Interview with Mr. Soul, the Man Behind Visual Soul Creative Lab

The complicated soul of a visual artist is usually left to be deciphered by art connoisseurs and appreciators. Very rarely do we question the background and the spirit of those who fill our lives with admirable aesthetics.
Uncover the soul.

Mr. Soul, the man behind Visual Soul Creative Lab, has given life to several Hip-Hop visuals. We can thank his creativity for several popular music images, such as the U.G.K. logo, the recognizable design of Lloyd’s name, and the memorable Disturbing tha Peace insignia. But, while he’s been entrenched in music projects, Mr. Soul also has the beginnings of a tagger and the coveted gift of being a fine arts painter.

In the spirit of giving props to all things encompassed by Hip-Hop culture, I caught up with Mr. Soul to talk about inspiration, style, and of course, art.

AHD: When did you first realize that you had a gift for art?

MS: I don’t think I realized that I had a gift until later in life, maybe junior high to high school. Before then, I just thoroughly enjoyed drawing and being creative.

AHD: Who are some of your artistic influences?

MS: My primary influences from the 1st grade to about the 4th grade, were a first grade teacher, Mrs. Cooper, my cousin Terry, and a variety of comic book artists, since that’s what I was into. Around 4th and 5th grade I was one of those kids who got consumed by Hip-Hop culture. Graffiti, the culture’s art form, was my immediate attraction. So at that point my influences became people like Seen, Dondi (R.I.P.), Skeme, Mode 2 and a host of other graffiti artists. As I got older I became familiar with Black artists such as WAK, Gilbert Young, Charles White, Charles Bibb and of course Mr. Ernie Barnes from Goodtimes fame.

AHD: A lot of artists- from Kandinsky who was influenced by opera to Justin Bua whose art has a presence of Hip-Hop and Jazz- are inspired by music. What type of music inspires you to create?

MS: I’m inspired by all types of music. It’s crazy because if I’m in work mode, I can go from Outkast to the 5th Ward Boyz to Ciara to Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye back to U.G.K. and so on. Music plays a very vital role in my creative thought and production process. I find myself listening to older stuff nowadays though because most rappers ain’t talkin’ about shit which means they ain’t inspiring shit.

AHD: Describe your formal training.

MS: I was a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh from ’92 to ’94, and prior to that I’ve been to summer classes at Cleveland School of the Arts and The Cleveland Art Institute. But most of my “training” has come from my relationship with other artists and lots of reading. As a child, I studied my cousin and comic book artists, my teen years were nurtured by being part of an elite graf crew in Cleveland known as D.E.F. (Doin’ Everything Funky!). There’s only so much formal training you can get, I believe. Art is something I feel that you’re born with, and is developed by being surrounded by talented people who are on or beyond your level.

AHD: You are a freelance graphic designer but you’re also a fine artist. How is the creative process different when you’re working on canvas vs. working away in Photoshop?

MS: Photoshop has ruined my relationship with the canvas to a degree [Laughing]! There are pretty much no boundaries when creating in Photoshop. Your creativity (and I stress this b/c there are a lot of bogus “graphic designers”) and understanding of the application can yield some astonishing results. Being that graphic art is what pays my bills, I spend way more time in Photoshop. So when I got the canvas, I get stuck sometimes because it’s an entirely different thought and execution process. At the end of the day, nothing can compare to mixing your own paints, getting shit all messy and fine tuning that masterpiece on the canvas.

AHD: What fine art piece have you done that has the most personal significance to you?

MS: I did this piece for an Atlanta art show back in July ’06. My entry would mark the first time I’ve officially painted in a long time. So I had this one 24×36 painting I was doing from some existing line art I created. I got really deep into it and felt I had a strong piece… until it was critiqued by what I call my Art Elders. Kevin A. Williams (a.k.a. “WAK”) and Gilbert Young went to town on it. Gilbert went as far as to outline in chalk where I needed to “go back in and re-work some shit!”

Now this is Wednesday afternoon, and I had to be finished and framed by early Friday afternoon and I had already put in close to a week’s worth of time. But I respected the brutal but constructive criticism and started from scratch with another concept. I drew and painted another 24×36 piece in 32 hours (straight, no chaser) and I received some very favorable responses on the piece entitled “The Redemption Collector.”

There were a variety of reasons for what made “The Redemption Collector” a significant piece to me. The show was put together by an Atlanta artist, Dubelyoo, whose work and hustle I respect to the utmost. Then there was a roster of extremely talented artists including WAK and Gilbert Young who both provided a much different response on the new piece.

AHD: What aspects of Hip-Hop and street culture are present in your art?

MS: I think it’s just the spirit and energy that I put into my work. That’s where “Mr. Soul” comes from. Being that I constantly listen to the music of the Hip-Hop culture and can properly identify with street culture, its presence will be seen or felt in my work. Even if I’m designing for a corporate client, the same energy goes into that creative process as well.

AHD: You’re a product of Cleveland. The Midwest has always been a funnel for all types of Hip-Hop. How does that diversity effect your work?

MS: I never really connected being from the Midwest with my art. While I’m born and bred in Cleveland, I think the style of and approach to my work is universal.

