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All street art

Artist Interview: Marco Santini

July 21, 2020
34 min read
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Mr. Santini, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from, your favorite color…?

My name is Marco Santini. I grew up in Cresskill, New Jersey. My father is an architect and my mom was a choreographer/dance instructor. I grew up in a very creative household that my father designed which can very much be described as a living museum. My friends called it “the Barbie house” because it had bright pinks, greens, and yellows on the outside of the house. On the inside, it was all white walls with really interesting modern paintings. I just grew up in this beautifully creative, fun home that really inspired me to question and to think differently. One thing that my parents did really well is that they never asked me what I was doing, but they rather asked me why I was doing it. I feel like that slight distinction allowed me to think about the purpose, the reasoning, and the idea behind my activities. It forced me to go deeper and think more clearly with my art. It really made it a lot more powerful to create something special. 

Obviously your parents supported you pressing art. Did you always want to be an artist?

I’ve always considered myself a creative experimenter because I’ve loved mixing colors, throwing paint, and trying new things. I always wanted to see what would happen if I tried something new. But, there were a few moments in my life when I really turned to art. For example, during my senior year at Bergen Catholic High School, I was the starting wide receiver. The year prior, we had won a state championship and then I tore my hamstring. I wasn’t going to play for the rest of the season. I was really devastated and my high school had this overfunded and underutilized art program. I would go there after school and I would just get lost in mixing paints and trying new things. It was really helpful for me to deal with the frustration of not being able to play my favorite sport. It really sent me into these deep trances with new thought patterns. I really loved it. 

Another instance that sticks out is when I studied at Brown University. Unfortunately, I didn’t take any classes at RISD, but I befriended a few artists there. I loved the open creative atmosphere of learning from these artists without being too tough on my creative abilities. I don’t know if I would have done well with intense creative criticism at that age. I was pretty immature and still trying to learn about different ideas. But, getting to see how they were making t-shirts, art, sculptures, and designs in these incredible studios really impressed me. It was really eye opening.

So when did art start to be your profession?

It wasn’t really until just a few years ago that I thought about art as a profession. In my early 20’s anytime I had to bring a gift to a wedding, a house warming party, or a birthday, I challenged myself to create something for my friends. I did a lot of paintings for weddings where I would take photographs of the couple and I’d paint everything except the two people. Love is this blend of reality and fantasy, right? And so by painting everything in these different colors and leaving the people unpainted, it kind of brought them into this new sense of what love can be. Eventually, these paintings got picked up by loverly.com.

I got a little bit of traction there, but I was always giving these gifts away. Eventually people started asking me to create them as gifts for their friends and it started to create a demand. I started doing these for fun, but when people started asking me for art, it allowed me to make some money and to start thinking about the business side of it. That was when I was kind of going through the marketing and branding worlds of New York City and decided that I was giving away a lot of ideas for a lot cheaper than what they were paying me. 

So let’s back up for a second. You went to Brown then graduated. What was going on in the space in between that and when you started professionally?

Good question! So I graduated with a B.A. in Linguistic Anthropology, which I believe is a scientific understanding of communication and language. So that was where the understanding of the one hundred languages, and the One Love logo began. Ideally, one can communicate not only with language, but with style, with color, with emotions, with body language, and many other different ideas. Then for a while, I was in this pathway of going into the sports world. So I became an NBC page at 30 rock. I worked at the Olympics in Torino in 2006 in Italy, and then 2008 in Beijing with NBC. I worked as an assistant to a CEO of a talent agency, and then I was working in marketing and branding. I wanted to be able to be more creative. I found branding which I thought was cool because it was somewhat creative. But, I was working in Business Development and Strategy, just selling random stuff to random people. I was working at this firm, we were doing work for Snapple, Pepsi, and Duane Reade. I just felt like why sell these things when I can sell other things that are really meaningful to me. And so I started tutoring and mentoring students on the side and making, you know, a little bit of money to basically quit my job and try to moonlight as an artist. And that allowed me the baseline of being able to get enough money doing tutoring that I could cover my rent and my bills.

