Transcript: E21 Marco Santini — Slicing Up Priceless Art Books & Channeling Love Languages

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The Birth of “The Signature Series”

[0:00] Brady Walker: Hey, how’s it going, Marco? Thanks for joining me here at your house. We have some of your amazing work behind us here. The Georgia O’Keeffe is amazing.

[0:15] Marco Santini: Yeah, I made this piece. She was obviously very famous for the flowers that everyone thought were sexual in nature, but she said weren’t. So, I wanted that to be a focal point. One of the last pieces I saw was actually one of her aerial paintings she called Clouds, and I thought, what if they were potentially reinterpreted in a sexual nature? So, I had the male coming into the female to give birth to The Signature Series.

This was the first piece I framed. I had it in my New York City art studio, always by itself. I’d always show people the other wall and only three or four out of dozens saw it. One was a collector who ended up buying from the collection. This piece is just very special in terms of literally giving birth to this new idea.

[1:09] BW: So this was the first one of “The Signature Series.”

[1:12] MS: This was the first one I framed. The Lichtenstein over here was the first piece I created. I was quite nervous the first time, worrying about the expensive book I had got. But then I eased into it, looked at the other pieces I had created over time, and had this vision. I studied the book cover to cover because the cutting process is probably the least time-consuming of the entire process. I want to know exactly what’s on the left and right pages before I make the first cut. With each cut, I gain more confidence. There are happy accidents and sometimes things overlap a little too much, but it’s a beautiful process. There’s planning, but also room for spontaneity.

[2:08] BW: So all the research that you do informs the cuts. They’re not just for aesthetics; you’re looking into the context of what you’re choosing to highlight.

[2:23] MS: Correct. It’s very much purpose-driven, not only for the art but for the creative process. Like with the Georgia O’Keeffe piece, it’s chronological from left to right, highlighting different aspects of her career: her time in New York City painting buildings and skyscrapers, her involvement with the gallery scene, and her more nature-based paintings with flowers and the desert. It’s about extracting the soul of the book and showing we’re all more than our superficial covers. Art is about stories, and people want to share that story. When they become a collector, they’re going to tell that story to their friends and family.

BW: So this is what you call Illuminism?

MS: That is correct. I showed this to a senior executive at Christie’s, who said it was a new art category. A major investor said it’s powerful because it’s somewhere between legal and illegal, which has a lot of potential. I’m not doing this with controversy in mind; I’m doing it to appreciate the work visually all the time. The books are rare and expensive, but often just collect dust on bookshelves. I want to bring new life to them, illuminating the artist and their signature through this new creative design. I keep the books light, popping out in 3D, and encased in plexiglass boxes with UV protection. From the front, you see the visual; from the side, you see hidden aspects. I want to honor each artist.

A Canvas for Change

[5:16] BW: How did you practice doing this? How do you get good at this kind of thing?

[5:22] MS: That’s a beautiful question. I was inspired by street art, specifically the posters and ads all around New York City. Ads are so in your face, telling you that you need this product to be beautiful, this will complete you, buy this and you’ll be happy. I went around the streets in New York City as this Robin Hood of sorts, cleaning the streets of negative advertising. If I saw something like that, I would cut up or paint over any website, any phone number, and just leave the beautiful imagery of the ad.

I explored this idea of scruffito, removing the front layers to expose the bottom layers. I did this somewhere between legal and illegal pieces on the streets, removing illegal posters but still painting and cutting things up. I would take photos and paint over prints of that, selling the original photography. It was more so fun and beautiful in this urban decay. I call it the Beauty and Destruction series.

As I became more thoughtful and considered the legality, I started looking at books and magazines. In 2018, I became the official artist in residence for Miami Art Basel, redesigning their magazine. I would cut up these magazines, imagining each page was transparent and lining up to see what was behind it. I would start with the back of the book and work my way forward, fully understanding the pieces before making the first cut.

The Maxim partnership went well. I ended up doing custom pieces for models, athletes, and businesses that had press in a magazine. I created art pieces out of their publicity, showcasing every single page of the magazine highlighting their article.

With books, I do a lot of live interactive painting with murals and physical pieces. When COVID hit, I took a step back and said, “If I want to be one of the best artists, I need to learn from the best artists.” I did a deep dive into the educational aspect, reading bios, watching documentaries, trying to understand what made these iconic artists special.

During COVID, I did a large job for a law firm representing Facebook and Google, which allowed me to invest in these rare signed books. I wanted to be in the presence of these artists, to share that energy and understand who they were. As I read through all of them, I had three major takeaways: they all had a crew they ran ideas off of and stole ideas from; they all saw the world in a unique way, starting a new medium, style, or ism; and they all faced pushback at the beginning of their careers.

This cross-generational collaboration is my way of giving a new visual identity and storytelling aspect to their books. These pieces are a visual snapshot of their chronological history all together at once, saying this is who they are.

[12:26] BW: Who are your spirit animals?

[12:32] MS: Matisse has always been a spirit animal of mine. Toward the end of his career, he was bedridden and started doing paper cutouts. People laughed, but he persevered, and his cutouts were acquired by the Pope and huge art collections. This idea of staying creative and pushing the envelope, especially with a new medium like cutouts, has always influenced me.

