Ruiyan Wang

The Afro-American Cultural Center on Feb. 2 hosted an event featuring the work of DJ-turned-artist Lobyn Hamilton, as part of a series for Black History Month, to raise awareness of prominent and up-and-coming figures in the black community on campus.

For the past decade, Hamilton has created evocative, colorful portraits of black figures, such as Miles Davis, with the broken shards of turntable discs. Hamilton, an Indianapolis native, lounged comfortably in his dull purple pants and wire-rimmed glasses during his talk on Friday afternoon, surrounded by five pieces of his most recent artwork. Directly behind Hamilton stood a stark, stunning portrait of Angela Davis, her hair depicted with the gentle curves of layered records, her skin a collage of newspaper articles about her. Other works included a collage tribute to Miles Davis and an anonymous woman’s profile, her skin shiny with the grooves of broken records.

“[His art] is very synesthetic,” said Sidney Saint-Hilaire ’20, who attended Friday’s talk. “[I love] how he uses music as a medium.”

Just 10 years ago, Hamilton was a rising DJ in Indianapolis, playing gigs at parties, weddings and even a funeral. The art he pursued during his childhood — when he drew and scribbled in notebooks to pass lonely hours — had faded to the background of his mind. His love for music comes from his father, he said, who helped him circumvent his mother’s strict music rules in the house — no swear words, no secular music — by taking him on nighttime car rides.

“We’d roll around on Fridays and listen to the latest mixtape he’d made,” Hamilton said.

His father’s taste ranged from the music of Earth, Wind & Fire to jazz to 80s rock. By age 17, he was mixing his own music, overlaying his records with instrumental tracks and bringing his creations to clubs and parties.

However, his narrative soon changed colors. One night in his early 20s, he returned from a late gig and tripped down the steps while holding a box of records, severely injuring his ankle. After hobbling down into the basement of his home, he came to a crisis point, realizing that DJing could not always be his path in life. In a fury, he bashed his records to pieces. Lobyn said he “hobbled past [those pieces] for three months,” before finally deciding to create something with those shards. He began sketching his first piece while kneeling on the ground, incapacitated from his ankle injury, and claimed it was a “very humbling thing” to kneel before his creation. These days, he said, he uses a yoga mat while creating his artwork.

“I was just trying to matter in a certain way again,” Hamilton said.

The first few years of his artistic career began with mixed reactions from viewers, some even saying that the act of shattering records was disrespectful. However, within five years, he was putting on art shows in Indianapolis, and he has now seen his art featured in the hit TV show Empire, as well as on Hypebeast and Red Bull Music Academy.

Asked about his artistic process, Hamilton explained that after he sketches an image of a person’s profile, he simply improvises. After shattering a turntable, Hamilton said he looks at the shards and finds the right ones. “Each piece is unique because I can’t replicate the [broken] pieces,” he said.

Even as an established artist, Hamilton has not forgotten his DJ roots. He said his body of artwork and artistic philosophy reminds him of DJing.

“You’re not supposed to touch the turntable,” Hamilton said. “I took it a step further and said I’m gonna break this up.”

After Hamilton concluded his talk, audience members had the opportunity to peruse the series of pieces Hamilton brought on campus while enjoying treats provided by The Af-Am House. After viewing Hamilton’s work, Irene Vazquez ’21 commented on his artistic process and said she loves his “musical background and his decision to break in order to become creative.”

As Hamilton looks forward to the next stage of his career, he said, he is “in the midst of reaching for my new narrative” and hopes to expand his artistic style. At the talk, he introduced a playlist featuring songs that have inspired him to continue his artwork, and left the audience with one last question: If he were to place his artwork under the needle of a record player, what kinds of sounds would be produced?

Hamilton’s exhibition will be on display in the Af-Am Gallery until Feb. 28.

Candice Wang | candice.wang@yale.edu