Interview with TOT GIOVANNY SANCHEZ: The Artist Representing Colombian Street Art Scene
Street art has gained much popularity in Latin America over the last few years. With the civil war coming to a close after over 50 years, Bogota, Columbia’s capital, is no exception. GIOVANNY SANCHEZ, also known as TOT, is one of the most sought-after artists in the region. Having accomplished many global collaborations with brands such as Nike and Samsung, TOT opened his first art exhibition in Japan titled “GALLERY 21” (now closed). We asked TOT about the street art scene in Columbia, located across the globe from Japan.
Atelier 506: We heard you’re from Bogota, Columbia. What was your childhood like there?
TOT: I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I don’t really remember how old I was when I started, though. Maybe three or four years old. My parents started supporting my art when I was in kindergarten, and they’d put paper on the walls for me so that I could draw directly on them. I started doing street art when I was thirteen.
A506: So you were a child graffiti artist! What kind of materials were you using?
TOT: Crayons when I was a kid. Now I use spray cans.
A506: Did you attend an art school?
TOT: I competed in a lot of art contests growing up. When I was in high school, I decided I wanted to continue doing art, so after I graduated I enrolled in art school and studied graphic design.
A506: When you started doing art with spray cans, was there already a graffiti scene in Bogota?
TOT: No, there wasn’t. It was considered a foreign culture at the time. To me, graffiti is a way of freedom of expression, a way for people to see something beautiful. Through graffiti centered around a cat motif, I wanted to portray a message of love.
A506: When was this?
TOT: Probably around ’92 or ’93. I was still in high school, and like I said earlier, I was creating graffiti art focusing on a cat motif, and people started noticing.
A506: Where did you buy your spray cans?
TOT: I brought back Montana cans from Barcelona. The Montana ones don’t smell as bad.
A506: Did you ever use POSCA pens?
TOT: Yeah, I used both POSCA pens and Kuretake calligraphy pens. I’m not sure why, but it was really easy to get a hold of Japanese products. Anime was really popular, too. I went to Tokyu Hands yesterday and bought a lot of POSCA pens!
A506: Which Japanese anime did you watch?
TOT: The Adventures of Hutch the Honeybee, Atom Boy, Mazinger Z, Captain Tsubasa, etc.
A506: What kind of artists were you influenced by?
TOT: Basquiat will always be my idol. From his technique to how he portrays his emotions on the canvas is amazing. Also the fact that he brought graffiti art to the gallery. I was very much inspired by him.
A506: Do you still do graffiti art on the walls in Bogota?
TOT: Doing my art with the spray cans is a way of promoting peace. It’s also a gift from me to the city. And since I did study at an art school, I enjoy painting on canvas in the studio.
A506: I saw a video on VICE Magazine about a female graffiti artist from Columbia. Are there many female artists?
TOT: I recently met and created art with Miss Van, who lives in Barcelona. I also did a project for AIR MAX DAY with a Columbian artist La Jaxx. La Jaxx and I painted all over the city. She focuses on women empowerment.
■ A behind-the-scenes video of TOT’s “AIR MAX DAY” Project
■A behind-the-scenes video of La Jaxx’s “AIR MAX DAY” Project
A506: What’s the graffiti scene like in Columbia?
TOT: It’s gotten pretty big recently. There are a lot of young artists out there who’ve been inspired by my work. Many Columbian artists are being invited to the Art Basel in Miami Beach. I even recently painted at Wynwood in Miami. There used to be nothing in the Wynwood area, but now there are restaurants, cafes and art galleries everywhere. And every Saturday, there’s an event going on at the gallery. Also, there are a lot of spacious walls for artists to paint.
A506: You mentioned that you did work for NIKE – have you worked with other companies?
TOT: I’ve done several large-scale campaigns with Samsung. Also Nokia and Porsche. I’ve also worked with some Spanish apparel brands, too.
A506: Not only do fashion brands want to work with graffiti artists, but it seems like huge corporations are looking to collaborate with them as well?
TOT: Even in Columbia, big global brands want to initiate projects with Columbian arists.
A506: Was the exhibition your main reason for coming to Japan?
TOT: I came to Japan for the first time last year for the Columia Expo. This time, I came for my exhibition. When I came last time, I saw OBEY GIANT’s works at GALLERY 21 and it made me want to do my own exhibition there, too. I mean, Shepard Fairey is my idol. Last time, I was invited by the Columbian Embassy to give a speech for Tokyo Mode Gakuen on the concept of how spray-painting can be a way to open one’s heart.
A506: What are your upcoming plans?
TOT: I want to make the TOT Cat an animation. I would love to work with a Japanese animators for this since Japan is the mecca for anime. Another thing I want to do is to continue creating TOT Cat sculptures. Also, I want to design sneakers by having a fashion designer and a graffiti artist collaborate on the project. I hope to create a pair of original sneakers, kind of like the iconic AIR FORCE ONEs with graffiti paint on them.
Translated by Samantha Mariko
writer： Atsuko Matsuda