Marlo Broughton is a renowned artist, designer, and producer who now adds his role as Raise Karma’s Director of Operations to his already-impressive rap sheet. Broughton’s acclaimed artwork is painted with the precision of a stencil but the heart of freehand. The results speak in a voice distinctly his own. This voice has carried him through collaborations with Big Sean, Wilmer Valderrama, and other cultural icons of our modern times.
Broughton began as a kid exploring his own creative impulse. Detroit born and Detroit raised, Broughton told me, “My mom's family basically lived on two blocks on the West Side. My aunt's house was just two houses down.” While Broughton began taking graffiti seriously in high school, he first started writing in eighth grade after watching Wild Style for the first time at his uncle’s house. “I was watching it,” Broughton recalled, “And he was like, ‘I used to do graffiti and stuff. I used to get in trouble for it.’”
Broughton asked his uncle how to procure spray paint. His uncle brought him to his first graffiti shop. The experience stuck in his head. Within the next year, he returned to an old school spot in Detroit called Mr. Rags. Broughton’s mother, a former commercial artist turned nurse, let him buy some fat caps and Montana spray paint. “I remember it was during the winter,” he said, “and she let me spray paint on the snow.” Broughton wanted something more permanent, so he scoped out a wall to tag. “She's like, ‘you're not doing drugs or anything, so if you want to do the wall, just let me know and we'll figure it out.’ So my mom actually helped me plan out stuff. She was a real advocate for painting.”
He frequented one spot at a skate park under a bridge. There, Broughton began to witness individuals and crews completing murals. Broughton met Sean Kubik, who was tagging ‘Surreal’ at the time. “I met his friends, and then we all painted together, started to form a crew,” Broughton said. “We linked up with our exchange student that was going to school, this German kid named Sebastian who was crazy good. He really taught us the technique.”
Broughton gained artistic experience rapidly and empirically, participating in Detroit’s rich creative scene before the impending gentrification’s fledgling days. He began to consider a career in contemporary art by his senior year of high school, but ended up studying biochemistry in college. He switched his major to a short-lived stint in Industrial Design. “I didn't actually didn't graduate,” Broughton intimated. “My art career started to take off, so I was traveling a lot.”
While Broughton is often noted for his graphic design work for Big Sean, which helped the rapper launch his indie rap career, his creative skills transcend stale boundaries. He’s worked with local institutions Inner State Gallery and 1xrun. He’s been contracted by organizations like AmeriCorps and City Year to plan murals in Chicago, host artist talks, and assist with curation. His painting skills span cityscapes to portraiture. “I wanted to grow with art, instead of concentrating on one facet of it. I think graffiti helped me stay loose and keep my childlike wonder of creating… I feel like it gave me a different outlook on art,” he said.
“I think the gentrification started in 2010,” Marlo recalled, a time where he was really in the flow of Detroit’s creative scene. Along with his work with Big Sean, Broughton also helped to establish Detroit vs. Everybody with his cousin Tommey Walker Jr. around 2011. “By 2012, there were big differences in the city.” He noticed a marked change in local art as out-of-town talent poured in, hot on the trail of Detroit’s first rumblings of that nuanced process: revitalization. “That became a problem in a lot of spaces,” Broughton noted, “where Detroit voices weren't being heard.”
“There's so much talent here,” he continued. “There's also a lot of premature talent here, due to people's living situations. Someone who could be a hyper realistic painter maybe never had the time to because they have to work three jobs.” On the other hand, he compared, “they'll get a transplant who's really talented, but also never had a lot of life worries because their school was paid for, they live in West Bloomfield, they were able to go to Parsons. They had all this time to actually cultivate their skill.” Broughton posited that galleries tend to favor the type of work this course of study yields, refined and tight. He appreciates that type of work but wants more variety.
“I feel like there's a lot of art that's aesthetically cool, but does nothing for you,” he stated. “Art is a science — mixing colors, color therapy, color theory. The world itself is art, and it's science. There’s a reason why certain trees turn red or purple when they're dying.” This sweet science, which marries both sides of the brain, actually helps people. Broughton told me that autistic friends of his have extolled how “art helps them emotionally navigate and explain themselves.”
Broughton has also discovered how the process of creating helps him navigate himself. “A lot of my work is very subconscious for me,” he explained. “I process things a little bit unknowingly to myself until I start working through artwork.” From recent work, he’s learned, “I feel very strongly about how people of color are represented, and how I'm represented. If I don't convey myself the way I want to be represented, someone else will do it for me.”
Art is effective — it can materially alter anyone it touches. “Painting has helped me in the therapeutic aspect, especially with all the police killings. It's been an outlet for me to express myself by using certain negative spaces and certain colors. It has been able to make me feel not so closed or mad at the world,” Broughton said. “Also, I noticed that certain images I've made resonated with a lot of people in ways that gives them a hope of what's going on. It makes them want to carry on and not be so frightened.”
Broughton wants to spread peace of mind, citing his desire to bring meditation into urban schools. He’s witnessed the effects trauma has wreaked on friends of his, leaving them mired in a state of psychic discomfort. He sees his own experiences in these friends. “I probably do, to an extent, suffer from PTSD. I’ve been shot at multiple times in my life, I've seen people get shot in front of me, things like that,” he said. Broughton weighs his words before parting with them, which betrays his inner peace. He’s found a constructive way to relate to what he could not have controlled.
Broughton is determined to share all that he’s enjoyed in life with artists making come ups parallel to his. “Being received as an artist and people enjoying my work is a privilege,” he stated. “My goal is to show other kids who are like me to create and be who they are. Because if you’re from where I am from, it’s possible to be dead or in jail early in life.” Our society must collectively devise an alternative to the present model of simply allowing injustice to fester — it’s a matter of when, not if. If we do well, this new model will manifest soon. Erring on the side of optimism, it’s a great idea to imagine what that alternative model looks like now, today. Broughton envisions art’s increased presence in daily life, its ability to hold space for exploration and understanding. Working with Raise Karma allows him an even greater platform for pursuing and sharing this mission.
This month, Marlo Broughton hosts Mondays With Marlo, a weekly artist talk series on Raise Karma's Instagram Live that connects audiences with incredible talents and honest conversation. Tune in HERE!