Then there was a period of my time in my life, I guess, 2016-2017, where I was ripping a lot of street posters down. I felt that there was this negativity on the streets. I call it combing the streets. I would walk around the streets and look at the cool places to create other inspiring artwork. And I saw a lot of the negative street posters on the scaffolding in the post no bills areas. They were shoving ads in your face. And I thought that was complete BS. So I would go through and find these ads. They would say stuff like “you need to buy this to be beautiful”. No, you’re beautiful as you are, you don’t need this to be beautiful. So, I go in and I rip these posters down and showcase the beauty of the person on the ad, or rip it up and kind of show all the different layers. One of my big ideas for my magazine work and my collage art has been that we are not just our superficial selves. We are all the layers within. And so it started on the streets by destroying these ads and then later transitioning into my book and magazine designs.

So, I guess the next logical question is how you got into street art. I’m assuming that you were walking around, saw these images and said “I can do a better or a more positive version”?

Yeah, I was looking around, I was appreciating the street art that was around and I was disturbed by the negativity of the commercialism that was being thrust down our throats in the advertisements. So basically, you know, wanting to be a Robinhood of sorts I tried to clear the streets of these negative, offensive ads telling you that you are incomplete without these things. And so I would start by cutting, ripping, painting over these ads and then photographing them and then customizing prints in my art studio. And it was good. It was focused on beauty and positivity through this deconstruction.

But then I met my now fiancé and really just focused on a more positive light and realizing that my life’s purpose was really to spread love and positivity. I felt kind of unstoppable with my supportive friends, family, and fiancé. I felt like everyone should have that, and that was kind of the impetus behind the One Love logo. It was bringing all these cultures, and languages together at a really difficult time when our country was being thrust apart politically. I felt like rather than forcing people apart, we should be bringing people together to be stronger. 

And so I started putting up these stickers and some wheat paste posters around the city and immediately, I had a much stronger reaction to my artwork because I felt like I was connecting to people’s soul, rather than simply visual beauty. Within a few months, I was being asked to create my One Love design at weddings, at schools and at charity events. It was just so interesting to see the organic growth, from a street design that basically was able to create a life of its own in a more positive and more public way.

So for people that don’t know I heard about you and started chatting with you through photos I took of your work in Williamsburg.  They were the One Love heart with “I love Williamsburg” pasted illegally around the hood.

Yeah. I did a street campaign where I did all the different neighborhoods, so I did I heart Williamsburg, East Village, SOHO etc.

That campaign to me is when you started to become a street artist in NYC. Your work was popping up everywhere. Was this a conscious decision to start working like more traditional street artists such as Shepard Fairey?

Yeah, so Shepard Fairey has always been an icon and a role model to me. You know, he went to RISD and I really looked up to him and I felt like his messaging and how he turned branding and propaganda on their heads to really convey questioning, and to bring people in. I thought it was really powerful. I’ve always looked up to Consumer and Sac Six. Both those guys were helpful in terms of learning how to wheat paste. I also watched Exit Through the Gift Shop, which pushed my curiosity about street art even further.

So I saw that and I realized how powerful stickers could be. Stickers are easy. I put them in really specific spots and I thought, wheat pastes are just big stickers. You get a little bit more traction. This helped me overcome my first big hurdle going from just friends and family liking your work to awareness from strangers. And I felt like that was in part due to the stickers, the wheat pastes, and a pivotal moment where I decided business cards were BS. Coming from the marketing and branding world, everyone had business cards but what the hell do you do with a business card these days?

So my business card became my sticker. I didn’t go anywhere without a sticker. I have an Instagram handle on the front. I had my website on the back, and my 30 cent investment of that sticker was worth it because people were going to put it somewhere. They’re going to enjoy it. Who knows what’s going to happen with it? And it’s led to so many followers and so many interactions. I am painting a mural this weekend because someone who I gave a sticker to was reminded of it years later and reached out to me with a great gig! So I just feel like messaging, in addition to me hustling and getting out there, but also giving out the stickers was a positive branding approach. 

