City Lifestyle

Want to start a publication?

Learn More

Featured Article

Paint the Town

For Boulderites, the Street Art of SMiLE Is Endearingly Familiar, but the Artist Remains a Mystery

Article by Katherine Owen

Photography by Poppy & Co. by Kelsey Huffer; Illustration by Gina Dodge Studio

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

At Lucile’s Creole Cafe in downtown Boulder, the brunch waitlist generally overflows from the Victorian home’s waiting room onto the sidewalk outside, where, if you don’t get a spot on the bench, you’re left lingering around the block. But for lucky—and, importantly, observant—visitors, the wait includes a chance to spot an original collection of Boulder art. 

Peering out from the side of an otherwise ordinary electrical box is a vibrant, immaculately detailed portrait of a lion, next to two hanging bats and a couple cats, all punctuated by a cryptic signature. Viewers must pause to make out the spelling, “SMiLE”. 

The signature belongs to an anonymous, Boulder-based artist whose medium is the hidden corners and public surfaces of the city. The name is fitting for the artist's ethos, which is rooted in sharing joy and shedding egos. 

“I want my street art to bring joy to people, to bring a surprised thrill to them when they randomly cross paths with a piece of my work on the streets,” the artist explains. “That's what it's all about for me, that's what I dream of when I finish a painting: countless people coming across the painting and being surprised, being shocked out of whatever they were ruminating about and coming to the present moment and feeling happy and light. I think that helping someone be present is the greatest gift that an artist has to give.”

SMiLE’s work is spread out across the city (and around the world—a fox in Paris, a kitty in New York City). The locations around Boulder vary, selected both for their significance to the artist, but also for their suitability thematically and technically as a medium. 

Start at the east end of Pearl Street and you’ll find a portrait hidden outside Boxcar. Work your way to Lucile’s to see the lion, then on to Bohemian Biergarten to see a cat. Keep your eyes peeled near Dushanbe Tea House, Sundown Saloon, Rio Grande and Cedar & Hyde for hidden works. End up at Lolita’s and look for the artist’s rendering of a sweet fox and its cub, among others. Along the way, you’ll notice animals weigh heavily in SMiLE’s work, from a bright teal dog with perked ears near Zoe Ma Ma to a black cat near Boulder bookstore. 

“I love the wildness of animals,” the artist explains. “I grew up an only child in Boulder and spent countless hours with cats; many of my best friends have been cats. Most of the cats that I stencil are cats that I know, either my boy Hermes or else the kitties of friends and family. And this love of cats extends into big cats as well. After spending so much time with cats it feels like I can read their expressions and body language as well as I can read a person’s.” 

That being said, SMiLE’s signature can be found next to some human portraits around town as well; walls near Boulder High or the library having served as a gallery for captivating portraits of brightly-hued faces. 

“For my portraits, I choose people that light a fire in my heart, people that elevate me to a higher level through the legacy that they've created either as artists, singers, friends, authors, rebels, revolutionaries and poets,” they say. “If I'm going to spend days and days focused on the nuances of a person’s features, if I'm really getting deep into it and studying the way that their cheekbones drift into their dimples, then I need it to be a situation where my inspiration grows from a flame to a bonfire.” 

The meticulously detailed paintings are made under the cover of night, using stencils, which take anywhere from 20 to 75 hours (and sometimes even longer) to make. The actual paintings, however, take merely “a handful of minutes” the artist reports. For the artist, the speed of the stencil is all part of the allure.

“They're an ingenious way to put beautiful art onto the streets.”

To view SMiLE’s work, spend a day strolling Pearl with this walking guide to the artist’s work, or follow along on Instagram (@SmileBoulder), where the artist anonymously shares location-tagged updates of their recent work.