Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Once in Oaxaca: meet Australian artist and gallerist Jaime Levin

Jaime Levin is a 29-year-old expat artist and architect making a name for himself in Oaxaca city with his gallery and café, Once in Oaxaca. In this profile, Levin talks about why he swapped the Australian coast and an architecture career in Denmark for living the Mexican dream in Oaxaca.

From murals adorning stone walls of several city hotspots, to hand-drawn city maps in bustling cafes and restaurants, Levin’s work is never far from the view of keen-eyed tourists and residents of the city.

Levin in his studio
Jaime Levin at work in his studio at the café/gallery he owns in Oaxaca city. (@Bucketlistbri/Instagram)

In March, he celebrated one year since opening his own gallery, and he has exciting plans for expansion across Mexico.

On the table at his café where we meet to chat, there are two elegant carrot cupcakes from chef Miri Cole and an espresso from local coffee roasting company Nómada. Next to the coffee machine, I can see Levin’s famous city maps, his illustrated children’s book and custom-designed mezcal bottles.

We’re in Barrio de Jalatlaco — the second oldest, and arguably, the most trendy neighborhood in the city. 

“When I first arrived in Oaxaca in 2019, I was delivering sandwiches for a coffee shop and had a rough plan to stay and learn Spanish. Then I discovered the architecture here, and it blew me away. The buildings, streets, ceramics, everything … I spent my free time drawing the city in my sketchbook,” Levin explains.

postcard by artist Jamie Levin
Levin got his start in Oaxaca by drawing the buildings he saw in the city as he worked delivering sandwiches. (onceinoaxaca.mx)

“I was meeting lots of different local people on my delivery runs and started speaking to them in broken Spanish about my drawings. I found the people of Oaxaca were really taken by my drawings of buildings they grew up with. I didn’t know exactly what that meant, but I felt there was a connection there.”

Running his own gallery and creating his artistic brand, which has garnered thousands of followers on Instagram, wasn’t a formal plan. It started when Levin decided to turn his sketches into postcards. 

He stands up from our table to dash inside to bring me his first collection of pocket-sized drawings.

“I showed cafés these drawings of their buildings, and they were very happy to put them for sale next to the bread and pastries.” 

Six months later, the onset of the pandemic caused Levin’s life — like most of ours — to take unexpected turns. With cafés and restaurants closing, the demand for his drawings fell and he needed to adapt quickly.

“For several long evenings, I talked for hours with friends who owned cafés which were forced to close about what we could do to keep their businesses alive,” he said. “The conversations all seemed to point to one avenue — growing a social media presence.”

hand drawn map by artist Jamie Levin of Oaxaca city, Mexico
Levin’s hand-drawn maps can be found in cafés and restaurants around Oaxaca city.

This marked a turning point in Levin’s career in Mexico. Under the name “Once in Oaxaca,” he began uploading his illustrations on Instagram, growing a loyal following of local people, businesses and tourists. At the same time, he started an Etsy shop and began selling his art and accepting commissions for larger works.

“It was a crazy time, but it helped me realize [that] opening my own physical gallery had to be the project’s next step.” 

During the summer of 2021, he found the ideal location for his first gallery.

“This space was a blank canvas. It was the first time I could design a commercial space in Oaxaca, and my architectural mind was going wild! I designed every detail in there, from the chairs [and] tables to individual shelves and wall hangings,” he said. “I loved meeting people who could help me realize the vision, and this really showed me the huge potential in collaborating with other creatives here.”

Almost an hour into our conversation, as he begins to tell me about his favorite collaboration — a children’s book illustrated and launched with speech therapist, Viri Pacheco to help young children overcome speech impediments — we’re interrupted by two friendly faces who congratulate Levin on his one-year anniversary. 

A steady flow of locals and tourists have been arriving since the café opened an hour ago at 8 a.m. The place won’t close its doors for another 12 hours — a routine Levin keeps seven days per week, all year round. 

“It’s hard work, but I love the process of growing, and my team is fantastic. I need to give my time to give it the best chance of success,” he said.

Oaxaca city, Mexico artist Jamie Levin
“I don’t think the project would have been possible in Australia or in Denmark,” Levin says of his growing artistic career. “I feel so much more free to work creatively here.”

Following the rapid growth of Once in Oaxaca, Levin opened his second creative space — Micha — six months later in October 2022 with his girlfriend Ingrid Flores, a designer who is working on clothing and furniture design. He says that he hopes to expand nationally, into Mexico City and Mérida.

I ask what drives his obsessive work ethic and what motivates him.

“I’m not from here, but when Oaxacan people come by who know the buildings I’ve drawn and tell me they love the way I’ve captured it, in a way a photo can’t … to me, that’s the coolest thing ever,” he said.

“I don’t think the project would have been possible in Australia or in Denmark,” he added. “I feel so much more free to work creatively here, and the support and guidance has been fantastic.

“I feel like anything is possible!”

  • Once in Oaxaca is located at Curtidurias 121C, Barrio de Jalatlaco, 68080 Oaxaca de Juarez. 

Gordon Cole-Schmidt is a public relations specialist and freelance journalist, advising and writing on companies and issues across multi-national communication programs.

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