There are only three parent-approved career paths for most Nigerian children — medicine, law, and engineering. While the rest of us try to fit into these conventionally accepted roles, certain outliers like Osa Seven turn to unconventional career paths and excel at it; stretching the boundaries of possibility. Born Osa Okunkpolor, he is a Nigerian brand developer, urban GFX and graffiti artist. Ranging from portraits of iconic characters to scenic images, brand designs, abstract art, and tribal art designs, his work has become an integral part of Lagos’ cityscape and Nigeria’s overall pop culture over the last decade.
Some of his popular work includes the 2017 Lagos facelift, Live Graffiti Art Performance at Felabration, and the art for Wizkid’s Superstar album. Apart from consistently putting out great work, this visual communications graduate is on a mission to change the public perception of graffiti and is passionate about using his art to give back to society. His latest effort is the global ‘In the Paint’ campaign with Hennessy. Determined to bring the Never Stop Never Settle spirit of the brand to local communities through basketball and art, Hennessy is collaborating with OsaSeven to revitalise Park 23 basketball court in FESTAC town — a court he played on as a kid 20 years ago. Our conversation conducted over Zoom starts with us going back to the beginning of his impressive career, artistry, then the present-day partnership with Hennessey, inspiration for the court and more:
You are a world-renowned Urban GFX and Graffiti Artist, how did that happen and how has the journey been?
It’s been amazing, not the smoothest of roads but worth it. I graduated from the University of Lagos with a visual communication bachelor of arts degree. With my graphic design background, I worked with a couple of advertising firms and resigned to do this as brand manager for Food Concept (Chicken Republic). We created most of the cool designs you see in Chicken Republic years ago. It got to a point where I wanted more. I wasn’t satisfied with being a brand manager and designing because I wanted something more challenging so I resigned and decided to try street arts (graffiti). When I decided to go into this, there was little or no street art present; none of the murals we see in Lagos and Nigeria today at restaurants, bars or hangout sports. Everything was pretty much obsolete. Interestingly, it’s pretty much part of the culture right now when people are setting up shops.
You have made an impressive career for yourself as a self-taught graffiti artist, despite the negative connotations surrounding this kind of art. How did you deal with that when you started?
I was into fashion and running a clothing label called Live Mechanics while working with Chicken Republic when I resigned and started trying to figure out what to do. The clothing line shut down so I tried designing and creating logos, but it wasn’t something I wanted to get into. Then, I had conversations with a bunch of people. I even spoke with a close friend who asked, ‘oh, how many walls are you going to paint? How many people are going to allow you to paint their walls? How do you intend to make money from it?’ But for me, I saw a lapse because street art is big outside the country. I have friends, a couple of people I follow who do these things. I see the way they create their arts and the way they position themselves. I felt there might be an opportunity here so I tried doing it in Sound Sultan (God bless his soul) and MI’s 2010 video. I did something for him when they came to Festac and that was the first time my art went on screen. I also designed Wizkid’s Superstar album cover. I was in the music scene on the low, doing the more visual part of music in terms of design. I talked to people and saw possibilities of how to plug my arts into their music or whatever they were doing so I leveraged on that. Nobody was doing that at the time, now everybody sees its potential but I saw it right away. I infused my knowledge of branding to put myself out there and create the OsaSeven brand. I told myself I was going to try it for one year and see how far it goes. I think that was in 2014/ 2015 and it’s been back to back every year. Something keeps happening, some exciting client comes with an idea and wants me to bring it to life.
Your work stands out because of your knack for storytelling, vibrant colours and authenticity, how did you figure out your style and how do you stay inspired?
I love experimenting so I’m not stuck on one thing. I have a colour palette I love so much, which is a fusion of bright colours. I like trying different mediums and media. I’m a sucker for the process, it’s not just the result for me. I like seeing things go from a blank canvas to an amazing piece of art. On staying inspired, I have this slogan I say — ‘work inspires motivation.’ So for me, the more I work, the more I get inspired. I just keep working and putting out work. It’s not like I don’t get to rest. I take some time out. I travel to get inspired; interact with different people from different countries, see new art styles, visit museums, galleries, and enjoy food.
