Graffiti artist and About The Life, Inc. Co-Founder, Derek “Focus” Smith, has combined his culture and his love of art to make a difference where it matters. One of his most recent works is a 20-foot-by-20-foot mural in Art Alley in honor of the children who were recently discovered in unmarked graves near the Sioux San Hospital land (formerly the Rapid City Indian Boarding School). Focus also has had works in the Dahl Arts Center, at different events, and in Pine Ridge, among other places. 605 chatted with the artist to see more of what’s behind the spray can.
SOME PEOPLE MAY KNOW MY WORK FROM… murals I’ve painted in Pine Ridge while working with local students to promote their cultural awareness, as well as from “Where The Wild Things Are,” South Dakota’s first ever graffiti exhibit [at the Dahl].
I WAS DRAWN TO MURALS WHEN… I would see the graffiti murals in bigger cities. Figuring out how I could do that became magnetic, a gravitational force that gave me enough energy to jump and almost enough of a smile to keep going. I say almost because I’m still pushing for that other half.
ART FOR ME STARTED… when I realized how peaceful it helped everything become. Art, in general, became my constant amid the rising and fading chaos in my life, a constant where I still stand.
OTHER ART I DABBLE IN IS… drawing, painting, screen printing, and tattooing. I also teach graffiti classes, which I consider an art form itself.
MY INSPIRATION BEHIND MY PIECE IN ART ALLEY WAS… the spirits of the children who never made it home from the Rapid City Indian Boarding School. Another inspiration is representing the Lakota culture in downtown Rapid City and showing the symbols from our culture, our ceremonies, and our beliefs. It is an offering to those who would take it as an opportunity to learn about Lakota people who live within the community. I want to break the stereotypes of the criminal minded, poverty stricken, and addiction riddled, and show there are many highly successful and prominent indigenous people.
MY PIECE IN PINE RIDGE CAME ABOUT BECAUSE… I believe graffiti is a vehicle that will reintroduce the youth to stories, symbols, and imagery of their Lakota culture. Gaining a sense of identity through these murals allows kids to see old, sovereign, traditional Lakota culture intertwined with graffiti, which establishes a sense of acknowledging their identity. The mural in Pine Ridge teaches of the Pte San Win (White Buffalo Calf Woman) ceremony origin story. A woman appeared to two hunters and offered the Čhaŋnúŋpa (pipe) and ceremonies to aid in times of need. That’s why the mural came about: the youth.
EACH PIECE TYPICALLY TAKES ME… well, each one is different depending on size, details, and environmental conditions. I undertake each piece or mural with the same attitude, knowing that our Lakota ceremonies involve physical endurance, often to extreme levels. In this suffering, concentration of prayer instills that when one faces odds in life, they find out who they are in those moments.
ONE MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT GRAFFITI IS… that it might be pointless. Yet, it has taught me diligence, fortitude, and focus. Networking, problem solving, planning, developing styles, learning I have a voice and sharing my voice are all things I’ve learned from graffiti.
WHAT ART BRINGS ME IS… an awareness of my abilities and the feeling of overcoming and perseverance. Above all, the people I’ve met along the way, the feelings, and the experiences are priceless. Yes I’d definitely say “art brings me,” and not the other way around.
MY FAVORITE SPOTS IN SOUTH DAKOTA ARE… Black Elk Peak, inside any Inipi (Sweat Ceremony), the Racing Magpie, or the Dahl.
WHEN I GRAB A BITE, YOU CAN FIND ME AT… the Golden Corral, or wherever they sell popovers. At pow-wows you can always find me eating an Indian Taco, and I also really dig homecooked dinners.
SOMEONE I REALLY RESPECT RIGHT NOW IN MY COMMUNITY IS… Heather Dawn Thompson. Her positive impact on the community is really great. Also, for Nick Tilsen for his work to empower Indigenous people and communities through NDN Collective.
SOMETHING I’M WORKING ON RIGHT NOW IS… screen printing techniques and producing pieces to be exhibited in various galleries.
WHAT I’M LOOKING FORWARD TO IN 2019 IS… seeing more art and music programs, Lakota language classes, accurate cultural awareness, and the mending and healing of past traumas for the community as a whole. Also, mural programs for the youth, and graffiti classes for the community.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE THINGS ABOUT WHERE I LIVE IS… that there is a progressive attitude in understanding, helping, and bettering race relations. I think it is really cool that people are more open to how we, as humans, can get along better and help each other out.
For more information, visit About This Life Inc. on facebook.com.