by Ella Cerón
Illustrations by Llew Mejia
Llew Mejia did not plan on being an artist. He was pre-med.
“I didn't even know people could do this for a living, first off,” the New York-based artist explains when I ask him exactly how one goes from thinking they were going to be a doctor to creating folk-inspired prints. “I think it was one of those things when I was in school and I was going to chem class, going to biology class, figuring out what I really…” he trails off as if to articulate that period of uncertainty that hits right when you start college. The years of your life that, if illustrated by any punctuation, would just be one big ?. “I was drawing the entire time, but I didn't know you could do this. And then somebody told me you can make a career doing patterns.” Insert lightbulb moment.
Llew wears the Beach Crew Neck Sweatshirt in Gold Rush (available in May), and the Tech Chinos in Navy
Fast forward to now and Llew counts everyone from L’Occitane skincare to Chipotle Mexican Grill as clients, which means you’ve more than likely seen his work on the side of your lunch bag before burrito juice soaks through. “I like applying my artwork to a product a lot of the time,” he says. His challenge is simple enough: think of it as reclaiming “something that is inherently ugly or maybe just not as pretty prior, and giving it a little bit more life. Something that's maybe more feral then gets an artistic take on it.”
That artistic take more often than not comes in the form of flora and fauna, most often inspired by folk art from around the world. The colors in his 2D prints are often bright and vibrant, featuring leaves, birds, and other motifs that would be instantly wearable should you transfer his work from an Instagram to a shirt. (In contrast, Llew often wears all black or blue. “I like to maintain that, a fairly clean aesthetic,” he explains. “When I think of style, I feel like it is an all-encompassing thing. It’s how you carry yourself and it's how people read you, even from afar. It’s really how people see you in the world.”)
His family moved a lot when he was growing up — he lists Mexico, the American Southwest, the Midwest, California, Spain, and Australia as places he’s called home — and cites travel as a driving factor in his work. “Say I saw an antique plate or something — let's just say it’s Pennsylvania Dutch,” he says. “Maybe I can take an element from that and riff of it and create a whole pattern based off of that.”
Much of his work features motifs drawn from his Latinx heritage: the jaguars of the ancient Aztecs, the Mayan temples in Tulum, and the cacti and mesas of the American states that once belonged to Mexico. Llew admits that “it’s a lot easier for me to pull from those inspirations that pretty much come naturally, I feel like. They have been part of my visual vocabulary for a long time, so it doesn't ever feel really contrived. Anything Mexican-esque or folk art-esque that maybe ties back to Mexican culture is always a lot more favorable to me.”
Llew process is as varied as his projects — ”You know the channel ID?” he asks before explaining that he’ll turn the TV on as background noise while he works. “I’m a big true crime fan, so I listen to that and a lot of podcasts.” Music, he explains, “makes you wanna dance and be active, so that’s not necessarily as good for working.” He lists digital work, gouache, and colored pencils as his instruments of choice, but notes that his work is often about “finding the right medium per project.”
“It’s really easy to compare yourself with other people so I try not to look at too many contemporaneous people for inspiration,” he notes when I ask if he ever finds inspiration on social media. “That’s kind of why I concentrate a lot on folk art from various places around the world as opposed to focusing on a specific person because they have the most true voice.”
That’s not to say Llew is entirely opposed to the world of Insta-likes, but he does say that he’s “conflicted” about the way social media can impact an artist’s work. “It's definitely helped me career-wise, but I think sometimes there's a nerve-wracking sense of, oh my god, people are gonna look at this and I'm posting this and I have this many followers and that means that…” he says. “If you post something and you don't get the right amount of likes, you might have a kind of creative stagnation in a way because it influences the way that you see the work that you're creating. But I'm starting to get over that completely.”
“All in all, it's not that important,” he says of Instagram, the great pixelated arbiter of taste. “It's just a platform so use it as such. And if people don't like what you like, well, too bad.”
Ella Cerón is Teen Vogue's Deputy Editor. She lives in New York, but please don't hold that against her.