Pablo Picasso once said: All children are artists. But the problem is how to remain an artist once the child grows up. This has not been an issue for Tacoma painter and rapper Perry Porter, whose mother encouraged him to be as creative as he wanted.
“She made me a very fierce person and allowed me to chase my dreams,” he says.
At age 9, he was using Sharpies to draw all over the basement walls at home and making his own clothes. And with a father who was a DJ and an older brother and cousins who were rappers, music was even a larger part of his life than visual art early on. Creativity surrounded Porter, and not only was it familiar, it also was how he channeled his energy into something constructive. Something, as he puts it, that “would keep him out of trouble.”
One of the things that interests me about Porter’s work is how it easily flows from the musical to the visual side. “In an ignorance is bliss, sort of way, I never really thought of them being two different things,” he says. “If people listen to my music and want to think of me as a rapper, that’s fine. If they want to think of me as a visual artist, that’s fine, too. Since I was a kid, I’ve felt I can do anything.”
His work also goes against stereotypes. Porter loves the contrast of being a Black male rapper creating with watercolor. He is self-taught in the medium, which isn’t terribly easy to master, but after experimenting a bit and being inspired by the work of Agnes Cecile, among others, he has made it his own. Musically, his work is sophisticated, smooth, atmospheric and sensual.
I strongly recommend checking out Grey, a collaboration with Seattle producer OldMilk that was released in June. I’m still trying to decide if "Custom" or "Move My Feet" is my favorite track. Both set the mood with a chill, steady, danceable beat, smart lyrics and catchy hooks. While "Move My Feet" transports me to an upscale lounge or poolside at a Miami Beach hotel, "Custom" shows off Porter’s rapper side, warming you up for a backyard BBQ with friends and assuring you will all end up dancing by the end of the night.
Recently, Perry Porter AKA Perry Paints has been getting a bit of buzz since he was one of the artists who collaborated on the Black Lives Matter street mural on Capitol Hill in Seattle. He explains: “It was surreal because we got a heads up maybe a day or two before, so no one got to plan what we were going to paint. That was my favorite part; there weren’t many questions asked.” The artists were all there to get to know each other and create something to memorialize a movement they are passionate about.
For Porter, art and activism are one and the same. He may not go out of his way to “Do the whole activism thing,” but it is there embedded in his work. “Sometimes just being a Black man doing what I do is a form of activism in itself.”
With his belief that Art is Power, Porter has made it a point to make sure images of Black and Brown people are reflected in his work. He believes that if people of color were able to see themselves in more visual images in art and culture, there would be a higher appreciation for the arts and more of an acceptance in communities of color for visual careers. He muses about how different his life might have been had he discovered his painting earlier in life.
“If you only see yourself in trauma situations and the only times your people are depicted have to do with pain and death, you feel left out of the conversation,” he says. “I just wanted to be normal, you know?” For those reasons, he has become a sort of art mentor to his six nieces. “They’re now all into art and looking up stuff, drawing all the time and it’s cool to see. It’s like action working.”
The energy and passion this 31-year-old, multitalented artist has for his personal creativity and growth is clearly visible when you meet him, even over a video call. I loved his description of himself as “organized within, but like a passionate tornado on the outside.” It is clear he is not afraid of a good debate, particularly with his older brother and his eclectic group of friends that keeps him reflecting on his art and staying open-minded. These interactions inspire him as much as Erykah Badu and Missy Elliott, “two fierce women who went and did exactly what they wanted to do.” Jay-Z is another important influence, but I get the sense that his own community of artists and friends challenges him even more than any celebrity to continuously be better at everything he does.
I asked him what’s next and what doors he would like to see open. Music-wise, he is having a great time pushing hip-hop as far as he can with a few projects in the works: A “soulful disco kind of album,” another with a more jazzy R&B feel, and a song titled “Black Boy Joy” he’s been editing that may end up being part of a full-length album. With visual art, he wants to slow his process down a bit and focus on technique that would lead to making larger works.
Most of all, there is an eagerness to enjoy the ride and give the world back the joy his creativity has given him. Opportunities like painting more murals and participating in more gallery shows are goals, and I have no doubt he will accomplish them. He has little interest in fame; his hope is to earn enough money to keep making art.
Me: "Is there anything you want the public to know about you or anything you want to get off your chest?"
Porter: "Just stop enabling Black trauma art. Black people are happy, too. Really. That’s all I got. Just love yourself."
This story is part of the Artists Among Us series of profiles highlighting creatives around the region who are Black, Indigenous and People of Color. Juan Alonso-Rodríguez was born in Cuba. He is a self-taught artist and arts activist with a career spanning over three decades in Seattle.