Being His Own Icon

By Alan Krawitz

Even a fuzzy cell phone connection couldn’t temper the unbridled enthusiasm for creating art that Bayside artist Nicholai Khan has in abundance.

“I’m already living my dream,” said Khan, who studied commercial art at FIT. “I always wanted to be part of the New York City art scene.”

Khan, 32, has lived in Bayside for a decade since moving to New York City from his native Trinidad in 1986. “It was the year the Mets won the World Series,” Khan recalled. “It was a good time to come to New York City.”

Since then, Khan has been making the most of working in Queens, which he refers to as “a place of comfort” as well as being in close proximity to Manhattan’s own vibrant art scene.

Khan refers to his style as urban contemporary and his latest collection, Be Your Own Icon, recently on exhibit at the Agora Gallery in Chelsea, transcends standard pop and cultural images by injecting the energy of the city taken from graffiti, cartoons and Japanese animation with a nod to the city’s multicultural pastiche. Recognizable icons he has depicted include John Lennon, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Apple’s late CEO, Steve Jobs.

“The message of ‘Be Your Own Icon’ is simple,” said Khan, “be your own person.”

On his website, Khan writes that the icons were chosen to “pay tribute to all the people throughout history who have made a true, positive impact on society and the world as a whole.”

Holding true to his pop art style, Khan makes use of a variety of common and everyday materials that can be found nearly everywhere. Those materials run the gamut from markers, wood and flowers to spray paints, cans, jewelry and a variety of recycled items.

Khan, who has travelled and studied abroad in Egypt, India and Japan, said that the sum of his experiences has informed his art.

His other art collections also draw heavily from American and worldwide pop culture and include graffiti art, super heroines, a collection of comic book female super heroes such as Batgirl and Supergirl, and a uniquely Queens phenomena that Khan describes as “table sketches,” which are unique works that are done live, in local restaurants, as diners look on.

In fact, in Bayside, Khan said he regularly does his table sketches in local restaurants such as Erawan and Bonne Saison.

Khan said that the sketches are done in one sitting and usually given as a gift to a waiter or the establishment. He has been known to tweet and post upcoming table sketch locations on his website at nicholaikhan.com.

Reflecting on his own upbringing, Khan says it was a tough road to get where he is today.

“I grew up halfway in the street, I didn’t have much early on,” he admits. Khan says that he never felt as if he “fit in” growing up, due to his accent. “Sometimes kids made fun of me because of that.”

But, he says that no matter what, he was always able to come through his funks.

As his way of giving back, Khan said he’s been working since 2002 with a second chance program for troubled youths run through the Queens DA’s office. In addition, he says he is also involved with Council Speaker Christine Quinn on an anti-bullying campaign that involves some of Khan’s Be Your Own Icon works.

Although Khan’s upcoming public exhibitions will be abroad at art spaces in Paris and London this coming November, his work can be seen online at his website and also at 5 Pointz warehouse in Long Island City.

Located near MoMA PS1 in LIC, 5 Pointz is a collection of artist studios whose exterior is covered with intricate and vibrant works of graffiti art.

“My mentality is that I can make art anywhere and build it from nothing,” Khan says. “If I was stranded in the desert, I could make art from sand. My motto is know your goals, never settle, be patient and always strive. Pretty simple, huh?”

For more information on Nicholai Khan or to order commissioned pieces, limited edition canvas prints, photo prints or original art, email artist@nicholaikhan.com.

For updates on gallery events or contests, sign up for Khan’s newsletter at nicholaikhan.com or join his fanpage on facebook.com/nicholaikhan.

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