King Saladeen Paints The Corners, Meshing Art and Baseball

We caught up with artist King Saladeen about his career and his Topps Project 2020 and Project 70 creations.

King Saladeen on Topps Project 70
Photo: King Saladeen and Topps

Editor’s note: This article originally ran on our network partner site Den of Geek as part of the Collector’s Digest content series powered by eBay.

King Saladeen is an artist who prides himself on creating work that can be portrayed in many different ways. From clothing to exotic cars, murals and now trading cards, King Saladeen’s art is dynamic and unique. Over the last year, Topps has had Saladeen design some of its most notable cards in the Project 2020 and Project 70 sets for popular current and former players like Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper, Roberto Clemente, Ken Griffey Jr. among others. 

Ahead of his online store launch with eBay, King Saladeen joined Den of Geek and special guest host, baseball podcaster, and card expert Aram Leighton for a video interview to discuss everything from the beginnings of his art career to the creation of his coveted baseball cards. You can watch the interview below, or read on for the Q&A transcript. Plus check out King Saladeen’s exclusive eBay store for card art and more exclusive items!

Aram Leighton: Can you tell us about how you fell into art? From what I understand, you were a pretty good basketball player through your teenage years. How’d you go from basketball to art?

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King Saladeen: It’s so hard to be able to tell you this story because I don’t know personally, but I grew up in West Philadelphia, southwest area. So, basketball was the thing that everybody did. And me being, not a short kid too, I remember being 12, I was probably six feet. Everybody around the hood will always say, “Yo man, you got to play ball.” So it was something that was pushed on to me. But my first love was art. That was the one thing that nobody really knew about me unless you were super close to me, you came over my house. It would be art everywhere. My room would be full of art, all on the walls.

So I remember art being my first thing to zone out with. That was the first thing I gravitated to that I was in a space like no other doing art. So basketball came along because I was young, I’m tall, everybody played ball in the hood and that’s how it really went. But me playing basketball with AAU and high school basketball, things like that, it was amazing. And anything that I’m into, I’m going to go 100 percent. It wasn’t like my family had money to send me to art classes or art camp or anything like that. So it was just something that I did when I was trying to get away from my environment. 

You’ve mentioned in other interviews that a serious car accident actually shifted your focus from basketball to art a little as well, but you still balanced both. Can you elaborate on that?

I had to recuperate at my house for about two months. It was a bad car accident. I was messed up. So in the midst of that time, it was no more sports. I couldn’t go to school for the remainder of the year because it was around the end of the school year. So, make a long story short. The one thing that I did when I was in the house was I just got back into my art because I had time to do it.

And I wasn’t focused on basketball, practice, school, girls, all that at that time. I was in the house. I was messed up, bandaged up and the only thing I could really do is just express myself through art. So that was the one time where me being as a young kid, I knew that it was something with art because good and bad times, I resorted to art. So when something like that happens in your life, when on your high horse and on your lowest, you resort to something to keep you calm, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing in this world. And I felt like that at 15, 16.

So I continued to play basketball, scored a thousand points in high school, got a scholarship to go to a school, but it was still something in me that was just, everybody played basketball. Everybody’s 6’2″. Everybody can shoot a jump shot. Everybody can dunk. But the things that I was doing and I would show people, everybody would go crazy. And this is the stuff that I would do in my sleep. It’d be canvases or paintings or I’d do somebody’s jacket or design somebody’s shoes or just stuff to just kill time. People would go crazy. And I just thought it was something regular. But my best friend, JP, God rest his soul, he was one of them people that just strictly pushed me. And if it wasn’t for him, I would’ve just thought literally everything I’m doing is just like, “Who cares?” But he was that one person that pushed me to really take it to the next level.

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You talk about your best friend there and that he helped push you can you talk a little bit about the inspiration behind the bear, which is consistent through a lot of your art?

The bear theme is my best friend, JP. I started off doing abstract art, now I’m a lover of abstract art and all things like that. Me, coming from the hood, there was a point of time where I always loved graffiti art. I always loved street art. I always loved pop art, but that wasn’t the thing that I was doing. 

So, in the mindset of that, he passes away and I’m still doing abstract art. I’m still doing everything that I’ve been doing until he passed away, I’m in California or somewhere. And I’m just thinking about all our conversations and I’m like, “Okay, what did he tell me? What did he didn’t tell me to do?” He told me to go to New York, but I’m in LA. So I got to somehow get back to New York. This bear, he kept saying he could see it on everything. That was his conversation. He and I could see this bear on everything. He was saying book bags, shirts. 

When he passed away, I just started hearing all these different conversations. I just started putting all this stuff into my work. And I don’t know, from heaven to I don’t know, the bear just took off. I do so much different types of art, but the bear was one thing that really just stuck. It was like my Mickey Mouse almost.

You mentioned [in our Instagram Live] earlier that you love the energy that Fernando Tatis Jr. brings to the table. Your first card for Project 70 was another energetic player, Bryce Harper.

Definitely he’s a great player. Energy. He’s a great humanitarian, too. So I looked into a lot of these guys’ personalities and what they do off the field, too.

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So that was one of the reasons why I wanted to do it for Philly. And then start off my Project70 with a Phillies player, because Topps 2020, everybody killed me. You don’t have a Phillies player on here. And I was just like, I got to start off with a Philly player for a Topps Project70. So, that’s where Bryce Harper came in.

He’s a lot of fun to watch play. The Phillies are a pretty good ball club led by him. But some of the old timers I wanted to ask you about, because my personal all time, favorite player, Ken Griffey, Jr. To me he’s a cultural icon. He’s the first guy that really had the signature cleats that everybody had to have. What got you to Griffey and Willie Mays, and some of those other names?

