Arts

Meet the Scarborough teen who self-taught his way to global graphic design superstardom

Benjamin Bwamiki is only 16, but he's already building a celebrity client list and supporting his family financially with his art.

Benjamin Bwamiki is only 16, but he's already supporting his family financially with his art

Benjamin Bwamiki, a.k.a. Certified Benji. (Samuel Kojo)

What sounds like a dream to many teenage Torontonians is Benjamin Bwamiki's reality. He just returned home from a few days out on tour with Tory Lanez — a quick trip to Los Angeles, New York and then back home to Toronto. You might guess that he joined the dates as a performer, but the 16-year-old Scarborough teen is actually a graphic designer.

Bwamiki, a.k.a. Certified Benji on Instagram, has spent the past three years hustling to build up his brand and is now reaping his fruits, one co-sign at a time. He usually juggles around five projects at once for a client list that includes names like Fred Van Vleet and Danny Green of the Toronto Raptors, social media influencer Donté Colley, rappers Sean Leon, Ram Riddlz and Lil Tecca and singer Roy Woods. (On the Tory Lanez tour, he was making graphics and social media content for the opening act, rapper Nyce.) The self-taught artist takes meetings downtown with managers and attends networking events to grow his business — all after a full day at school.

"I grew up watching my parents work very hard, and I think it's rubbed off on me," he says. "That shows through my graphic design."

In his early days, when he was 13, he started making enough to cover the cost of lunch money. Now, working on bigger budget projects, he's able to support his family financially and send money back to his relatives in Kampala, Uganda.

Benjamin Bwamiki, a.k.a. Certified Benji. (Samuel Kojo)

Bwamiki started out creating graphics for presentations at his church when he was 11 and moved to YouTube tutorials to refine his skills. He was locked in to a weekly Adobe livestream where he learned the ins and outs of Photoshop and Illustrator, and eventually started posting tutorial videos to his own channel to teach others what he had learned. By the time he started middle school, he was already getting solicitations, mostly from his friends who wanted cool profile photos or logos and graphics for their own beauty and gaming YouTube channels.

"It wasn't a heavy thing. At the time, I wasn't taking it too seriously — it was more of a hobby."

He's a member of a generation of digital natives who have the world at their fingertips through the blue screen of their smartphones and the cognizance to use it. When he was asked to edit a video for the Prime Boys before he had the necessary editing experience, instead of turning down the opportunity, he hopped on his computer and found a tutorial on Premiere Pro. That resourcefulness has served him in all his other endeavours.

Once Bwamiki reached the ninth grade, his graphic design had become a fledgling business and he started charging for commissions. For his first two years of high school, he was in the International Baccalaureate program — a program known for its academic rigour and heavy workload. "It was hard to balance doing my homework and doing all my graphic design work," he admits. But with the help of an older friend, he learned to maximize and prioritize his time between school, extracurriculars and graphic design.

"Sometimes I wouldn't be able work on projects, but I'd be afraid to tell the client I had a big essay due worth my whole mark. I learned to be able to say when I couldn't finish a project instead of not doing it to the best of my ability or doing it late."

Bwamiki's rise as a go-to designer for hip hop artists in Canada started with wholesome fan art. In 2017, he made a concept cover just for fun for an artist whose music he loved, LB Spiffy, and sent it to him. "We started to talk and he was like, 'This is sick,' but he already had a cover for it. I ended up doing the cover for his following release and he gave me a shoutout." In the past three years he's created a number of other album covers; two of his personal favourites are Lil Tecca's We Love You Tecca and Houdini's Hou Woulda Thought.

The cover art for Houdini's Hou Woulda Thought, designed by Benjamin Bwamiki. (Houdini/Certified Designs)

Shoutouts and referrals are key to his growth. Almost everyone he's worked with has connected him in some way to another opportunity. Working with LB Spiffy led to him creating the logo for local social media news platform, 6ixBuzzTv. By May 2019, he was directing merch photoshoots for the platform — sourcing the videographer and photographer, casting all the models, and getting approval from the school board to shoot in his high school. That day, after he finished class, he went straight into director mode.

Bwamiki quickly learned how to navigate the bureaucracy of different industries and leverage the accessibility that Instagram allows. "I knew that if I wasn't able to get in touch directly with a certain person, I'd find a route through their friends or their team," he says. Sliding into the DMs of close friends, managers and A&Rs in hopes that they would show his work to their artists ended up working in his favour. That's how he got to create flyers and promotional material for sketch comedy duo Jae and Trey Richards of 4YE (4 Yall Entertainment).

Despite his impressive resumé, he speaks about his work modestly and matter-of-factly, mostly because he's so focused on looking ahead to the next thing. "I'd love to work with Drake, obviously, but the closest I've gotten so far is designing a flyer for an event he attended in London, U.K."

The cover art for Tecca's mixtape We Love You Tecca, designed by Benjamin Bwamiki. (Republic Records/Certified Designs)

For Bwamiki, art has brought him more than cool opportunities and financial comfort for his family — it's also helped him develop his sense of self. When he was in elementary school, he was bullied for his skin colour and the way he dressed, and the experiences left a mark on him. But as he entered high school, he found that his demeanour had changed and the bullying stopped. He called his newfound confidence a kind of rebranding.

"My personality changed in a way where people weren't looking at my skin colour anymore but at the things that I was achieving — a whole new slate, new person type of thing."

Now, Bwamiki is devoted to creating spaces for people to interact and come together, as he puts it, for the greater good. One of his future goals is to host workshops and networking events so young people can learn about creative industries firsthand, similar to events he networked at when he was first coming up. These days, he's part of an anti-bullying program called Safe Schools and is invested in collective efforts to make school a bit easier for everyone.

"There's this producer who goes to my school who hit me up on Instagram. People were making fun of his name and his beats, but I really liked his music so I took him under my wing. Now, he's working with some of the people I'm working with and he doesn't get bullied anymore. We flipped the whole thing around."

About the Author

Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto. Her writing explores the intersection of music, art and film, with a focus on the work of marginalized cultural producers. Along with CBC Arts, she's written for The Globe and Mail, The FADER, NOW Magazine and Canadian Art.

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