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Nikki Rodriguez: Creating Art with Passion and Purpose

People create art for many reasons, but for Nikki Rodriguez, who was raised in North Carolina, it’s clear why she creates art. It comes from a place of passion, and she’s been doing it for a long time. As a young girl, she remembers going with her mother to pick up her older sister at art lessons. She remembers the moment when she walked into the studio and saw the drafting table with a still life drawing and colored pencils next to it.

Untitled by Nikki Rodriguez
Untitled by Nikki Rodriguez

“I want to do that,” Nikki recalled thinking to herself. “I was drawn to it for some reason.” She’s been an artist ever since that moment.

Nikki describes her art as colorful, simplistic, vibrant, and empowering. She particularly likes to draw women because she they embody empowerment.

“When I was younger, I used to draw anime a lot, like Sailor Moon,” Nikki said. “I’ve always been drawn to figures of powerful women. It was something about having these female figures who I related to. It comes down to representation. I wanted to draw what I wanted to be.”

She went on to study art history at NC State University, but it wasn’t until after she graduated that she found art to be true calling, and much of her technique has been self-taught. Nikki has continued learning new methods to improve her skills, and finding new ways to explore her talents.

Elections Lotería

With Nikki’s love of drawing powerful women, it’s no coincidence that one of the most recent pieces she’s created for Poder NC Action, Juntas Somos Poderosas, has strongly resonated with Latinas across North Carolina. They are posting photos of the mailer on Instagram and Facebook, excited to receive this latest “Elections Lotería” card, which is part of Poder NC’s campaign to educate and inspire Latinx voters to not only vote, but also choose candidates who share our values.

Nikki and Irene Godinez, founder and executive director of Poder NC Action, were both in the NC State University Rho Chapter of Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad/Lambda Pi Chi Sorority, Inc.

“Irene was the chapter founder, and throughout college, I saw her as a powerhouse,” Nikki said. “She’s always known that I’m an artist, but in the past several years I started posting more about what I’ve been doing.”

Nikki’s social media posts about her art work inspired Irene to reach out to her to collaborate on the Elections Lotería series.

“I’ve always struggled with doing commissioned work because I didn’t want it to get to a point where my art was commercialized. I didn’t want people to think I could just spit out ideas without any passion,” Nikki stated.

When Irene shared her drawings of the ideas for the campaign, however, Nikki was completely on board. She saw passion in the project, and that’s what convinced her to get involved.

“She gave me so much creative space to put my own spin on things, and put my personality into the pieces,” she added.

Sketch by Irene Godinez (left); Final artwork by Nikki Rodriguez (right)
Sketch by Irene Godinez (left); Final artwork by Nikki Rodriguez (right)

Nikki’s first piece for Poder NC featured the likeness of Walter Mercado—it was a mailer thanking Latinx in North Carolina who voted in the March primary “con mucho, mucho amor.” The other mailers in the Elections Lotería series include a card about NC Governor Roy Cooper, Black and Brown candidates as the NC Justice League, and Cal Cunningham for U.S. Senate with conchas raining behind him.

“These pieces resonate with [Latinx in North Carolina] because it’s relevant to their culture, to their upbringing. With the age of social media. Keeping these cultural references at the forefront with what’s going on politically is going to help us relate a lot better,” Nikki said.

Sketch by Irene Godinez (left); Final artwork by Nikki Rodriguez (right)
Sketch by Irene Godinez (left); Final artwork by Nikki Rodriguez (right)

Art with a Purpose

Creating the art series for Poder NC’s campaign also gave Nikki the confidence to say something political. She’d been in the sorority for over ten years, where most of the women are now lawyers or have a political science major. She wanted to be around these women, but she had a difficult time figuring out how to fit in, and she didn’t know how to contribute with her talents. It turned out her talents were exactly what was needed to communicate with Latinx voters.

