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D.C. native and Maryland Institute College of Art alum, Kaliq Crosby is an airbrush artist and the creator of one of Arlington’s most recent landmarks, the John M. Langston mural on the newly renamed Langston Boulevard. We sat down with him to learn more about his background, career and vision for the mural.
Tell us about where you grew up and what your upbringing was like?
I was born and raised in Washington D.C. Growing up I always had a definite passion for art. I participated in church competitions and was always involved with different art programs. When I was in elementary school, I was in art classes that really cultivated my interest in the field.
Who have been your strongest influences in life?
My elementary school art teacher, Ms. Chambers, was probably the most influential person in my life as far as art goes. She was my art teacher from 1990 to 1996 at Thomson Elementary school. She took us on a field trip to the National Gallery of Art and that had a huge impact on me.
When did you first start getting into art?
It probably all started with me drawing on the walls of my house as a kid. I always had a passion for art, and I think it started to grow even more in school. People in my life made me feel as though I had a talent for it and that’s what pushed me to pursue it. Even at the age of 7 and 8 people were asking me to draw for them.
Who are some of your artistic influences?
Some of my biggest influences would be Salvador Dalí, Norman Rockwell, and Gilbert Stuart. I saw one of Stuart’s paintings (The Skater) at the National Gallery of Art as a kid, and I think that was the first time I felt an emotional connection with a piece of artwork. I just really liked that he looked very carefree skating across a lake. Aside from that, I also draw a lot of inspiration from unknown artists and art I see on Instagram every day.
When did you begin painting murals?
The first mural I painted was in 1996 when I was in the 6th grade. It was an installation for the opera The Pirates of Penzance at The Woodies building across from Metro Center in D.C. Later in life, I started by painting at salons, daycares, and restaurants. Eventually, in 2017 I applied for my first government grant and got a commission to complete a mural on Lee’s Flower Shop on U Street in D.C., which is a historic African American neighborhood. I actually lived very close to the flower shop, so beautifying a building that I have passed by my entire life was really cool. I never thought as a little kid, driving past these buildings, that I would be the one preserving history and painting on the same blank walls that I paid no attention to.
Can you share a memory or anecdote from your career?
Back in 2017 when I was working on my first outdoor mural, I was really afraid of the scissor lift, the platform that elevates you when painting a mural. I was only about 15-20 ft up, but whenever the wind blew, I was afraid, but I didn’t want to let my fear of heights stop me. When I look back at it now, I think “Wow, that was nothing.” I’m totally comfortable using it now, I even listen to music while working, back then I would hold on to the rail, and avoid listening to music because I would try to focus on not falling.
What kind of challenges have you faced in your career?
Putting yourself in a position to win is probably the most difficult part. I think as an artist finding the confidence to do what you love can be difficult. Most of us overthink, and if you fail in society, it can be tough to get back on track and get people to believe in you again. It took a lot of nurturing and support from everywhere: the church I grew up in, school, my family, of course, to overcome my hardships and get out there, be consistent and just give it a try.
When you created your vision of the John M. Langston mural, what ideas were most important for you to convey in this important new Arlington landmark?
It can be difficult to create a piece that visually connects with people when it comes to politics. It’s not like painting an athlete, where you can visually represent the many ways they touched people’s lives. It’s different with politicians because I can’t only paint written scrolls and letters. It can be tough to convey who people were.
As part of my process, I tried to find out as much as I could about who John M. Langston was, why he was relevant and what connection he had to the local community. The first step was doing research, reading different articles and books about his accomplishments. I also reached out to a few authors to get their insight and perspective.
My next step was to map out what was going to be most important to the community. At the time there were conversations within the community about the street name change, so I was able to observe those and hear people’s perspectives. A few things stood out that we couldn’t miss: It was important that we commemorated John Langston's image, so we can always remember what he looked like, and connect his accomplishments to his likeness. We also added the school named after him in the mural, to represent his contributions to education since he was the first president of Virginia State University, a historically black college. We also chose to include stars to represent patriotism, freedom, and the American dream. There was more history than I could actually put in the mural, but once it was approved by the Langston Boulevard Alliance, the building owners, and the community elders that contributed to the project, all that was left was to complete the mural.
What is your proudest career accomplishment?
It would probably be the Amanda Gorman mural I painted in D.C., on Dupont Circle. I jumped on the project really quickly, and it was something we naturally rolled into. The property owner of New Washington Land Company was really touched by what Amanda said and wanted to memorialize it and use it as a message for the community.
I definitely wasn’t expecting the response it received. When it hit the news, it actually wasn’t finished yet, so I had to be confident in what I was doing even though nationally people were looking at footage of a piece that wasn’t completed. At that point, I thought, “Now I really have to perform and show people what I can do.” You never know when that one piece will bring people’s attention to you, so it really helped to show me that any day your life could change. Be ready, you never know who’s watching.
Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?
I think people tend to restrict themselves and stay in their comfort zone physically. When you’re born and raised somewhere you should get out and see what’s out there. Even if you grew up in the biggest city, like New York, you would still learn and grow by leaving your hometown.
What impact do you think murals and public art have on the local community?
Murals have the ability to spark conversations and connect people that might not have otherwise spoken to each other. Art can also create controversy, for example, there were two men that approached me as I was working on the John Langston mural and voiced their opinion against it. As an artist sometimes you’re caught in the middle of these conversations, but there’s a lot more of an upside to it since people can learn so much from the artwork. Art plays a really important role in preserving history and culture and exposing history that hasn’t been heard about. I think it’s a great responsibility, and I have taken it on because I do it out of passion.
For more information on Kaliq’s work, you can visit his website and follow him on Instagram @kaliqcustoms.
Author: Paola Fernandez