AJ Azike has many inspirations for his art.
First, it was characters such as Snoopy and Wolverine that he saw in comic books he read growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Then the cartoon animal drawings he received from his mother when she was in jail when he was six years old.
As a teenager, Azike snuck out to paint graffiti, which was a process that he says made art "sexy."
"It's an adrenaline rush, and it's dangerous," he says. "When I was a kid, you would sneak out of the house and come back at 4 or 5 in the morning. Just like a ninja."
At 18, Azike joined the Marine Corps and traveled the world, where he was moved by the architecture he encountered while living in Japan, the vibrant colors of India and the deep blues he saw when living out at sea.
Four years later, when Azike was honorably discharged from the military, he taught martial arts while attending the University of Utah. After graduating, he became a professional boxing manager, allowing him to continue his travels.
Azike met countless new people on his road trips around the country, which also drew him closer to his artistic calling. He says that he was inspired by "all the wonderful people he got to meet, hearing their 'what' and their 'why' and how they ended up there."
"After a while, I was like, that could be me," he says.
When Azike picked up a paintbrush, it was not difficult for him to begin creating his art, thanks to all of the inspiration he had received in the previous years.
"When I started pouring all the creative energy out onto a canvas, it was non-stop," he says.
He describes the people he came across on his journeys as joyous and colorful. "I want all my work to be like that. I want it to be radiant and have vibrancy, life and fuel."
Azike later entered the real estate business and moved to Miami Beach, Florida, to flip houses. He only began selling his art three years ago and moved to Chattanooga in January of 2022, where he is now a full-time artist at the age of 40.
Azike moves quickly when he paints, allowing him to sell over 50 original paintings a week — no prints. All of his paintings have a visible texture, making them almost come to life.
"I'm a big-energy guy," he says. "Everything we have has energy in it, and it's the same thing with these paintings. I would rather work a little bit harder to be able to give more of myself."
Another reason that Azike is able to sell so many paintings is because of the affordability and accessibility of his art — something that he prioritizes.
A majority of his work can be found at the Chattanooga Market, Stone Cup Cafe, the HART gallery and his online shop. Much of his art is only $25 to $30, making it easy for the average person to collect bright, colorful and original pieces.
"In my opinion, the purpose of life is to be of service to others," he says. "That's why I try not to get people on the price."
Azike also does live paintings and art shows at various places around Chattanooga. He spends the rest of his time teaching art classes and volunteering at SPLASH Youth Arts Workshop and the HART gallery.
In addition, he is an open-water swimmer, despite having nearly drowned when he was 10 years old and having had to overcome a fear of the water. This taught Azike lessons that he says carry over to his art.
"I think persistence is a big deal, and persistence is another word for faith," he says. "So if you have faith in your ability and in yourself, things are going to go accordingly. You will persist."