First published: Spring 2020
Tony “Bright” Davis is walking through his old stomping grounds on the Near West Side of Chicago. He limps along with the help of a black cane. It is a chilly autumn afternoon. Davis wears a beige blazer, bright red shirt and scarf, and large pointed brown shoes. He calls his brown footwear “Lipizzanos”, named after the horse. “You know the Lipizzan”, Davis says, with a sly smile. “They are born black or brown and get whiter as they get older.”
Davis, 59, knows a few things about changing. During the 1970s and early 1980s, he was one of the flashiest pimps in this West Side neighbourhood. His hair flowed down his back and his chiseled facial features seemed to have a Native American spirit. People on the street called him “Papoose”. Today, he is one of the more successful artists at the Project Onward gallery in Chicago, a non-profit organisation working with neuro-diverse artists, including people living with autism and mental illness issues. There, Davis makes his art, using markers and ink and gel pens in bright colours (hence his current nickname) to depict the pimps, hustlers and prostitutes that once defined his world.
Davis has battled drug addiction as well as physical problems resulting from living on the Chicago streets. Project Onward co-founder and former executive director, Rob Lentz, once tried to get Davis access to health services, only to discover that the artist had no identification or Social Security number.
“It was like he never existed because the life he previously lived was completely off the grid”, Lentz says. “For years, we wanted to compile his story and turn it into a graphic novel; he always loved comic books, and in his art he was always turning his friends and associates into superhero-like characters. But all those years of hard living and addiction have taken a toll on his focus.”
Nevertheless, Davis has gained a following for his art. In January 2020, his work appeared with that of other Project Onward artists at the Outsider Art Fair in New York; but it was back in 2014 that Pierre Muylle – the director of MADmusée, an outsider art museum in Belgium – discovered Davis’s work at Project Onward.
“I was convinced immediately”, Muylle wrote in an email. “The pimps, the cops, they are all part of this American comics/hip hop culture to us. But the way he turns this into great work is impressive. We bought two bigger drawings showing a scene of whores behind bars and a cop looking at them. The composition makes it a mix between Snoop Dogg and Rembrandt.”
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #105