For Chicago artist Joshua Robinson, After Real Truth—his clothing, toy, and comic book company—is a more than a job. It’s a futuristic spiritual world and a way of life. A Chatham native, Robinson, who also goes by the alias “J. Bot,” started After Real Truth as a hobby in 2005 after graduating from Westwood College with a degree in computer animation. It has since exploded into what Robinson describes as a community-wide “movement” toward spiritual enlightenment.
With his wife’s help, the loquacious twenty-seven-year-old makes his designs on the computer, often placing historical figures and art into a digital, futuristic format, then painting these designs on baseball hats, hoodies, T-shirts, and gym shoes or sculpting them out of clay. Inspired by a diverse medley of African and religious art and iconography, Robinson uses everything from Egyptian pyramids and the Buddha to Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” and the Star of David in his designs. As a part of this “life project,” Robinson has also created a cartoon world where his friends, family, and other “followers” are given robot identities and placed into a narrative about finding spiritual truth.
Until recently, After Real Truth was based out of a store in Auburn Gresham. Today Robinson works out of The House of Culture, the Midwest regional headquarters for the Universal Zulu Nation in Chatham. Taking a break between projects, Robinson talked to the Weekly about the origin of After Real Truth, the absence of education about African heritage in South Side schools, and the trials of running a clothing line in Chicago.
How did After Real Truth start?
It started off as a life project. I came into it when I was about nineteen and my daughter was just born. That’s when I started to look into who I was. I was thinking about a lot of things, like what it was I actually want to do in life and whether or not I wanted to have a nine-to-five job or actually pursue a career in my own arts.
Where did the name After Real Truth come from? What does it mean?
The whole thing to me is that in life you have a truth, which is whatever your passion is. My passion is art. I feel like my truth in life is art. Somebody else might feel like their truth in life is writing. Everybody in life is ultimately after their own real truth. And when you actually break After Real Truth down, it’s A-R-T, art.
What role does African and religious history play in your work?
I do all different cultures, but I take a lot from the history of my own people, because that’s where I feel like our power is and where our spirituality lies, in our history. I try to incorporate a lot of stuff especially when it comes to Ethiopia, you know, because there’s a lot of culture that’s missed out on because we just can’t see our own art.
I went to school with a lot of Hispanic kids and I was always wondering why the Hispanic kids were drawing Aztec stuff. They know where their heritage lies. And it’s unfortunate that I don’t see a lot of African-American kids doing their own artwork from Africa, because there’s a lot of stuff.
But you aren’t restricted to African history, right?
Oh no. I do all sorts of stuff. All different cultures. And everybody who comes into my life, I make them a robot and put them into a story line, and the storyline is pretty much showing how people around me influence me to do better, you know? There’s actually a comic book I have been working on with robots.
Where does your interest in comics and robots come from?
Aw man, I’ve been interested in comic books since I was a little kid and I’ve always loved robots. And as I get really deep into it, I start to see more of a representation in the robots as to where we are now with the technology and how I feel like a lot of people actually are being controlled, like people don’t even really understand that their own lives are more like robots. Technology controls their life. “The Matrix” really helped me too. That’s pretty crazy.
Where do you find the people who become characters in your comic book?
I meet these people from just walking around on the street and talking to them. They talk to me on the bus and they get to know me because I give out my number to a lot of people. I give out my card. At the House of Culture, a lot of people walk in. I am always influenced because there are a lot of spiritual and powerful people walking around. And a lot of these people don’t even know that they’re powerful.
Who is “J. Bot”?
J. Bot is one of the alter egos that I have for myself. J. Bot is the representation of my higher consciousness, my soul, and his twin brother is called El. And he’s a representation of God. We are all actually like God in a physical form, you know. Like the Bible says, we are all created in his image.
So are you religious?
I’m more of a spiritual person, but I look at a little bit of everything. I make my own judgements.
What are the challenges of being a business owner on the South Side?
I try not to really look at the hard times, but aw man, they are hard. People always want something free from me for their friends. They’re like “Hey, can I get a free shirt?” and it’s like, “Support me. Support me.”
What is your long-term vision for After Real Truth?
I hope that someday soon I can get a charity walk going. I hope to have a big old event where people just come and give some time even if they don’t got no money. Time is more important than money. And hopefully, I’ll be able to start my own apprenticeship program for kids all over the place. These kids out here need to learn this stuff. There are a lot of people struggling for jobs. I feel like there are kids out there who would like to be taught if they had the opportunity.