Most diehard basketball fans have a Kobe Bryant story. Visual artist and designer Louis De Guzman can recall his clearly. In 2016, the Chicago native had just relocated to Los Angeles and was working with streetwear designer Don C on a series of basketball socks with Stance for the NBA All-Star Weekend games. Aesthetically nodding to the surrounding Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day holidays, De Guzman’s designs and colorways drew inspiration from both he and Don’s home team, the Bulls. When Stance and the NBA approved the designs, De Guzman figured they were going to be sold as commemorative items only. So he and his family were surprised to see Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and other players during the All-Star telecast cross the TV screen wearing the blue and red versions of his designs.
“The next thing you know, I see Kobe walk out, and I’m like, ‘Wait, is Kobe Bryant really wearing these socks right now,” De Guzman says. “I literally cried.” The moment was even more significant because it was Bryant’s last year in the league. Even over the phone, the weight in De Guzman’s voice is palpable. The power of that memory still moves him four years later. “That's like seeing a superhero not knowing who you are, but participating in something that you created,” he continues. “And for [Kobe] to wear those on his last All-Star appearance was just an honor.”
For the past decade and a half, De Guzman, 30, has made a fruitful career turning small ideas into major moments. The multidisciplinary artist has created everything from album covers and jumbo abstract illustrations to furniture designs and 3D sculptures, working with the likes of J Balvin, Nickelodeon, the Chicago Bulls, and Hennessy, among others. Most recently, he created custom apparel memorializing Bryant for Quavo’s halftime performance during the 2020 NBA All-Star Game.
Luckily for him, De Guzman was born into a family that actively encouraged him to indulge his artistic curiosities early on. Whenever his mother would participate in local craft shows, little Louis was always her plus-one. “I would be exposed to that whole artsy creative world of handmade things,” he recalls. “When no one else would babysit me, my mother would take me to her shows, and I would sit there and draw on pieces of paper and [be around] endless amounts of inspiration.”
As a young teen, De Guzman had many friends who were Filipino or Asian-American hip-hop dancers, so he designed graphics for their Xanga and Myspace pages and shirts for their crews. Although he clearly loved art, De Guzman didn’t realize it could be a proper career until his high school guidance counselor brought him up to speed. “He said, ‘Oh, you're really good at art. You should look into graphic design,’” De Guzman recalls. “I was like, what is that?”
De Guzman’s counselor explained what a design career could look like: agency work, graphics, and design packaging. “He pretty much told me the [corporate] playbook, but at the time I was really interested in streetwear and footwear.”
De Guzman eventually got accepted to Chicago’s Columbia College, where he started taking design more seriously. After a year of school, he was offered a job at the now-defunct Chicago sneaker boutique AKIN. De Guzman would commute from the Bloomingdale suburb to spend, “six out of seven days a week in the city working through the boutique world of being a stock boy, helping customers out.” But his downtime would be spent at the counter, working up designs on his laptop, sharpening his skills at every possible moment.
Fast forward to today and De Guzman is producing home goods, art projects, sculptures, and installations—most famously his giant Cubist-influenced Spongebob Squarepants and Bart Simpson figures—for anxiously awaiting customers. One would think that creating such large-scale pieces requires complex tools, but for De Guzman, that’s not the case. He keeps things simple, starting with the traditional pen and paper before uploading his notes and sketches to his laptop and tablet. “I grew up in an era before Instagram,” he says. “Before fancy [software], I just used really low-brow tools back in the day that I still use to this day, but kind of practicing with the new things.”
Beyond the tools, the most instrumental part of creating a successful Louis De Guzman piece is the group of individuals who help it get from idea to actualization. “I don't know what I would do without my manager, my co-producer, my photographer, and my PR,” De Guzman says. “The squad is deep.”
That squad, who he talks to in-person every day, is a mix of family and close friends who assembled by chance. De Guzman first met his manager Austin Neely back in 2011 when they both worked alongside Don C and Virgil Abloh at RSVP Gallery. They became fast friends and stayed in touch even when De Guzman left for L.A. to work with Don C full time in 2016. Two years later, De Guzman returned to Chicago to focus on his art and he and Neely picked up right where they left off. The friendship evolved into a business partnership when a potential client approached De Guzman at an event with a proposal. When asked who they should send the details to, he instinctually looked over at Neely, who said, “‘You know what? From here on out, just call me your manager.’”
Then, there’s De Guzman’s co-producer and cousin Bradley Butchko. Alongside Neely, Bushco was integral to the success of De Guzman’s first big show in Chicago, volunteering to find larger potential venues and making supply runs to the hardware store. Amy Tran is a childhood friend who serves as De Guzman’s media director and photographer after a test run shooting his appearance at ComplexCon in 2018. Sami Berke, who handles PR, was a good friend with spunk and a hunger to learn and grow.
“That's my family,” De Guzman says, describing his team as talented, driven, and relentless. “We share the same end goals and we're excited everyday to wake up and put our best foot forward. There are artists who just want to be by themselves, and it's not bad. People work in different ways, and I was like that before, but now it's like I can't function without a team.”
For De Guzman, going through brainstorms, several rounds of feedback, and guided revisions with people he trusts is imperative. “I vibe off their energy and their emotions, because that just brings me up to speed with myself,” he says. “It makes me realize I have the opportunity to create a body of work that's meant to be shared.”
The art world typically glorifies the artist and the artist alone, but De Guzman sees his team as just as worthy of praise. As a leader, De Guzman constantly keeps morale up by reinforcing the idea that although he is “the artist,” they’re all equally integral to the finished product. “Collaboration is an ancient practice. I always tell [my team], ‘You don't work for me. We work with each other,’” he says. “You aren't the only sole one responsible for your work. Now you share responsibility with two, three, four, five other people who you feel very responsible for, in a sense, because they're sacrificing their time and their life with you.”
But even with his personal dream team there to help, De Guzman says there are still challenges to making art. Ideas get shot down. Budgets don't come through. Things they want to put out into the world don't come out in the ways they expect them to. There’s the constant question in the back of their minds: when are we going to see the light at the end of the tunnel? But for De Guzman, the fun of creating is in facing all of those obstacles with his team.
“Honestly, you don't want to jump from point A to point Z right away,” De Guzman says. “The journey is a hardship, but that's honestly the best part. There's a lot of frustration, a lot of sleepless nights, but you grow from it. You become wiser. You become stronger, and it's our daily workout.”
When De Guzman is asked to mention all the projects he’s worked on over the years, he stumbles a bit, staggered by the list of his own accomplishments. It feels endless, but in truth, this is only the beginning. After a little prodding about what this sort of success means to him, he quickly waves it off. These victories are not his own.
“My success all stems from my family and my team,” De Guzman says with gratitude. “Whatever reward, whatever accolades, yeah, my name might be on it, but honestly it's not. Look beyond that. I see us as the 1997 Bulls. I see us as we're winning the championship together, we just happen to have different roles. We all win together.”