Meet Damian Smith, a pro-skateboarder-turned artist who paints Philly cityscapes, including his most recent of Lincoln Financial Field.
• Ain’t that the toof: “I fell one time skateboarding and the first thing to hit the ground was my front teeth. I never found them” Smith said. “My senior year of high school my nickname was ‘Toof.’ ”
• State of the arts: “While you’re drawing, your brain goes to this different place where everything is gone and you’re just immersed in this craft,” Smith said. “It’s like a drug. I want to stay there.”
As Damian Smith painted at his easel on a South Philly sidewalk over the last few months, motorists stopped to gawk, honk, and offer traditional Philadelphia words of encouragement like “Go Birds!” and “Go Eagles!”
Because when you paint Lincoln Financial Field in person, everyone in the city becomes an art aficionado.
Smith, 41, a retired pro-skateboarder-turned artist, started painting outdoors across the street from the Linc in September, just to see if he could fit the enormous home of the Philadelphia Eagles into one composition.
And he did — on a 3-foot-by-7-foot canvas that he put the finishing touches on last week.
“I got this warmth from people I did not expect,” Smith said, of painting outside in Philly. “People you wouldn’t expect approached me and were fascinated.”
His two biggest critics — and fans — were a pair of very South Philly forklift drivers, he said.
“The older one came up and said ‘This is beautiful!’ but the younger guy contradicted him and said ‘No. This is f-in’ awesome!’” Smith said.
Then there were the times it seemed he had that entire corner of the city — on 11th Street south of Pattison Avenue — to himself.
“This is probably one of the loudest places on earth and sometimes, it’s totally dead," he said. “That’s the way I painted it: empty.”
Smith’s love of art dates to his childhood, when every Saturday as a kid his parents would bring him from their home in Narberth to the Philadelphia Museum of Art for classes. He drew his first nude around fourth grade, at a figure drawing class at the Moore College of Art and Design.
But when his dad brought him a skateboard he found in a dump when Smith was 12, he “fell in love” and left art behind.
Smith started skating around the burbs, then at LOVE Park in Center City during the height of its popularity with skateboarders in the early-to-mid ’90s.
“It was really intimidating,” he said of the skating scene at the park. “I survived because I never stopped skating. I wasn’t socializing. I was on my board, just grinding my tricks.”
At 14, Smith got his first sponsor, local skateboarding shop Sub Zero. In the following years, he appeared in skateboarding videos and magazine spreads, which earned him enough sponsors to be able to make a living skateboarding full-time after high school.
It wasn’t necessarily a good living, but it was a good life doing what he loved.
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But after years of scraping by and of being scraped up (he’s been hit by cars seven times), Smith left pro skateboarding when he was 26 and became a carpenter. While pursuing the trade, he started taking art classes again at the Fleisher Art Memorial.
For his senior thesis, Smith decided to paint cityscapes outdoors.
“It’s a lot different than painting in the studio,” he said. “There’s no secrets out here. They’ll tell you right to your face what they think.”
One of the first subjects Smith painted outdoors — known as plein air painting in the art world — was the lion sculpture outside of the Philadelphia Zoo entrance.
As Smith worked the canvas, kids came up and asked if they could help him paint his picture, mothers stole his paper towels to wipe their children’s faces, and a young man with an ankle bracelet threatened to steal his work.
He learned that what he could get painting outside in Philly was something he could never get in a studio — character.
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“There’s such a character in this city that it makes for an exceptional subject,” Smith said. “My mental health has benefited from being lost in these little moments on random street corners, when your mind is at peace and you’re just there."
Smith said he’d like to exhibit his painting of the Linc and, ideally, sell it. But if that doesn’t work out, he said he might just give it to a loyal Eagles sports bar.
While, like skateboarding, art isn’t the most lucrative of careers, Smith said he wouldn’t sacrifice it for anything.
“This is the best thing I could think to do with my one life,” he said.
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