Akia Kemp owns the signage business Signature Design Gallery, and clients include nationally known interior artist Derwin Scott. His work is on display at Scott’s DSD Paintings, and his signs grace LD’s Coffee Shop, and All Things Retro. He also has crafted work for UFC fighter Tyron Woodley.
But being an entrepreneur wasn’t always on Kemp’s radar. He grew up on the west end of St. Louis, where the Sumner graduate said he “saw a lot and did a lot.”
“I started hustling when I was a kid,” said Kemp, who is also a co-owner of Guys with the Fries.
His street life days ended with a bit of divine inspiration as he sat on his mother’s couch. He had recently been home from prison after a drug charge conviction and was unemployed. He had two young sons and no way to provide for them.
“I asked God to give me something that’s mine so that I didn’t have to go back to the streets, ‘cause I was getting close,” he said.
The bible states “the Lord works in mysterious ways, and Kemp said he was told “go to Hobby Lobby.
“It was the first time I ever heard God really speak to me,” said Kemp.
Filled with excitement, Kemp said he ran upstairs to tell his mother, told her about the vision and idea he had, and she gave him $100 to buy supplies at Hobby Lobby.
He bought foam board, an Exacto knife, paint, glue, and string lights.
He went back to his mom’s house, sat at the kitchen table, and got busy.
By 5 a.m. the next morning, his first project was completed. It was a silhouette of the late rapper 2 Pac Shakur. He attached lights to the silhouette and hung his work on the wall.
“It was the coolest thing ever,” he said. Kemp says he was so proud of his work, he paraded it around for everyone to see.
However, three days later his younger brother kicked his prototype and broke it.
Kemp became very frustrated and pushed his dream to the side.
The setback didn’t stop him from improving his life. He went to truck driving school and got his commercial driver’s license (CDL), but he was unhappy.
“I hated being a truck driver. I hated being on the road all those hours and being away from my kids. My heart and head just weren’t in it,” he said.
“I had to think differently, I’m fresh out of jail, I’m a felon, I haven’t had a real job in 20 years,” said Kemp.
But, no matter how he tried to get leave his artistic passion, something always pulled him back in.
Kemp went to a Home Depot, this time more knowledgeable on the material he needed to make a successful sign. He bought wood and a Dremel tool and made another sign which was better constructed. The creation paid homage to slain rapper Nipsey Hussle.
He showed a few people and soon had 10 orders.
“The orders just keep coming in, it has never stopped,” said Kemp.
The orders were pouring in, and his work shed became his sleeping quarters. In less than a year he was making as much money designing signs as driving trucks.
“It was a no-brainer, I quit the trucking business,” said Kemp.
“When you’re in your purpose, it doesn’t always happen how you plan it.
“Many of the new businesses in St. Louis [established] in the last three years, I did their interior design sign.”
Akia Kemp originals can also be found in Atlanta and throughout Texas.
Kemp says when he is designing signs, “it doesn’t feel like work.”
“Most of my days are 10 to 12-hour days. I took the signage industry and made it my own. I’m adding my own artistic input to each piece,” he said.
“I know this may sound [like a] cliche, but I believe you can literally be anything you want to be. I went from street hustler to owning two businesses.”
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