You have partnered with Hennessy on the ‘In the Paint’ campaign, what does this project mean to you?
I’ve been in business with Hennessy for a couple of years now from back when I created designs for small events until we got to 2019 when I designed the limited edition bottle for Hennessy Artistry at 10. I’ve been in the Hennessy family for a bit, and it’s been an amazing relationship for a couple of reasons; mainly because of the ‘Never Stop, Never Settle’ vision, which pretty much aligns with my vision as an artist of not relenting, pushing and aspiring to be the best. It’s the alignment of visions and ideas. This particular project is super passionate to me because I’m a big fan of giving back to society.
With Hennesy’s campaign, you get to work on the same court you used to play at as a kid 20 years ago. How does that make you feel?
Going back to FESTAC after all these years to the court where I grew up is a big deal. I played basketball on that court. We all played basketball. I played there, Sound Sultan played there, and 2Face has been there. If you grew up in Festac, you would have come to the court. I met a couple of people I still know to date so coming back and doing this project is such a big deal for me. It’s a win for me, for people who dream. A couple of years ago, I had a conversation with my dad about this court and wanting to paint it. He was super hyped about it. It’s a big deal; dreaming about something years ago, having that dream at the back of your head and seeing it come to life years later. It’s such a passion project for me.
Your artwork for the court is made up of the iconic “Bras Armé” symbol synonymous with Hennessy, bold curve patterns, colours and the Benin Queen bronze head. How did you settle on these choices?
Growing up, everybody associated Festac with entertainment because of the name — Second World Festival of Black Arts and Culture in 1977 (FESTAC ‘77) and we have had big entertainers who grew up there and became superstars. It was a melting pot for everybody so it had a lot of influence on my art. On the court design, I think the iconography is what worked for me. There are a couple of things that cut across the court, me and the current day. One is the FESTAC head- the Benin mask. It was the logo of FESTAC, the emblem they used during the festival. Secondly, it wholesomely represents me, where I’m from and where the court is situated. The bright colours represent me, heavy clouds, and the break of dawn. The patterns represent the fusion of different people from different backgrounds coming to one place, which is FESTAC – the melting pot.
You have several initiatives for various causes, why is it important that you keep driving change with your art and raising awareness on societal issues?
I am a co-founder of a platform called Socially Africa where we go to public schools and we paint educational artworks to make their spaces look good so the kids find their learning spaces more comfortable. We go to schools, engage the kids, and teach them art, spelling and hygiene. Sometimes we take different people to engage them and make them feel special. Under Socially Africa, we have a project where we get funds, then food items and do a food drive. Depending on what we get, we give to police officers, less privileged people, security, operatives, and random people who wouldn’t be expecting anything nice on a hot sunny afternoon. We need more love. We need people to know that if we don’t help each other, we can’t grow as a people. Most people have this mentality that you are on your own and nobody cares, but some people care. It might be rough for everybody or some people, but if we try to take care of people and their needs, it will lift their spirits. Some people go to steal because they don’t have anything to eat. Giving to that kind of person will change their minds.
You have had an impressive career so far. What’s next for you and what lessons do you think young artists and creatives can take away from your work?
I have an international exhibition next year. Right now, my focus is a platform called Kuma Nation which organises events to help younger artists get exposure, gigs and put their work out there. It happens bi-monthly and is a buildup to a festival later in the year. For me, it’s about using my platform to get more people out there. My advice is to just be you. Money is important, and cool to have but it’s not the end goal. I don’t think I would be where I am if I put money first. Be true to your heart, and work hard. Nothing good comes easy. Put in the work, and you will be proud of yourself.
You can see Hennessy’s latest collaboration with OsaSeven at Park 23 basketball court on 23 road, FESTAC town.
*This conversation has been slightly edited for clarity.