How restaurants became canvases for Detroit artist “Southwest” Freddy Diaz
When artist Freddy Diaz was a teenager, he used to knock on the doors of businesses in southwest Detroit, offering his services as a painter and muralist.
A decade later, neighborhood restaurants are reaching out to him, looking for an original piece of “Southwest” Freddy’s art to lend their business a deeper sense of place.
“I used to do it for $50 and food,” laughs Diaz, sipping a cup of coffee at El Nacimiento on Vernor Highway. “It was just to get my name out.”
There’s nothing new about a Detroit artist helping give a sense of place or focus for a restaurant. Michelle Tanguay’s ginormous painting of a ship overlooking the bar at Wright & Company in downtown Detroit comes to mind. Or Desirèe Kelly’s Pop art portraits of Black cultural icons at Kuzzo’s Chicken & Waffles on the Avenue of Fashion. Or Glenn Barr’s artwork that helps camouflage the entrance to the Frame dining room inside FRAMEbar.
But few if any local artists can claim the real estate of Diaz, having grown from an entrepreneurial teen knocking on doors to a sought-after A-list Detroit artist whose work graces everything from overpasses to restaurant patios in southwest Detroit. The 29-year-old says he’s painted around 40 works in local businesses throughout the neighborhood.
“Since I’ve been a kid, southwest has been a hard place to grow up in,” he says. “People come to certain parts or come for certain things, but they don’t stay much. I’ve always wanted to change that narrative and make it a place that people want to engage in, explore, and embrace.”
El Nacimiento’s west-facing exterior wall boasts a marquee mural by Diaz, a two-story piece that greets customers coming for tacos or a steaming bowl of lamb birria.
The mural tells the story of how El Nacimiento came to be from a small taco stand in Guadalajara, Mexico, to a brick-and-mortar staple in the southwest Detroit dining scene.
The man in the mural is El Nacimiento owner Rodrigo Padilla, cooking alongside his son Alvaro, who helps run the restaurant today. Diaz used a photo for a reference, capturing the family preparing food in that taco stand in Guadalajara in the mid-1980’s. The Ambassador Bridge and the Detroit skyline frame the taco stand, partially obscured by soaring agave plants that reach for the stars.
After a stint in California, Padilla moved the family to Detroit and opened El Nacimiento more than 20 years ago, bringing along the recipes he perfected along the way.
“It’s pretty cool because customers really see where we come from,” says Joel Padilla, one of Rodrigo’s sons involved in the family business today.
“If you look at the plants in the mural, that’s a signature plant from where we’re from,” Padilla says. “My dad grew up harvesting those plants when he was in his teens. It really tells the whole story of where he started and where he is in Detroit today.”
When Rodrigo Padilla first contacted Diaz about painting the mural, he wanted something that screamed Detroit. Diaz, however, turned him towards something more personal that connected the family back to their roots.
“For me as an artist, I’ll paint something and then I’m gone to the next mural, but the owner stays here and they see it every day,” explains Diaz. “It has to resonate with them on a daily basis. Every morning, [Rodrigo] parks outside and he gets to see where he started and where he is. It reignites that flame.”
Diaz’s latest body of work overlooks the intimate, well-designed bar at La Palapa del Parian on Lawndale Street, a brick-and-mortar extension of the popular El Parian food trucks that dot southwest.
In one corner of the space, Diaz created a ravishing portrait of Frida Kahlo, an instantly recognizable brand name of the art world.
Stretched out behind the bar, Diaz painted a still from the music video “Escucha Las Golondrinas” by Vicente Fernández, one of the most famous Mexican singers to ever walk the earth.
Both are a far cry from the usual artwork you’ll see at most Mexican restaurants — hand-painted depictions of “a little Mexican house with a little yard or a picture of a little town,” says La Palapa del Parian owner Nancy Diaz, who is of no relation.
A lot of standard-issue Mexican restaurant artwork stems from the artist Jesús Helguera, who has been called the Norman Rockwell of Mexico by art scholars. His mythic scenes depicting Mexico’s indigenous roots caught on with post-World War II Mexican immigrants who found pride in their roots by displaying similar works in their homes and restaurants.
“If you go to a lot of these Mexican restaurants, you see so many similarities,” says Nancy Diaz. “You don’t see much modernized art or more specific art.”
The 37-year-old sought something a bit more contemporary for her businesses, which include a trio of El Parian food trucks as well as Los Arcos in Allen Park and Los Altos in Detroit, which features more work by Southwest Freddy.
“Vicente Fernández was recognized worldwide. How could I not do something about him? You hear one of his songs and right away you want to drink,” laughs Nancy Diaz.
For Southwest Freddy, he’s now got the challenge of giving something unique and personal to each restaurant owner that reaches out.
“It’s a constant battle for me,” says Diaz with a smile, “but I love that challenge.”
— By Ryan Patrick Hooper