Representation in Creative Fields and DIY's Impact in Atlanta

In Atlanta, everything is connected. Ralph McGill and Ponce De Leon Avenue both connect at Peachtree Road. Ponce connects to Moreland Avenue which will take you to Little Five Points and East Atlanta Village, and the maze keeps going. As complex as it might seem, it always comes back around full circle. The same goes for Atlanta’s creative fields. Somehow everybody knows somebody who may know you.

One person who understands this for sure is Tash Nikol, founder and lead of creative direction at Koja Creative. Even in the coffee shop I met up with Nikol to chat at, we ran into a friend of Nikol’s, Barry Lee, an artist and Illustrator whose murals and illustrative work can be found all around Atlanta.

Koja Creative is a creative powerhouse that provides digital services, including social media marketing, content development, digital advertising, development, SEO, event curation, brand and visual design. Immersed in Atlanta’s design and experience scene, Koja was tasked with designing an installation highlighting the complex lives of women in Atlanta’s sex industry for Murmur Media at ELEVATE, a public art program that uses visual art, performances, and cultural events to highlight Atlanta’s culture. More recently, Koja has been marketing for businesses in Atlanta’s urban agriculture. As diverse as Koja Creative’s project may be, Nikol stresses that it’s all about utilizing Atlanta’s openness to the arts to push the boundaries in the way we think and experience, and making digital experiences come full circle.


NC: How would you explain Koja Creative?

TN: My background is kind of complicated. I’m a writer too, but since the world has kind of converted into more of a digital landscape, I kind of transitioned to that and found out how to make digital art and digital experiences. So Koja was created because I was working in a museum background and I was working at an agency, and I just realized that none of those places worked for me. One because I feel like I was in a place of complete appropriation, sort of. Not so much in the sense of museums, but other institutions. You’re giving them all that you have, or all that they want within their time, and what they want to pay for, and you’re not necessarily servicing your clients to the best of what they might need, and giving them things that are like “wow”, as well as the treatment that you deal with. So people want people like us to work with them because we’re creative and we have great ideas, but they don’t value those ideas, they just want to commodify it. So Koja was created so that we could do these experiences and create these digital platforms and avenues for certain startups and organizations outside of that agency background that I was from, and bringing artists into it because we are the ones that create all the content, so why don’t we  just lead the effort instead of going through an agency?

NC: Like you said, because those ideas have just become commodified. So basically, you wanted your ideas to still remain your ideas, and still be able to distribute them.

TN: Yeah, and highlight this business, this entity is pushing these creative vehicles made by artists, provided by artists. We do workshops for youth too, so there’s that component in it. To summarize what Koja is, is really complicated because it’s basically what we feel the community needs. The type of imagery. Koja means “beyond” in Yoruba, and it’s beyond the typical creative studio or beyond typical graphic design firm, we kind of connect on a different level. Most of the clients that I work with represent that, and most of the artists I work with uphold that.

NC: How many people are on the Koja team?

TN: It depends on the project we’re working on, but there’s three consistent people on our team, and there are some visual artists and some web people and graphic designers, and we all have a mix of skills that we trade often.

NC: Do you feel like--and this is summing up based on your answer to the first question I’ve asked--That there is not enough representation in things like art because places commodify ideas? Is it a matter of them giving credit, or there not being enough people that do design, or people that do SEO. Is there not enough, or is it misrepresented?

TN: I think it’s misrepresented. There’s so many artists from all over. There’s so many coders and web designers. We’re in Atlanta. This is the Black capital of the south. We’re here, we’re not being represented in the right way by big corporations or big firms, and we’re not being utilized the right way. It’s more like “We’re commissioning you, and we’re paying you to do this, but we’re not giving you the creative ability to fully give us what you would like. You have to fall within these confines. Some of the imagery we see is just fucking stupid. There’s so many ads that I’ve seen lately that I think “That was way off the mark, why would you do that?” Like Pepsi.

NC: It’s like, “So you mean to tell me nobody was in this room when this decision was made?” and for corporations like that, there’s a lot that goes on, and a lot of people involved.

TN: There’s a lot of approvals that stuff has to pass through.

NC: So you mean to tell me nobody said something isn’t right with this portrayal?