I 100% agree, you know, I give out Sharpies as my business card and that’s how I get a lot of new clients, or just meet people in general. Even if they don’t remember me, they remember the pen.  I guess, that’s your PSA for up and coming artists to know that talent is one thing, but marketing is another thing you need to be able to survive.

You know, I was actually at one of the last events before everything shut down because of coronavirus and I was with my fiancé, talking to a guy who came across as a big fan. He’s like, “I’ve seen your work. I love it!” It was really sweet to hear him saying some nice words. And then he asked me for advice and I told him that business cards are dead. And that for artists, you really need a sticker; then he handed me his business card. Alright, so that’s something for you to work on and it was just like this dagger of irony that hit my arm. But since then, he’s gone on to create a lot of stuff and has really made some big strides. So I feel as awkward and devastating as it sounded in the moment, it was ultimately helpful and powerful.

So would you say any sort of marketing where you think a little outside of the box will help people remember who you are?

Yeah. You’re going to put a sticker up on your computer, on your fridge, on your door rather than your business card, right? It’s going to live somewhere. It has a beauty aesthetic as well as an informational aesthetic. And if nothing happens, that’s great too. People can still enjoy it. 

I say this all the time being a successful artist has nothing to do with how good of an artist you are.

That is a tough truth to learn. And I really feel that way. I look at the most successful artists. I look at the least successful.  It is so open to interpretation and it allows for people in different skill sets with different levels of genius to basically come forth.  

So you made your way through college, obviously you had a nice supportive background in the arts. You ended up in New York City … was there a pivotal point where all of this sort of just kind of aligned together and you thought this is what I’m going to do professionally?

Yes… similarly I was recently asked when I felt like I first became “a man”. It was in a group setting and a lot of people were talking about different stories. One guy talked about losing his virginity. One guy talked about when his father passed away, and everyone had these different stories. And the first thing that came to my mind was living in my probably 250 square foot studio apartment, being able to pay all my bills and still being able to afford art supplies. And I remember that moment very clearly, being able to just use any extra cash I had to create and to just be free. And that was so empowering. I thought to myself “if I can be able to do this, life is good”.

So you finally, “became a man”, figured out that this is what you want to do, and that wasn’t so long ago, right?

No, I mean there was a point when I found my life’s purpose of spreading love and positivity. In February, 2018 that’s when I created the One Love logo for Valentine’s day. 

But I knew I wanted to become a professional artist in late 2017. I used to live on the 33rd floor of my old building and I painted all the windows in these fun geometric designs like I’ve done at Bloomingdales and other locations. And I always had this fantasy of living in a painting so I had a photographer friend come over one day and a few hours before he came over, I saw my neighbor, 33 floors up across the street. I took this giant Amazon cardboard box, I wrote my phone number on it and I yelled out the window for this guy to call me and he thought I was crazy, but he called me anyway. And long story short, I asked him “is there any way that I could photograph my apartment from your apartment, like outside looking in?” And he was like “yeah for sure, my husband and I call you the artist!…We see you creating all the time, and not to be sketchy or anything, but your apartment looks better at night”. 

So this total stranger invites my photographer friend over a few nights later and he captures me across the street. Basically it’s a photo of me painting the window of my apartment with ironically people in all the apartments below me and above me, completely unplanned with their windows open, visible in their living room. Then I basically painted everything except my windows, which were painted in real life. And that was when I realized if I could turn this crazy idea into reality, I can make anything happen.

What do you think about the fact that at least for the foreseeable future there is no more of the “I’m going to move to New York, live in a cute studio apartment and wait tables, and become an artist. Is this dream dead?

I think that adaptability is key as an artist. I think being able to find your offering, your vision, your brand, and be able to translate it into any medium can be really powerful. For a while, I didn’t want to create masks because I didn’t know how long Covid-19 would be around. But then I realized, all right, let me try it. And then the first month and a half I sold over 150 and that was powerful. I remember even going out to paint the Bloomingdales mural on their boarded up windows. It was on Earth day, April 22nd. I hadn’t been in a car for months. I took an Uber over there and this was before anyone was painting any of the boards or anything in Soho.

