Arts & Culture

Behind the (almost) botched haircut that made "the Wright artist" an Instagram icon

And the humility that makes him "an average person."

Malachi Wright sees what you say in his Instagram comments. An Instagram icon who burst on to your TV screen in 2018 with an appearance on the Steve Harvey Show, he's telling his story -- on his own terms. Courtesy of Malachi Wright
Malachi Wright sees what you say in his Instagram comments. An Instagram icon who burst on to your TV screen in 2018 with an appearance on the Steve Harvey Show, he's telling his story -- on his own terms. Courtesy of Malachi Wright

Malachi Wright is a national treasure. Snoop Dogg knows it. The National Hockey League, too. And Steve Harvey, who follows him on Instagram.

In 2018, Wright’s drawing “the Comedy Shop” went viral on social media. Harvey’s production team emailed him during speech practice at Thornton Township High School, flew the 16-year-old and his mom out to Los Angeles that night, and had Wright as a guest on the Steve Harvey Show the next day.

You’ve likely seen the drawing. It’s a scene of comedy legends like Harvey, Redd Foxx, Bernie Mac, Eddie Murphy, and Martin Lawrence chopping it up in a barbershop. You can even see Bill Cosby’s reflection in the mirror opposite the room at Richard Pryor’s chair.

Culture vultures know that he’s a national treasure, too. That’s why they steal his art.

What may be surprising to many is that Wright, now 20, isn’t mad about it.

“My art is so good that people stealing it,” he laughed.

“They’re not stealing everyone’s art and putting it on shirts. I’m going to take this as a compliment.”

He reads the comment section, where many herald his work (Rapper T.I. hit him with the crown-mindblown-hands in praise-“100”- emoji combo a few months ago) and also make assumptions about Wright and his creative vision.

But what Wright, an (overly) humble person, clad in a black sweatshirt as he lounges in his college dorm room, really wants them to know is that he is “an average person.”

With his mother backstage watching in awe, Wright gifted comedy legends Steve Harvey and Martin Lawrence with copies of his drawing, "the Comedy Shop, which they are featured in. Courtesy of the Wright Arts Facebook page.
With his mother backstage watching in awe, Wright gifted comedy legends Steve Harvey and Martin Lawrence with copies of his drawing, "the Comedy Shop, which they are featured in. Courtesy of the Wright Arts Facebook page.

Four years later, “Comedy Shop” has an occasional revival online, contributing to Wright’s growing celebrity client list: Snoop asked him to design his album cover. He produced a drawing of team mascots playing Blackjack for the NHL.

Wright’s artwork has an unmistakable, eye-catching aesthetic. A self-taught artist, he toys around with the drawing applications on his iPad to produce a sort of cartoonish realism that bends contemporary pop culture.

Like any artist, he’s inspired by lived experiences. “Comedy Shop” was born out of a common occurrence: avoiding a botched haircut.

“It’s basically like the neighborhood comedians within the barbershop just making jokes, and I'm in the chair trying not to laugh too hard so my hair doesn’t get messed up,” he said. He watched a Def Comedy Jam reunion special on Netflix not too long before and thought the barbershop was an analogous social environment, he said.

His family, especially older siblings, is the tie that binds his love for Black 1990s sitcoms. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and Martin are his favorites. You can also find Dragon Ball Z, The Simpsons, and Family Guy-inspired work.

To Boomers, the Millennieals and Gen Zers are lazy. The latter believes the former are out of touch. But Wright deeply appreciates how each generation acts and reacts to the forces around them.

Every piece, which can be bought on his website, is a delicately curated class schedule. Pop culture 101, history 102, and advanced nostalgia: Black Panther and Killamonger reenacting the Muhammad Ali and Smokin’ Joe Frazier fight. Tupac and former president Barack Obama at the Last Supper. A Cardi B’d Mona Lisa. The Creation of Kanye West at the Sistine Chapel.

His piece “the Last Dance,” titled after the 2020 documentary on the Chicago Bulls, was inspired by a picture of civil rights legend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that Wright had on his phone.

Unbeknownst to some, King was a pool lover who often used the game as a respite from the stresses of organizing against racial segregation and capitalism. In Wright’s rendition, Michael Jordan lays along the table, trying to get the right angle for his shot while the 1996 lineup looks onward.

