Artist David “Lebo” Le Batard opens the door to his studio on the tenth floor of a high-rise in Miami Beach. He towers more than six feet tall, wearing a pair of worn John Varvatos pants, a Basquiat shirt from Uniqlo, and a trucker hat designed by his own studio. Inside, the room smells of paint and is lit only by light shining through the glass door that opens to the balcony. The walls are covered with hundreds of sketches, words, and cartoon figures drawn directly on the white paint. He hunches over a large piece of glass, painting decisive black lines as he talks about his recent mural in Miami Beach, his ethos as an artist, and selling out.
“To me, art is a very solitary pursuit,” says the 43-year-old Le Batard, owner and operator of Lebo Studios. His nickname, Lebo, was his pager code as a kid, and it stuck. His work includes murals, fine-art pieces, prints, and apparel. “I work for myself. I own my own company. I hate that term 'sellout.' There’s no selling out.” After operating his studio for nearly 20 years, he says, his works sell for anywhere from $1,500 to $20,000.
Lebo is one of Miami Beach's best-known street artists, so it's fitting that his work now greets travelers to the city. His Welcome to Miami Beach mural on the side of the abandoned Roosevelt Theater depicts a monk parakeet, a night jasmine blossom, a lifeguard stand, and a smiling sun, all done in his characteristically bright cartoon style. The text reads “Welcome to Miami Beach” in a midcentury-modern font. The concept behind the mural is of a postcard, which is how many people experienced Miami Beach before the days of television and the internet, he says.
“It’s meant to be really simple. It’s meant to be seen at 60 miles an hour. People are driving by and walking by very quickly, so I wasn’t going to make it overly busy, and I can be overly busy in my design sensibility.”
The goal, he says, is to make visitors feel transported the minute they lay eyes on Miami Beach. “I want it to be a visual bite-sized version of what they’re going to experience when they come here. It sets a tone that they are somewhere else, in a really special part of the world. I want people to happy to be here,” he explains.
The 50-by-120 foot mural was presented to and approved by the Miami Beach City Council. “It was truly democratic. People from the community came and spoke for and against it. I was super surprised because it’s a Jewish Orthodox neighborhood. Someone came out and they said it was going to slow down traffic if people stop to take a picture of it,” says Le Batard, who understands the concern.
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Still, since its completion last month, the mural has been met with controversy. The Next Miami complained, "If you though Britto was bad, wait until you see this new mural on Miami Beach’s 41st Street." Commenters at the site pile on, calling the mural “childlike,” “crap,” and “caca,” while others vehemently defend his work.
Le Batard himself had qualms about the project. “I honestly wasn’t thrilled about the idea of doing the project because I knew physically what it was going to take to do it, and it’s an enormous amount of work, and I could just be in the studio working,” he says. “I don’t need to be up on scaffolding. I was like, why the fuck do I want to go from here, listening to music, relaxing, doing whatever I want, to being up there for however long it takes? It’s fucking physical work.”
The mural’s execution proved to be difficult. “We used a swing stage to do it, and we were harnessed separately. We even had to buy a dock to meet OSHA regulations because it was over the water. Logistically, it was superchallenging.”
As for the critics, Le Batard says, they won't get him down.
“What I’m trying to do with my work is point out the light and move toward the light. And thankfully, I’ve found collectors who believe in that message," he says. "My life has been great. I’m fortunate.”