BakitWhy interviews Bren Bataclan, an artist determined to bring smiles to people nationwide

Bren Bataclan – An Artist Diffusing Smiles Around the World

by Rhoda Dizon

Bren Bataclan’s colorful, warm and free art has been left on the streets and random places of 25 different cities in the U.S., as well as to 30 other countries worldwide. This artistic and philanthropic venture is a continuation of his “Smile Boston Project.” Like lyrics from the song “Middle” by Jimmy Eat World, Bataclan leaves a note with each canvas with the words -- “Everything Will Be Alright,” or some other positive variation. Free art during a recession is rare, and what is even rarer is the optimism and positivity of the note attached to the smiling work of art. Touching stories of people finding Bren Bataclan’s artwork after a bad day of work, or even worse, after a chemotherapy treatment session are shared, brings a smile and uplifts the spirit – and ultimately generates a more hopeful outlook during difficult times such as these.

Bren Bataclan was born in Makati, Philippines and always aspired to be an artist. When he was a child during the 1970s, there was a craze for Japanese anime. Most of these characters were known for their huge eyes - which inspired Bataclan to create his own original art. He was mostly influenced by the anime Voltes V and Mazinger, which had human beings that looked similar to Bataclan’s characters today, but the popular robots featured in both anime were more angular and therefore in contrast to Bataclan’s bubbly and round characters. Before the Boston Smile Project, his work was mostly computer generated since his background was in computer animation and design. Bataclan received his undergraduate degree at UCLA, where he had to take core fine art classes as a design student such as oil, watercolor, figure drawing, even basket weaving and textiles. He went on to graduate school in the Midwest, and his initial goal was to go back to L.A./Hollywood to work on movies. Instead, he decided to pursue a teaching career in Boston, Massachusetts.

When Bataclan transitioned from a teaching career in Boston to a career in the dot.com world, he was met with disappointment when the industry and the economy crashed four years later. For a year and half, Bataclan struggled without a job, desperate to try anything in the grueling and unpredictable job market. Eventually, in the climactic summer of 2003, he decided to start drawing again, and began creating art that he had worked on as a child out of his emotional and financial depression. He began to draw characters inspired by 1970s Japanese anime released in the Philippines such as Voltes V and Mazinger -- inspirations from his childhood. The characters he created were bright and colorful with humongous eyes – one eye being larger than the other, looking much exaggerated than the original Japanese animation influences. This profound moment marked the genesis of unnamed, smiley characters created in a signature and distinct style by Bataclan. Bataclan’s tropical colored work stood out from the traditional Boston community, whose art consisted mostly of the quintessential Cape-Cod beach scenery showing how proud they were of their American regional distinctions. Bostonians craved Bataclan’s colorful and unique style that was rare in the New England art scene.  

Bren BataclanIn October 2003, the annual Open Studios commenced in Bataclan’s neighborhood, which consisted of about 100 local artists opening up their homes and studios to sell their art to the community. Bataclan invested in 56 canvases and painted these new, bright, and colorful characters. To his joyous surprise, 49 out of 56 of his paintings were sold during the event! Bataclan was inspired and invested in 30 more canvases to paint his characters and leave them all over Boston with a note saying, “This painting is yours if you promise to smile at random people more often.” This event marked the beginning of his notorious, global street art project known as the “Smile Boston Project.” Such generous and gracious acts are not without intention - Bataclan had 5 main reasons for giving free art to Boston:

1.) To thank Boston for buying his work at Open Studios in October 2003.

2.) To have a chance to do his own street art. Since they were on single canvases, it would be a temporary graffiti since he is not the type of person to vandalize a public space.

3.) The most important reason was to get more smiles back. He was born in the Philippines, grew up in California, went to UCLA and went to graduate school in the Midwest. When he moved to Boston, he was like the token Midwesterner, waving at people saying “Hi” to everyone. Bostonians were a lot more reserved. When he saw Bostonians look at his work, they would smile and giggle. By leaving 30 paintings, he would get more smiles back.

4.) To expose more people to art, who might not normally go to galleries, or shows, or fine arts, and to hold outdoor exhibitions.

5.) To give art to people who may not be able to afford original art.      

Bren Bataclan

Bataclan's characters: Boston sports fan, pinoys, and newlyweds

Bataclan created non-specific characters - without a name, race, or breed - so people can relate to them more. A viewer can look at a character and say “that’s my daughter”, “that’s my son”, or name the character for themselves. His lack of a target audience makes his artwork accessible to both children and adults. The color scheme is from the Philippines; it’s very bright and tropical. The color scheme in Boston during the fall is usually in the grey gradients coinciding with the cold and snowy weather. From October to April, art enthusiasts of Boston hunger for these tropical colors that they do not see for a while. Initially, when he first started making the characters, he thought they would appeal to guys in their 30s like himself with cartoons in the same genre as artist Gary Baseman, whose target audience is older in order to understand the adult content. To date, Bataclan has a big Harvard and MIT following, while newlywed couples also buy newlywed-themed cartoon character artworks - showing his diverse appeal.

