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James Thigpen Jr. fell in love with art as a child growing up on Flint’s north side. In his early years, his mother would make space in their Baltimore Street home for young James and his sister to have as much creative license as they wanted.
“It’s this room we had in our basement…it was a room nobody would ever go into. It was like storage…she would allow me and my sister to paint on the walls and just go crazy in there. These things I remember.”
Thigpen, now 33, is making his way on the artist’s scene as he becomes known globally for his work, which he says has a foundation built on his Flint upbringing, education, and support.
An Artist is Born
Thigpen is a product of his environment. He’s an 80s Flint baby. He grew up in a community where streets were lined with houses, children still filled Flint’s neighborhoods, and Flint Community Schools’ student count was not so dismal. During his childhood the district still offered rich programming introducing students to music and art.
He went to Sobey Elementary School, Whittier Junior High School, and Flint Central High School. All of the schools have closed since Thigpen was a student, but he can recall how FCS helped shape him as an artist.
“I was blessed because I felt I was a creative when I was a young kid. It was literally second grade when I went to career day at Sobey as an artist… I would just draw on the table all the time. I’ve always had this right-side brain as a kid to do creative things. I liked when the art teacher came and visited. I worked hard and always felt I did better than the other students.”
While attending Flint Central High School, Thigpen would take classes in both art and music but said it wasn’t until after he enrolled in classes at the Genesee Area Skill Center that he decided to focus on graphic design.
“When I got to high school, it was really pivotal because I got to go to the Skill Center, and that’s where I fell in love with graphic design.” At some point, Thigpen said, a teacher pulled him to the side and encouraged him to try graphic design, and it changed his life.
“From that point on, that’s what I set out to be good at. I stumbled a lot,” he said. “I went to [Mott Community College], and I was one of the worse in the class. But left Mott with a faculty recognition award which is only given to one student every year. The rest is history.”
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Thigpen went on to receive an associate’s degree in graphic design from MCC, he then enrolled at the University of Michigan-Flint where he earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts, won an Addy Award while still a student and landed a job creating promotional materials for university departments — adding more experience to his resume — a move which he credits to leading to his success as a graphic design artist.
During his time at UM-Flint, he said he developed a lot of the promotional material and was able to tap into his photography and videography skills. Though grateful for his opportunities in Flint, Thigpen said he wanted more.
“There was a lot going on in my life. I resigned and left to go to New York. It was semi-random. I just felt like I needed to do something bigger.” He left in 2013.
Chasing Dreams in New York
It’s 2013, and Thigpen joined thousands of artists who embark on the Big Apple hoping to turn dreams into realities.
Through networking and connections, it wasn’t long before Thigpen met with local artists and was able to start doing commercial and advertising design work and learning how to manage himself as an artist.
“I started being able to put things in my name, having a budget, hiring actors, and paying for location.” The job was good, and it would also allow Thigpen to do gallery events showcasing his work as an artist.
“I did art shows every year. I worked on art every day. Literally, when I got to New York, I was creating.” The job was short Thigpen found himself unemployed and eventually working odd jobs to make ends meet while still promoting himself as an artist.
“In New York, I was hustling pretty much,” he said. “I couldn’t find any graphic design jobs. I would end up in high-end boutiques with people with attitudes I couldn’t handle, and in about three days, I would be out.” He would eventually land a job in Soho as a janitor.
“I was scrubbing toilets,” he said. “It was humbling. I met a lot of cool people, a lot of people who would go on to be actors and models. It was painful, but it was dope.”
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Thigpen would continue to work odd jobs while still searching for something in graphic design, then one day early 2015, he received an opportunity that would quickly change his circumstances.
“I had applied for job after job. I was broke and had nothing,” Thigpen said. “I sent in my resume in for a designer job, and they asked me to come in for an interview.” Even though he worked a few jobs, Thigpen didn’t have clothes for an interview, so he worked with what he had and headed to the Jazz at Lincoln Center armed with his portfolio for a scheduled interview.
“I had on the craziest outfit on that day,” Thigpen laughed. “I had freshly cut my dread [locs] and was damn near bald. I would buy clothes, but I really had nothing for an interview, and then there were these shoes. They were black and suede with red insides. That shit looked so tacky. I walked in there, and I was like I gotta get this job. I don’t care.”
A week later he was offered a position with Jazz at Lincoln Center where he would work on projects featuring jazz music industry greats like Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk.
“The really changed my life, accepting that position.”
f is for Flint – The Making of a Brand
While living in New York, Thigpen would visit home at least once or twice a year to see family and friends. One day while visiting his college friend Demarcus Smith he noticed a baseball cap Smith was wearing with a logo on it.
“I really liked the cap,” Thigpen said. “It was good quality, and it had his logo on it. I told him I loved the hats, and the quality was dope.”
The two partnered to create a brand with their hometown as their muse.
“I felt this was a cultural void that needs to be filled,” Thigpen said. “When I [saw] that Demarcus was already creating the quality of hats that matched that streetwear style, a light bulb went off, and the idea came.”
For two months, the duo went back and forth on logo designs before finally agreeing the lower case letter “f,” which would be the symbol for their Eight One Zero apparel brand paying homage to Flint.
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“It felt like major league. We did a test run of hats. I’m wearing it in New York, and people are like ‘What’s that? What’s that?’ Marcus was in Flint wearing it and he said some old ladies asked him what did the upside-down J stand for. I asked, ‘You think we should change it?’ He said, ‘Hell, naw.’ That had me cracking up. It also put the battery in my back to push this idea because it was so intriguing to people.”
Thigpen said they invested about $150 each into the initial hats and decided not to pour any more money into the business. The two started to promote the hats on Instagram and posted them online for sale.
“The first day we opened the online store, we sold two hats in 30 minutes — nobody ever seen my face. Nobody knew who we were. It was packaged on the north side of Flint. You know what I’m saying? It was like it was dope. You know. From there, we took off.”
Thigpen sported the hats in New York while Smith did the same in Flint. Jordan “Euro” Munerlyn came on board after a year later to help with trademark and community engagement.
Things were going good for Thigpen. The Eight One Zero brand was making traction, he enjoyed his work with Jazz at Lincoln Center and his New Yorker lifestyle. This all was great for a single man with no responsibilities but himself. That all changed with the birth of his daughter, Victory, whose mom was also from back home.
The young artist decided New York wasn’t the place to raise his daughter and he decided to head back to the Midwest in 2017. He is now based in the Detroit area where he worked as a senior graphic designer and now serves as an art director for multiple brands.
Thigpen regularly visits Flint for both family and business engagements while he is still working with Eight One Zero and continuously working to make sure his art is visable in the Flint community whether he is producing community driven videos, showing up for lectures and gallery shows or simply promoting Eight One Zero on local billboards.
“I made that move back primarily for Victory,” Thigpen said of his two-year-old daughter. “All the other bells and whistles came with it.” Thigpen is doing speaking engagements, various seminars and conferences and says he might go into teaching eventually. For him Flint is still home and it’s a city where he says he wants to leave a lasting impact.
“I’m bridging the world of graphic design and fine art,” Thigpen said. “People don’t really respect [graphic design] like traditional painters or people who work in charcoal, whatever medium and I think I’m really blurring the lines in what I do…“In ten years, it’s no question that you are going to see my work in some great galleries and I will be inspiring the next kid that will take the torch.”
Support his work
James Thigpen’s work has been featured in gallery shows throughout New York and at Mott Community College during an exhibit in 2019. His work is set to be on display in The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago from Feb. 17th through the end of March.