Saratoga Sake was first inspired by the letters that were scrawled on New York City subways in the early 80s, and he is among the first graffiti artists in California. Though he continues to create work in that style, Sake has expanded his artistic range to include graphic design, pop surrealism, and oil painting. “I’m really miserable when I’m not creating,” Sake says. Check out this short film to learn more about this artist, and then read his Q&A with our own Barbarella Fokos and learn what Sake’s been up to lately.
Credits: Executive Producer, Barbarella Fokos; Director, David Fokos; Segment Producer, Roland Lizarondo; Associate Producer, Sandy Patag; Aerial Photography, Kevan Barsky; Music, Thanatos by ID the Poet, Layin’ Low, Joe Texy, TaR-Vs-TheNaj-b3, Ode to Rhodes, and IB Struttin’ by Tim Felten
BF: Though your roots are in graffiti art, you also use oil paints, and your paintings and graphite drawings are a style unto their own. If someone were to ask, what kind of artist are you, what’s your standard answer, and why?
SS: Thank you for having me back! I would say that I’m an artist with a lots of old and new hats. I think of myself as a “graffiti artist” first, since that was the art form that I was studying/practicing that landed me my first serious “art job” in 1985.
At this time in my life I feel awkward at times telling people I’m a graffiti artist. Since I’m pushing 50, it seems childish to say that I spray my name. Basically, if you will, beautiful vandalism! I am into many different things and styles of art: realism to simple cartoons to abstracts to pop surrealism to street art stylings to murals. But since it’s really difficult even for myself to figure out what kind of artist I am on a daily basis, I just say “artist” — even though that feels constraining or generic.
BF: I’m sorry for the losses you suffered, which informed your skeleton works. The images are haunting, and sometimes whimsical. What else can you tell us about these pieces?
SS: Thank you, Barbarella! Of course, missing someone in a death, that you once loved dearly, is hard to deal with and to accept. I’m rather sensitive to it and it hurts me deeply. Because of this, I have been on the darker side of life many times as I have lost family members, close friends, school mates, an ex-girlfriend, acquaintances and crew mates — the last time I checked it was over 40, and I stopped counting after that. So a lot of that does come out in my art. I started that serious at a time in my life when I lost my grandmother. I also lost my other grandmother soon after as well, along with my mother’s fiancé. Basically it came as a thought with my Nana, who was an amazing woman, along with my Grandma Cora, both from Saratoga Springs. My Nana was somewhat of a character. She made the best food and owned the popular Davis Deli along with my Papa in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York. Pretty cool memories I have with them.
On her death bed, she would put on her lipstick still, even when she was almost unconscious. She would also have in her hands rosaries that she would be going through the prayers. It was sorta bizarre, but it was also super sad to watch and it broke my heart after she was gone. So while she was putting on her lipstick, this is when I had a thought that her skull will have makeup on it. And that’s where it all started for me — I wanted to honor them in some way with their way of life when they were young once. I don’t have a name for the series; it’s something I have been working on in between my other pop surrealism type art and graffiti pieces. I doubt I’ll ever finish the series at this point because I’m moving on to a whole other direction with my art and lifestyle. But I have 5-7 solid pop surreal skull-type paintings that I would like to finish someday and these are huge pieces, scale-wise, and super complicated.
BF: What have you been up to recently? Any exciting shows or art-related adventures?
SS: Oh boy this is going to be long! As of late, I have been laying low and not doing anything in the local art scene as far as art shows are concerned. I did send my stuff to one gallery recently. I have been back on commercial art work and random mural jobs. I’m also focusing on my home and family and traveling — we are gearing up on seeing the world with my kids. I’m also reigniting my focus back on a graffiti book about myself or San Diego’s graffiti art history
I have also been helping and giving my input toward a group of individuals that have been working on a documentary about the history of hip hop culture here in San Diego. I’m also going through a rebranding of my webpage and other social media agendas. You won’t find any new posting on my IG or FB until I finish my webpage and besides that, it has been nice taking a break from social media. I’m trying to stay off line until 2018. I did have a show recently at the Ice Gallery, inside the Bread and Salt building. That show was called “Rust Magic,” and that took me almost a year to create the installation which in itself was a nutty ride.
