E-commerce has changed the game for struggling artists around the world, especially for those working in the creative (and cutthroat) capital of New York City.
Brooklyn-based artist Laolu NYC (born Laolu Senbanjo) has come a long way since moving here from Nigeria in 2014. The former human rights lawyer says the city was calling his name. “From the arts, creativity, and culture, I consider New York City as the epicenter of the world,” he says. “Once you’re here, it’s easy to become engulfed in the city’s energy.”
Upon his arrival he learned how competitive the industry could actually be. “Early on in my career, a group of friends and I would get together, go down to the Lower East Side and find places to sell our artwork on the street—typical New York City hustle.” To his surprise, this led to his first sale when a collector drove by and returned with $1,000.
For Laolu, this was just the start of his rise in the New York City arts scene. From presenting a Ted Talk gone viral, to running his online hub, Laolu.NYC, he knew tapping digital avenues and creating an online presence would be instrumental to spreading his message on a global scale.
Today, he finds himself collaborating with brands like Nike, Equinox and Starbucks, as well as celebrities like Lupita Nyongo, Alicia Keys, and even Beyonce. As he says in his Ted Talk “Every artist has a name, and every artist has a story.” Here, Laolu shares his story, a narrative filled with inspiration for emerging artists.
(The following Q&A has been edited for brevity.)
What do you love most about being an artist in New York City?
What inspired me to stay was realizing most people from New York aren’t actually from here, everyone has a backstory making the city one of the most diverse places you could ever be in. The hustle reminds me of Lagos— so long as you’re willing to provide a service, people will want to do work with you. For the first time in my life, I felt like I could be myself. No one second guessed me when I introduced myself as an artist whereas in Nigeria, there was a need to explain I was a lawyer so people wouldn’t judge me or think I was outright crazy. Here, I could show up fully as myself. I could paint my face and operate at my highest self and people welcomed it. I felt so in tune with my Ori that it gave me permission to just be—New York made me feel fully alive.
Can you describe your mission and what motivates you?
I am motivated by the constant desire to show people the different ways to be human outside the European gaze. If you come across my work with no prior knowledge of Yoruba culture, there’s no way you’ll be able to leave the same way. My goal is to show the importance of Yoruba history and culture because it encompasses people whose stories matter. Just like the Greeks, the Chinese, and Europeans, Yoruba people had kingdoms, customs, kings and queens. Just as Americans have their superheroes in the likes of Superman and Batman, in Yoruba mythology, we have our own heroes that are just as mighty. I want people to see us and our stories as real parts of history. When someone interacts with my work, I want them to see Yoruba history and learn from the wisdom, art, and customs of our ancestors. There’s far more history about Yoruba culture that isn’t covered in the realms of academia that I want people to learn about through my work.
How has moving to the United States influenced your work?
My experience in the States has had a huge impact on the mission behind my work. Up until moving to New York City, I was never identified as a Black man. In Nigeria, no one ever called me Black; this was a huge culture shock for me. Learning how to be Black is something that I’ve had to inculcate into my art practice. If a police officer stops me on the street, I’m just another dark skinned n*gga— not Nigerian or anything else. This influences my craft because it pushes me to study a history that isn’t fully mine but, as a result of the color of my skin, I’ve been adopted into. I now draw inspiration from Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, and others who look like me and the ways our stories intertwine. I take all of this and translate it into a visual language I call Afromysterics in which anything from sneakers, walls, cars, become my canvas to share these stories.
What was one of the hardest or most unexpected obstacles you had to overcome in getting off the ground?
The culture shock. Having the world view me as a Black man was something that was very unfamiliar. My whole life, I’ve identified as a Nigerian so it’s something I’m still adjusting to. I’ve had to learn that being a Nigerian man who is Black in America comes with it’s own struggles and societal expectations.
I also struggled learning how to use the subway. I’d ask someone for directions and somehow completely do the opposite of what they’d just told me. So many times I would think I’m headed towards Manhattan and find myself back in Brooklyn or Queens. At one point I realized there was nothing I could do other than get lost until this unfamiliar city and I became acquainted.
What would you say to a struggling artist looking to make it in NYC?
There really is no other way than to just open yourself up. Expect nothing and everything all at the same time. I would sum it up by saying be like New York, be like water.
Why a .nyc domain?
Many people think my website is laolu.nyc simply because of my brand name. But on the contrary, it’s a not so subtle reminder of my mission as an artist: to share Yoruba and Nigerian culture with the world. Seeing as my first stop out of Nigeria was New York, a place I consider to be a global epicenter, “Laolu in NYC” translated to laolu.nyc communicates my goal to share my work, culture, and heritage with the world, starting right here in New York City.
What’s next for Laolu?
I want to give other artists the opportunity to tap into my world by sharing the tools and resources I’ve used along the way. Over the last seven years, New York City continues to give me the tools that I need to share my culture on a global scale. I know the feeling of figuring out how the industry works or finally identifying what imprint you want to leave on the world. Whether it be through educating other artists, giving insight into my process, or sharing how I create the intricacy behind The Sacred Art of the Ori, I want to pour into the next generation of artists in tangible ways.
As New York City continues to give me the chance to live out my dreams, I want to do the same for other artists.