By Ben Westhoff
Paint cans, sneakers and recording equipment saturate Brock Seals’ studio in the Grove. On a top shelf sits a Lego action figure he designed of himself. The scene feels like controlled chaos, a merging of artistic styles befitting a man who works across mediums.
The 2019 University of Missouri–St. Louis Department of Art and Design graduate is in full creative swing, no longer working a day job but instead supporting himself painting canvases, performing hip-hop and fashioning custom cleats for sports stars, such as Cardinals outfielder Harrison Bader.
Both book smart and street smart, Seals draws on a wide range of influences, from pop culture to ancient philosophy. Today wearing thin blond braids, a vintage KISS T-shirt, camo pants and sneakers running the color gamut, he’s a walking visual statement who pushes boundaries. Having painted “REPARATIONS” in huge letters on the street by City Hall – as well as created roller skates that look like ice cream cones – his art is both political and commercially viable.
“It involves a lot of reflecting on who I am, being from St. Louis and being Black, and my culture,” he says.
He’s succeeding on his own terms in the worlds of art and activism, in the process creating a body of work both unique and inspiring. At age 28, his list of accomplishments grows weekly. He has presented at Art Basel in Miami; organized a celebrated Mad Art Gallery event, Art, Mimosas and Pancakes; and recently recorded a critically regarded album called “The Artivist.”
To call his ascent unlikely is an understatement. Coming from a hardscrabble North St. Louis County upbringing, Seals was raised without art-world role models. During part of Seals’ childhood his father was imprisoned, and his mother has long worked in food service.
“My mom did a good job providing for me, so I didn’t have to worry – so I could dream,” he said. “I always knew that I was different.”
His ascent to local avant-garde leader began at Jennings High School, when he and two friends produced a T-shirt line called Hello Tomorrow, a graphic-heavy lifestyle brand.
“In every St. Louis high school, people had it,” Seals recalls.
He pursued fashion on scholarship at Columbia College Chicago but dropped out and returned home feeling like he’d failed. He learned to paint at St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley and then enrolled at UMSL, where his mentors included Phil Robinson, associate professor of art, and Michael Behle, associate teaching professor of art.
“They offered resources and guidance and helped me bring my crazy ideas to life,” Seals says, adding that he’s especially thankful to Behle for teaching him the business of art, including how to get work into galleries. “He showed us all the possibilities. We took a trip to New York my senior year and saw Warhols and Basquiats.”
Before long, Seals began exhibiting paintings at venues, including St. Louis’ Contemporary Art Museum, and he’s now well-known on the local scene. A February 2021 St. Louis Magazine profile gushed about his “colorful, geometric style rooted in both Black traditions and postmodern aesthetics.”
Meanwhile, he’s earning real money designing custom sneakers for his 10,000 Instagram followers. He also creates pieces for hip-hop stars and professional sports teams, including the Los Angeles Rams. For the Cardinals’ African American Heritage Night at Busch Stadium in September, he designed a special ballcap, an impressionistic spin on the team’s traditional red and white, of which 30,000 were set to be distributed.
His background growing up in an area of concentrated poverty informs his creations. He says Michael Brown’s 2014 killing in Ferguson by a white police officer inspired him to go harder in his craft, to put in more hours than ever.
“Mike’s killing led me to take my painting more serious because I realized that it could all be taken at any moment,” he says. “I learned how I could use my art as my voice.”
His protest work from a June 20, 2020, block party next to City Hall has become legend. In conjunction with the Black business network For the Culture STL, he painted the word “REPARATIONS” in giant yellow letters on Market Street, as a group of supporters locked arms in a circle, so police couldn’t disrupt him. The goal was to raise awareness about the issue, locally and nationally, and though the letters were soon scrubbed off, their impact continues to reverberate.
“That protest is still being talked about to this day,” he says.
As Seals’ career has progressed, he’s become increasingly comfortable in his skin, shifting away from popular styles and into his own lane. His latest rap album, recorded at his Grove studio, often sounds more like jazz than
contemporary hip-hop, while his videos eschew genre tropes in favor of his unique dance moves and wildly ornate, self-designed jackets and shirts.
His advice for the sartorially challenged?
“Wear what you like. Take risks! That’s how you develop your style,” he says.
The same wisdom informs Seals’ art, which grows increasingly impactful the more he disregards the rules.