TN: I feel like people are saying it, but they’re so far at the bottom. We’re so far at the bottom that they bypass (our opinions). And if there are people of color represented at the top then maybe they just gave up, or they’re just selling out, and that’s unfortunate, but there’s no reason why stuff like that--the images that we are showing people, and showing young people. That’s  why I feel like it’s important to have something like Koja, because the companies that are willing to use us and hire us for different events, they get it, so I would rather work with them than have to fight some business that’s not even going to pay me well.

NC: What type of places seek Koja’s help?

TN: Right now, we’re working with urban agriculture organizations and helping to uplift messages around urban agriculture, and Black farmers. That’s a big thing in Atlanta right now; we have this shortest farm to table radius. We have access to the healthiest food, but farmers don’t have a lot of time, and they don’t really have a lot of platforms for them. For community gardeners, all their hands are in the soil. I like working with organizations like that. Nonprofits that don’t have a lot of capacity because they’re on the ground doing things. Art organizations or artists. Providing them with the management support that they need. With Murmur [Media], I’ve been able to do a lot of stuff through Koja. We supported Elevate, and we did an installation that basically was in support of the real life outside of the profession of strippers, and putting a human face to them, and letting them talk about shit that’s maybe not related to stripping. Showing people that they have personality. It was a really cool motion sensor installation, where people walked up to a monitor, and a woman’s eyes’ appeared, and she started telling you a story about her life, but you’re looking at her straight in her eyes,not looking at her body.

NC: That way you don’t have any context to judge, that’s cool. On your site, it says creating new digital experience. What does that mean? What is that, but what experience would you like for people to have working with Koja, or hearing about you?

TN: I think the internet is cool because we deal with so much shit every day. You turn on the news and all this Trump stuff, and all this weird shit happening, but the internet is cool because you can create your own alternate realities and ways to cope in your own messaging. That’s why I think zines are cool too because it’s like the same ephemeral type of culture. Ephemeral DIY art is something that you may not have the funding to get a big publisher or a big promoter to put it out there, but you can use alternative forms of media, and alternative ways to get it out there. That’s how I feel about Digital; it’s getting people a platform, and helping them understand how to use it to understand what they want to achieve. So if you’re trying to get people to try to eat better, what type of interactive visuals, experiences, or content can we create that people can touch, see, feel, taste, to make them want to make that decision or change for the better.

NC: That’s really easy, especially a lot of communities in Atlanta, that are last in farm to table.

TN: And art is the easiest way. People in Atlanta LOOOOVE art. My friend is in town, and he’s like “There’s murals everywhere!”. So it’s easy to get your message out through art here. You just have to organize the right way.

NC: One thing I do like about Atlanta, is that even though it’s not easy to get around transportation wise in comparison to other places, it is easy to get your foot in the door to whatever you want. Part of it is always going to be your drive, and your work ethic, and how you manifest things. There’s a lot involved, but Atlanta does make it easier. You always know somebody who knows somebody.

TN: I always think about trying to start something like this in New York, and I just can’t imagine how difficult it would be.

NC: It would be difficult, but at least you already have your foot in the door.

TN: You have the same type of impact here. People aren’t so jaded, so they’re still a little open to trying something new, so that’s why innovation and tech is big here now. People are like “bring it!” We want to try new stuff; we want to be a more international city. I feel like you can still make a huge impact here very quickly.

NC: How does Koja integrate with things that are DIY and have smaller and more humble beginnings here in Atlanta.

TN: For me, I think it’s just because the work is done by mostly artists. Everything we find, and everything we pull together, and the resources that we utilize to create something--some amazing final product, or okay final product, but let’s hope all the products are amazing. But whatever we pull together to create it, we’ve labored to figure out how to create it with our hands, or a pen. That’s very DIY, whereas if you were with an agency, you pretty much can buy everything. You can buy the PR news wire to get your press out. We do everything because nothing is standardized.

NC: There’s not a template for everything, and there’s not a subscription.

TN: There’s best practices and ways to do things.

NC: Right, just like if it were a factory, then there’s an issue with quality control, but relaying it to things that are put out and experienced, and how people interact with a brand, the tighter knit it feels, the better.

