Young creative entrepreneur talks about his provocative clothing line and his hometown of Portland.
The first time I met Donovan Mickey Smith was on a late-night Tri-Met city bus heading north to Lombard Street. Before him and I got to talking, I dropped in on a conversation he was having with a fellow passenger, an older, beefy-looking white man. The man asked Donovan what the beanie he was wearing said. Donovan calmly stated, “ignorant.”
That caught my attention. I turned around, and indeed, emboldened confidently on the front of his black beanie was the word Ignorant. I felt the white man was taken aback, or maybe that was a projection of my own, because I was taken aback myself. It was bold clothing and the word “ignorant“ has far too many negative connotations attached to it, and I did not know what to think. Was this young man wearing Ignorant because he was proud to be ignorant? Donovan spoke maturely and swiftly afterwards, elaborating further on the beanie. Apparently the beanie said Reflections on the back of it. There is more than meets the eye.
Donovan M. Smith is the founder of Ignorant/Reflections (I/R), a clothing line that, according to his website, aims to promote provocative critical thinking and conversation about ourselves and the world around us. Donovan explained this to me and the interested white man. I was impressed. Donovan’s beanie did exactly that at this bus stop.
After exchanging more pleasant dialogue with Donovan, I did some research when I got home, and was impressed and inspired by his project. I started following Donovan on social media where he promotes Ignorant/Reflections, seeing the other clothing that Donovan has made himself, and all the success I/R has had as a nascent clothing brand. Maybe you have seen some of his products around the city, on strangers downtown or pasted onto registers in coffee shops. His most popular is a black T-Shirt with the words I SURVIVED PORTLAND POLICE across the front. He also has a sticker stating GENTRIFICATION IS WEIRD.
I wanted to speak with Donovan to learn more about him and his art and I was luckily able to do so. The following is a conversation he agreed to meet up for. It lasted an hour and I wish I could provide the entire transcript, but due to space, I had to only select the finer points in our conversation, which rambles at times. We cover everything from gentrification, his beginnings, and his new clothing line which is set to come out this August.
EM: Okay, so explain what you do and exactly what Ignorant/Reflections is.
DS: Okay, so what I do basically is put out anything that I’m feeling onto paper, and that translates into clothes. Ignorant/Reflections…how do I explain it? Ignorant/Reflections, at its core, is just me trying to get people to think about themselves and what’s going on around them. Through the vehicle of fashion. You have to wear clothes. So, I feel like that’s a good way to do it. Like, if I could just get people to break away from the matrix even just for a second.
EM: I like how the motivations of Ignorant/Reflections are that you’re just trying to make people talk. How often do you get stopped on the street for your street wear? I feel like that probably happens pretty frequently.
DS: Yeah, man.
EM: Because that’s how I met you.
EM: I didn’t speak to you but I was standing right next to the dude who was speaking to you on the bus.
DS: Yeah, it’s crazy that it actually happens, ya know? That’s what I set out to do. There’s no telling if it’s actually going to work. I was wearing an Obey shirt earlier in the day, until I changed into my stuff for the day, and nobody said anything about Obey, but people talk to me about the Gentrification shirts all day. So, it’s weird, but it does happen every week. I can say that.
EM: Do you consider Ignorant/Reflections early in its development?
DS: Yeah, I printed my first shirt in December 2013. And it was like a super small batch. It was 24 T-shirts, and I put about four different designs on that batch, which is a stupid way to start out, but I did it. I’m still trying to gather the pieces about how it should look, and how it should be presented and everything. And I still haven’t dropped my first collection.
EM: Out of the majority of the people that stop you, how many are white people and how many are black people?
DS: I’d say if you just scroll down my Instagram, you’ll see a little bit of everybody.
EM: Okay, That’s good then. You must be pretty happy about that.
DS: Yeah because I don’t think it should just be for black people. Like the Joey BadA$$ concert, he talks about a lot of black empowerment stuff, but you won’t just see white kids, you’ll see a bunch of kids, like Asian kids, you’ll see some Latino kids. I think that’s how it should be. These aren’t messages just meant for one specific sect of people. Like we were at the market. I think it was last weekend. This white guy came up and he liked the I SURVIVE PORTLAND POLICE t-shirt, but he said, “I don’t think I can wear that” and I asked why. “Because I don’t feel like I survived the Portland Police” and I told him that’s not what it’s about. It’s about supporting the message of it. If you like it, if you like the presentation, if you like what I’m saying, that’s where it’s suppose to be. You’re supposed to be in line with the message. Like that’s what I’m saying. Like, you listen to a rap song for example, it’s not that you’ve necessarily lived that experience the rapper is talking about, a lot of the times it’s autobiographical, so you don’t know shit about what he’s talking about. But, you’re just supporting them and their message, and the artistry too. You enjoy it.
EM: I would imagine that it’s been an alienating experience living in Portland as a black dude these last 18 years.
