Chi Modu first picked up a camera while a student at Rutgers. After honing his skills at the International Center of Photography, he landed at The Source, which was the definitive magazine of hip hop culture. It was here that Chi developed relationships with the biggest icons of the hip hop movement, including Tupac Shakur, Notorious B.I.G., Mary J. Blige, and L-L Cool J, most of whom were not yet famous.
In addition to shooting over 30 cover photos at The Source, Chi was able to capture the musicians in candid, unexpected moments, due to his disarming manner and unique perspective. His photos include some of the most groundbreaking, memorable images of that era, including Tupac Smoking and Biggie WTC (standing in front of the World Trade Towers). He not only chronicled and defined the most important phase of the hip hop movement, now a global force, he also was able to define the artists and show them as real people, rather than one-dimensional celebrities.
Chi’s unusual background is probably responsible for the unique way he sees and captures the world around him. Born in Nigeria and raised in New Jersey, Chi had to decide at a young age whether to return with his parents to Nigeria or stay behind at boarding school. He chose boarding school, and found himself at Lawrenceville, the prestigious prep school attended by the likes of Michael Eisner and Malcolm Forbes. With his parents on the other side of the world, Chi developed a strong independent streak, which later would manifest itself in his work. Chi’s most recent project began in August 2013, when massive images of his started appearing on the exterior walls of select NYC buildings, as part of an ongoing installation called Uncategorized. Chi had been searching for a way to make his art accessible to more people. According to Modu, “The art world tends to be very exclusive and full of obstacles for both the artists and the public. My goal is to make art more inclusive by pulling an end run on the galleries and the museums, breaking down the barriers, and bringing the art directly to the people. Like graffiti, but legal.” As to why he calls the exhibit Uncategorized—“People always want to put art and artists into neat little boxes. My work does not fit into any one stereotype and neither do I. I wanted to create something that is the opposite of putting labels on everything and make a statement against stereotyping in general. I don’t see this as just an exhibit. I want to start
The first four images that went up in August of 2013 included two in SoHo – a 12’ x 9’ rarely seen photo of hip hop legend Tupac Shakur, and a riveting 25’ x 16’ photo of young school boys in the back of a church in Modu’s native Nigeria, and two in Brooklyn – a 16’ x 22’ photo of 21 year old Snoop Dogg shot in 1993 and never released, and a 22’ x 16’ shot of Method Man with smoke curling out of his mouth. In November, an iconic 22’ x 16’ photo of Notorious B.I.G. standing in front of the World Trade Towers went up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Within 5 years of this photo being taken, both Biggie and the Towers would be gone.
In the summer of 2014, UNCATEGORIZED moved overseas to Finland, where it was the main exhibit at the Pori Art Museum and drew record breaking crowds. Yielding to public demand, Modu published a photography book in September 2016 entitled Tupac Shakur: UNCATEGORIZED.
Since the book was launched, UNCATEGORIZED has shown up in dramatic new ways in Seoul, Korea; Bangkok, Thailand; Oslo, Norway; Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil; Barcelona, Spain; Berlin, Germany; Los Angeles, CA; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; Dubai, UAE and Lagos, Nigeria. His sponsors and collaborators have included everyone from Adidas to Budweiser. What began as making a bold statement in New York City has become a global movement, with Modu’s loyal fans traveling from city to city to see both him and his latest incarnation of UNCATEGORIZED.
© Chi Modu