Smithe: What’s really going on between Mexico and the U.S.

A very big Smithe. Downtown Mexico City. Image provided by Smithe.

MEXICO CITY — What’s really going on between the United States and Mexico?

The answer is Smithe, and thousands like him, Mexico City artists who don’t waste time thinking about walls and self-serving politics and divisive rhetoric. Instead, they make paintings and posters and murals that borrow influences from both places. They post original music online and design their own lines of T-shirts, shoes and hats and sell them internationally.

They’re cross-cultural, bilingual and border-free, all about Google maps and Adobe software, and they don’t see the two countries as different places at all, except that maybe there’s a little more money to be made in the north, where gringos have the cash and a crazy love for the mash-up objects they make.

This mural, in downtown Mexico city, is eight-stories tall. Image provided by Smithe.

Smithe is the perfect example, and a super talent. A Mexican who goes by the most Anglo surname there is. Who loves American-born hip-hop and wears the uniform — baseball hats, baggy shirts, sneakers — and who takes cues from graffiti artists in Nueva York.

He started copying and adapting them when he was 14, in his middle-class Iztapalapa neighborhood. Now, at 32, he’s the art director of his own clothing line, called Tony Delfino, carried in an exclusive boutique on one the hippest streets in the downtown Centro area. He has 103,000 Instagram followers, a respected gallery, and sells everything from prints and sweatshirts to customers across the globe.

And yet, Smithe — real name Luis Enrique — is very much a Mexican dude, circa 2019. He works out of a massive studio just a block from the historic and ornate Palacio de Bellas Arts opera house, the city’s most iconic piece of architecture. He plays in a band called Stendal. He gives his friends custom tattoos, the permanent kind, though he’s not formally trained.

Of course, he paints murals, massive ones as tall as eight stories on the sides of apartment buildings, the kind you see all over Mexico City, the place where murals were invented and where folks like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros transformed them from protest billboards into fine art.

This is Smithe. In his studio. Mexico City. Photo by Ray Mark Rinaldi.

Smithe acknowledges their influence on him, the complicated way they combine multiple images and ideas into one object. That is inescapable in many ways, just because of his proximity to them growing up. But he’s clear to distance himself from their purpose. He is more of a graffiti-maker, and his work is not political — at all — and he doesn’t want folks to read it that way.

“In Mexico, the beginnings of murals were politics and history and things some like,” he said last week, surrounded in his studio by the oversized computer monitors, large-scale printers and shelves jammed with cans of spray paint that serve as his raw materials.

“I just want to draw something cool. Maybe that’s selfish but I think I’m trying to talk in that way.”

Instead he credits, for one thing, comic books as his main inspiration, and their look dominates his work. Crisp, clear lines make out his figures, and they are filled in mostly with pure blocks of color. Sometimes he brushes acrylic paints on canvas, but most often he creates digitally, making clicks and picks with the mouse attached to his oversized Mac monitor.

By Smithe.

As for his ideas, they are sparked by what he sees around him on the streets but also, more formally, from “illustrations from the ’50s and ’60s. the old-school illustration from science fiction. I love that kind of work,” he said.

And interestingly, he’s fixated on those now-vintage, printed books that feature hand-drawings detailing how complicated machinery works — manuals and textbooks that dissect and layer the various parts of car engines or industrial equipment.

He puts it all together for Smithe’s signature style, which is psychedelic, sci-fi and definitely surreal. Often, there are heads in his pieces, but their craniums open up to reveal fantastical worlds, everything from anatomical abnormalities to robotic inner-workings. There is a Mexican-ness to them, an essence that is both human and superhuman — Americans might see this as an updated form of magical realism — and a lot of skulls, which is something you see in all aspects of Mexican art, where it is not considered creepy but rather organic and practical and very human.

The Tony Delfino clothing lines — the name is random, American-sounding, a bit of a joke, Smithe said — feature a lot of sweatshirts, jackets, T’s, caps, maybe some lace-up shoes that cross the line between sneakers and work boots, and the products aren’t so different from what you might see in a Brooklyn boutique these days. Except they are all customized with Smithe’s exaggerated decals that give them their own stylish personality. They’re brand-conscious, with many tagged prominently with a “DLFN” logo.

As for the band, the samples on Spotify lean American or British. Smithe describes the sounds variously, as “post-punk, rock, grunge, new wave, ’80s, kind of dark (expletive).” Much of it is in English and it’s not-so-hardcore; kind of easy to like. Smithe plays keyboards.

The band, as well as the entirety of Smithe’s output, will be on display, via concerts and pop-up shops, for the next several months during Zeppelin Station’s “Made in Mexico City” takeover, which opened this weekend and continues through November. Smithe gets the coveted artist-in-residence spot at the nearby Taxi development, which provides living space and a massive studio to work in.

And he will be in familiar company. “Made in Mexico City” will feature more than 20 brands, all contributing to a renewed vibrancy (and American tourist rush) in Mexico City right now. Notable is a restaurant set-up from the ground-breaking Campobaja restaurant, run by star chef Alejandro Zarate, and a bar takeover by Licorería Limantour, an ultra-popular lounge on Mexico City’s trendy Avenida Álvaro Obregón, which has redefined the CDMX cocktail scene by using high-end spirits and local ingredients. It will be interesting to see how the bartenders redefine “local” in Colorado.

But expect it to all be popular, and crowded, especially, the fashion workshops, demos, concerts and parties. These operations are in Mexico, but their followings are fanatical and international. “Made in Mexico” transforms them from far-flung destinations to corner bars and local boutiques, and fans will seize the opportunity.

“Made in Mexico City ” continues through November at Zeppelin Station, 3501 Wazee St. Info at 720-460-1978 or zeppelinstation.com.

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