She is unmistakable: her shaved head, her funky glasses and tattoos from head to toe — literally.
"It's so cliché," Davita Galloway says, with a laugh. "But art was always there for me. It's in me, on me, all the time."
The one at Galloway's hairline is her favorite: Lovey, her grandmother's name, in cursive script. The one on her left ankle was her first: a rose, inked when Galloway was just 16, with her dad's approval. In between are so many others she's lost count.
That's because Galloway is far too busy keeping track of the two businesses, one non-profit and dozens of projects she runs in the Charlotte art scene. She hosts a co-working space, events, meet-ups, photo shoots, open mics, book signings and the monthly series I'm an Artist, Dammit, which allows creatives to showcase their talent in front of audiences — and get paid, besides. The majority of these events are free. The vibe is community. And the aesthetic is bright, cheeky, and black — straight, no chaser.
"If you invite me to the table, you're going to get me at the table. And I'm bringing black and brown people with me," Galloway says. "There is a need for us to not only be present but be represented. These programs that other organizations put together, they're cool, but it cannot be solely for us any longer. It has to be by us."
Galloway, the feminine half of Dupp&Swat Studio (along with her brother, Dion "Dupp" Galloway) in Plaza-Midwood and the Concept in Camp Northend, wasn't always so forthright. She started out in Winston-Salem as a creative youngster, expressing herself early on through poetry and sketching, and fell in love with fashion.
"I never matched. I still don't," Galloway says. "My parents let me leave the house looking crazy if I wanted to."
Her mom and dad, a government employee and an executive for RJ Reynolds, built a solidly middle-class childhood that encouraged their second child's creativity. But at age 7, Galloway began expressing severe medical symptoms.
"It seemed to happen overnight," she says thoughtfully. "One day I was riding bikes with neighborhood friends and my brother, and the next day I was on the floor in the fetal position, in pain. All of a sudden. And no one could explain it."
It took a year of testing, medicating and exploratory surgery for doctors to diagnose Galloway with Crohn's, an inflammatory bowel disease that affects the lining of the digestive tract and causes abdominal cramping, diarrhea, weight loss, anemia and fatigue. She's since battled recurring symptoms and had numerous surgeries — it's a chronic condition, no cure.
It was a lot for a young girl to take.
Naturally curious and academically gifted, Galloway immersed herself in school. But there, too, was trouble in paradise.
"One year in elementary school I won every single award. Every one," Galloway muses. "At first, it was like, 'Woo, 'Vita!' But as my name was announced each subsequent time, the cheers got quieter and quieter and quieter. By the end, no one was clapping."
Around the same time, an adult cousin molested her. It was a devastating combination of blows, and Galloway began to retreat into herself, finding solace in worlds of color and pattern. Though she confided in her family, it was years before she stopped blaming herself.
Galloway tells these stories with dry eyes. Her voice does not waver. Asked if she consents to sharing them in print, there is zero hesitation.
"If people get anything out of my story, it's being OK with your life," she says.
Galloway's life has far exceeded "OK." She attended UNC-Charlotte, earning a bachelor's degree, and was already working while she earned her master's in public health. Family expectations required she keep her dreams of the fashion world a hobby, but the public health field was sucking the force out of her.
"It was suffocating. I had to dress a certain way to be taken seriously," Galloway says. "There were zero opportunities to be creative and express myself — I was crying myself to sleep at night."
The first season of Project Runway was on, and on a whim Galloway decided to apply and see what might happen. If the show accepted her, it would be a sign; if not, she'd stay in her dead-end job.
"I still remember getting the envelope in the mail. I was literally shaking," Galloway recalls. "When I read the first line, 'Congratulations you have been...,' everything hit the fan. I fell to the ground crying, overjoyed."
She graduated and was in New York City a week later, attending the prestigious Parsons School of Design. A successful fashion career evolved for Galloway, but unresolved legal issues led to an arrest on charges of stealing and the loss of her job.
Back in Winston-Salem, depressed and unemployable with a mark on her record, Galloway felt no one was going to hire her. With nothing left to lose, she decided to give her vision full steam.
"Art has literally saved my life so many times. But I waited until my back was against the wall before I decided to take this journey," Galloway says, shaking her head. "If I can prevent this from happening to anyone else, I want to: 'Why wait that long? Do it now.'"
She leaned on family during this time, particularly her brother and best friend Dion. A year younger, he modeled hats she'd customize around town. They contemplated a name for the brand but all the names they came up with were already trademarked.
"Then it just came to me: Dupp&Swat. We knew we could trademark that name, nobody else has it," Galloway says. "And it's genuinely us — he's literally Dupp, that's his nickname, and I'm Swatt."
Galloway had some money stashed from her time in New York, but needed his partnership. Where she can be very flighty and full of ideas, her brother grounds the operations and excels at nailing down the nuts and bolts of concrete details.
"The support from him has always been there," Galloway says. "He said yes to me when I was a little nervous about saying yes to myself. And the 'yes' he gave me to pursue creating and expressing myself was the 'yes' we give others. It's in the same spirit."
That willingness to give others a shot has helped Galloway earn the trust and loyalty of much of Charlotte's creative set. She's also earned it from her utter commitment to community building.
The first iteration of Dupp&Swat came about in 2010, situated in NoDa at 28th Street, a complex known for being home to Amelie's flagship store. The Galloways' store was originally meant as a place to stage editorial fashion and photography shoots, but they ended up with way more space than they had plans for.
Creatives, drawn to the shop, began asking the Galloways to feature their artwork and retail products.
"When the doors opened, the people flew in," she says. "They helped us build up what Dupp&Swat is, because we provided them with that 'yes.' We wouldn't be here without the community."
