Free Art in Exchange for Smiles

Max with artist Bren Bataclan in his South End studio in Boston, Massachusetts
Max with artist Bren Bataclan in his South End studio in Boston, Massachusetts

Max with artist Bren Bataclan in his South End studio in Boston, Massachusetts

Bren Bataclan makes art and gives it away. But it’s not free. He leaves his paintings in public spaces with a note attached that says, “This painting is yours if you promise to smile at random people more often.”

The project, which is called “Smile Boston,” began in Massachusetts in 2003.Bataclan has gifted more than 2,500 paintings to all 50 states and 70 countries. He has no plans to stop.

What has Bataclan learned from his project? “It's possible to follow your passion and make it your full-time job. You can make people smile just by doing simple things.”

I recently had the opportunity to interview Bataclan in his studio in the South End of Boston. Here are excerpts from our conversation.


What inspired you to start the “Smile Boston” project?

I grew up in San Francisco, and I saw a lot of street art. But I wasn’t the type of kid who would vandalize. About 15 years ago, I decided to do my own street art. Instead of spray painting a wall, I decided to put a canvas on a bench. I just wanted to make people smile.

What is a kind thing that someone has done for you?

One recipient of my painting is a woman named Mary who lives in my neighborhood. She made me a quilt with one of my cat characters. She has since become a good friend.

Where do you get the ideas for your characters?

I like Anime. I read a lot and watch a lot of movies. I also go to art exhibits. I especially love the Institute of Contemporary Art. Most of all, I work with plenty of kids. They are the primary inspiration when I paint murals in schools.

How does your Filipino background influence your art?

I tap into my Filipino roots and do art by hand. My artwork is very vibrant, colorful, and festive, like the tropical colors I would see growing up. Filipinos are known to smile a lot, so I smile a lot and say “hi” to folks.

Where did you study art?

As an undergraduate, I majored in design at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. For graduate school, I studied computer animation at Ohio State University.

Who are three of your favorite artist?

Norma Belleza, a Filipino painter; Keith Haring who does a lot of street art; and Philip Gustan, who does a lot of political art.

What is your advice for aspiring artists?

Be true to yourself. My characters are simple and fun. It’s not that I don’t push myself. But I keep to doing what I can do and what I love to do.

Photo courtesy of the author