A Toronto-based artist has people turning their heads at bus stops and looking up at the sides of buildings in some of the city’s busiest areas. The series of vibrant portraits feature rap stars, from Drake to Frank Ocean, with flowers obscuring their eyes. The face behind the brush is Nashid Chroma, a 28-year-old artist and designer who left a black and white career in architecture to bring colour back to the streets of a gloomy 6ix.
Born in Bangladesh, Chroma moved to Canada when he was one year old. The artist lived all over Canada and the U.S. before moving back to Bangladesh. Eventually, he ended up stationing permanently in Scarborough.
“All of this moving affected my ability to make close friendships, and as a result, I drew a lot to keep myself entertained,” he tells Complex.
Chroma’s passion for art started at a young age, but cultural and societal factors blocked the artist from making a career out of it, so he accepted an alternative future in architecture.
“The stereotypes of being a doctor, engineer, or lawyer were strong. Even after I graduated from architecture school, my dad told people I was an architecture engineer because just being an architect wasn’t enough for him. My decision to major in fine art in my undergrad caused a lot of tension with my parents, which really hurt,” he says.
Even though Chroma won awards in his program for his art and ran the school’s fine arts society, he still experienced resentment and disappointment from his parents. “Yet when I got into the Daniels program at U of T, they insisted that they knew I could do it all along.”
It was only almost 10 years after graduating in architecture that Chroma decided it was time to chase his dreams. “When I told my dad that I wasn’t happy with architecture—and that took a lot of courage to accept for myself—he got unexpectedly angry. But despite his disapproval, at this point, I had eight years of post-secondary school under my belt, and the self-confidence to do what I needed to find happiness regardless of what they thought.”
In early 2020, during the pandemic, the artist took a chance to focus on his art, but he wasn’t expecting so many interested buyers to reach out so quickly. After watching a graphic designer talk about how he did a daily poster challenge that grew his Instagram audience and got him recruited by a design agency, Chroma decided to do the same, creating digital portraits of hip-hop’s most famous figures with floral patterns partly concealing their faces (so as to avoid any copyright complications).
“I only had 1000 followers on IG in January of 2020, but I couldn’t get to the full 365 days because the business really started taking off. I got to 35k followers at the end of the year and enough financial stability to sustain myself after getting let go from my full-time job,” he says.
Fast forward to August 2021, the 28-year-old has used to platform to raise almost $10,000 cumulatively to charities such as Palestine’s Children Relief Foundation, The 519, the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, The Bail Project, and Ovarian Cancer Canada. Chroma also just launched a self-funded Art Scavenger Hunt campaign in Toronto that has been catching everyone’s attention—all in only nine months as a full-time artist.
The campaign aims to engage people via ‘guerrilla marketing’ and to spread his art across the downtown core. Chroma’s work can be spotted on 40 bus shelters, 40 bike share stations, and two billboards. When you find one, you can share it on your IG stories and tag @nashid.chroma for a chance to win a custom pop art painting.
According to the artist, finding a place to exhibit his art at a large scale was challenging, so he took matters into his own hands and made the city his own gallery. “I think galleries aren’t wary of pop art as much as they are of digital art and prints. I had someone tell me they only hung up ‘real’ paintings when I inquired to exhibit my work there.”
“It was a self-funded initiative, so I wanted to make the most of the investment by trying to connect people’s experience of my art on the streets to my social media account via a network effect.”
Just last week, the artist sent the Toronto Raptors’ newest draft picks—Scottie Barnes, David Johnson, and Dalano Banton—a housewarming gift. “One of my followers works for the Raptors and she was in charge of curating gift baskets for all the new drafts. So she lobbied to gift them my paintings and the three of them got one each,” he says.
Chroma is also working on a project with the Toronto Argonauts that will drop at the end of the month.
Chroma’s paintings are dominated by a vibrant, intense yet gentle palette, and are described by the artist as a “treasure hunt for colour.”
“I usually start a project by figuring out who I’d like to paint. I either choose someone that I’m really feeling at the moment, the most requested person or searched on my website or a trending icon. If I find out an artist was born in a certain country, I might use that country’s national flower if it works aesthetically,” he reveals.
Now that Chroma has found his way back to art, he aims to evoke a feeling of possibility with his paintings by making “art for dreamers.”
“Anyone can make their dreams come true, and from my experience, it seems like a year of consistent hard and mindful work can get you close to it,” he says. “I believe in this so much that I could almost make it a promise.”