In August 2013, a collective of young men, excited and wet behind the ears, convened on the colorful and historic streets of Jamestown. They were there to showcase their work to an audience hungry for artistic expression that was rare, imaginative and unlike anything they had ever seen before. In those days, the Chale Wote Street Art Festival was just the place to find such an audience.
These men were united by a common love for anime, manga and urban fashion. Together, they represented Akolabone, an urban lifestyle brand that blended their love for anime, Ghanaian culture, comics, urban fashion, and the what-ifs into a cocktail of edgy cool.
These “cool kids” were an instant hit at Chale Wote that year. They sold out their inventory which consisted of screen-printed t-shirts and laser-cut wooden necklaces they dubbed ‘AKB Tokens’.
The defining feature of this collective was its art style. While their competition made shirts by printing viral phrases, Akolabone painted their anime-inspired imaginations onto theirs. The result was people walking away with never-before-seen illustrations on their chests. They made wearing art cool.
The backbone of that art style and the collective is Paapa Kobina Okyne Taylor, simply known as Kobe Taylor and online as Nurd AKB.
Fast forward to 2020, Kobe is primarily an illustrator and graphic designer. Outside of that, he is also a UI designer, 2D animator, motion graphics designer, game designer and beatmaker.
Lime & Honey’s Maame Serwaa had a lot of questions and went Behind the Ink to explore the beautiful mind of Kobina Taylor.
Behind the Ink with Kobina Okyne Taylor
Starting Out, Resistance & Acceptance
Kobe is an alumnus of Radford University College in Accra where he studied graphic design. This was a natural progression from his Visual Arts education at Pope John Senior High and Junior Seminary. The decision to pursue art, however, came at a much earlier time. As early as 8 years old when he was in Primary Class 4.
“I always had this thing where I finished early during exams but my teachers wouldn’t let me leave. They would ask me to go through my answers. So I’ll sit and start drawing instead. That’s how it started,” Kobe reflects on his earliest memories of drawing.
This creative beast that had awoken in him opened his mind to an endless and vivid imagination.
It didn’t go down well with everyone.
“…I started drawing in class because while the teacher is talking, I’m seeing things. I saw things and put them down on paper. I got whooped a lot for it. Shoutout to Mr. Abokye. That guy really beat the [Yesu] out of me because I was always drawing in class. He was seizing my pencils, letting the girl next to me snitch on me…chale, it’s been a journey.”
Growing up in a society where digital art wasn’t as valued as it is today and with zero interest in fine art, Kobe’s prospects looked bleak. His parents felt the same. The negative stereotypes were entrenched and the fear of having no future as a digital artist persisted. Kobe’s father was worried and wanted him to be a doctor but Kobe knew himself better.
“We all know how many people would have died ‘cause I’ll be using the scalpel to draw tattoos on people.”
Luckily, his mum had his back. She encouraged him to pursue art if that made him happy and fetched some money.
“I have a lot of respect for my mum ‘cause then she allowed me to draw. She said let the boy draw ‘cause that’s what he wants to do.”
Bent on not pursuing an education in the sciences, architecture was the next option after high school. Kobina attended one interview and waved goodbye to that option.
“I started researching architecture and what goes into it. There are a lot of calculations and if you’re not careful, your design will kill people. I didn’t want to be responsible for the death of people; the main reason I ran away from being a doctor.”
Drawing Comics, Painting on Clothes and Founding Akolabone
While in high school, word of Kobe’s art went around. His work was different from his peers, he was prolific and made every conceivable material his canvas. His talent was particularly sought after by the boys who wanted to add a little spunk to their letters to girls in other high schools.
When he wasn’t decorating letter writing pads, Kobe was drawing comics and painting on clothes. People liked his paintings on clothes just as much as he did and wanted more. What started as a personal project way before high school as an outlet to express himself in a society that wanted him to conform bloomed at this point. He called it, Akolabone.
“I wanted to follow my dreams, follow my path but I had to conform and I realized that it wasn’t just me. A lot of my friends had to conform because your parents are your financiers.”
But why Akolabone, which is literally Akan for a bad child?
“Sometimes, we know kids see something and tell the truth about it. Sadly, because they’re kids, they’re bullied by adults. We tend to tag them [and say] wo, wo yɛ akolabone. Kids who are just too smart, smarter than you: herh, you’re an akolabone, keep quiet. That’s where it started.”
Did such a rebellious and controversial name go down well with people? As you can imagine, it didn’t.
