he was doing cover art and other very eye-pleasing visuals and I was like, “Damn, I need to grind ten times harder than I am now.” It made me see art from more of a business point of view. I saw how he was using his talent to make money and it gave me an opportunity to turn my hobby into a job. It gave me the drive to make my own rates and all that, and I needed that.

Are you self-taught, or did you go to school?

I’m definitely self-taught. I’ve been a creative kid my whole childhood. I used to draw and paint all the time, I would make little short films with my mom’s camera and I edited it on my dad’s laptop. I never thought it could be a career when I was small. I tried to take art classes my 10th-grade year, but I’d always end up doing my own thing and failing it because I didn’t want to follow directions. I was kind of a diva about it [laughs].

I dropped that class, [I] only took a semester of it. I was more interested in learning about the modern masters. I replaced it with this digital media class where we learned how to use Photoshop, 3D modeling, and other shit like that. That’s a big reason for why my early works were mostly just graphic design. One time, our assignment was to make a digital painting of a green landscape, but I just remade Drake’s Take Care album cover. The teacher thought it was funny, so he just passed me on that.

What’s the origin story to your skull logo?

That was just a little doodle I did while I was in those summer classes. I wanted a little character that I could use for everything—a signature. Something that when people saw, they knew exactly what they were looking at, just like Ye’s Dropout Bear. The same charm that carried… I just kept drawing the same thing over and over until I found “the one.” I finally got it during my math summer class in 2015. Since then, it’s the symbol for me and the closest I’ll get to doing a self-portrait.

The way you blend the abstract with the grotesque, with the technically sharp, it's amazing.

I love contrast and juxtaposition. I have a thing for seeing two completely different ideas together in one piece. Sometimes they’re already complementary ideas and that’s fine, but I’ll always find a way to make it my own. My style will always come from a juvenile, rough approach. That’s just because I started all this shit from high school so you can only imagine what kinda teenager shit I was going through. With time passing and growing up, I allowed myself to get more technical and really slow down on what I was creating. My early stuff felt like freestyle graffiti, how fast and to the point it was.

Do you have a favorite piece?

Damn, that's a tough one. There’s some that aren’t my best in technical terms, but the memories that come with it make it the best. I have this piece titled “moon,” and it’s one of those pieces that I spent the most time on and was dealing with other personal problems at the same time. That certain piece was a safe haven for me. It kept me busy during a tough time and lowkey saved me from myself. A lot of my shit is deeper than y’all think and y’all would never know. It’s the process and what I’m going through that makes stuff good to me.

This piece (see above) is by far my favorite in terms of message. Could you break down where this piece came from?

I was a senior in high school dealing with the obvious problems that are mentioned in that piece. It was a weird time for me being young and all. Dealing with barely graduating school, the school being on my ass about my art and Twitter being controversial, a failing relationship and I put my whole art career in front me and said, "Fuck college." I was in a really dark spot, felt like the world was against me. All I had was faith in hoping the universe will place me where I needed to be.

Just recently, you illustrated the cover for Young Nudy’s SB3. How did you two connect?

Nudy’s one of my favorite rappers so that’s a first. I just decided the other day I was going to make a Nudy piece and it just happened then and there. All natural and one take. I had a lot of fun with it so I just posted it up and tagged him in it. He ended up fucking with it so it was a wrap from there. Sometimes the most natural occurring things be the best come-ups. Stress less and let shit handle itself.

You've also worked with Lyrical Lemonade this year.

First, shout out to my manager Lil Jake, the GOAT, the king. He works with Lyrical and peeped the vision over a year ago. Started out with us being in a group chat, we linked up at SXSW, and when I got back to Oklahoma, he told me to pull up to Chicago for an art show and pop-up. I pulled up and that shit went crazy! I’m from Oklahoma, so I never experienced feeling love like that especially in a city like Chicago. After that, he told me he would manage me and boom! Real dream-team shit happened. He is hella helping me out and motivating me to be my best.

Have you been able to monetize your art to the point it's your full-time gig?

For the most part, yes. I can definitely live comfortably on it. I’m making a lot more than I did working at my old job, but of course, with anyone with big dreams, I want more. I wanna be able to put my parents in a new house with my art. I wanna be able to wake up in the morning being able to say I achieved everything I wanted because of my art.

Most stressful moment of your career thus far?

For a while, I didn’t know what I wanted out of myself as a creative. I felt like I was stuck in the SoundCloud cover art phase forever, but I recently been more on the fine art side of things and I see people appreciating it. Obviously, I paint for myself, but it’s also a money situation. If I would only focus on fine art, that means I’m not doing any cover art and cover art was my main source of money. It was all a weird little identity crisis patch, but I’m glad I’m getting out of that. More people are more interested in my canvas and original works [so] that’s huge for me. All I’m going to say is, I got my inspiration back and I’m ready to let people know they’re going to hear my name more than once this year. All gas, no breaks.

Any advice for aspiring artists that you wish you had received when you were first starting out?

Never lose inspiration. Keep going and if you have any ideas, write that shit down and do that shit. Everyone has million dollar ideas, they just don’t see it until someone else finesses it correctly. Don’t be that guy. Stay as ambitious as possible and don’t worry about being a people pleaser. Always do this shit because you love it and you have a lot of fun with it. If you really love something, that shit is always going to find you and it is always going to reward you. If you want it, you’ll get it. True passion always wins. 

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