I learned a lot about myself and how fucked up in the head I was for a long time. Basically I was diagnosed with ADHD. This has been a challenge…because shit I’m old at this point in my life, and I thought that was some kid ailment or some made up excuse for bad behavior or someone who couldn’t stop moving and is hyper. I just thought I was extremely busy, which I truly am a busy person. I’m up early with the kids at 6:30 am and I mostly stay up past 1 am. You know, living that type of lifestyle, and of course then I crash and go again. That lifestyle got really draining and out of control mentally. On a daily basis I get bombarded with information. Because I’m getting so much info. I see everything and hear everything, so when normal people talk to someone they focus on that person. Myself and others, we see that the trees are moving, the sky changing color, oh, a bird is flying and chirping, a car is driving, a bee is buzzing by, a plane is flying, a dog is barking, the grass is moving in the wind, the snail is near a leaf. I would see and hear all that in an instant and then try and focus on a conversation with whomever I was talking to. I would walk away and forget most of the conversation, just as an example. Because of this, I have a grip of unfinished work. It might sound a little dramatic, but I’m finally able to have real focus and I finally feel like a normal person. It’s been amazing. I have not been late to any meeting and meet all my art deadlines for the first time since for ever. I also learned to say no to projects and I’m super selective and able to paint more efficiently, and I’m not bored anymore, and extremely happy all the time. I give my daughter and wife a lot of credit since my daughter was also diagnosed with ADHD. That’s what alerted them to say this to my wife: “Hey your husband definitely has it.” She basically saved my life in a way and I cherish that every day because I was heading toward a really dark place.
BF: What is your favorite thing about graffiti art? Least favorite? And can you also apply this question to your other mediums, as it seems you employ several kinds?
SS: I love the look of how a burner sits on the wall or on a subway train back in the day. The scrawls and quick letters bunched up and hanging out with each other like old friends from afar. The feeling I get and the excitement and how it interacted with the city and its riders. This strange new art form that mysteriously appears on New York Subway transit overnight. The idea that the riders are not giving two shits about the art on the train, totally oblivious to what is going on with this controlled mess on the windows. I really think most New Yorkers had no clue, how amazing this truly was, or didn’t care. How pure the art form was at the time and how powerful it was and how 100% American it was to write your name on a train! Kids where doing this and breaking all sorts of art rules creating their own rules and in the meantime within a 20-year period, creating a stylistic ghetto game/competition into a multi-million dollar industry that still affects everyday life today, whether it is pop culture, design, commercials, videos, music: it has made a lasting impact and is here to stay! When I go back and look at a certain piece that someone has painted and it will bring me back to the glory days of when hip hop culture was just barely leaking on to TV. I still get that feeling of excitement when I look at old photos and documentaries. It’s fresh in my memory like it was yesterday. I still smell the paint fumes, the adventure going out into the night, putting up your art for the whole world to see whether they like it or not. It still made me feel valid and gave me a voice that no one can silence. I also love the act of painting and the camaraderie you have with your crew and learning all the mistakes of what not to do, and knowing the yards where to paint, and especially the letters — tweaking them, bending them in way no one ever seen before, but not too much, otherwise they will break and it won’t be a letter anymore. Going through the motions and taking your craft to a higher level of style and the process of painting is such a relaxing and fun thing to do you know! I’m willing to travel across the globe just to paint my name and know that someone will eventually come along and go over it.
