West Philly native builds artistic tribute to Sixers legend Iverson

Gianni Lee’s piece, commissioned by Reebok, is at the corner of Frankford and Trenton avenues along the Fishtown-Kensington border.
PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Gianni Lee’s painted skeletal figures — pink with bulging eyes — add a different style to a corner along the Fishtown-Kensington border already brimming with art.

Across from his installation is a flowery, tropical mural and nearby is a colorful mosaic covering a wall of Horatio B. Hackett School, which faces the recently-opened roundabout at York Street and Frankford and Trenton avenues.

Lee’s figures decorate a wooden box encasing a rusting light pole at the end of a triangular parking lot for an auto repair shop.

The temporary installation, a tribute to basketball and Sixers legend Allen Iverson, features a few nets, including a makeshift milk carton hoop.

Lee, a multidisciplinary artist who grew up in West Philadelphia, said neighborhood kids were forced to get creative when their parents, fearing violent crime, told them to stay on the block instead of heading to the nearest court.

“We made do,” he said. “We got milk crates. Sometimes we’d take knives, or we had a hacksaw, saw off the bottom and just nail them to a post and just play.”

“It is like an art piece, but it’s still functional, like to actually shoot a basketball,” Lee said of his latest work.

Whether anyone has been practicing their jump shot at the corner is unclear, but a couple of the nets appear to have been ripped off since Lee created the installation last month. Perhaps that adds to the DIY-style.

Gianni Lee, of West Philadelphia, created his basketball-themed artwork last month.Kahleel Frazier / Provided

Reebok commissioned the piece, which will remain up through Friday, to promote the company’s “Courting Greatness” campaign and augmented reality app. A new Iverson-inspired sneaker is also debuting later this month.

A similar artwork honoring Shaquille O’Neal went up in Los Angeles as part of the Reebok effort.

Lee said he was partially attracted to basketball through hip hop, and Iverson, maybe more than any other NBA player, represented the melding of those two worlds in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

“Growing up, we all wanted to be like him,” Lee said.

Now, Lee strives to be like Salvador Dali, one of his major inspirations. In his studio, he paints fine art pieces that incorporate themes such as science fiction, anime and the Black family.

But he continues to be drawn to street art.

“Street art, to me, is really a language, but it’s also a community,” Lee said. “So a lot of times, my only interactions with other artists are actually on the wall. I might not have seen a lot of these artists in person, but sometimes we’ll talk to each other by tagging next to a person and things like that.”

He developed his signature skeleton characters while living in Los Angeles. They are “effective, simple and easy to see,” and also easy to do in a hurry, he added, as is sometimes necessary for street artists.

Lee developed his signature skeleton characters while living in Los Angeles.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Lee, who primarily lives in Brooklyn, splits his time between New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and has projects as far away as Cuba and Bulgaria.

As a child, he participated in programming provided by the University of the Arts and the Art Institute of Philadelphia. Lee attended the Charter High School for Architecture and Design, which recently closed.

“That kind of like shaped me to want to pursue art fully as a career, but I never really got into it until later on in my life,” he said. “One day it just kind of came to me that I should start painting, and I just started painting in my living room.”