If you’ve ever eaten at Graffiti Burger, then you’re already familiar with the artwork of Giovanni Santiago. The walls of each local burger location are adorned with sports and food themed wall murals that tie the establishment to its name. But Giovanni’s creative style goes beyond what you’ve seen in commercial outlets, and he’s hard at work on a new Short North store to provide a new outlet for custom creations.
We spoke recently with this local artist for our latest Q&A feature:
Q: First, can you tell us a bit about your background as an artist?
A: Like most artist I have had the passion for art since I was a young boy. My mother encouraged me constantly and I was always surrounded by artists growing up in Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego California. Including my father who is an amazing wood sculpter.
At the age of 13 we moved to Ohio due to my father’s work. Out here I kept growing in art and being encouraged by teachers and peers. Due to some slacking on my behalf I never pursued a higher level of education in the arts. Actually, I kind of hit a downward spiral after high school for a couple of years and was working at McDonalds not knowing what I was going to do with my life. True Story… A frequent customer asked me one day “what are you doing with your life?” I said “I’m not sure” and she said “well make sure that you do what you love to do, and make a profit off of it”.
I took her words that night and ran with them. A couple weeks later I decided that I love art and have always loved art and that I will one day be a well known artist. So I rolled my sleeves up and started drawing more. Picked up a tool called the airbrush and figured out how to use it. Started using spray cans more. Basically, I put myself through art school. To this day my skills are no where near that of a CCAD graduate, but one thing I can guarantee in my art is that it packs all of my heart into it, and I speak what I believe through it.
I’ve always had a shop to do my airbrushing, including the westside flea market, a shop off of Livingston Avenue, and my new space in the Short North. I began getting recognized at the flea market and landed a few big jobs including a project for the The James Cancer Center, two jobs for Lamborghini of Ohio, motorcycles for Lynyrd Skynyrd and Kid Rock and a few other big things that helped launch my career. After that I knew that this is what I am meant to do.
I started my career off for selfish reasons but art is such a tough career that it humbled me, now I just want to leave hieroglyphics behind for the people that come during and after me. Its becoming more natural and easier now that the stress is being lifted off due to fans supporting me. Now I am just a vessel for God that pours out art for the people.
Q: I first learned about your work through a flier for a live mural painting event last month in the Hilltop. How did that event come about?
A: The event in the Hilltop came through Helannah Alshawa who works with the Franklinton development group. She received a call from Gary Hugo, who’s home is across the street from the Holton Park Recreation Center. The back of his garage — which faces the center — kept getting vandalized with ignorance. After painting over it on several occasions he decided to call around looking for an artist to do a piece that perhaps the taggers and other people could appreciate. Helannah linked us up, we hit it off right away and we came up with the funding and a date to do the piece. He took it a few steps further and invited a few vendors, blick arts, and all of the children from the Holton Rec Center. Turned out to be a great event and got to inspire some kids and some adults. And that’s what it’s all about — bringing chromotherapy to the world. Trying to keep arts and sports in the schools and teaching kids to march to their own drum beat.
Q: Many of our readers are probably familiar with your work through the decor at Graffiti Burger. What sort of reaction have you received from the artwork there from customers?
A: First off, big thanks to George Tanchevski and Jim Torski. I was getting ready to fold and go back to work at a 9 to 5 because artwork had slowed down for me. I was ready to start working for Chase and I received two calls that day, one from Chase and one from Graffiti Burger. Without thinking, I went with Graffiti Burger. Fast forward to four restaurants later and the customers have really enjoyed the art as well as the hidden positivity in it. Graffiti gets a bad rap, so seeing this place plants a different seed in their heads. A lot of opportunities have unfolded from those seeds. I would have like to keep the artwork there more “street” but we toned it down and kept it a little more consumer-friendly, representing the area and schools in those areas. I’m making it a point to go in and renovate certain walls that need updated soon. My art is stronger now than before, which is part of being an artist. Overall, it has been an amazing opportunity that helped me regain momentum.
Q: One of the ongoing discussions on Columbus Underground is the issue between seeing graffiti as an artform and vandalism as a crime. What is your personal stance on this issue?
A: There are artists and there are vandals. To the vandals, I say: step your game up… don’t just go around destroying canvases. To the artists: keep doing your thing, speak the truth and open doors. To the people: blank walls are gross. Graffiti and aerosol are the new oil paint. We have to keep it funky, new and innovative. Artists are the true geniuses in life, though our society considers attorneys and doctors the geniuses of the world. But who motivates the doctors and attorneys? Artists, musicians, writers and filmographers do. Albert Einstein said that creativity is more important than knowledge and he was one of the kings of knowledge. Graffiti does not conform to the boring and controlling ways of the government. If we’re not careful, we will turn into slaves again… or are we already?
Q: Are there any upcoming shows, exhibitions or other opportunities for our readers to see your work?
A: Yes! We have a brand new store in the Short North at 15 west 1st avenue. We are calling it Blank Walls R Gross, but we are going to do all sorts of customization — art on automobiles, walls, clothing, shoes and bodies. Also, another project that I fell in love with was going to Haiti and spreading art in that country. Hopefully we will get more opportunities to go to different parts of the world soon. Our life span is limited, so you can count on my team and I to be painting like chickens with cut-off heads.
More information can be found online at www.blankwallsaregross.com.