Philly Street Art Interviews: NOMAD, The Faceless Face Of Germantown’s Art Community

This is the second post in our fourth season of Philly Street Art Interviews! This season is sponsored by Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) and its @PHLAirportArt program, which curates museum-quality art exhibitions that introduce millions of visitors from around the world to the vibrant artistic culture of the region. PHL proudly supports Philly arts and culture/365! Interview and photos by Streets Dept Lead Contributor Eric Dale.

Anonymous Germantown artist NOMAD has become well-known in recent years. In 2022, he was featured in both Tiny Room For Elephants and Jawn 6, a rotating exhibition space at Philadelphia International Airport. He also sells clothing, and earned a lot of attention during the pandemic as many people looked to artists of color for home decor—since walls start looking a little empty when you’re forced to stay at home.

But NOMAD is probably best known for his “NOMAD Face” and the phrases that accompany it. The face, a contour line drawing that NOMAD paints around Philadelphia, has distinctly African traits: wide noses and full lips. When a photo of one of NOMAD’s spray-painted messages, “STOP GENTRIFYING THIS JAWN,” went viral on Facebook, some commenters hypothesized that a white college student was behind it—in other words, that the message was not exactly authentic. NOMAD says that the face cleared that up.

That face has become a symbol, a logo, a tag, a signature—perhaps even a rallying cry. It’s ironic how powerful a face has become for an artist who does not show his own. Luckily, NOMAD was willing to share his voice when I sat down with him at his home in Germantown to learn more about his art and his messages.

Streets Dept’s Eric Dale: Tell me about your name. Why do you call yourself NOMAD?

NOMAD: When I started my artistic journey, I felt like I was in a space in my life where I was moving around a lot. So originally, I’m from Germantown, but I ended up in Mount Airy, West Oak Lane, East Falls, Nicetown, West Philly… I lived in all these different places, so before I actually came into my own as a artist and I started going down my artistic journey, I would say I was moving around a lot and just lived almost like a nomadic lifestyle.

SD: Do you identify more as a street artist or graffiti writer?

ND: That’s a good question. I know that with writers, there’s rules to writing. And I don’t do well with rules. I kind of do what I want. And I’m not saying I don’t respect some of the rules, but some of the stuff is, to me, dated. It’s like, we can update and still kind of keep the culture fresh, like, we don’t have to do some of the old things, like public murals getting defaced, and stuff like that. I’m all for throwing up whatever you want wherever, but I would just say I’m just a creative person, because I wouldn’t consider myself a street artist either. I mean, I could be considered that, because I have murals in the city, and I guess that would be considered street art. But I really just feel like I’m just an artist that uses whatever as they medium, whether I want to write in the street, whether I want to write on clothing… you kind of get where I’m coming from?

I will say it was rooted in graffiti. I wanted to be a writer because I did a lot of studying on that type stuff. It was just, like, getting my name up everywhere, and it was cool, but then when I learned more about Basquiat, I started seeing the similarities. Like, oh shit, he’s kind of not writing his name everywhere. He’s saying stuff in the street. I kinda feel like what I do leans more towards that, but it also is along the lines of being a writer, too, cause I have a tag and I put it up places. But I feel like with [being a graffiti writer] that it’s moreso self-fulfilling. It’s like me me me me me. My thing is like, I’m trying to shed light on something. That’s just my opinion on it.

SD: You’ve said that your artwork is kind of like creating your own advertisements. What are you advertising?

ND: I want people to be more aware of what’s going on around them. When I’m trying to shed light on Mumia’s case, and I write “FREE MUMIA” in the street, some people might have never heard of him. We have political prisoners still locked up that are Philadelphia citizens and haven’t been given fair trials. With the gentrification, if I’m writing “STOP GENTRIFYING THIS JAWN” on, like, these newer buildings that are kind of eyesores, and destroying the culture, I really want to bring awareness to stuff like that. Even when I say “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL,” I feel like it’s a lotta negative imagery out there about Black people. You turn on the news; it’s constant negative. So really it’s just trying to reach people in that way.

SD: Of the many phrases that you’ve painted, which one resonates with you the most or which one do you feel is the most important?

