Get to Know Boulder’s Mysterious Street Artist, the Anonymous SMiLE

SMiLE’s rendition of Van Gogh’s Starry featuring the Boulder Flatirons on the front of the Fox Theater in Boulder. Photo by Josie Lucero

Placed haphazardly throughout Boulder are small, impressionistic pieces of street art that adorn the city’s forgotten spaces and walls. The subject of each piece ranges from cats to portraits of famous icons and just about everything in between. Each piece is created from meticulous, hand-cut stencils that give each painting an astonishing amount of depth and texture. While the subjects of each piece of street art vary, one thing remains the same — a small moniker painted alongside each painting that reads “SMiLE.”

But who is SMiLE? Well, that is a piece of information that a select few have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Clearly inspired by the anonymous nature of the street artists like the notorious Banksy, SMiLE has chosen to remain unknown to the public for a number of reasons — namely a number of graffiti-related charges.

We had the opportunity to sit down with the 30 something-year-old Boulderite who is behind the moniker.

Portrait of Paul Pogba, a member of the French national soccer team, in the alley way behind Illegal Pete’s in Boulder.

303 Magazine: Basic question, where did the name [SMiLE] come from?

SMiLE: I’ve kind of bandied about different ideas for a little while, and it just felt like the most genuine. Sometimes, some of the ideas I had had a little deeper meaning. People have to look for meaning so it’s something that people see or connect with them to big purpose. My idea was just to kind of help people be happier — have a little smile — then it just kind of came together after a while.

303: Is there a reason for the capitalization or is that just for aesthetics?

S: Eh, kind of to make people look a little harder. I’ve had so many people, not so much lately, but the first year or two, they would tag “SME” so I thought about changing it. But then, you know, I like the idea that you kind of have to stop, pause and see something different than the first time you looked at it. You can’t just go, “oh look!” You know? It’s not obvious what it says. People having to take a step back, and — in Boulder lingo — choosing to be more present.

303: Your artwork is clearly catching people’s attention, so why stay anonymous?

S: We don’t want another celebrity in the world. Another guy whose DUI’s and antics we put up with, ya know, and yet we still revere them. I don’t want it to be about the artist that much — I mean I do a little bit, that’s why I have a tag. It’s about trying to help create a new type of experience with the art. This kind of spontaneous thing where hopefully people are happy and they smile.

A sleeping fox just passed the footbridge by the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder.

303: So were you always drawing since you were a kid? A pen and crayon in hand?

S: Colored pencils. Pastels. I had it all of it when I was a kid. As a young boy, I would always make these giant battle scenes.

303: When did you actually get into street art? Was there one event that inspired you or got you started?

S: I wouldn’t say it was just one thing, sort of a building for quite a long time. I kind of lived with this woman — and we were maybe this almost married type of thing — and I put aside a lot of the stuff that I wanted to be doing. Maybe that was my mistake. It is what it is. I think during three or four years of that this stuff started to percolate inside me.

Then we went to Italy, and I saw all this art and street art and all I could think was “I want to be doing that!” The whole time [of our relationship] I was painting and doing stuff. She was also an artist. So, you know, we’d make a couple of stencils, and she saw how much I loved it. She’d tried to say, “hey let’s do some painting — something else.” But when it finally happened, I had all this ammo in me and was inspired. Once it began, it basically never stopped.

303: Did you ever show your art before you started doing street art?

S: I’d had a couple gallery shows and stuff in my youth as a brush painter, and they really turned me off. So when I started to see what I did [street art pieces] in Europe, I was just inspired. I knew I loved art and liked being apart of it [the art world] so I thought maybe I could be a part of this “other” world, and if I could do it maybe I wouldn’t be turned off by it.  Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy the commercial art world — but I’m not very good with business and dealing with all the applications for shows. It didn’t work well for me. Painting on the street is different. If they don’t like it they just cover it up. Simple as that.

Portrait of Kurt Cobain on the Free Little Library outside of Lolita’s Market & Deli in Boulder.

303: Do a lot of your pieces get covered up?

S: Well, in the beginning, yes. In the first year, I would say eight out of 10 would get covered up, but now not so much. But you know, I didn’t really feel like they were getting covered up. I’ve lived here for a long time, and I like graffiti. So when I would see a cool image, I would notice it would be gone two or three days later so I kind of knew how they operated.

I was okay with it being covered up — that’s the nature of street art. I mean now, to be honest, most of it doesn’t get covered — almost none of it does now actually — which is cool, but it’s kind of weird. It’s like when you’re younger and you’re the bad kid in class, but suddenly you’re not getting in trouble anymore and you think “am I a rebel anymore?” [laughs]

303: Painting on the street late at night can come with some risks. Have you ever had any close calls with the police?

S: Basically a close call is a cop will slow down nearby, and I’ll pretend I’m on the phone or something while I cover the stencil. Then if I see them go to turn around, I pull it down then, and off I go. I’ve probably had about 15 to 20 of those [close calls].

303: So you’re clearly a night owl then?

S: Definitely. I like painting at night here [in Boulder]. It’s very peaceful and quiet. That’s actually part of the reason that I like to paint cats. Almost every time I’m out painting, a cat will come up to me like, “hey what are you doing out here?”

