A cultural fusion with Flint Chibi Series graphic designer Jay Kay

FLINT, Michigan — Intense. That is the word that best describes Flint native, but “East Los Angeles made” graphic designer Jay Kay. He immediately initiates a speed run barrage of details about his tumultuous life without hesitation and a formal 'let's begin.'

His baritone voice springboards stories of growing up, his mixture of African American and European familial genes, travels, early celebrity, and immense proclivity to Mexican Americans and Chicano culture bounces off the windows, hardwood floor, and tall ceiling inside the dimly-lit Xolo's restaurant in downtown Flint.

I want to chime in, but it's hard to stop a man who's openly sharing his expansive narrative, on and off the record, while simultaneously withholding the multiple layers and intricacies that make them possible.

What he calls "extracurricular activities," I call "things that sound like trouble." But this is Kay's specialty — perhaps because of his Scorpio sun sign — of giving just enough and letting me connect the dots. But it doesn't imply he's afraid of speaking his truth.

Dressed in a fresh camouflage Adidas tracksuit, he sits across from me, leaning into the conversation with a slightly lowered face — and body — decorated by numerous tattoos, answering every question. His story and active delivery of it commands my attention, but it's the emotional look in his eyes that grabs me. Long before he explains it, it says to me that inside him hides a deep pool of love.

"I need a lot of peace in the life I live and the stuff that goes on around me." - Jay Kay One aspect of it is his love for Flint and wanting to give back to the city. Kay created a series of unique illustrations aptly named the Flint Chibi Series through his creative medium. The word chibi (pronounced chi-bee) according to Tofugu.com is "Japanese slang for 'small' or 'short'" and is mainly associated with "Japanese anime characters with big heads and small bodies."

Kay's Flint Chibi Series plays off the chibi aspect with digitally drawn anime-styled portraits of the city's music artists, athletes, high schools, and eateries. The series exploded this past summer for its incredible display of customized chibi's of Velly Beretta, Cameron Tyler, Bernard Terry, to name a few, and is trendy enough for children to enjoy and want to emulate.

He plans to expand the series from digital media to physical 3D models.

"Deep down, everybody got a heart. The things we go through make us cover up those emotions, so we don't feel vulnerable." - Jay KayFlintside: Your Flint Chibi Series is outstanding. When did all of this start?

Jay Kay: "When it comes to being creative, I've been like that since I was little. I would draw and color, tracing a lot of stuff. It's something that brings peace to me. I need a lot of peace in the life I live and the stuff that goes on around me. [So] that's my way of coping with a lot of things I deal with."

Flintside: Is this peace that drew you to creating the chibi series?

Jay Kay: "Once I left [Michigan], I began seeing my peers starting their businesses or becoming known rappers. I wanted to see how I could give back to my city. We have a lot of known street artists that do lovely murals, but as far as graphic design, I wanted to provide that and for a reasonable price."

The flow of our conversations shifts to the rapid succession of life events. He grew up in Flint, off of Stockdale St., but lived differently than most and wants it to be known that he didn't grow up with a "silver spoon." His mother never let him, and later, his younger siblings "go outside because she didn't know what would happen."

So they moved around the city all the while experiencing life in Swartz Creek's countryside where there's "literally no Black people, but I'm listening to country music, wearing a flannel and got on some Wrangler jeans," and traveling up north with his grandparents. When he graduated high school, he left Michigan and moved to Vegas, where he enrolled in the military, to my immense shock, "because I was bored." 

He married, got physically injured, and then divorced before moving to Florida to help his mother raise his siblings. To his surprise, he became an overnight sensation inadvertently at 21 because of a Twitter video. The clip in question, a video of him talking with a group of ducklings and calling them "puppy thangs."

It went viral and opened up a level of access to celebrities, networks, a video appearance on MTV's Ridiculousness, and the opportunities to travel to "Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Middle East."

With newfound fame, he found himself "living too wild," losing his Twitter account during his divorce, and found himself in California attempting to do graphic design. The Californian life, he tells me, came with many distractions, a battle for space and respect within a predominately Mexican American neighborhood, and a half-Black, half-Mexican daughter. It's one of many stories he tells with even more tattooed across his body.

Flintside: Looking at all the tattoos representing family, it's almost like you carry the ancestors or ancestral markings. 
Over 130 individual tattoos decorate Jay Kay's body, including the phrase "Flint Made" on his hands.
Jay Kay
: "If you know what's going on, it tells a lot of subliminal messages. These three dots, in Mexican culture, mean, 'my crazy life.' The main one people see first is the lightning bolt on my face. That's my street name. They call me Sparky. One I recently got on my birthday is a cracked skull. On the opposite side, it says in Arabic, 'free your mind.' I got 'Flint Made' on my hands. I added my daughter [on my stomach], and then I'll get my grandpa. I got over 130 individual tats."

Flintside: You have a daughter, your current girlfriend has children, and you're possibly having another child. Yet, listening to you and looking at these tattoos, there seems to be a softer side to you. How do you navigate those spaces, notably having been around machismo culture?

Jay Kay: "Deep down, everybody got a heart. The things we go through make us cover up those emotions, so we don't feel vulnerable. I'm genuine at the end of the day, but I'm not gon' let somebody know that out the gate so they can use it as an advantage."

But even saying this, his love and passion for family and graphic design remains the center. With a smile on his face, he talks about his future ideals of building a "children's museum" and a "tribute series so I can educate kids on art and graphic design." All of this is in addition to creating his unique inclusive business called Cultural Creations to "educate everybody about many cultures and give people an outlet to show pride for [it]" whether through ethnicity, sexuality, or anime.

As our conversation comes to a close, with the night sky and soft lightning as our backdrop, I ask him what lessons he takes away from his life and what message he intends to give to future generations.

Jay Kay: "One: Always go after what you want. Number two: Never give up. I feel everything I've been through is a learning tool to help not just my children but the next generation. [So] something I do has to be in the form of an educational tool. I want to leave behind a legacy that'll never be forgotten. One I could pass down to my kids and grandkids."

You can find Jay Kay and his Flint Chibi Series on FaceBook and Instagram

Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.