ND: I would say “BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL,” just because growing up, I had a revelation when I was in like eighth grade. My teacher, Miss Bailey, she kind of conditioned us and programmed us—she had her own history books and they didn’t call Black people “slaves;” they say “enslaved African.” So it was like a whole different semantics. My life has been enriched from just knowing my history and knowing about my culture and just loving my culture. I want to spread that to people in my culture, because I feel like it’s not looking the best right now. The Americanization of the Black person hasn’t been a pretty ride. So it’s like I just want to make things beautiful. I want to make people feel beautiful.

ND: I remember I was on the bus one time. The bus was full of Black people, but everybody looked kind of downtrodden, you know, after long days of work. And I see beauty in anything, even if it’s just you working hard. You don’t have to look beautiful for me to say that. So I just felt like writing [“BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL”] at that time, and I remember writing it, and the majority of people on the bus—their attitude, like, changed. Like they seen me writing it, and it was like hey, what are you doing writing that? But then when they seen it done, it was like, okay, yeah, I like that!

So it’s one of those things where I did get gratification out of doing it… But it’s just my personality—I really don’t want any type of attention. I just want Black people to know that they beautiful, no matter what’s being told about us. That’s why I like the juxtaposition of when I put my stuff out in the street, anybody can interact with it. I have a camera roll of all these different images of people in front of stuff. It ranges from little children, like, happy in front of it, to like guys who are standing on a corner, and you know they doing something illegal—they got guns! But I mean, I can see beauty in all sides of the culture.

SD: There’s a Bible verse in the Instagram bio of your clothing line. “Be careful not to do your good works in public in order to attract attention.” So I looked it up, and it continues: “If you do, your Father in heaven will not reward you.” So I’m curious about what this verse means to you.

ND: As ironic as it sounds, I’m not trying to gain any type of [attention on myself]. I just want the things that I’m talking about to receive the attention. This stuff is important; we got to talk about it.

SD: It seems like street art and graffiti as a medium sort of inherently go against the sentiment of that verse.

ND: That’s a very interesting thought. But one of my creative outlets is called Good Samaritans. And that’s the beginning of the Good Samaritan Bible verse. Especially in the day and age of social media, we have a lot of people doing things for show, and it’s a lot of performative acts going on. So that was just kind of a statement that I made. It’s okay if you do that type of stuff, but you should really be doing things just out of pure goodness. You should want to help people. You shouldn’t be like, yo, if I want to help somebody, I gotta record them. Or if it hasn’t been recorded, it hasn’t happened. Like, things happen off the internet. Social media is its own world, but there’s still a reality out here.

So you can be doing all this stuff for social media and really not doing nothing in reality. Granted, I use my graffiti as outreach and to bring people in, but I still feel like outside of that world, I’ve done a few things. I feel as though what I do in reality kind of offsets the performative. We all have something in us that’s unique and that can be used creatively, and we can change the world. If more people didn’t think only stars and celebrities can do that… it’s like, you can do that, too. Regular people can do extraordinary things.

SD: How did the pandemic change your work?

ND: It’s funny, because with the social climate of the pandemic, I felt like a lot of people woke up. It was stuff that I was already talking about. A lot of my stuff started in 2018, like, with the face and just me being more active.

During the pandemic, I lost three jobs. I had three part-time jobs that I was working, and I lost all those. And then probably that same week started like a string of people just purchasing artwork from me, like people just hitting me up like, hey, do you have artwork for sale? Tags that were old, people were recognizing them, like stuff was blowing up. I was very blessed during the pandemic. It was like every week, somebody was buying $1,000 worth of work.

So I took that energy and I put it into fundraising for other businesses. I decided that I wanted to release a limited edition. I don’t really do print work. A lot of my work is original, so really I just make work, and then that’s what it is. But I created a limited edition series of prints and I used half of that money, and I put it towards a Black-owned business. And I did it two other times with two other Black-owned businesses, and I was able to raise like $1,000 to give to these businesses that weren’t really doing well during the pandemic, that I had personal relationships with. That felt good that I was receiving so many blessings that I was able to spread it around.

SD: How did your ongoing collaboration with irregular come about?

ND: He was selling artwork in Rittenhouse Square, and I was like an art collector. So I was out and about, trying to collect art, and I think we had a brief conversation, but our energies… he was a cool person. We just kind of kept in contact on Instagram. But then as time went on, actually, right before the Tiny Room For Elephants, we had just talked about it, like yo, let’s collaborate. Let’s do some shit. We can hit the streets. It was interesting when he reached out [because] I really don’t collaborate with people. I kind of just do my own thing.

