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Graphics designer Smith goes from prisoner to entrepreneur

BY Stan Simpson
Special to the Hartford Business Journal

5/7/2018
HBJ Photos | Bill Morgan
HBJ Photos | Bill Morgan
Andrew Smith spent years in prison in Connecticut and New York for drug offenses, but he's turned his life around and now owns a graphics design firm in downtown Hartford — Artwurks Unlimited.
Andrew Smith is sitting behind the desk of his spartan downtown Hartford graphics design firm, relishing how a once tumultuous past has come full circle.

The owner of Artwurks Unlimited, born and reared in Brooklyn, N.Y., is reflective about a journey that revolved around a love of art, interrupted by temptations of the streets — and, eventually, the hard lessons of prison. Smith insists his drug-dealing days are way behind him. His hustle these days, he says, is legit.

Last May, the entrepreneur known as "Judah" moved his business from north Hartford to a prominent Main Street corner. He rents an apartment in the same building and laughs about his "20 seconds" commute to work.

He is engaged to be married; was recently cited by the city for his achievement in entrepreneurship; and earned a "100 Men of Color" recognition for making a positive impact on the community. In a year, he expects to have finished 30 online credits remaining for a diploma from the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.

"It feels amazing,'' Smith, 48, said. "I feel liberated. But I don't feel like the journey is over."

He would like to start a job-training program for urban youths, teaching them the skills of a graphic artist, silk screen printing and customer service. He can even envision it becoming a prison-diversion program for wayward youth like himself, whose lifestyle could result in them being locked up.

As a kid in Brooklyn raised by his mother, Smith would spend his modest allowance to buy 50-cent comic books. He loved Spider-Man, the Hulk and X-Men, characters created by comic-book legend Stan Lee. Smith spent most of his days drawing faces of the super heroes, their uniforms and background scenery. It was a creative outlet — and his renditions were riveting.

He took his artistic talents to the streets, literally, and became an avid graffiti artist. The walls of abandoned buildings and the exterior of trains were his canvas.

His mother enrolled him in an intensive summer arts program at the prestigious Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. There, Smith learned about working with brushes, acrylic painting, charcoal, blending colors, photography and freelance writing. The 14-year-old arts fanatic at the time loved it.

After the summer, it was back to Sheepshead Bay High School, which Smith didn't love so much.

He started running the streets with the wrong group of kids. Instead of practicing his art, he was smoking weed and going to parties. In 1986, at age 16, Smith served 10 months at the notorious Rikers Island for drug possession. "You had to fight every day,'' Smith recalls of the experience.

He left Rikers still very much misguided, thinking he would simply cultivate a savvier group of friends. In 1988, he moved to Connecticut where family lived nearby. Three years later, Smith was nabbed for selling drugs and served two-and-half years of a seven-year sentence.

"I said 'I'm really sick of this.' Something needs to change here," Smith said. "I started reading to build up my mind. … My body was locked up, but it didn't mean my mind had to be locked up, too. My mindset had to change and I knew my circle of friends absolutely had to change. I could not go back to that life.''

Self-help and personal-empowerment books were reading staples, from Tony Robbins to Elijah Muhammad.

A series of silk screen printing jobs, using screens to apply ink to different apparel, were secured in the following years. In 1998, he accepted a job in Holyoke, Mass. Probation restrictions, however, prohibited Smith from leaving the state for any reason. He ended up violating his probation and had to serve one more year in prison.

The only good news — Smith was committed to earning a living in the graphic arts business.

Artwurks Unlimited opened in 2003 as a side gig in a home office. Its first storefront was in 2007 in New London. From there, it relocated to Hartford's Albany Avenue in 2010. The move to the Linden Building downtown occurred last May. There is space now for printing and silk screen work, a luxury Smith did not have previously.

Clients include nonprofit organizations, businesses, professional associations and other entrepreneurs. "I think what's kept me going is my work ethic," Smith said. "I work all the time anytime. I have clients that call me at 10 p.m. because they know they can reach me."

He is refreshingly candid about his checkered past, saying those experiences shaped him into the "driven, disciplined, focused" person he is today.

"I'm grateful for those negative things as I am for the positive things going on in my life,'' he said, adding that his life can serve as a cautionary tale for talented urban teens who make bad decisions.

"I want folks to know that you can be successful whether you have a large support base or not; whether you come from the projects or not,'' Smith said. "I also want folks to know that you have to believe in yourself more than anyone else believes in you. And you have to invest in yourself."

Stan Simpson is the principal of Stan Simpson Enterprises LLC, a strategic communications consulting firm. He is also host of Fox 61's "The Stan Simpson Show," which airs Saturdays, 5:30 a.m.