Before acting locally, Alexander Wright was thinking globally.
A rap-loving aspiring graphic designer straight outta Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, he thought the quickest path to living his dream after graduation would be through fan art—reimagined album covers and portraits of his favorite artists, posted online in hopes that, through virality or divine happenstance, they might catch their subject's eye.
"I was thinking, if I did this, it would get the attention of those artists," says Wright, 27. Alas, Jay Z never called. So it was onto Plan B. "I talked to my career adviser at the Art Institute of Portland, and he said, 'Why don't you start in your own backyard, and then branch out?'"
Wright took his advice. Four years later, there's hardly a notable rapper in town for whom he hasn't created something, whether it's an album cover, logo or show flyer. In the process, Wright, aka Casso Dinero, has done more than just build an impressive portfolio for himself: He's established the visual language of Portland's emerging hip-hop scene. Simple but vivid, marked by striking images—a glass of whiskey perched atop a Bible, the spires of the St. Johns Bridge morphed into jumper cables—framed in empty space, his work has helped pull rap from the city's margins and into the wider cultural conversation.
Wright grew up in an artistic household. His parents were both avid doodlers. When his father was in prison, for the first months of Wright's life, he would send home small, handmade cards, with drawings of roses or Garfield on them. Whenever his grandmother would visit from New York, she'd take him to galleries and museums.
It wasn't until high school, though, that Wright gazed upon the masterpiece that would set the path for the rest of his life: Eminem's 2002 album, The Eminem Show.
"That was the project that made me go, 'This is what I want to do,'" he says.
A naturally shy kid, it took some effort for Wright to get his name out in Portland, but he's now a valued part of the local rap community as much as any MC or producer: When his laptop died suddenly last year, the scene rallied to raise the money for him to get it repaired, an act of altruism Wright says nearly brought him to tears.
But Wright's ambitions lie beyond the city that raised him.
"I can do a lot better," he says of his nascent career. "The fact I can pay a few bills off it is a blessing. I just want to get it to the point where I can do bigger and better things."