Sketcher: Kahiem Archer Takes Portraiture to the Streets

Photo provided by Kahiem Archer

When I first met Kahiem Archer back in 2015, I was getting off the Q train onto an empty Cortelyou platform with headphones snugged over my ears–a tip I learned my first month navigating the streets and transportation system in Brooklyn that was crucial in discouraging anyone from striking up an unwanted conversation with me; thus I was oblivious to Archer’s proposal to create a portrait of myself. After a second attempt from him and an uneasy chuckle, we soon found ourselves sitting on a metal bench talking about hallucinogens, spirituality, and New York’s changing landscape.

Almost a year later, I caught up with the nomadic portraiture artist who catalogues the vibrant individuals he comes across while navigating the five boroughs.

What do you do and why?
I run around and draw people, so that consists of a lot of running around on trains and buses and going to different coffee shops and just hanging out in different places, basically just going about my life and harassing everyone around me with colorful pictures.

I do it to eat. I did it because it’s fun and I’ve always been doing portraitures in some type of way since I was a kid, always been drawing.  Surprisingly, it pays the bills. It’s quick money, everyone loves their face.

So you are actually a starving artist?
Not starving, just sustaining at this point and hungry but not hungry for food, hungry for freedom. I did this because I wanted to be free. I didn’t want to spend all my time in school; I did this because I didn’t want to be at a job that I could loose at any given moment. I didn’t want to put my time and energy towards something I couldn’t control. So it’s like, I’m just hungry to sustain that control I’ve been able to come across. It’s hard to be a full time artist. And when you’re an artist you have to serve. There so many types of work you end up doing to satisfy the market.  I studied graphic design and architecture and have been taking on other peoples’ creative tasks for as long as I remember. There’s a difference between commercial artists and fine artists. A fine artist gets to come into himself. Find his own purpose. Fine his own mission. Create for himself. Create his own vision, his own dreams, his own reality. And then have the world appreciate that, instead of being told, “I need this, and this, and that.” It’s all about control.

So where do you fall in that spectrum?
Like every artist, doing a little bit of both. Some people have to get a job or side hustle to pay for their art. Right now, I work for myself sketching. On the side, I get to paint and create little things here and there that will hopefully become my residual income. My plan is to eventually purpose and license it. But it’s a journey, and luckily I’m on my own time. That’s why I like what I do and how I do it. I don’t have to answer to nobody.

Are you primarily in Brooklyn or do you venture out into the different boroughs?I’m just New York. Born and raised in Queens, I started the journey in Queens. Hanging out in one of the few artist studios I could find, just hanging out with the artists in their studios. Painting in their space on their time. I’m infamous for that. I never have my own space but I’ve been a nomad and found little nests and corners. So the first time I lived in Brooklyn, I was at Image Gallery or what use to be 3rdEye. I started going there when it was called 3rdEye, participating in Paint & Poetry. I lived in the Bronx for a minute, which lead me to tackle Harlem. I guess that’s what it’s about. It’s about exploring. It’s studying people. It’s studying diversity.

So how did you get started?
It was not knowing what I wanted to do. I went to high school, studied graphic design and advertising, didn’t like it at all. I knew I wanted to do art off the bat, but I didn’t know what. So I was doing architecture classes in junior high school because I couldn’t afford the fine art. I wanted to paint and draw, so I did that on my own time, but I studied things that were available to me. So it was mostly commercial and graphic designs, it was mostly architecture. It was mostly the brainwashing, the stuff they try to make you do as an artist. They want to put you in an industry. I tried it because I really didn’t know what I wanted to do.

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So how did you transition over?
Someone told me that in the first 25 years of your life you live based off your emotions, what you feel is right, and what people tell you is right. You don’t really make sense of any of it. And then after that you learn and start to do what you know is right. So it brings a cold, some people don’t like to say cold, they say wise. It brings out a wiser side of you. And I feel like that’s what’s happening to me now. It’s no more looking for myself. I’m living for myself. I was taught to live for a community; I’m part of a big family. And I’m not saying I’m giving up on it, I’m just trying to serve the world and [myself] in a way. And ironically, I don’t believe that the suggested institutions of this world are even designed to serve me. Once I stopped questioning that it was pretty easy to do my own thing.

Do you feel like you carry your spirituality into your work, even though you’re doing portraits?
I think very much so. I think a very big thing as I was trying to shift from commercial art to fine art, but how do you do fine art for a commercial environment? I like to call it Sacred Art, and I think Sacred Art is already a thing but it’s kind of like that metaphysical and spiritual representation of chakras and energy. Usually it’s just showing an illumination around entities, gods, or even pop stars. I feel like I do that but with everyday people. So I think that’s my spiritual side, bringing out people’s spiritual side.

It almost feels like you’re, and I’m not sure how you’re going to take this, but like Humans of New York only with sketching.
I like that, but as much as I think it’s similar, how we attack the world… the perspective is different. Mine is a little more selfish. I give him kudos. He takes more time to hear their stories. I use that time to tell them mine.

What are you currently working on?
Right now with the portraits, I’m putting together a show called, “Face of Addiction.” You know, we’re all addicted to something because we do it everyday, whatever we choose to do. We do it everyday on repetition until we want to stop and realize it’s not so easy. So it’s the face of addiction and the people who undergo it. It’s my addiction, [which] is me drawing everyday and I’m trying to express other addictions like sex, drugs, and money. I think that’s what motivates us all. I’m trying to use those people to express those ideals. I have a garbage bag filled with dime bags, so I’m going to incorporate that, too. It’s just trying to share things that we all do. And that’s cool because I get to share my story but visually, borough to borough. How do I express the time that I spent in Brooklyn? In Harlem? So I’m bringing the five boroughs together. And as a creative that’s what makes me excited. It’s not just one portrait; it’s taking 20-100 portraits and creating one big piece. Then filling a room with 24 or more big pieces. Imagine all the faces.

Follow Kahiem’s work on Instagram.

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