And I remember being like, “is this all right?” And I went out there and said I want this to be amazing. I’m creating greatness. That’s my mentality. Like I want to personally love everything that I create. It doesn’t matter if you love it or hate it. But if I’m putting my signature on it, I want it to live up to my standards and I’m even going up there a little bit afraid and unsure of how it would go. A total stranger ended up coming over when I was painting the top of one of the boards and said, “would you like me to hold your ladder?” And I was, I was just amazed… someone during the height of coronavirus, streets empty like a ghost town and yet this guy just came up and held my ladder and we had a conversation. It was so amazing and helpful and sweet. And you know, it’s that core essence of love and beauty that the city has which can never be shaken or lost 

Which is funny because when we first started talking about doing a project together I asked you “do you have anything on the street I can shoot?” I went down to shoot the Bloomingdales mural with not a single soul around for blocks. I took a bunch of photos but there was this annoying miniature cop car parked front and center out front of the mural!

Yes!  But I didn’t tell you this part before!  So I was approached by two cops that day when I painted Bloomingdale’s. One in the middle of the day, and one was at the end of the day. The middle of the day cops were coming over just to see everything. And I actually asked them if they could move the small cop car and they told me that cop car stays there all the time; it’s meant for security, especially in front of Bloomingdale’s. I asked him “is there any way they can move it just to get the photo op?” And they informed me “no, that, that car lives there”. And then later on, as I was finishing up the mural and these people from above called the cops and said that I was vandalizing Bloomingdales and I’m like, no, I was actually hired for this. At the end of the day, cops came to visit and I asked them about the car again. They’re like, “no it can’t be moved”. 

I remember messaging you and saying “Check out these photos I got of your new mural… but they kinda suck because there’s this tiny cop car parked out front…”. The only car around for at least 4 blocks… dead center in front of the mural. Even with my super wide angle I couldn’t get a straight on photo I could be happy with.

But the irony is that if I had my way, I would have moved the cop car, but I didn’t get my way and the cop car was lit on fire during the protests and riots. But then seeing the burned cop car, it’s on the New York Times website and I was told by Bloomingdale’s that the image was the most searched image of New York during that point of coronavirus, which is crazy to see this extreme love and positivity with energizing words and bright colors on the mural juxtaposed with this burned cop car painted over with BLM art; it blew my mind. And just to see how powerful that image was. It makes me feel emotional; it makes me feel excited, it makes me feel sad. 

I just think it was so funny because we were talking and I literally said to you “can we just move this stupid car for two minutes so I can get a photo of your mural!??”  I remember I sent you the photo on an angle trying to get around this mini car and I didn’t want to touch it because covid cases were through the roof in NYC and who knew who had been sleeping on that thing. But then a couple days later I ran down to specifically get photos of the car I was bitching about earlier which was now burned down to the frame.  I also remember telling you to get down there for a photo because it wouldn’t last long… It was gone the next day!

Absolutely crazy. I mean, luckily I got your photos. Luckily the guy from the New York Times sent me his photo and some other friends who heard about the burnt car.

I don’t think I told you but I got to the site at like 7am shortly after the ridiculous curfew was lifted for that day. But the block was closed off and police would not let anyone near the car.  So I killed some time photographing the aftermath of the looting in Soho and when I got back the block was open and tons of people were there taking selfies etc…. So I had to yell at everyone to move to get that one photo.  I had to take it vertical to cut out the crowd.  A fun little glimpse into how my way of framing the image creates perspective. 

