King Saladeen knew he had to be nearly perfect when Topps Project 2020 made him the first artist to recreate Derek Jeter's famous 1993 Topps No. 98 rookie card, which depicts the former New York Yankees shortstop throwing across the diamond.
To breathe new life into one of the most famous cards featuring Jeter, elected this year to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Saladeen kept the original image of the Bronx Bombers captain but surrounded the five-time World Series champion with a concrete jungle feel as he drew skyscrapers behind Yankee Stadium.
Saladeen, who is from West Philadelphia but is known around the world for his contemporary art, also put the words Mr. November on the bottom left of the card and was creative by incorporating the Big Apple and the Bronx. The card also included images of the busy city streets with a plane flying in a blue sky with a banner reading, "1992 Draft Pick".
"For the last five years, most of my business has been done in New York," said King Saladeen, whose given name is Raheem Saladeen Johnson, said. "I have been to Yankee games, met players on the team and performed projects with the Yankees. I wanted to put the city feel and culture into the card. He's the captain, so I couldn't mess up."
Saladeen's Jeter was card No. 29 in the 400-card Project 2020 set in which 20 culture-defining artists provide a visual reimagination of 20 iconic Topps baseball cards of historic players ranging from Ted Williams to Mike Trout.
Of the first 28 cards released, only one had topped a print run of 3,000. However, with fans around the country catching wind of the project's rise in value to go with Saladeen's artistic appeal, Jeter's card more than tripled any print run at 9,873.
With Topps.com selling each Project 2020 card for $19.99 apiece or as low as $12.50 each for 10 cards, many investors and collectors of the set have hit a home run. Saladeen's Jeter card was released April 14; after selling for a peak of nearly $300 in late May, it is now steadily close to $60 on eBay.
'Bridged the gap'
The first card in the set, an Ichiro Suzuki by Ben Baller with a print run of 1,334 skyrocketed to a resell price of more than $4,000 in late May. Several other cards in the set have sold in the thousands, and single-edition gold-framed cards, proofs limited to 20 and cards signed by the artists have sold for a pretty penny as well.
With two more cards released Friday at noon — Tony Gwynn and Jackie Robinson — Project 2020 has now 114 cards available.
On Monday, Saladeen released his version of Nolan Ryan's 1969 Topps rookie card. The card bursts with the Hall of Fame pitcher's blue and orange team colors of the New York Mets, with paintings of the city and Mr. Met included.
"It has been amazing to watch people's interest in these cards take off and see that they hold such value," said Saladeen, whose first card of Ken Griffey Jr., which had a print run of 2,504, has sold for more than $1,000 on EBay. "There are people who love art who never collected a card, and there are people who collect cards who never bought a painting or don't think about them in their house. This project has bridged the gap of two worlds and kind of made everybody recognize the value of something different."
Before Project 2020, Saladeen created his popular logo and toy JP The Money Bear and grew in popularity by handpainting supercars such as Lamborghinis and Bugattis. He has done shows across the country and has more than 200 feet worth of his paintings on display at the Philadelphia International Airport.
Flowing with new ideas, Saladeen recently produced his own baseball card featuring JP The Money Bear. With a print run of 999, he sold each of the cards on his website for $99. The card resold for as high as $1,000 three days after selling out and recently sold for $425 on eBay.
"My best friend's name was JP," he said. "He passed away from cancer in 2013. He was the one who said you need to quit your job and pursue your art dream. He loved my Money Bear, and he was my biggest motivator. It's incredible to see the JP The Money Bear catch fire along with these baseball cards. It's mind-boggling and a dream come true."
On Friday, Saladeen released his second JP The Money Bear Companion card to go along with his Topps Nolan Ryan autographed cards. All 1,200 cards sold out in the first three minutes on kingsaladeenstore.com.
Once a promising basketball player, Saladeen never knew his next claim to fame would be recreating famous Topps baseball cards. Like all 20 artists involved, he will eventually have 20 cards released; in addition to the aforementioned cards for Griffey, Jeter and Ryan, Saladeen's Ichiro, Don Mattingly and Willie Mays cards are already out.
Saladeen said he enjoys working with the color schemes of each player's team and being able to remix each card while still keeping its vintage look. He often includes a gold crown in his work, a trademark of famous street artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
"I have gained a huge following just based off Topps Project 2020," said Saladeen, who has more than 100,000 followers on Instagram. "Before this, they didn't even know me as an artist. Now there are people who know me as the guy who killed the cards. It's been really cool to merge these worlds together. No one knew it was going to be this big. We just thought it would be pretty cool."
His next cards for Project 2020 will include Bob Gibson and Roberto Clemente. He hopes Topps will let him be one of the last artists to recreate the 2011 Topps Update Mike Trout rookie card, which is one of the most sought-after cards in the collecting community. Trout is the only active player in the Project 2020 set.
Collecting cards has now become a fun hobby for the popular street artist who hopes card companies will one day do a similar project for legendary basketball players.
"I didn't know how much value was behind cards," Saladeen said. "It's been an eye-opener, and I can pass that down to my son like other card collectors have. It's funny because I used to never tell my sports friends about my passion for art, and now the two worlds are colliding."