While there’s no mistaking that Gianni Lee is an artist, he’s also a distinct, modern-day businessman, minus the briefcase and wingtip oxfords. Rather than driving a company car, Lee prefers to travel by Uber while sporting rugged jeans and a camouflaged jacket. You can say he embodies a bit of Daymond John, Pharrell, and Basquiat wrapped in one. Still, he’s a businessman nonetheless.
Lee is known as an international D.J. and Vfiles’ very first D.J. champion, the fashion designer behind Babylon Cartel, and painter of fine art. He has also collaborated with a number of big-name brands, including Kenneth Cole, Hennessy VSOP, Complex, and Red, all while on a path to pursue his dreams and build an empire.
Lee’s success as a D.J. and party promoter began at Temple University in Pennslyvania. He then moved to Los Angeles to further his creativity in fashion, music, and art. However, a happenstance run-in with superstar singer Rihanna changed his life. In that moment, he gifted her a signature camo jacket. In turn, he was granted massive exposure to his fashion brand, Babylon Cartel, after she was photographed wearing the jacket in public. Since then, Lee has established himself as a dynamic creator and thought-provoking visual artist.
In an interview with BLACK ENTERPRISE, the West Philly-born creative opened up about the business behind his art.
(Photo Credit: Sean Williams @BlackKaiju)
BLACK ENTERPRISE: What are some of the challenges of maintaining a steady stream of revenue as a creative and artist?
Gianni Lee: The biggest challenge is realizing that, in order to make art, you can’t worry about the money. Once the money becomes the main concern, your art suffers. Once this is realized, you actually start making money, or at the very least, you get a demand for your work. You have to be comfortable with not having a steady stream of income.
I believe we even have to redefine what a steady stream of income means, down to the numbers. What’s really needed to survive and put most of your time into your work? We have to redefine expenses. We have to flip the financial norms upside-down, and create a new way for millennials spend and maintain their money. We’ll find a lot of things aren’t needed, which cuts the spending down, making it way easier to live life as a creative in the earlier stages, when money is scarce.
BE: What makes your art original?
Gianni Lee: You can’t go out into the world and say that you’ve seen anything [else like] my work before—that is what makes it original. I try my best to carve my own lane and create my own unique voice. I’m telling a specific story, and only I know where it leads and when it ends. That adds to originality. I am in no way defined by environment or people around me; only inspired by both, if I choose to be.
(Photo Credit: Sean Williams @BlackKaiju)
BE: How do you put a price tag on the art you create?
Gianni Lee: I evaluate how long it’s taken me to create something, and how much thought I put into the concept. If this was an algorithm, I guess, you could multiply that by where I am “presence wise” in the social landscape of art—how visible I am, what press I have gained, and where I have shown. The bigger the press, the bigger the gallery, of course, my stock goes up, and my prices for pieces go up. While this is a standard practice for visual artists, I still want to make opportunities for people, who couldn’t usually afford my work, to be able to obtain a piece. You may have to jump through a few hoops or travel a little, but if I’m offering free work outside of the confines of a gallery, people should take advantage, especially the fan base I am building from all this. Looking at it through the lens of an entrepreneur, you need to have various points of accessibility for people looking to support your craft that may not be able to snag a big-ticket acrylic piece.
BE: You’ve partnered with Kenneth Cole, Mountain Dew, and Complex in the past. What other major brands or companies do you hope to work with and why?
Gianni Lee: The brands I’ve worked with in the past were amazing opportunities for me to test the climate, but it’s time to level-up. It’s time to be hands-on with these brands and be more than a walking billboard ad or spokesperson. These companies have to see the value of my mind, and what I have to offer. I want to work with Nike, especially in the fields of design, installations, and social activism. I want to work with a few tech companies, and figure out how we can train the next generation of creatives: designers, stylists, photographers, painters, performance artists. Give these kids free tools, and get the government to pay for it.
Check out Lee’s solo exhibition, “Why Won’t You Hear Me?” at the Brooklyn Waterfront Artists Coalition (BWAC) until April 16, 2017. The exhibition is taking place at BWAC’s 25,000 square foot pre-Civil War gallery overlooking the Statue of Liberty in Red Hook, New York City.
Gianni Lee: “Why Won’t You Hear Me? can be viewed by the public on Saturday and Sunday from 1 PM to 6 PM until April 16, 2017. Monday through Friday by appointment only. BWAC is located at 481 Van Brunt, Door 7, Van Brunt Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 11231.
For more, please visit: GIANNI LEE: WHY WON’T YOU HEAR ME? – Solo Exhibition | bwac
Selena Hill is the Associate Digital Editor at Black Enterprise and the founder of Let Your Voice Be Heard! Radio. You can hear Hill and her team talk millennial politics and social issues every Sunday at 11 a.m. ET.
Follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @MsSelenaHill.