My least favorite would be the attitude that this art form attracts. For some reason, graffiti or the word graffiti has a really bad association, so it does attract some of those people that think it’s somewhat a thuggish low life scumbag type of lifestyle. Which in some cases it is, but on the other hand its not. I have always been trying to promote the art side, or what I call the “Richie Cunnighham” side of things. Its not always The Fonz that gets the street respect and the chicks! I more on the mellow fellow life style of this here art form. even though at times it does get rough around the edges and I have been on both of the receiving ends of bull shit. I try and maintain that this is still an american art form created by children in NYC during a super hectic time in NYC and in America, and let’s not get too carried away with things now, seriously. There are tons of scenic painters out here on this rock and ya never hear them dudes shooting each other for painting the same damn tree or painting in someone’s plein air spot… imagine if Bob Ross was capping fools over shrubs and happy trees, haha!
BF: You reference New York subway graffiti as one of your inspirations. Can you tell us about San Diego, or California graffiti? How is it similar, how is it different? Are any new styles emerging?
SS: Of course! Back when I first started getting into graffiti writing, it was only New York Subway Graffiti Art as inspiration. The stylization of lettering and the look overall was so original. Nowhere else in this world was anyone using a spray can, markers, and drawing is this manner. Philadelphia did have tags and elaborate writings that had a similar look and flair to what was going on in new York in the early 70’s, but those are tags and signatures or vice versa. There is controversy about who did what first between Philly and NYC, but I let the ones who were there settle that one. Gang writings, or “placas,” don’t count either — that’s a whole other culture and deep meaning behind it as well. It has nothing whatsoever to do with hip hop or graffiti writing culture in general and in style it’s night and day. In a way, it’s like comparing the pyramids in Egypt to the pyramids in South America. The only thing I can think of with some sort of comparison is some of the gang work was done with a spray can. But that’s like comparing a scenic painter and portrait painter because they use oil paint. Like the other art forms, it has its own history and rules and style, but none of that reflects on this art form of graffiti in any way.
Around 1985 and 1986 San Diego had a new style that was emerging that no one else was doing anywhere that I know of in the world. It was called “abstract style,” coined by Quasar. Created by a crew from the Sherman heights area of downtown San Diego, called Graffiti Artist Unlimited (G.A.U.), which was under major influence and guide of “Ninety” aka “Quasar” with crew members like System, Wizard and 2bad. They had a different take on what your traditional subway graffiti looking letter styles where built on. I believe “Abstract” was created with inspirations from Phyzek and a few other writers that I will mention below. Phyzek was on some whole other level! He was amazing and was from New York and was stationed here in San Diego. He was teaching G.A.U what style was about and how to freak letters in a structured way, showing the boys lettering styles and the correct forms almost in a font-designing type of way versus out of thin air. He was also older, so he was mentoring them and helped land the first huge Graffiti Mural project in San Diego.
Graffiti Artist Unlimited (GAU) painted a few of the San Diego Trolly stations and got like $25,000 for the gig back in 85, which was a revolutionary concept and forward thinking on San Diego government’s behalf. I wish the city was so open minded now. Before Phyzek hand G.A.U. had somewhat of an abstract style already in their design, but that was due in part to zero NYC letter forms it was almost jelly-like and the letters moved where ever they wanted it to go. Quality and painting wise top notch for the times! but structure wise it was out of control. A lot of other crews and individuals operated in this way. Every where with the exception on the east coast. Quasar was also influenced and taught some secrets of the craft by another California Graffiti King Crayone (crey-own) from San Francisco, with the rock shift style, which was a hybrid of computer rock style that case2 another New York king created a style of his own. Mixed with a chunky blocky looking style that was a typical style in SF mostly done by Crayone’s crew Together With Style. Quasar was willing to share his knowledge with us Spring Valley writers and some South Bay kids. So we all where influenced and dabbled with abstract style for a while. I was more on the New York side of things in styling and of course my own flair to it. But I did dabble with all sorts of styles and was consult creating new lettering styles but sticking with the foundations of it all. Now they call “abstract” style Graffuturism, and it’s a well known style around the world. Although I doubt any one knows that its roots are from San Diego via Quasar as the inventor and mastermind. To be honest, a lot of this stuff on the west coast was invented due to the fact no one really knew what the hell they where doing. It was a lot of experimenting.