A portrait of SMiLE’s cat, Hermes, sunbathing by Lolita’s Market & Deli in Boulder.

 303: On a typical night, do already have a plan when you go out to paint?

S: I’ll get something in my head, and I’ll get all inspired. So I’ll go out later that night, and I usually go out with one or two stencils. But then, to be honest, I bet almost half the time when I think I’m going to do something in one spot there will be something going on —  a party or cops— or I’ll see something that draws my eye even more. Even with all that planning, most of it is really spontaneous anyhow.

303: So who or what can we expect to see you paint on the streets next?

S:  A leopard or cheetah? There’s an argument about what it seems to be. [laughs] I believe it’s a leopard’s profile. It’s kind of bigger than I normally do. I also did a Monet landscape, but I haven’t really put it up in the street yet. I painted in on a friend’s fence but that doesn’t count.

I also have three other new ones that I cut up in the last couple of weeks, and I still haven’t even painted them yet because there are two older ones I really wanted to do first. They will be up in the streets soon enough though.

Cheetah cub standing guard near the intersection of 23rd and Pearl in Boulder.

303: Your pieces are incredibly detail oriented. How long does it take you to cut one full set of stencils?

S: Depends on the subject. A landscape like the Boulder Flatirons one, that took me around 50 hours. I’ve gotten a lot quicker now. I could probably do it in 35 [hours] now. For a cat, anywhere between 20 to 25. Some faces I can pull off pretty fast now — about 15 hours. Give or take.

303: Wow, that’s an incredible amount of dedication to your work. How long does it take to put them up in the street?

S: Well it depends on how many layers there are. A cat will probably only take about 20 minutes. But a bigger landscape, that could take up to an hour or so. I had one Van Gogh-esque landscape that I painted in Paris that was nine layers. Jesus that took forever! Some guy came out and started yelling at me when I was working on it. That’s too many [hours] to be doing out secretly at night. An hour is too long to be standing out on the street corner breaking the law.

303: You took a hiatus from Boulder last winter, and lived in Paris the birthplace of modern stencil art for a little while. What was that experience like for you as a street artist?

S: So I’ve been twice. Once for only two weeks, but then for 90 days over the winter. I had already been painting here before I went, and I knew it was where stencil art really began and has taken hold especially with Paris being a long time city of art. Man but once I got there, there was a lot of inspiration.

The way [street art] is respected is amazing. I love Boulder, but now that my work isn’t getting covered, people put their tags in the middle of the face and stuff. And probably two out of every five I put up, that happens. But in Paris, whether it be mine or other people’s, that never happened.  There is a real respect for the arts. So even if you are doing street art, and maybe it’s a lot prettier, and maybe you’re not as much of a rebel as the tagger… the tagger still respects it there [in Paris]. I like that mutual respect. To be honest, I like tags. I like graffiti. I like it all, but I don’t go mess with it all.

The locals there also don’t seem to mind it. I had an old woman come up to me while I was painting a fox on a brick wall — I didn’t know it was her wall — at like two in the morning. She was very old, I bet 80, dressed all nice, and started talking at me in French. I don’t know any French, and was kind of  like, “do you speak English?” and she immediately responds “what are you doing?” I told her I was painting a fox. It will look pretty. Then she matter-of-factly said I’ll see it in the morning and just walked off. But she was happy about it, at two in the morning. That doesn’t really happen here. A lot of people tell me to get lost because they don’t know what I’m doing. 

Screech owl looking down at passerby in the walkway by Laughing Goat in Boulder.303: You said you don’t speak French, so how did you meet the locals to paint with?

S: Well, I made friends with a handful of street artists through Instagram, and from when I went there for a couple weeks last autumn. Some artists I clicked with, and others I didn’t. I sort of set it up so that when I went back for 90 days, I lived with a guy, Guaté Mao, at his apartment. I knew the circle I wanted to be with. He respected my art, and I respected his. It clicked well, and then it just kind of grew. It’s such a community there. That’s really why I go back. I love Boulder, but I wish we had a handful of dedicated street artists that I could communicate with. Others that you could talk about different styles and different locations. Over there, most people speak French and a little English, but a lot of people are sharing what they’re passionate about. And that really fires me up to do more.

 303: Will you be going back to Paris anytime soon then? 

S: I was actually just talking to some people about it this past weekend. The planning is starting now so hopefully soon I’ll have some solid plans to go back.

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To see more of SMiLE’s work and continue to follow the artist’s journey follow his Instagram page at @smileboulder.


All photography by Josie Lucero

  1. I love SMiLE, especially the portraits. I take a picture with my phone whenever I see a new one and put it into my SMiLE album!

  2. I’ve opened up BOCO Cider up in North Boulder and I have a blank wall in my taproom desperately waiting for art. If SMiLE was willing to come in under the cloak of darkness I’d be happy to preserve anonymity and demonstrate appreciation.

  3. I was in boulder a year or so ago, with a list a mile long of smile’s murals i wanted to see. NONE OF THEM were there. This was a list off a public art website, too. What happened to 30 Smile murals?

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