Renita Martin, owner of Browzilla Beauty Studio and Galloway's partner on the 'Nita and Vita' YouTube talk show, has known Galloway since 2011. "I saw her at a fashion show and I thought she looked really unique! I also thought she was so mean, but she was just in 'go' mode," Martin says.
Galloway began carrying Martin's Infinite Style items in Dupp&Swat, and encouraged her to hold two events per month, as Galloway did with all of her vendors. Martin's customer following took off.
"She definitely made me say 'yes' to a couple of things I would normally shy away from," Martin says. "She pushes you past where you think your boundaries are. Without her, a lot of people would get more 'no's.' The doors are starting to open for her in the right rooms so she can make some things shake for the city."
At the Concept at Camp Northend, which changes themes every six months, Galloway is currently catering to women with the theme "Pretty Girls Like," based on the 2 Chainz album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music. The shop is stocked with clothes, fanny packs, sunglasses and art, sourced entirely from local designers. Any given week, pop-up events, free massages, and educational workshops given by community members are going on, and people drop by frequently to shop, chill or just say hello.
"Everything we do is always bigger than us," Galloway says.
Besides supporting professional artists, Galloway boosts nascent artists with scavenger-hunt giveaways. She and her brother fill bags with canvasses, paint and other art supplies, and drop them off in different communities of color around Charlotte. There are no strings attached, just the satisfaction of knowing they are helping artists in need continue to create.
"We leave hints here and there about where the bags can be found, just to add some fun to it," Galloway says, adding that they're accepting donations at the Concept and Studio stores for the next hunt, which happens July 5 and 6.
Although Galloway is a cornerstone of Charlotte's black and brown arts scene, she has found her profile going mainstream in recent years, with shoots for NASCAR and promotions for the city of Charlotte. But it was a Creative Mornings talk during this time last year that saw Galloway's reputation explode.
Her Creative Mornings speech, in early June 2017, was on survival, and Galloway was anxious. She wondered how to talk about her molestation, being arrested — if she should be so transparent with a predominantly white crowd, who might already see her in a diminished light.
"But I was like, I'm going to be me. And as soon as I stepped out I was cool. I was confident in what I was saying," Galloway says. "I wasn't saying it for them. I was saying it for my audience, and for me."
That speech was the harbinger of a flood of interest that has shown no sign of letting up. Grants, proposals and a general air of 'yes' permeate the atmosphere around her. The timing of the success, while welcome, seems bittersweet.
"The Creative Morning stage was a platform that got a lot of new people reaching out. I'm grateful to Matt [Olin] and Tim [Miner] — we rock hard, they're great people — but in the beginning I was very critical of that attention," Galloway says. "Bruh, we've been here doing this from Day One, so what makes you want to holler at me now?
"Before, it had always been 'no.' Why did it take the approval of white men for opportunities to come my way?" she asks.
But Galloway stays true to the demographic that held her down from the beginning. One way is through directly sharing information.
"We go to talk series all the time and there's not a lot of black or brown folks there," Galloway says. "I don't know if it's too early in the morning and people have to work, or people just don't feel comfortable and welcome. That's why we decided to create a series that gives us a platform."
The Conversation Course is a newer monthly talk series, started as a way to disseminate vital information to sectors of the creative community that might otherwise miss out. Each session couples a discussion by black artists and creatives with an element of food.
Galloway also launched the Entrepreneur Life, a workshop series created for those who want to pursue, sustain and create their own businesses. Topics run the gamut from branding and bookkeeping to social media strategies, which she and successful experts lead. She sees the Dupp&Swat Studio and Concept store as more than business outposts or event venues. They are resources she's opened to Charlotte's often overlooked and underserved creatives.
"I'm just trying to help. Some people need that outlet of a creative environment to spark their ideas and envision the possibilities," Galloway says.
Singer Kevin "Mercury" Carter sees the value of her work. Carter, 23, headlined the most recent I'm an Artist showcase, put on by Crownkeepers, the nonprofit arm of Dupp&Swat. Sponsored by the Arts and Science Council, the series highlights an artist a month in a two-hour paid performance.
On August 5, all of the season's acts will come together for one large show. Though Mercury Carter has been performing as a singer for three years, he began his creative career as fashion designer Kevin Vain before he graduated high school.
Galloway was one of his earliest mentors.
"It's no secret Charlotte's creative scene can be a bit fickle, but Davita is an accessible, active supporter of the arts community," Carter says. "When I was doing fashion, she introduced me to different people, supply stores and even displayed some of my pieces in the original Dupp&Swat NoDa location.
"She's one of those people who you can feel her positive energy. She's like a vitamin pill," Carter says. "After talking to her, I feel like I can do a whole set."
The I'm an Artist, Dammit series has been running for more than two years, and Carter appreciates the love it shows to up-and-comers. His being featured has opened doors for other young artists as well, who saw Carter's posts about the event and inquired about showcases of their own. The series gives a younger class of Charlotte artists another platform where they can push their art.
Carter was recently selected as one of 10 new artists globally to perform at the legendary Montreaux Jazz Festival in Switzerland this year. He's the first singer from North Carolina since Nina Simone to be chosen for the honor. That's not minor stuff. And Davita Galloway had a hand in it.
These days, Galloway stays organized by writing everything down: dreams, to-do lists for the next day. She pulls inspiration from everything: color, life experiences, her favorite '90s hip-hop. Her home is full of notebooks filled with doodles, snippets and ideas that she revisits for inspiration or sometimes jut to pass the time.
"I do it because I genuinely believe we're gifted [with] ideas for a reason or purpose, so whatever idea comes to me I feel obligated to get it out," she says. "This for me is living, finally, and it feels good. Is it something I expected? I guess so. I built it and worked for it."