Read an article from 1990 about Sake and Quasar, published in the San Diego Reader.
BF: You won TWO Emmy Awards for your art? What category was that? Super cool, please give us a little background about it.
SS: It was for the work that was created for a campaign for the Fox Network here in San Diego. The network, myself, and seven other artists won local and National EMMYS. This was in 1991 — it was a revolutionary, groundbreaking and very brave thing to do at that time, concept-wise, and to air it during prime time during shows like “In Living Color,” “The Simpsons” and “Married with Children.” The commercial was also way ahead of the curve to feature the artists behind the can, and gave the viewer a taste of the culture and exposed that we were not these knuckleheads just going out and messing things ups for shits and giggles. They also created a spotlight about us that showed more insight about the process of what we do and how we do it. Those were about 5-10 minute segments before the actual 1-3 minute commercial. It was telling the viewer, “Hey, this is an art form.” I owe Beth Accomando and Company a lot of love and huge props for putting their nuts on the table. Guaranteed this commercial sparked a lot of interest and put graffiti and the use of spray cans as an art tool on the map for most viewers and sparked that, “Hey this art form is going to be important now or someday soon, so you better get hip!”
BF: I see that you were featured in the book, The History of American Graffiti… where can people find that?
SS: You can find it online at Amazon. Last time I checked to was at $95 ……or try a Google search! It might be out of print.
BF: Where can people go to see your current work?
SS: Online, on Instagram and on Facebook and Google search. Some of my existing commercial work and murals are located at Urban Jungle, Urban Fades, the Avenue 619, Lolita’s downtown (Bonita and East Lake locations coming soon), Mina Lounge downtown, the Mr. Padre mural at 16th and K (more to come around that area), on the Bread and Salt building in Logan Heights (huge Krylon can), the Ramona murals, and three separate murals at Westfield Mall Mission Valley.
BF: You sometimes work with students. What’s that like?
SS: I am an instructor for the San Diego Cultural Arts Alliance. I teach a Graffiti course in Vista, California at Rancho Buena Vista High School. We helped them start a Graffiti club last year, called “Graffiti Writers Club,” G.W.C. for short. They already completed a mural of their own design on campus, with heavy instruction and light help from me. If you go to far with this art form and push the envelope too far, it’s not really graffiti art anymore. It would be like someone dancing tango — if they started adding the two step or housing steps, it’s going to be a whole other new dance form by the end of the day.
Trying to teach that and explain that is challenging, and it’s hard to grasp if your young and inexperienced. Even veterans in the game forget that they are basically painting fonts with spray paint. You can really mess it up super quick, and I remind everyone in the class that even popular graffiti artists and street artists still have horrible letter structure and style. The school is awesome to work with they want murals all over the campus , which is great for the kids and SDCAA. Since we started the program, the very first class, they hardly spoke or paid attention. Now they are doing the work, taking initiative, and being outspoken and participate and seem to be truly engaged with what we teach and with each other. They are building confidence and spending less time on cell phones. I also work with ReSurf out of New York. They travel the world refurbishing surfboards and teach kids to surf and other cool things like how to build surf shacks about surf culture. My role is to be the artist of the group although I believe everyone is an artist. I do a short presentation and the kids just go nuts and paint boards. So far I have instructed about a few hundred kids, and helped paint a few hundred boards in Mexico, Encinitas, La Jolla, and in Hawaii.
BF: You have children. Are they interested in art? Do you want them to be?
