Illustration • Inspiration New Beginnings

Inside Cuban designer Magdiel Lopez’s journey to America.

 

Magdiel Lopez (right) as a child in Havana, Cuba.

Magdiel Lopez (right) as a child in Havana, Cuba.

Magdiel Lopez remembers the day his father gave him Photoshop.

Growing up in Cuba, there were no colorful posters on his bedroom wall, and no internet. At his home in Marianao, one of Havana’s fifteen boroughs, a 13-inch television played only drab Soviet cartoons. “Any time I saw something visually stimulating, I would eat it up,” Lopez recalls. “Every time I would see a Disney comic or anything that had a little more color, I would eat it up. I was always drawing when I was a kid.” 

A friend of a friend promised to give him Photoshop lessons every day. “But he only gave me one. He taught me how to copy and paste, and create different layers. And I kept going. I kept learning,” Lopez says. In those days, people smuggled CDs into Cuba from America containing JPGs downloaded from Google. Meanwhile, Lopez honed his skills by re-creating book covers from his father’s collection. 

“I was just having fun with it,” he says.

Magdiel Lopez remembers the day his father gave him Photoshop.

Growing up in Cuba, there were no colorful posters on his bedroom wall, and no internet. At his home in Marianao, one of Havana’s fifteen boroughs, a 13-inch television played only drab Soviet cartoons. “Any time I saw something visually stimulating, I would eat it up,” Lopez recalls. “Every time I would see a Disney comic or anything that had a little more color, I would eat it up. I was always drawing when I was a kid.” 

A friend of a friend promised to give him Photoshop lessons every day. “But he only gave me one. He taught me how to copy and paste, and create different layers. And I kept going. I kept learning,” Lopez says. In those days, people smuggled CDs into Cuba from America containing JPGs downloaded from Google. Meanwhile, Lopez honed his skills by re-creating book covers from his father’s collection. 

“I was just having fun with it,” he says.

Two posters from Magdiel Lopez's "A Poster Every Day" collection.

The Land of the Free

When Lopez was a teenager, his parents decided to leave Cuba for Estados Unidos, the land of freedom and unconstrained access to the internet. “So I left the country with my dad and my mom,” he says. “And we went through Mexico, knowing that the U.S. would take us in if we made it to the border.” In accordance with a 1966 immigration act, any Cuban immigrant who made it to U.S. shores could remain in the States and eventually become a citizen. But for Lopez, his three-day journey to a new life quickly turned into a nightmare. 

“In Mexico they caught us,” Lopez recalls.

He was thrown in a Mexican jail, at 15 years old. “My mom, my dad, they took them away. They had me in a different [cell] and we only saw each other on a Thursday.” Days turned into weeks, and then months. “I only had one set of pants and a shirt, and they took away your belt and your shoelaces. And then after three months they finished their investigation, whatever that means. And they just told us, ‘You have 30 days to leave the country.’”

Image by Ada Zielińska
Ada Zielińska uses a screenprinter

The designer's "A Poster Every Day" collection earned national attention.

Ada Zielińska uses a screenprinter

A Journey of Discovery

The drama was far from over as they headed to the border at Brownsville, Texas. “Policemen from Mexico were chasing us, literally, and we were ripping these papers up, because we were afraid that [American border guards] would know that we were in prison in Mexico, and get the wrong idea.” Finally, Lopez and his family crossed a yellow line into American territory. “We were so happy that the policemen chasing us couldn’t cross that line. So that was the best part. Because everything that we had gone through was pretty rough,” he says.

 

Like many Cubans, they settled in Miami. But they now owed money to various characters who had helped them on their passage. After school, Lopez helped his parents scrub and vacuum offices. “We would do anything that we could to earn money, so we managed to pay our debt pretty quickly,” he says. “It was a whole family effort.”

 

Photoshop helped him pay his way. Lopez worked part time at a music studio, where the owner needed design help. “I told him, ‘Hey, let me do some album covers for you, and if you like them, you can hire me.’” Soon Lopez was earning $7.50 an hour doing what he loved—working in Photoshop. He created colorful band posters, album sleeves, and MySpace layouts (it was the early 2000s). He spent his first paychecks on telephoning Cuba, at $1.35 per minute. “I missed my friends,” he says.

Image by Ada Zielińska
Image by Ada Zielińska

Lopez is inspired by surrealist Salvador Dalí.

Image by Ada Zielińska

Breaking America

Aged 17, Lopez embarked on another journey, this time alone. He moved to Texas without his parents to further his education. While still in high school he supplemented his part-time graphic design work with wedding photography and valet parking. “I was here by myself,” he recalls. “I had to pay for my own school because I couldn’t put [my parents] in that position.” When he volunteered to create signs at his school, he impressed educators, who hired him. And at home he developed his own personal style, drawing inspiration from surrealists like Salvador Dali.

“I didn’t ever post anything online,” he explains. Design was just a way to pay the bills, like parking cars or cleaning offices.

Then one day Lopez noticed an online challenge. A community of designers had committed to creating a poster every day for a whole year. “I jumped on it,” he says. Lopez released new artwork on his Instagram account every day for 365 days. He created surreal pieces with rainbow gradients and bold type. “And that was the big break,” he says. “Back then I only had 600 Instagram followers. Within a month or two that went up to 20,000. Now social media is a huge part of my business.”

Lopez designed the branding and identity for the C3 Conference in Texas.

The Journey Continues

With each new day, his posters brought attention from a global audience. Lopez was featured in the New York Times, Cosmopolitan, Entrepreneur, and Awwwards. The exposure led to design work for some of the biggest brands in the world, including Apple, Nike, Absolut Vodka, MTV, and Warner Brothers. Today, Lopez is currently enjoying a partnership with Adobe as a design mentor to younger creatives—and he has nearly 100,000 followers. “I believe in teaching people what I know, no secrets,” he says. “So, I recently created a Youtube channel with the hope of being able to share knowledge with more people and influence younger designers.”

Perhaps it was his boundless work ethic that allowed Lopez to create 365 posters in a single year, without missing a day. He believes the work was therapeutic. “Sometimes I’m feeling down and I make something that resembles that,” he says. “If I’m upset about something, I try to somehow put that on paper. I remember I had a huge argument with a friend who I consider very close to me. I was hurt about it. And I made a three-poster series with that.” 

One of his favorite posters in the series is number 114/365, he says. “It’s called 'amaneceres,' which means something like ‘mornings’ or ‘new beginnings.’” At his new home in Dallas, Lopez runs his own design agency, Belmont Creative. And now he is the father, bringing home new things to entertain his young child. They watch Disney cartoons together, laugh, and draw. His son’s upbringing is much more colorful than his own, Lopez says. “You get to relive your childhood basically, when you have a kid,” he explains. “You look at things through his eyes.”

Left: "Amanceres" by Magdiel Lopez. Right: Portrait of the artist today.

To see more, visit: Magdiellop.com

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