Yeah. I just feel like the recent times and media coverage have inspired and changed my perspective as well. I was journaling about this the other day. I feel like life recently has been like a big homework assignment. Here’s the challenge: coronavirus; go create something based on everything you’re thinking and feeling.  There are protests and police brutality, there’s all this craziness that’s happening – how will that inspire you and other artists to respond? And so I really have been taking these seriously and thinking, what can I do that starts with love and positivity, but can also be translated along different mediums with inspirations across the board. Creating the face coverings was great, but partnering with Elmhurst hospital and designing their t-shirts and really trying to give back to the community in that way was incredible. I always create with love and strength.  

Like your “Community” design?  For full transparency I approached you and informed you, I’m doing this project. I’ve been a yoga instructor for a decade and I work with this yoga community Modo Yoga and they’re contributing a lot of positivity to the world during these crazy times. Modo is raising $2,000 to $10,000 a week in karma classes, giving the money away to black lives matter and other pertinent charities. My contribution is a print release to fund a scholarship where the proceeds from the edition (of 100) would be enough to fund a Teaching Training Scholarship for a BIPOC individual. My thought process is that by helping one individual who has systematically been denied the ability to afford to follow their dream they will in turn use this knowledge to help others, building a more diverse and happy society. That’s kinda what yoga is to me at least.

Yeah, I really love that. Like I said, I’ve been donating to Black Lives Matter based on some designs I’ve sold in June. And that was kind of a broader sense, but after our conversation, I think that influencing one person’s life to take them to the next level can just be not only life changing for them, but for the community. And I really do believe that can be just as powerful, if not more.  So I wanted to create something that I felt showed the strength of the movement, but also the peace and the power of love. I wanted to be able to communicate in many different ways. So if you look around the design it’s Morse code and it actually has words of positivity spelled out in morse, because sometimes you just have to feel what’s being communicated even if you’re not able to translate it, you know, if you can’t see it, you feel it as well. And that’s why I put the One Love logo in the center of the fist so that despite the strength and the anger and frustration, if you lead with love, we can all work together.

Well as usual the interview is twice as long as I wanted it to be but it’s hard to stop once we get talking!  So let’s end this here with anything you would like to promote or bring attention to in general.  Maybe some up and coming artists or just a record that has been inspiring you while you have been working lately?

During the pandemic, I took some time to focus on education. I’ve been studying the great artists to learn how they made it big. I’ve also been experimenting with some new techniques. I have an entire new collection of work that I’m waiting to showcase when galleries can be galleries again.  

As for music, I have different playlists and bands that bring me back to different creative times in my life. Recently, I’ve been listening to Imagine Dragons, Kings of Leon and Third Eye Blind. I love the album from the Into the Spider-Verse movie. I also picked up some music from my trip last year to Cozumel. 

I’m also inspired by many artists, new and old. Keith Haring was a huge influence of mine; I was fascinated by his ability to communicate themes without language. Everyone understood what he was trying to say. I wanted to do the same but with many languages. Today, I really appreciate the honest messaging of My Life in Yellow, the professionalism of Jason Nayor, and the unifying aspects of SacSix. 

STRENGTH THROUGH LOVE PRINT (SIGNED SERIES PRINT OF 50) is AVAILABLE NOW!!  Grab yours here and help support a great cause.

$150.00 (Including shipping in the USA)

This signed series print of 100 features the Strength through Love design (14” x 14” with 2-inch border). It uses the morse code as a signal of distress and optimism. Within the outline are words of positivity using the morse code that reflect justice, equality, peace, and love. Words of positivity are written in English within the fist, that holds a One Love logo, showing love in over 80+ languages that prove there is more that unites us than divides us. This is a symbol of solidarity, action, and progress.

50% of profits will fund a scholarship for one BIPOC student selected by Modo Yoga International to attend a Modo Yoga Level One 500 hour Online Teacher Training. Not only with this change someone’s life, but it will affect the community in a broad and positive way.The full-color silkscreen print design is featured on 320-gram coventry rag.

This design was recently painted as a mural in Brooklyn, NYC  (Troutman Street & Wyckoff Ave) thanks to Joe at The Bushwick Collective for all his support.

All Photo’s & Text Copyright 2020 Matthew A. Eller.  Follow me on Instagram @ellerlawfirm

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