AHD: Starting off as a graffiti artist, how does your history as a street artist translate into your current work?

MS: Well I was already into comics and art by the time I was introduced to graffiti. So the passion was already there. Graffiti was just that defining moment. Not so much the art aspect, but more so what it represented to me. It was rebellious, above the law, risky. Yet it was also conscious, political and necessary. It broke all the art rules that I was “taught.” So I took those elements and used them to become the artist I am today, and it is that same spirit and energy that goes into most of the projects I work on.

AHD: Do you miss writing?

MS: I definitely miss those times. But I re-live the moments through a few of my art family who are still actively bombing walls, trains and planes. [Laughing]

AHD: Your covers definitely have a Mr. Soul touch on them. Stylistically how do you stand out from other graphic designers?

MS: I just make it a point not to do what everybody is doing. Most of my clients give me that room to do me. The most important factor is that even in Photoshop I approach a design/layout like a piece of art or like a mural. So with that approach it’s not really hard to stand out from other graphic designers. Most of what I see in the entertainment market is garbage in, garbage out. There are a few real design studios that I can tell take the same approach as I do, and those are the ones I respect and keep me on my toes.

AHD: You’re the Creative Director at City of Ink, a popular tat shop in Atlanta, how are tattoos and fine art related?

MS: They go hand in hand. Most tattoo artists I know paint in some form or fashion. In addition, lots of tattoo artists utilize the art they create on skin for prints, posters or t-shirts. So City Of Ink’s owners made it a point to emphasis fine art by having it double as an art gallery, and by selling our own merchandise.

We are currently preparing for the One Year Anniversary for City Of Ink and we’re having an art show February 29th and the theme is Schizophrenia. If you’re reading this you’re in Atlanta, you need to come out and be a part of the movement.

AHD: You have a few tattoos yourself. What are they?

MS: My first tattoo on my forearm is the oldest and is a piece of an angel kneeling with a hand on a skull. It was done by this cat Jody in Pittsburgh while I was in school there. The second is a praying angel that I drew on my right arm/shoulder. It was done by City Of Ink owner Miya Bailey. The third piece is the Visual Prophets logo also done by Miya Bailey. The 4th piece is on the left arm and is a tribal head drawn and inked by City Of Ink owner Tuki Carter. I had the pleasure of meeting a phenomenal artist, Jose Lopez, last year at a tattoo convention here in Atlanta so I’m saving up for one of those pieces next!

AHD: Explain the phrase “Visual Prophet.”

MS: On the surface, the term Visual Prophets came about when me and my comrade Miya Bailey were thinking of a way to merge Visual Soul with Prophet Art (his company at the time). Visual Prophets became that concept. While the business side never materialized, the name has become a loose reference to a collection of a few artists who have identified with the fact that God gave us this talent for a purpose, and then utilize that talent to inspire, motivate and educate the communities from which we come. It’s an ongoing development, but it meant enough for me to get it tatted across my back.

AHD: As someone who’s surrounded by art on a constant. How difficult is it deciding on your body art?

MS: Deciding is definitely the key! I have a million tat concepts a day, and being affiliated with a tattoo shop doesn’t help. At the end of that day, I want to be sure I’m communicating something I’m proud of and that looks good. I’ve learned a lot being involved with the tattoo industry. And I’ve learned how people view their own self worth when it comes to selecting body art. It kills me how someone will spend 200.00 on a pair of shoes, no negotiation, but will try to get a deal on a tattoo. I do believe the tattoo is with you longer than this season’s Jordans.

AHD: You designed a poster in support of the Jena 6 just last year. How did that come about and how did you go about visually representing that situation?

MS: That was done out of that responsibility as a Visual Prophet. It was a situation where I could utilize the talent God gave to me make a statement in a time of need. The foundation of the artwork was already done for another project. A friend of mine who’s a member of the New Black Panther Party stated that he needed a visual for his crew at the rally. So I remixed the artwork for the Jena 6 cause. Like most of my work of this nature, I find a musical background that supports the spirit and energy of the cause. So Marvin Gaye, dead prez, Public Enemy, Curtis Mayfield and few others provided me with that support.

AHD: What’s the most gratifying part of your career?

MS: Ha, being able to say I have one? I think each day is gratifying because it’s another day to create. As long as I keep my passion for the arts, every day will be gratifying.

AHD: What personal goals do you want to accomplish artistically?

MS: Artistically I want to do more fine art, painting and drawing that I have over the years. Photoshop and Illustrator have opened the portals of wackness and creatively void demonoids now plague the industry [Laughing]. Fine art- whether it be pen and ink, acrylics, pencil or oil- takes a different type of person, mind state and talent. There are no filters to mask your weaknesses. So I’m making it a point to go back to my roots so-to-speak. It’s been a slow process, but I’m gearing up.

In addition to that, I want to begin focusing more on harnessing the internal creative talents of those I’m affiliated by doing more art shows, merchandise and establishing a brand for what creative excellence is and should be.

AHD: What can we expect from Mr. Soul in the future?

MS: The personification of diversified creative excellence.