SS: Yes, I have two children: a girl named Matisse, age 7, and a boy named Miles, age 11. Both are artists in their own rights. Matisse has definitely picked up the brushes and pencils and is busy creating artwork almost every single day or some sorta craft like making rainbows for leprechauns or outfitting her Barbies with outfits that she creates out of paper bags and ties. Miles however, is on the other end of the spectrum of talent — he is a musician. He plays the piano by ear, and is learning notes and reading music. He’s able to pick up multiple instruments and can play them with out any effort. His sister and he are always creating songs, singing and dancing throughout the day and of course harassing each other! I am a DJ, but I have no musical instrument talent what so ever. Matisse is also into singing and dances like a crazed banshee. She is also learning Guitar. Miles loves to dance as well and has amazing rhythm and a great sense of movement to the music that is playing. And thats a BIG FAT YES, I would love for them to pursue the arts. They have tons of talent and opportunities to shine in anything they do. Miles is also quit the chef and has filmed a new national kids TV show, along with my wife Stacey up in Hollywood. Hopefully that will air in 2017 sometime.
BF: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions?
SS: None whatsoever! Although I have a new idea that I would like to get off my chest, and would like to welcome galleries to hit me up for a solo show, if the timing is right. But as far as now, I’m just planning and lining up some out of state graffiti-type trips — some peeps call those “Spraycations.” This year I’m working on a few Graffiti Art events like Paint Louis in St. Louis, Missouri. Hopefully I make it out this year! I’m working on my calendar for the year right now, so hopefully timing is right and this will be my fourth time out to Paint Louis. I also have an opportunity in Memphis, Tennessee, Washington D.C., and a few more opportunities to travel and paint this year including Bristol, England, and I just got back from Japan. That was an actual vacation; unfortunately I wasn’t able to find a place that sold quality paint and didn’t connect with any local artists in time to paint something fresh! I’m actually super bummed out about that. It has been a dream of mine to go to Japan since the 70s after watching The Bad News Bears Go to Japan, and that just intensified over the years since us graffiti writers like to make our mark and gather a trophy on our travels. So not able to do that really hurts. That’s the farthest I have ever been on this rock. But I did manage to plant a few stickers around Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima.
BF: What are you most excited about right now?
SS: I’m excited about progressing my current concepts and focusing on art right now. Really the thought of just painting for myself and not for any particular reason or some random art show — just creating artwork for the sake of creating work. The problem is I plan on painting large pieces, so storing it might be a problem, but luckily I have a 8’ X 20’ storage box that looks like a subway train. My friends and I paint on it during parties or when I feel like throwing my name up. But the inside is mostly home storage. I’m painting murals around town again. I landed a really great opportunity, thanks in part to an old friend of mine named Rush, she is an awesome interior designer and runs her own firm. I will be painting murals for a restaurant called Lolita’s, here in San Diego. They hired me on to paint all of their locations. So far I have painted the downtown location. I’m also working on my third mural up in Ramona, California. Myself plus my assistants, Jen and Vapor, and my good friend — a fellow Artist by the name of Miguel Godoy — are starting a mural on a restaurant in downtown Ramona. When completed, it will be a 18’ x 30’ foot mural on the side of a restaurant. Also I’m in the process of working on a huge mural in city heights. It will be a 7’x 265′ monster of a mural thats spans across the 15 freeway. I’m also Art Team Director for a community based group called San Diego Cultural Arts Alliance, which has been trying to get an art park under the 163 for the last two years. This is super important for me. Especially when it comes to SD graffiti history. My good friend and fellow graffiti artist Quasar wanted to have a graffiti park built in 1991. We had super futuristic ideas for that time, including graffiti supplies and delivery services along with a slew of other ideas that now are commonplace in the culture. Besides, this city could use another space for art that’s open to anyone to paint and express themselves. Art is everything!
BF: What is your dream project?
SS: I like the thought of getting into more museum work with some sorta extraordinary installation or sculptural work, and of course flat work. It has to be some type of creation that will challenge the idea of graffiti and art itself. I would really love to be able to get loose inside a section of a museum and also curate a show that has to do with ‘graffiti art’ and the love affair with the subway train. Something in the realm of coordinating with actual subway artists during the golden era of artistic vandalism on trains and have these guys really push themselves and create some quality work that would speak volumes towards its viewers. There is so much more to explore in the realm of Graffiti Art and the writing that goes along with it, including the characters that partake.
And now, enjoy these photos of some of Sake’s most recent experiences: