Philadelphia favorite son and Grammy Award-winner Questlove has published “Creative Quest,” a collection of inspirational stories and lessons about living one’s best creative life. In this spirit, Speak Easy has asked Philadelphia artists to share stories of their own creative quests.
It all started with a fire. When I was 14 years old, I was severely burned over 30 percent of my body. It sounds horrible, but it was actually the best thing that ever happened to me.
I was headed down a destructive path, and that moment changed the trajectory of my life. As I lay in the hospital bed, I looked down at my hands and realized that I might never use them again. It that moment, I understood how important being able to draw and paint was to me.
That put me on the path of wanting to know what an artist really was and how to become one in every aspect of my life. A year later, I started my tattoo apprenticeship and devoted every available hour to learning a craft and honing my skills. The permanence of the art that I was learning drove home the importance of getting things right. I was honored that people trusted me to mark their bodies.
When I started tattooing full time, I wanted to develop my artistic voice. That led me to the University of the Arts of Philadelphia to study illustration and sculpture, where I was exposed to new tools, materials and techniques along with a vast amount of knowledge. Around the same time, my obsession with graffiti was growing — a much less publicized outlet for obvious reasons — but still a creative outlet.
The act of making public art helped me gain perspective and was more beneficial than I could ever have imagined.
I discovered a world of artists like me who saw tattooing as a creative medium and not just a means to make money. Then I took to the road, losing all notions of roots or borders, following whatever opportunity or experience showed promise. Clients began seeking me out for my ideas instead of coming to me with designs they had already picked out.
It’s been 17 years since I started my career and dedicated my life to art. This has come with great rewards. Tattooing has brought me all around the world to beautiful places where I’ve met amazing people and had some incomparable experiences.
On the other hand, I’ve had to sacrifice time, relationships, family and any sense of having a home.
The countless hours artists invest in their work often means time away from others. I can be self-absorbed and isolated, and I feel as if I’m running from the fear of who I could actually be. Coming from a family prone to addiction and an environment that stifles success, I made sure not to let these things stop my ambition.
Despite my addictive personality, I have lived my entire life free of alcohol and drugs. I’ve substituted work. It’s tough knowing that my addiction to work — pushing my body and mind past healthy limits — is the driving force behind my success rather than solely my creativity.
In the last few years, I’ve cut back on travel and focused more on my city, Philadelphia, where I’ve combined my illustrative style in tattooing and graffiti into large-scale murals. I’m grateful to be surrounded by a network of creative, supportive friends here who inspire me.
I don’t feel settled, but I do feel a sense of responsibility to inspire people who come from where I come from, who may not know how different their lives can be with a different perspective. In this endeavor, I’ve joined forces with other like-minded artists and activists and created VURT (Visual Urban Renewal & Transformation), a nonprofit dedicated to arts education and breathing new life into the visual landscape of our community with large-scale public art.
It’s been an interesting switch to focus on what my artwork and I can do for my community. I’m learning that it’s important to stop sometimes and reflect on the experiences that have led you to where you are — whether that’s your accomplishments or failures. Reviewing and appreciating what you’ve done and where you come from help you gain perspective.
But then you have to turn around and keep going. There is more work to do.