“People understand art in a different way, versus listening to a speech,” Nikki explained. “Art is a language. It makes people feel. It makes people understand things in a way they wouldn’t with words. When it comes to activism, you have to be able to feel something to be passionate about it enough to go out and act. Art is one of the vehicles to make you feel something and act.”

Recently, Nikki was inspired by a speech delivered by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so she did a piece on her. After the Elections Lotería campaign, Nikki isn’t sure if she’ll continue creating political art, but she says if she’s moved by it, she’ll do it. For her, it’s all about creating something from a place of passion and having a purpose behind it.

“I don’t want to draw a picture of a plant for you to hang up in your bathroom. You can make money from that. But I don’t want to get the point where my art doesn’t mean anything to me. With this, it’s for something that is bigger than me.”

A Living Canvas: Tattoo Art

When Nikki was in college, she got her first tattoo. Much like her childhood memory of visiting her sister’s art studio, she remembers going into the tattoo studio and immediately knew it was something she wanted to do. But the second time around, she lacked the confidence to feel it was something she could actually do.

Many people experience imposter syndrome, but it hits women and women of color even harder. Much of it is due to not having successful people to look up to who look like them.

After Nikki moved out to Los Angeles about ten years ago, she met a coworker whose husband owned a tattoo shop, and he ended up becoming her tattoo artist. These people not only became her friends, but also became her family, and her mentors.

“When they saw I knew how to draw, they told me, 'you know very well you could become a tattoo artist',” Nikki said.

She’s currently an apprentice at Clandestine Rabbit Tattoo in Tarzana, CA, and she eventually hopes to be a tattoo artist full time, while still continuing to work on her other art projects.

Tattoo Art by Nikki Rodriguez
Tattoo Art by Nikki Rodriguez

“I am drawn to the challenge of tattooing. It has to be intentional, and that’s a good life lesson. You have to be intentional with everything,” Nikki explained. “With tattooing you have to be super focused. Tattooing will humble you as an artist, and I didn’t understand that until I did my first tattoo. It’s so hard to draw just a straight line. Your canvas is a breathing, moving person. It’s a different world.”

Nikki currently works as an assistant e-commerce manager in the beauty industry, but even in that she finds ways to express her creativity. She loves the challenge of being able to take HTML code and translate it into a visual online experience for shoppers. But no matter what she’s doing, Nikki says she thrives from working on multiple projects.

“I think if I dedicated my entire time to one type of thing, I’d lose the passion in it. I take inspiration from so many parts of my world and my life—I feel it helps me grow. It keeps me motivated.”

What It Means to be Latina

Born in Texas, raised in North Carolina, and now living in Los Angeles—on top of not speaking Spanish—finding her cultural identity has been a struggle for Nikki. Her parents were raised in Texas during a time when it was shameful to speak Spanish or have any kind of accent, so her grandparents did everything they could to assimilate.

“I’ve grown up around people who would say, ‘You’re not Latina, you don’t know Spanish.’ So I had to deal with that. And then growing up in the [predominantly white] South, hearing ‘you’re not American either.’ So I’ve had to make my own space,” Nikki stated.

Artist Nikki Rodriguez
Artist Nikki Rodriguez

A generation later, as for most Latinx of younger generations, Nikki recognizes the importance of claiming her culture. But she’s had to carve her own path to do it. She’s had a unique experience because she’s seen it from so many different angles and been around so many different parts of the culture: Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in North Carolina, Tejanos in Texas, and the Chicano culture of Los Angeles.

For Nikki, Selena has always been a major artistic influence, being from Texas and not really knowing Spanish. She admires how Selena boldly stepped into the music world—dominated by men, and by white men—and ultimately became a cultural icon and inspiration for so many Latinx.

“No one can tell me I’m not Latina enough,” says Nikki. “I’ve connected to my culture in different ways—through art, through dance, through food. And no one can tell me I don’t deserve to be in these American spaces either. I deserve to be there just like anybody else. I’m here. Nothing you can do about it.”
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