TN: Sometimes, to people, DIY seems not as organized, or not polished, but that’s not true, and they see that here in this city. Like if someone wanted us to create a digital screen or installation for their event, the production would be us. We would build it from the ground up. The wood, all of it, and we would bring it, and all the technology that’s needed. It’s very from the ground level up. It’s not like we’re bringing in other people to do it for us. Some of the things and concept we do is bring exhibit concepts to life. For instance, he [Barry Lee] would tell me what he envisions, and I would be like “Okay we should try doing a neon sign.”, and we would go to the factory, and talk to the people and meet them.

NC: That sounds fun. It sounds like really actually seeing things come into fruition. You’re actually overseeing the entire process.

TN: Instead of being in the email like, I’m going to introduce you to this person. Because relationships are so important. There are times when I need to barter, or need something free, and I’m like “Hey, we need to do something for this set. We need some wood, we can’t afford it.” The relationships are so important.

NC: People look out for you.

TN: Right, especially if they feel like they’ll get something back. Atlanta is interesting.

NC: I feel like Atlanta’s very trusting.

TN: A city too busy to hate is what they call it.

NC: I can see it. You get to see progress from start to finish. In your experience, what progress do you see from starting from measly beginnings to doing something big?

TN: Elevate for me was probably the biggest project because it was part of the City of Atlanta, and we didn’t have much time and they gave us a very small budget. They gave us $800 to build a week long thing and “We need you guys to build an installation and activate your spaces, here’s $800.” Things like that bring to reality how hard it is, because people always want cool shit, but then they don’t want to pay for it, or they don’t want to pay for it up front, and it’s like, I don’t understand how this is supposed to work. It’s beyond creating some cool shit. It’s like let’s wake people up, or educate them about something. So you’re bringing elevate to South Downtown, what happens in South Downtown? what is South Downtown famous for? What brings all the money to South Downtown? Magic City...Arts organizations--the income that we bring in is measly in comparison. And who are the driving forces behind these strip clubs? These women. Women in sex work, women in stripping.

NC: They are crucial to the economy.

TN: Yeah, and they’re treated as such a taboo when these are regular people. A stripper could be your neighbor. So we did the installation around that and brought in FRKO, from Second Story, and Brandon English to do the video, and we basically, in 2 weeks, interviewed strippers and built a wooden installation in this entire space in South Downtown, and it was scary because I knew the city would be like “What the fuck is this? Why are you doing something on strippers?” and they called me like “We need to talk right now.”

NC: The city of Atlanta?

TN: Yes, the Office of Cultural Affairs. They were like “What is this? Is there going to be nudity? Is there going to be foul language?” I was just like “Just wait and see, you trusted us with this money. Trust that we’re not going to put out something that’s going to be disgusting to people. This is going to be an experience.” So they trusted us, and we did the installation, and it was a huge success. People were really hesitant to walk in because we had a live girls neon sign, but I think it was great because even people were bringing their kids in. And it’s great because it felt like we were shifting people’s mindset on things. I guess I’m saying all of this to say that I like the idea that in that experience that we created, and not in all experiences, but in that one, we were able to shift people’s mindset and narrative around a particular group of women. Or women in general.

NC: Especially that it was even educational for children. Not only appropriate, but educational, and people want to make sure that their children understand the concept of it.

TN: The main things that’s rewarding is that even if it’s digital or in real life, I want to be able to produce things that shift people’s narrative, and not change the way they feel about something, but allow them to consider alternative ways of thinking. That’s why Beyond is important is this. Like, making you think beyond the normative of what you usually think, or how you’re raised to think. Because there’s so many different ways of living. Why not explore what is going on in other people’s lives, or cultures so that you can open your horizons.

NC: What progress have you seen with Koja?

TN: We’ve kind of slowed down as far as, we were working with….doing workshops also, with the young people there. We’ve slowed that down a little bit, and we’ve picked up some bigger clients, and both of them are in urban agriculture, and health and wellness. I guess the progress I’m seeing is that people are trusting us more and reaching out, to do things. But people are also trying to figure out what we do. And we do everything, and that’s the point it’s a creative studio so if you need digital art, or graphic things or web support. Your website is not just a web site; it’s an experience. It’s another part of you; it’s like a business card. It’s an opportunity to make it as experiential as possible. So that’s the kind of things that we do.

NC: What Are some upcoming things that Koja has?

TN: We’re working with Food Well Alliance on their compost forums, and they have a compost reform coming up, and they do this big yearly event in October, so we’re supporting that.