Well, Griffey was just a cultural shock. So, as a kid, I wasn’t really into baseball. But I knew Ken Griffey. I knew when his shoes were coming out, I knew everything about him. He had a cartoon with Jordan and Mike Tyson, he was literally the guy. So he was my first player. 

I didn’t pick any players from Topps 2020, so he wound up being the first card that I had to do. And I was just like, “Wow, this is going to be a fun ride.” But it also made me nervous too, because it’s such a great player for your first card. And I had to figure out how I was going to translate the art because it was the first card. That’s one of my most valued cards right now, too. Maybe because I kept it so calm and then I added a little bit of King Saladeen, but I didn’t go too crazy. I don’t know. But Ken Griffey, he’s a baseball guy and he definitely transcended the culture in the game.

Can you talk about the process artistically to make sure that that card encapsulates who that guy is and what he represented?

Well, honestly, I’m not used to it as of now, it’s like every card seems like the Griffey again. I swear. Because it’s like the Tatis, I loved that card and I couldn’t wait for that card to come out because I did it maybe a month and a half ago. I was doing other things, other projects and I’m just touching it up, touching it up and it just came out amazing. 

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Now the pressure is on me every time I feel like because I just want to outdo myself, but I don’t want to do too much, it’s crazy. The process changes up every time because every card that drops, I’m learning a lot more, I’m trying to pick up different things to add to these cards. They all start off with a hand sketch. We go from there, a couple of them were hand painted and then I went digital. So depending on how I feel about the card, who it is, that definitely changes up the process a little bit.

I’m so interested now to hear about how your C.C. Sabathia card is coming because you mentioned each time it’s almost like doing it for the first time again.

It’s crazy. I’ve been working on his card for about a month now, but not directly on it. Just every time I feel something, I go and switch a picture or touch up a picture or “No, not this picture.” Especially because right now he’s super in shape. CC’s on another level now in the gym, so I wanted to pick out a picture that would reflect him playing then and something he’ll feel good about now also. 

I have the privilege of talking to him about how we would lay out this card. We’re going to donate some money back on signed cards. We’re going to do a lot of things with this card. It’s going to be really, really cool. I just want to make him feel like you killed it. So it’s going to take a lot of little stuff and I’m also doing a companion card, I think so, of CC, too. So, his spirit animal is a grizzly bear. How did that work out?

And how important is it to you to be able to give back? I know we talked about it on the Instagram about a lot of kids that grow up in the inner city, art is not one of the first things that’s going to be offered to them, if at all. To hoop, all you need is a basketball and a court.

Well, I just think it was just something that was missing. When I was a kid growing up, there were a few people from our area that maybe made it to the NBA or were very successful and they would maybe come around, but it wasn’t consistent. It was maybe one time. It was because maybe a corporation made them come out where they were from. It was one of those situations where it wasn’t from the heart. I could feel it wasn’t from the heart. So I just told myself as a young kid, if I was ever to be blessed enough to help other people, the first thing I would do is set up some type of organization.

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So that was thoughts a long time ago. So once I started linking up with my management, PC&Y in New York, these guys feed the homeless every week. That was something that I saw in the midst of my grind, driving from Philly to New York, all the time, trying to handle business. After we would run around and handle business, they would go feed the homeless and they like, “Yo, Hey, you want to stay up here and help?” And I’m like, “Yeah, of course.” So once I saw how they change people’s lives, literally, they didn’t have to do none of that stuff. I just wanted to be a part of something like that. And I knew I had to bring it back to Philly because I wasn’t seeing it done.

So, we started Create, Motivate, Inspire, I think 2017. And we’ve been giving out book bags and doing basketball tournaments in my neighborhood. We gave out turkeys three years in a row for Thanksgiving, even in a pandemic. So it’s been amazing. I’m just at the baby steps of what I really want to do, but I just had to get my feet wet with the whole thing because I’m around so many amazing people that I’m seeing them run foundations, I had to start. I had to go in their lane.

Can you talk a little bit about your eBay store that’s about to be up? People are going to have an opportunity to get a lot of really cool King Saladeen cards [and merch].

Well, to start it off, the 27th, April 27, 4/27 is my grandmother’s birthday. So I’m just honored to be a part of this with eBay and I think we were supposed to drop it a little earlier, but I was like, if it’s around my grandma’s birthday, we got to wait for my grandma’s birthday. Believe me, it’s going to be way much better if we drop it on Tuesday, then if we dropped it on Friday or something like that.

It’s just a whole spirit behind this whole thing. So with eBay, what’s going on on the 27th is I’m dropping my seventh bear season baseball card. And we’re dropping our Tatis signed cards.

Bear Card Five. Can you talk about some of the important words? It says “sacrifice” on there and “bear season” with the heart 4/27, you just talked about that. But why the word sacrifice and how does that relate to you or what was the reason why you decided to put this on that card?

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Actually that card was the chase card for Clemente. Roberto Clemente. So if you know anything about Roberto Clemente and his story and you know the humanitarian he was, it was all about sacrifice and putting your people first. 

So, that was the inspiration behind the card. That card might be one of my favorites. All of them are my favorites, but that one right there was the fifth card. So, that was the end of Topps 2020. I really liked that card. And sacrifice, anything you want in life and anything you really dream of and it’s not going to be easy. None of this stuff is easy unless you just got super rich parents and everything’s laid out. I don’t know, that wasn’t my situation. So sacrifice means a whole lot to me. And it’s the one thing that you’re going to have to do to get where you want to go.

For more King Saladeen artwork, check out his store on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram. Aram Leighton hosts Locked on MLB Prospects and Locked on Marlins. You can talk all things baseball cards with him on Twitter @AramLeighton8.