In his 6th anniversary of being an artist, Bren Bataclan gives advice and encouragement to emerging artists who strive for success and happiness in pursuing what the love.

Rhoda: What are important qualities to have for art students and emerging artists?

Bren: The business aspect of it would be good to have. I was not a Fine Arts Major, but I took enough fine arts courses. Theory and basic skills are taught. How to survive business wise is a big part of it. You could be an amazing artist but if you don’t know how to interact with people or promote or sell yourself, you probably will have a hard time making a living. So I’m glad I had twelve years of design and computer background because I can meet deadlines - I’m never late. When I’m meeting people when I’m exhibiting work, I don’t hide in the corner. I shake everyone’s hands because when I’m at a gallery show, folks will buy your art. The paintings sell more if you’re there talking about it. I just really love what I’m doing right now, and I don’t mind sharing the positive experiences to others. I believe in my work.

Rhoda: What are the true inner rewards about being an artist?

Bren: Not having a boss and the flexibility - I’m my own boss. I can be here in L.A. now, but as soon as I get home to Boston I have to paint a mural. Being in design for 12 years, folks will ask to change the font, or change the color; it’s like a never ending process. With a painting, I say when it’s done. Being in design for many, many years, it’s a huge treat. It’s a still a dream come true, because it is really is up to me. I’ve always envied my friends that were doctors who, I feel, are contributing to society. Being in design, and the special effects work, I felt like I was helping rich people become richer. There’s nothing wrong with that, it helps the economy. I feel like I now have a more direct way of helping others. It sounds really cheesy to say making them smile. Just two weeks ago, I raised over $2500 for the flood victims of the Philippines because I had a show and 50% of profits went to the Philippine Red Cross. By having opportunities to help, I can be more creative in what I can do with my paintings. I love my job. I absolutely love my job!  

Rhoda: Has there been a person or idea that has been a steady source of inspiration?

Bren: I really like the Japanese artist, Murakami. His work is very animated, he just embodies a lot. I’ve known of his work, pre-my work. I keep up to date with current Philippine and Pil-Am art stuff. I love Manuel Ocampo’s work. I used to see his work here in L.A. when I was an undergrad. I could be wrong, but I think I saw his work at a café one time. 

Rhoda: Is your family supportive of your artistic endeavors? 

Bren: Not initially. I studied as a civil engineer at first, but I hated it. I had an internship with Caltrans while I was a freshman in college. I could probably do it, but I just felt that one freeway plan or bridge plan looked like everything else. I wanted a creative expression or an outlet. When I switched to design, my family and especially my mathematician sister-in-law were supportive during my success in the .com world. My mother was freaking out when I was giving free art. The Philippine Press has been so amazing and supportive. My family watches the Philippine media, so they see and say they are so proud of their son. It’s like a roller coaster; it’s good when it’s good, it’s bad when it’s bad. 

Bren Bataclan

Artist in Residency Mural: details of actual tenants: hair stylist, musician, and dancer

Rhoda: Are there any goals outside of the Smile Boston Project that you would like to accomplish as an artist? 

Bren: I’d like to leave paintings in all 50 states and 181 countries around the world. The American goal is doable. The 181 countries is kind of a lot to do. I have a design background and a commercial background. I have no qualms in going commercial. I’ve been approached several times to turn my characters into products and even like a Boston based animation thing. 90% of my work is pure fine arts. I am now slowly partnering with companies. Bosco chocolate drink- became big because of Seinfeld as his password for ATM. I was hired to do the branding - a bear in his style. They asked for a year. Now they are smaller family company. 

Rhoda: What keeps you going as an artist?

Bren: This is my first pain free form of expression.   When I was computer graphics, I thought I loved it, learning new software, bugs of the computer.   Even though I love gadgets, this is what you see, is what you get.   I have a paintbrush, paint, and a canvas. I love the instant gratification. Like I said earlier, I have the complete freedom to express myself.   When I have clients that say “paint my family”, “paint a mural” - it’s up to me. It’s magical! The most important part that keeps me going, is helping folks; to a simple smile, or helping flood victims in the Philippines. 

Rhoda: What guidance do you have for the next generation of artists?

Bren: I started to paint these characters when I was really miserable, when I didn’t have a job. Like some folks say, “true art comes from when you’re miserable, not when you’re happy”. I guess that’s kind of true. I guess trying to muster up enough positive energy during challenging times. There’s a lot of joy in my work that goes beyond the aesthetics. I’m really happy with what I’m doing and it sort of emanates. As I said before, be really professional. Know how to sell your work.   Be constantly passionate. Don’t copy. Find your true voice. Those little clichés are true. Be really helpful. Tap into your culture. Though my work is not blatantly Pinoy, having it as a foundation really helps. Pilipinos don’t have a true voice in the art world.  That helped me look into what kind of work happened and what is currently happening in the Philippines. As I said, a lot of it was hand done. That’s what helped me turn off the apple computer, and start drawing these characters again. If I didn’t reach into my culture, I wouldn’t be drawing again. This is why I love doing Pil-Am work, because with other nationalities, things are so established. You can still be a pioneer in Philippine design. We have a lot of work to do. You can still define Philippine design!