[13:18] BW: Who’s in your crew?

[13:36] MS: In New York City, I befriended awesome artists like Jason Naylor, HEKTAD, and SacSix. One major lesson I’ve learned is to shift from a scarcity mindset to an abundance mindset. Being happy for other creatives opens up a new level of mental energy and creativity. I’ve been fortunate to collaborate and do group shows with many artists. 

One project I’m working on is interviewing artists and authors who have a book out, understanding their creative journey, and then creating a book for them of their work. This process helps me learn from living legends and elevate my vision. I’ve covered living artists and athletes, but I haven’t sat down with people like Michael Jordan yet. There’s something special in getting that in-person energy and flow.

[15:31] BW: You’ve come a long way and seen significant success in the art world in a short period. Your journey included modeling, acting with Kardashian, interning at NBC Sports, and working at a talent agency and a branding agency.

[16:00] MS: That’s a pretty good summary.

The Intersection of Language and Love

[16:02] BW: Can you walk me through what was happening in the background that pushed you toward art?

[16:11] MS: I always thought of myself as an artist, but didn’t think I could make money from it or understood the business side. My father is an architect and my mother is a choreographer, so I grew up in a creative household. My mother would always ask me why I was doing something rather than what, which made me think deeply about my creative process.

Growing up, sports were a big part of my life. I ran track, played basketball, and was part of the state championship-winning football team at Bergen Catholic High School in 2001. After a hamstring injury and the realization that I wouldn’t play football in college, I turned to sports broadcasting and journalism, writing for the Brown Daily Herald and the Providence Journal. I worked at NBC, including at the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics and the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.

But I felt like I was telling other people’s stories, not my own. I then worked at a talent agency and a branding agency, working with brands like Duane Reade and Snapple, but still felt unfulfilled. I didn’t feel like I was contributing positively to the environment or society. So, I left those jobs and turned to tutoring and mentoring, helping students explore their interests and communities.

This allowed me time to explore New York’s creative art scene. One night, after a tutoring session on linguistics, I started writing the word “love” in different languages. I was struck by the visual beauty and common thread despite cultural differences. I turned this into a heart-shaped design, featuring the word “love” in various languages, and it resonated strongly with those I showed it to. In 2018, I turned this design into stickers and posters, putting them up all over the city. The response was overwhelming, with inquiries from Fortune 500 companies, weddings, charities, schools, and bar mitzvahs. This was the start of my journey into professional art.

[21:58] BW: And was this before or after you started muraling?

[22:02] MS: This was before. I started off appreciating street art and cutting up posters with illegal ads. The timeline was 2018, concurrent with the creation of my “love” piece. The murals didn’t start until late 2018 or early 2019. Initially, I was working on a smaller scale and didn’t have the mastery of spray paint. It was a new world with a lot of potential, but it took me a while to understand the different nozzles, pressures, blending colors, and bringing different shadings and ideas together. I’m glad I pushed myself in that direction because now I can convey messages on a larger scale in less time.

[23:03] BW: Looking at your CV, your first entries are from 2017. You had about five things in 2017 and 21 in 2018. Was the heart piece the wind in your wings?

[23:27] MS: Yes, when I created that, I felt I had a logo and idea that could be appreciated on a broader scale. It gave me confidence to befriend people in the street art world, including muralists and others in the creative New York City art scene. There’s a beautifully evolving art scene in New York with many overlapping groups, young and old, newcomers and veterans. I met a few people who introduced me to others, and by going to shows, being in group shows, supporting others, and collecting friend art, I surrounded myself with inspiration and had less doubt about continuing my journey.

Defining Creative Freedom

[24:22] BW: And going into muraling, what was the vision there? How did you think forward about your art career?

[24:34] MS: One thing I like to say is that creative freedom allows you to explore any medium, method, and direction you want. I define success as being able to create what you want, when you want, where you want, how you want, with the mental and creative freedom to do so. Even though I had the love logo that resonated, I didn’t want to be boxed in. I wanted to explore street art, murals, and graphic design, so I continued to learn and push myself.

One piece of advice I share with young artists is that I learned everything on YouTube, from graphic design skills to mural techniques. It’s helpful if you’re inspired and want to learn; you can learn anything out there. I was excited to try new challenges. There have been times when I felt discouraged, but with art, you can always paint over something, restart, and recreate.

Even with cutting pieces up, while they’re super calculated, sometimes I may make a cut that’s slightly off. But the Bob Ross happy accident angle is important because you can always find new ways of expressing yourself. Sometimes, what you didn’t know you wanted can be even better than what you imagined.

[26:16] BW: So you didn’t fully answer the question. Was your vision just to create what you want, however you want?

[26:28] MS: The vision was to be able to create in any medium that comes up. As I’m drawing and painting, if someone asks me for a mural or a high-end piece, I want to be able to create that. I wanted to add more tools to my tool belt. Specifically, with murals, they were really taking off. Everyone loves murals, loves taking photos in front of them, and tagging people. It’s a social, iconic aspect of New York City and the world. I wanted to be part of that. I didn’t understand spray paint or color theory, but I really desired to learn it. That was what pushed me forward.