His shit is just “irregular,” mine’s is I be saying shit. It’s not as quickly as a one-off thing, so I gotta kind of be on my Ps and Qs a little bit. So it’s good when I go out with him, and he’s just tearing shit up and I’m just like alright, I can go put some shit up over here.

And it’s always fun working with somebody you vibe with, too, so that’s why I really fuck with irregular. It’s like we knew each other since forever, but we literally just met. And as far as business, there ain’t no funny business. Like, cut and dry. Money here, there; there’s never any type of issue with him.

It’s funny—Streets Dept released a post of the top street art moments [of 2022], and I didn’t make it personally, but I made it with irregular, and then I made it with Tiny Room For Elephants. Like, you do things in other spaces, and you’re exposed to other people’s networks, and that’s always a good thing.

I love working with irregular. He kind of pushes me, too. Because I work by myself all the time, it’s just me against me. When I’m with him, it’s not like being competitive, but it’s just, like, human nature. It’s like alright, well, let me get as busy. So I definitely like that, cause it keeps me relevant and in the mix.

SD: What goals do you have for your art career over the next five years?

ND: I don’t know about five, cause the way time been time-ing… you say “five,” and then you look up and you like damn, that was ten years ago!

SD: So what are your goals for the next ten minutes?

ND: Haha! What I really want to do is at the end of this year, I want to at least have set in stone my first solo exhibition. I want to get that done the beginning of next year. And I want to get things moving with my Good Samaritans brand. I want that to become, not mainstream, but I just want it to grow to where I see it growing.

After I have my first solo exhibition, all these ideas that I’ve had, and all these collaborations and people I want to work with, I want to start doing that and just getting my art out more, and just spreading more, maybe do a couple residencies. I definitely want to travel, like, I don’t want to stay in Philadelphia. I want to get my message worldwide. I’ve been talking to my man who owns Tha Sckool Bus, like, I want to do a nationwide tour with that jawn, just driving all over with it. So it’s all these things that I want to do, but basically, it’s really just completing my first exhibition so people can kind of see who NOMAD is, and then we can go from there. I have no limits to my creativity and I use the world as my medium. So I want to show people that. And continue to evolve, honestly.

SD: From what I’ve read about you, I think it would be fair to call you the unofficial artist ambassador to Germantown. So if that were a real role, what would your responsibilities be?

ND: What I’m already doing—just being a voice for artists in Germantown, because there’s so many amazing artists in this area. Just getting people opportunities. Because I started when I did start—I haven’t been a lifelong artist—I feel like there’s so many amazing artists who just haven’t been giving the opportunity or people may not know about them. I just would like for the opportunities that I’ve been afforded to be available to all the artists in Germantown. I would like the whole “starving artist” thing to kind of be washed away. You don’t have to be a starving artist, like, you can live off the artwork.

SD: Who are five Germantown artists that people should know about?

ND: This is a real hard question! [After much consideration, NOMAD named Anthony Carlos Molden, SNIPE, Gaza, Kambel Smith, and Tomarra Sankara-Kilombo.]

SD: What do you love most about Germantown? What makes it special to you?

ND: There’s a lot. I grew up in Germantown, I just love everything about it. The culture, farmers markets and stuff, the nature, the greenery. The older I got and then when I came back to Germantown, I’m able to appreciate it more, just from seeing other parts of the city. I tell people all the time Germantown is almost like where people come to settle down, and like, retire. It almost has that feel to it, compared to a West Philly, because it’s college campuses around. It’s like the same energy up in Germantown, but the people are a little bit older. Or not even older, but further along in whatever career or whatever path they’re in.

I love everything about Germantown, honestly. I love the architecture, and I love that it’s not getting taken over with new architecture as fast. Like, shit is popping up, but it’s not like other parts of the city where it’s like a complete facelift.

SD: Thanks so much!

ND: It was a total pleasure.

Editor’s Note: When it comes to NOMAD’s love for and connection with Germantown, the artist recently completed a series of street sign artworks for Afromation Avenue around the Germantown neighborhood. And we’ll have more on that project on the blog next week!

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