“No matter how [old] I get, I never want to be that person that looks at another time period or another generation like ‘man, there’s nothing like the time I came from.’”

Wright, who boasts 162,000 IG followers, is a student of the culture. And UCLA, where he’s studying Design & Media Arts. That includes animation, motion, game, or graphic design, which is what Wright’s focusing on.

That random L.A. trip solidified his yearning desire to head west, he said. Now, his repertoire and intellectual curiosity are growing.

“They (his professors) ask what is art? What could be considered design?” he said.

That’s fitting for him. Wright’s art expounds upon those questions: Who gets to create art? Under what conditions? And by what means?

“The Last Dance”

“Fight for King”

“OutKast X Sesame Street (Bert & Ernie)”

“The Feast of Knowledge x The Last Supper” (reference compared to the actual drawing)

The Dixmoor native’s journey to the City of Angels began in kindergarten. For the hundredth day of school, everyone had to bring an item from home. Wright brought 100 drawings. “And I still had other drawings left,” he said in bewilderment.

“Even that moment — my mom made me realize [...] I was constantly creating [...] art for the pure enjoyment of it,” he beamed. He enjoys the creative process — from concept to “Post.” It’s a “bigger purpose,” he said, one that allows him to use art as a means of inspiring others.

It’s no longer stick figures, but Wright is still coloring outside the lines. Now, he produces music videos for homework assignments.

But he’s not arrogant as one would imagine.

Wright credits God with keeping him grounded. “I’m just working for my eternal salvation,” he said. And yes, this ambitious 20-year-old (he wants to produce a children’s show someday) living on his own in L.A. with no rules pays attention to his parents.

“My father, he plays a major role [...] just reminding me to stay humble,” the college sophomore remarked. “And I listen every time he tells me to.”

“Cardi B-isa”

Snoop Dogg’s “I Wanna Thank Me” album cover

While he’s cool with it now, Wright vividly remembers the first time someone stole his art. “I did a picture in my drawing book of [Barack] Obama doing the Nae Nae,” he recalled.

An admirer reshared his post and mistakenly credited the wrong artist, who saw the drawing and claimed it as their own. That hurt for the budding teenage artist.

“It did make me upset in that moment because this is one of the first moments where someone shared my picture and it got a lot of likes, but I wasn’t even the one getting credit for it,” he said.

Wright's experience with artistic plagiarism forces us to grapple with how creatives use social media to build successful brands only for others to chop and screw their art — and their narratives — for capital gain.

But he takes it in strides. “From that moment on, I kind of just took it,” he said. “[...] it’s going to keep on happening.” We’re so accustomed to seeing others win, we neglect to consider the losses that have come with it.

However, “at the end of the day, God — he sees all that,” Wright said about the plagiarism. He’s open to suing if it escalates, but largely dismisses it. There’s other things he could be focusing on instead, he said.

Like doing more commissioned work. His promotional work for the ESPN and Drake Monday Night Football collaboration, he said, is among his favorite efforts, so far.

But he’s also open to new artistic mediums.

“My brother Ira and close friend Coco had just started getting into making music, and they really inspired me to do the same.”

He released his debut album “Where I’m At,”which can be streamed on YouTube, shortly before his 20th birthday.

Wright’s circle is full of creatives. His brother Amoz is a filmmaker. That music video he produced? For a friend’s new song. Inspired by his friends and his classes, he’s reflecting on prior work, too. Wright said he’d probably redo the Black Panther drawing, placing him and Killamonger in a different setting.

New endeavors mean he could also take more spontaneous flights with his mom, an illustrator. “When I went to the show, I didn’t even have any clothes. I had to buy clothes in L.A.,” he joked.

While on the Steve Harvey Show, Wright was able to present both Harvey and guest Martin Lawrence, who he didn’t know would be on the show, with copies of his drawing. “It was a beautiful moment, honestly — just being with my mom,” he said. “I can imagine what this meant for her.”

And that’s the motivator. Wright’s a pretty selfless kid. He’s basking in the limelight, but he wants to share it.

“I want more moments like this,” he said. “And, I feel like I’m supposed to have more moments like this.”

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