DS: Yeah man, I’m 23, I’m from Northeast, but I’ve kind of lived in different places in the city, like for a real small time I lived in Southeast Portland, close to where the Trimet garage is. But mostly, I feel like I’m from Northeast Portland through and through, and it is weird…
EM: Yeah. I mean if you just look at the show Portlandia, not that that’s necessarily an exact mirror of the city but it is a fun house mirror in the sense that there is truth in it. People move here for that kind of Caucasian ideal of living.
DS: Right, and with that being said, the things that are put in that category don’t belong to them as well. Bikes and healthy living. That does not belong to white people. That shit doesn’t belong to them. Coffee shops don’t belong to white people. Whole Foods don’t belong to white people. But they’re signifiers because these things generate money, and there’s things that historically have not been in black neighborhoods. But granted, everything that’s black kind of gets branded as being bad, which if you brand things as bad, it’s hard for them to generate money. So, placing a coffee shop in a neighborhood like this [North Portland] is a signifier that things are going to change. What was my point?
EM: I don’t know (laughs)
DS: Oh, the alienation of being in this neighborhood. Like down the street, my mom went to high school here, just things like that, people don’t realize how those shifts hurt like, not being able to see the things that you’re parents saw, not being able to go to those places. You’re losing lineages, you’re losing history, because they can tell you the story of those things, but they don’t exist in the same way. And things weren’t soup; like things weren’t always bad. I mean even when I was living in Northeast Portland, I came up, until the time I was like 13, around 42nd, and I don’t remember gang-banging. My auntie lived across the street, my grandmother lives down here, things were nice to me as a kid. By the time I start having kids, hopefully when I’m 30…
EM: Yeah who wants kids in their 20’s…
DS: I want to stay in Portland and they’re not going to be able to see any of the things that I saw. There’s no way this neighborhood is going to have black people in it. This corner again, you’re not going to see black people here in ten years. You’re not going to see it. That shit hurts in ways that aren’t tangible.
EM: So then I find it super interesting that you would consider yourself an artist over a social activist. Do people make that mistake of putting you in an activist category?
DS: Yeah, definitely, people think I’m an activist because I speak on something.
EM: But to you this is your clothing.
DS: Right, like I’ve done things that could be considered activism.
EM: But that just happens to be an extension of your art.
DS: Right, I’m not organizing shit. Again, I can’t get into the nitty-gritty of gentrification. I know the history and all that stuff, but I’m not really organizing around the stuff, so I just don’t consider myself an activist and I think that brings a whole different expectation of what people want from you and your art. This is my expression. So that means some of the stuff that I’m making may not be coming off as conscious, ‘cause I’m not conscious all the time in that way. Like Kendrick Lamar, for example. Good Kid, M.A.A.D City was definitely very conscious in the way he just picks apart his life. But, when he’s talking about police brutality, he’s not talking about it like he’s going to fight against it in this huge-ass way, he just talks about it as part of his life, and then he also gets to go make that song, “Fucking Problems.” That’s not really a conscious song, and I feel like I should be able to do that with my art. I feel like I should not have to be talked into everything in the world and have it brand me as being an activist.
EM: When will your new collection come out?
DS: August is the plan.
EM: Next month. So then you already know what the collection will be?
DS: Yeah I know exactly what I’m putting in. The final design is being worked on as we speak right now. I have a guy working on it. Most of these designs, too, are from like 2012. So when I decided I’m really going to do I/R, that’s where half of them [the ideas] come from, so I’m excited to finally get the ideas out, because like it sucks having all this shit and people not being able to see it and it not being expressed. So I’ll be super happy when it comes out.
EM: The people who enjoy Ignorant/Reflections, what can they expect from this new collection?
DS: Well the political stuff will be in there. There’s going to be a lot of stuff just about black culture in there, but it’s about culture in general. Again, I guess Good Kid M.A.A.D City is a good way to…
EM: I feel like Kendrick Lamar is in his peak right now.
DS: Yeah, what Good Kid M.A.A.D City is about is essentially a kid trapped in a gang-banging world but not wanting to be in it. But that’s a culture of itself that people, any kid can appreciate, so I’m talking about black culture in a way that’s acceptable, or I feel will be relatable. Let me say, to other people, and just culture in general. But my collection, at its core, is about finding your home. So that’s what this is about. Where you are most comfortable.
EM: In this collection, is there a conceptual thing tying all of it together and do you think each collection will have its own inspirations for the things behind it?
DS: I don’t know if everyone will be so conceptual in the way this one is, but every single piece in this collection is definitely all tied into the idea of what home looks like, what culture looks like, and you know, again, for a black man in this type of place, it reaches beyond Portland. and I’m hoping, too, this will be something more people beyond the city will start seeing. [My new collection line] will not be as branded to the city as stuff people have seen, but it’s all related to my experience in the city.
Donovan M. Smith will be at the Alberta St. Fair selling Ignorant/Reflections merch on August 8th. He also sells every Thursday at Cully Farmers Market and his ‘Gentrification is Weird’ stickers are currently on sale at No Limit Stickers. Check out his website below for more information and follow him on social media via the links below.