Phil Simpson grew up in East 7 Mile and Hoover, just three blocks from Osborn High School in Detroit’s 48205 area code. While some may know this neighborhood as one of Detroit’s highest crime ridden areas, Phil has happily called it home sweet home for over 30 years.
As the son of an honest, hustling, and hardworking single mother who “played zero games,” Phil always understood the importance of staying focused and on track.
“My mom demanded respect. I always wanted to make her proud, because she worked so hard,” he shared.
“She was a hustler. She sold Avon, she made dolls, crocheted blankets and scarves, among other things. She never let us [Phil and his sister] go without.” This ingrained discipline and work ethic combined with his optimistic personality has translated into big business for the Detroit-based creative.
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As Founder and Owner of The Smile Brand, Phil has made it his personal mission to spread happiness and positive energy throughout the Motor City by producing locally manufactured art, apparel, and accessories that carries a simple message – smile and spread joy.
I had a chance to sit down with the creative entrepreneur and owner of The Baltimore Gallery to talk about his love for Detroit and how he went from a graffiti artist to creator of one of Detroit’s most beloved brands. Here’s what he had to say:
“Growing up, I always knew I was different,” he shared. “I was around the goons, but I didn’t act like them. I was that kid in the Saturday morning art class.”
In an area where so many are lead astray, falling victim to violence, Phil remained
focused and out of trouble. As a child, it was no secret to his Mother that Phil was fascinated
with some of the negative aspects of the hood. Yet, instead of shielding him from it all, she took a different approach that very well may have saved his life.
“I always loved hearing the stories of urban legends in Detroit. I just loved how the small guys came out on top. I still do.”
One of Phil’s influences as a child was his own uncle, a big time drug dealer in the city. His
mother opted against sheltering her young son from her brothers lifestyle. Instead, she made sure that Phil knew exactly how stories like that always end.
“She made me pay attention to the outcome, not just the temporary glitz and the glam. She made a point to make sure that I understood that prison or death were a given when you decide to live that kind of life.”
One of the most life changing experiences of Phil’s young life came when his mother took him
to the scene of a raid at his uncle’s house. He says that from that moment on, he always knew for sure that he’d have to hustle the right way to get the results he wanted out of life.
Fast forward about 20 years, and Phil is committed to instilling those same messages into
the lives of others. You can usually find him at the Baltimore Gallery, an open art gallery and
creative space for local and international artists of all cultures and disciplines.
When he’s not busy at The Gallery, helping “curate student exhibitions, hosting experienced nationally acclaimed artists, private fundraisers and black tie galas, poetry slams, and more, Phil likes to mentor the youth.
He enjoys speaking to young people, focusing on the fact that they can make anywhere in life, despite where they come from. “It starts at home. It’s not about what your environment throws at you, but how you handle it.
You don’t have to be from Farmington or a suburb to get a good education and go to college. All that matters is having people who care.” For this reason, Phil continues to spread this message by sharing his art at the Ford Resource & Engagement Center Eastside location and beyond.
The Smile Brand is easily becoming one of Detroit’s most recognizable brands. Just recently, he
participated in “Murals in the Market” Detroit’s annual international art and mural festival. “Entrepreneurship is not the easiest. I started as an artist, and it all took on a life of its own.”
The Smile Brand started when Phil began painting distinct artwork on abandoned houses in his neighborhood in hopes of giving kids something more inspiring and motivating to look at as they walked to and from school.
He painted words and phrases like, “Hope,” “Joy,” and “LoveThyself” on vacant houses on 7 Mile and Hoover and caught attention (both positive and negative) throughout the 48205. “I just wanted to see the world smile. Being black and smiling is not wack.” We’re taught to mean mug or be tough, but it’s okay to smile to give a hug or handshake just to give off good energy!”
His vision picked up more speed when Detroit’s WDIV-Local 4 caught wind of the Smile Brand
and did a story on him. The demand increased, and Phil ventured into clothing. Today his
signature smiley faces can be seen on shirts, hoodies, and murals all over the Metro area.
Phil’s story is all the more reason to believe in the power of maintaining your own individuality. “Make your own lane. I’m no different from the youth I talk to. One wrong move could have got
me locked up or made my mother cry. I’m not any different, I just knew what I wanted in life.”
Above all, Phil wants the youth to understand that if he can make it, then so can they. There are no limits in this world when you put forth your best effort. His message to Detroit’s youth is simple: “Don’t let anything stop you from getting to the greatness that’s within you… keep pushing forward.”