Bridging Cultures and Communities Through Art

[27:11] BW: And you made this move pretty early on to being inclusive with your art, engaging schools and hospitals internationally. Where did that start? Was that from the beginning?

[27:27] MS: Working with students, I saw the powerful impact when I helped them become not just better students, but better people, exploring their passions. Art has a broader appeal than just making money or appealing to a small audience. It can appeal to a broad audience. When I started doing artwork full-time and more murals, I wanted to keep the art and mentoring side alive. I felt the importance of bringing art to communities where they may not realize art can be a profession. Art can be professional, or it can be a personal hobby that no one has to see. You can get lost in your flow and love it; it can be healing and powerful. For some people, collaborating and bringing people in is part of the huge spectrum of creativity. We’re all creative. Creativity is taking a thought from your head and bringing it to life in the real world. We do this every day, like dressing up; you physically thought about what to wear before you did it. We create our look every day.

[28:57] BW: You have a high opinion of my fashion sense.

[29:00] MS: I mean, look at you. We all have our way of expressing creativity. When I go to schools and talk to students, many say they’re not creative or artistic. But starting with language, we all communicate and can show a greater potential than we sometimes realize. I love going into schools and charitable places, bringing experiences into a collaborative nature.

I act as a mirror, asking students what’s important to them, what inspires them. I take those words and create something, or more likely, I’ll do a paint-by-numbers design or have something ready for the people to paint with me. I then clean it up and add their words. This way, the students feel seen and heard, attached to their community, and part of something valuable. That tie makes it more powerful for all of us. Being part of that and facilitating it is incredibly awesome, and why I love what I do.

[30:23] BW: What was the first one like?

[30:27] MS: There are a few firsts. The first school mural I did was a “One Love” logo on the doors of a school. It opens and closes every day for the kids, representing love in many languages for a diverse school community. I loved that, but it wasn’t communal; I painted it alone.

The first collaborative school mural was in Puerto Rico in 2019. My friend was starting a children’s museum and art activation location and hired me. He connected me with a school there, where I shared my tutoring and mentoring experiences. They showed me a 90-foot wall, and I suggested painting words from the community, with all the kids participating.

It was rewarding and challenging. Teaching everyone to spray paint, especially younger children who may not listen fully or have the dexterity, requires a lot of repetition and patience. But seeing the students light up when they spray paint or remove tape from a line is exciting. It’s a new experience for them, as I’m always trying to add more tools to my belt. Seeing their reactions, their words in the mural, and their excitement confirmed I was onto something.

The age level and ability to follow directions or be creative varies, and I have to be accepting and adaptable when collaborating.

[32:47] BW: I guess you’ve done this all over the world. How many countries have you painted in?

[32:53] MS: I’ve painted in Puerto Rico, Turks and Caicos, India, and had a digital exhibit in Paris. The goal is to become more global because this work translates well across languages. People appreciate the positive energy brought by colorful geometric designs and meaningful words.

[33:29] BW: Now that the pandemic is over, how has your work been?

[33:37] MS: It’s been great. There’s a seasonal aspect locally. I’ve got a few jobs lined up, weather permitting. I find opportunities through social media and word of mouth. I’m also working with a mural agency for jobs around the country. It’s exciting to bring my message to a larger group. The best clients give me creative freedom. While I understand the value of a rendering, I prefer to go with the flow, feeling the space and energy, working with what I have on the day. I’m lucky to work with people who trust my process, knowing it will look like my previous work but not exactly the same. They choose the color palette and ideas, but trust me with the final product. That’s a beautiful vote of confidence.

[34:46] BW: And part of the Signature Series is that collectors can choose a school or hospital for you to paint on, right?

[34:58] MS: Yes. The Signature Series allows the buyer to select a school or charity worldwide. I then discuss creativity’s importance with the students and create a collaborative mural. The first was a huge success in Puerto Rico, making front-page news. I’m also painting one this week in New Jersey for the Burden Family Center, a summer and activity program for local families. Weather permitting, we’re going to create something special.

[35:32] BW: What wisdom have you gained in the last two or three years that has elevated your game as an artist and promoter?

[36:03] MS: The art world, and life in general, is about relationships. It’s crucial to connect personally before professionally. Community is an overused word, but it’s fundamental. I transitioned from physical art to NFTs as digital certificates of authenticity for my physical pieces. Despite the higher price and smaller community in the NFT world, the relationships I’ve built with collectors have been invaluable. They’ve recommended and connected me with others, showing that the world is a small, beautiful place. Valuing relationships and leading with your heart is essential. Connecting and helping others creates beautiful opportunities. Although outside your two-to-three-year window, starting in the art world by giving personalized gifts to friends and family is an excellent way to gauge reactions and potential for a more public audience.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, iHeart, PlayerFM, Podchaser, Boomplay, Tune-In, Podbean, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music, or on your favorite podcast platform.

Read the Show Notes