“I had issues with my mum. The first t-shirt I did with Akolabone on it, my mum was like, eh, what is this? I had to sit her down and explain it to her. She got it and commented that it’s a really good message and because of how controversial the name is, it’s gonna get a lot of traction. People are gonna question Akolabone with raised eyebrows. But they get it once they look into it. It’ll get people asking why.”
Kobe stayed his course after high school. He continued drawing with his focus on Akolabone while he juggled several jobs as a graphic designer, illustrator, UI designer, game designer and more recently, as a music cover designer.
Music, Inspiration and Finding a Unique Style
As an illustrator who makes his own music as a hobby, it’s no surprise that Kobina Taylor has dipped his hands in crafting song and album covers. He recently participated in the $1000 song cover challenge by Nigerian artist Rema where he was one of the finalists.
He has worked extensively with Jayso, designing all the covers of his annual 0106 birthday EP, since 2016. He has also designed covers for the likes of Juls, Boyd (on whose EP he produced a track), Nana Benyin and EL.
Anime is a big influence in Kobe’s art, to the point where he signs his work with the Japanese kanji alphabet system.
“I used to sign Kobe, but then it seemed regular and people don’t like regular and neither do I. It’s a tribute to Japan, a country that has influenced me a lot in the way I think, see art and a lot of things. It’s Japanese kanji for my surname, Taylor.”
Drawing such heavy inspiration from Japan through the manga he read and anime he watched, it took a much-needed intervention from one of his mentors for Kobe to really craft his own style. A style that drew inspiration from the East but reflected the aesthetics of Ghana.
“I used some comic artists as my drawing case studies back in university. My artwork started looking like Joe Madueirea and Art Gem’s artwork. It later started looking like a mangaka (manga author) Takehiko Inoue from Vagabond. My lecturer back at Radford University, Kwame Akoto Bamfo told me my artworks looked too Asian and advised that since I’m African, I should emulate stuff closer to home, our culture. I took that advice. Anime and Asian culture have been big influences on me, so I try my best to get the African element in my art. It was a struggle at first but I’m good now.”
Outside of Japan, Kobe says he’s heavily influenced by artists Art Gem and Stanley Law. He also takes inspiration from Freddy Carusco, Gyimah Gariba, Hanson Akatti and Bright Ackwerh. Asked if he’s ever seen these artists or others in his work, he confesses that he has.
“There have been some of my works I look at and see Gyimah in it and days that I see Fred Carusco. I also see Stanley Law. I like his shading and colour treatment so I try to learn from that. Then there’s also this guy, Elia Kuvshinov, his color treatment, posing, backgrounds and lines are always on point so I try to emulate that and learn from it.”
…a tribute to Japan, a country that has influenced me a lot in the way I think, see art and a lot of things. It’s Japanese kanji for my surname, Taylor.Kobe Taylor on signing his art with Japanese kanji.
On Kobe’s unique style, Maame Serwaa comments, “Kobe’s art is weird in a nice way. Other people’s art is either strictly colorful or strictly monochrome, but Kobe’s is neither very vibrant and colorful nor dull, it’s just the perfect amount of each.” Kobina admits his style took a while to develop, with him learning and taking inspiration from many people’s work.
“My work used to be very in your face with bright colours. My style evolved to what it is now from viewing lots of people’s artwork but having a good idea of how I want mine to look like. So I keep tweaking until I get the look I’m looking for. Sometimes it takes me a very short time to finish, and the rest is just tweaking to look that good. I think I spend more time tweaking and playing with colors than the initial sketch and everything else. I just try to be better every time. With every piece I do, I try to make the next piece better than the last.”
Speaking on his challenges, Kobe mentions three. Clients who disrespect art and assume creating is a simple magic spell and don’t value artists enough to pay them their worth. Secondly, clients who don’t allow your creativity to thrive and instead ask you to copy another artist’s style. Lastly, clients who see his portfolio but still go ahead to ask him to create art that looks nothing like his style.
What’s Next for Kobina Taylor
Asked where he sees himself in the next 5 years, Kobe responds jokingly, “hopefully not doing cocaine ‘cause the Ghana economy is tough.”
Nurd intends to give back to society by starting a company that creates rewarding jobs for artists in film, music, animation, comics and more.
“It’ s hard to get a job being an artist and being paid for how much you’re really worth. So I want to start a company that has artists working with me not working for me, and making a difference.”
“Looking at the amount of content we have for Africa, it’s just execution and how to get it there as opposed to what’s already on the western market. It’s oversaturated with the same thing but we have a lot of things to offer. I just want to be one of those people offering fresh new things.”
Check out some of Kobina Taylor’s work in the gallery below.
This feature was authored by Maame Yaa Serwaa and Kadi Yao Tay.