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Chaos and composition

A quest for success drives Kojo Griffin from troubled youth to celebrated artist

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When Kojo Griffin goes to New York City, he usually takes a bus and a train from the airport to his cousin's apartment in Brooklyn. But not on Sept. 7.

In town for his first solo show in the Big Apple, the 30-year-old self-taught artist was approaching baggage claim at LaGuardia Airport when he saw a man holding up a sign marked "GRIFFIN." It was something he'd noticed before in movies and at airports -- a private driver waiting for some bigwig to arrive -- only this time Griffin was the bigwig; the driver was waiting for him.

Escorted to a town car, Griffin was driven into Manhattan, where he was delivered to the entrance of the chic Hudson Hotel in Midtown.

"Wow," the artist recalls thinking at the time. "This is kind of cool."

Griffin, who may be the most acclaimed young artist now living in Atlanta, isn't much of a socializer; he doesn't like crowds. He spends his time close to his home in East Point or his warehouse studio in West End. Except for his wife Nitzanah, his sons Zion and Kether and a few artist and musician friends, he usually prefers the company of art supplies to people. Clad in baggy pants and a floppy jacket that look like they came from an Army surplus store, the soft-spoken artist doesn't so much project an image when he walks into a room as permeate it with a warm, quiet gravity.

That wasn't always the case. Growing up in the middle-class suburbs of Boston, Griffin was a troubled, withdrawn child. "I was much bigger than everybody, not just in terms of my weight but my height. I just kept to myself a lot, and I suffered from a lot of depression as a kid. So it was, like, art and drawing was what I did. It was the thing I could do, so people encouraged it."

He split his time between his mom's house in the Jewish neighborhood of Brookline and his dad's house in the black neighborhood of Roxbury, and he had a hard time reconciling those two worlds. "I didn't really fit in with the white Jewish kids because I was different, and I was never able to forget that I was black. And I didn't exactly fit in with a lot of the black kids either, in terms of my likes and dislikes and who I am."

Griffin overcame some of his insecurities in high school. He played football and basketball, and started getting invited to parties, thanks in part to a popular cousin. But he still felt like an outsider, and he resented those who he thought judged him.

"A child gets to a certain point where you sort of have a secret anger against people. It's like, 'Well fuck you then, if you don't want to accept me.'"

Griffin gravitated toward graffiti art, which proved to be the perfect outlet. At first, he didn't have the confidence to throw his work onto walls; he worked for years in sketchbooks. "I spent my time just trying to develop a sense of that style," he says, "how to work within that style, how to play within that style."

His cerebral approach to graffiti may have been more productive than spraying Krylon on the walls of Boston. He spent those high school years contemplating what makes art good, studying other artists' murals, breaking them down, and analyzing what worked and what didn't. He began, in an informal way at a fairly early age, to develop an understanding and appreciation for line quality and composition.

But Griffin didn't think art was his future. In 1990, he moved to Atlanta to study psychology at Morehouse College. Away from home for the first time, he did what most college freshmen do, slack off and party. But he continued with graffiti, only now he was spray-painting murals on abandoned buildings and on walls in vacant lots. In a discipline where artists are judged by their peers, Griffin began to hone a competitive edge that would prove to serve him well in the world of fine art.

"Because there's not any money involved in graffiti, it is totally dependent upon how good your work is. That's part of that system of recognition," he explains. "However well known you are, however good your work is, determines how soon your work is covered up [by other graffiti artists] and how long it gets to ride."

Eventually Griffin began picking up paying jobs. He painted murals and signs at places like Patti Hut, Ear Wax and Marco's Pita. He made club flyers and had a disastrous stint designing and silk-screening T-shirts. But he also made paintings, and it started to dawn on him that perhaps his future was in art after all.

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