As a kid he saw himself rocking microphones on stage one day.
Charles Boike was so immersed in hip-hop and rap culture he even watched old movies in the genre. Films like 1983’s Wild Style were to adolescent Boike the classics that inspired him in ways that still powerfully impact his adult life.
“We thought breakdancing was awesome,” he recalls.
The colorful backdrop practically bursting from scenes in his favorite movies was just as awesome to Boike as the signature choreography, music, and dress styles associated with hip-hop. What was introduced to him as graffiti art became a professional obsession Boike, 33, pursues even while working as a full-time lawyer today.
“I didn’t have the aspirations to become an attorney. I wanted to be Eminem,” he says.
Though he dabbled in rhyming and music, Boike discovered he had a gift for creating images with a spray can. But in Flint, as elsewhere, his outlets were limited, as he found painting in public space without permission could bring trouble. Fortunately, his mother found ways to encourage Boike’s talent, letting him dabble around designated parts of the house – usually far from the living room.
Mom’s indulgence ultimately led Boike to an award-winning career as an artist and force for transformation in the community he loves.
But his creative evolution took a detour. With a legal family background Boike was encouraged to pair the profession with his favorite pastime.
He hosted a weekly “hip-hop night” at a Lansing Community College campus café and fashioned himself into a manager of local performers before moving on to Columbia College of Chicago.
His stepdad had a suggestion: Why not study intellectual property law, so he could work with the creative types who inspired him by protecting their artistic output?
At the same time, he found rappers and performers in Chicago were a dime a dozen, pushing him further to hone his visual art.
Eventually, he returned to Michigan, attending Thomas M. Cooley Law School and passing the bar exam. He promoted his artistic gifts by developing logos for companies around Genesee County, all the while sharpening his eye for the street murals he loved.
Meanwhile, Boike’s after-5 and weekend pursuits moved him deeper into Flint’s creative community.
“Graffiti art is kind of a niche culture,” he says. “Once people get in the know it’s kind of like a blues scene where you meet people who are like-minded and hang around them.”
About six years ago he launched the “Bring It Fest,” later re-christened “Aerosol and Audio,” uniting graffiti artists and muralists with live music in Flint parks like Kearsley and Memorial.
“All these parks that were created were designed by awesome architects,” he says. “So we wanted to bring attention to these places.”
The single-day event might attract as many as 700 people, with a graffiti-inspired wall as the center of attraction. Artists from as far away as Texas and Singapore joined Boike in filling hundreds of square feet with collective, graffiti imagery.
He’d also begun putting his legal acumen to negotiate with business owners to find “permissible walls” that availed themselves to community art, which didn’t have to be removed, unlike the yearly “Aerosol and Audio” monument.
“One of the things I disliked was that the wall wasn’t permanent,” he says. “I really wanted to have some permanent beautification.”
Since taking a break from the festival after 2014’s event Boike set his sights on lasting, more massive public monuments, like a multi-story downtown parking garage he hopes to put an artistic stamp on next year.
“I don’t just want to paint it and have it be ‘Uhhl!’” he says, groaning. “I got to be true to myself.”
“You tie in the community, you tie in little kids from the schools and it doesn’t get vandalized,” says Boike. “Everybody takes ownership of it and they love it.”
While he’s won recognition, including a Ruth Mott Foundation grant and been featured in multiple Michigan exhibitions, Boike has also earned popularity among his peers.
“I think he has his own voice,” says Greg Fiedler, CEO of the Greater Flint Arts Council, for which Boike is secretary. “It’s unique and creative and I find that to be exciting.
“He’s an awesome collaborator and has worked with a lot of local agencies and local government. It’s just amazing that he somehow got himself through law school in the process of everything.”
Along with graffiti art, Boike has become known for murals depicting a wide variety of pop icons from “South Park” TV series character, Eric Cartman, to boxing legend Muhammad Ali. Boike says his murals are neighborhood-specific.
In August, he’ll create one of those with a Nelson Mandela rendering on the old Union Printing Co. building wall at 1759 Saginaw.
“We should paint an icon that people can connect with, because it’s cooler that way,” he says.
Through graffiti art he’s honored to carry-on a legal community art tradition.
“I guess now, looking at it as an attorney, it’s an expression of free speech,” he says. “I do think it totally hearkens back to giving impoverished areas a voice.”
Photos by Paul Engstrom unless noted otherwise.