How This Atlanta Artist’s Dark Paintings Explore The Resiliency Of Black Americans


Portrait of a man with long hair in front of large, dark abstract painting

“This work goes beyond purposeful elegance, nautical maps or fishing objects; it’s external views of landscape, views of the internal wilderness,” says Atlanta artist Michi Meko, whose expressive paintings serve as a means of personal wayfinding within an oft-unwelcoming culture.

If you’re looking for mixed-media artist Michi Meko, the first place you should check is his Atlanta studio. He may be there studying the paintings on the wall as he strums his ukulele. That’s because his predominantly black works—often dolloped with blue, ticked with gold or marked with orange—are never approached without careful rumination. “I’ll think about what the works are saying to me; where they want to go and how they want to exist,” Meko says. “At some point, something just happens where you approach the canvas and you work.”

Interior of a room with paint-splattered concrete floors and three dark abstract paintings mounted along paint-splattered wall

While the base layer of Meko’s paintings is typically black, his art features complex and vigorous uses of pattern and color.

Paint-splattered shelf with paint cans, objects and ephemera

His works emerge among objects that inspire his creativity: memorabilia, found objects and—lately—nautical accoutrements.

Man sitting on stool at workshop desk in studio, working with his hands

Meko’s more recent creations incorporate fishing paraphernalia, partly reflecting a favorite pastime.

After a first pass, Meko considers whether his ideas have been perfectly conveyed—or if something further is needed to express them. That’s when he decides if “there needs to be a sculptural aspect,” he says, “an element of real life.” Attaching found objects to the paintings is what brings those concepts to the forefront. 

For this reason, the artist’s process doesn’t begin in the studio; it starts with his search for materials. “I drive a route through the Black community,” he says. “I look through people’s trash piles on the side of the road.” Back in the studio with his haul, the conversation continues. Meko has told these stories for years, beginning with early experimentations in graffiti and hip-hop, both of which inform his aesthetic to this day. Each slash of bright color against the black canvas follows a particular rhythm—much in the way graffiti artists emblazon brash gestures on city streets.

Embedding discarded heirlooms, Southern memorabilia, nautical maps and compasses (“which always point north,” he notes) is a major way Meko muses on Black Americans’ past and current journeys—whether through escape, interactions with the law or social attitudes. “I thought about their migrations,” Meko says, “this idea of being able to read the sky and know which way your freedom is.”

The more Meko explores, the deeper he delves into the buoyancy of Black Americans. A near-drowning five years ago (in an odd twist of fate, on the opening night of his exhibition “Pursuit: Almost Drowned” at Atlanta’s Alan Avery Art Company) inspired a greater focus on this concept. The artist’s more recent works employ maritime imagery such as fishing lines, crabbing nets, lobster buoys and driftwood remnants as a means to address “the resiliency of Black people in America,” he says. “That they continue to stay afloat, even though this ocean is raging.”