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From his earliest beginnings as a tagger to his first solo show opening tonight, Cali artist and designer, Sammy Rodriguez, has been passionate for the visual communication of letters and the emotive power of words and type. In You, Me, We, Rodriguez explores the connection between letters, type and facial gestures, explaining that words are not just letters on a page, but rather, a conduit to visually convey our feelings. Here he delves into the meaning and motivation of handstyles, chats to us about his current work and explains why tagging gets such a bad rap in a cultural context.

How did your upbringing in Mexico impact your career path?

I am of Mexican descent, but was born and raised in San Jose, California. Living in Cali is great because there are so many cultures. I will admit however that when I was a kid, most people around me were Mexican, or Central American. But later on, through graffiti I befriended many types of people.

Was there a defining moment in your youth that made you want to become an artist?

When I was a kid, my uncles were D.J.’s and had a big record collection, so I was exposed to many album cover illustrations. Looney Toons also inspired me to draw. However, I didn’t get serious about it until age 11 when I started doing graffiti. I believe this is what made me want to stick to doing art, and also allowed me to escape negativity going on all around me.

In the early days, you spent a lot of time tagging. What drew you to this form?

Tagging is very hard for me to describe in words, it’s a feeling, an action, and an image wrapped into one.

Just like any form of calligraphy or script, you have to do it repeatedly to properly learn it, and it’s hard to do it well. But damn, if it’s done well it is sweet!

I was drawn to this form because it’s all I knew about graffiti at the time and it was easily accessible. I could walk, or ride buses all day getting my name up, it was like a game and a kind of silent social network that recognized me for my personal touch. With tags you are on the spot, you can’t really fake it and go back to touch them up, they either come out good or suck. I think this applies to most forms of calligraphy.

For those who aren’t familiar with graffiti culture, tagging has a bit of a bad stigma: many think of it in quite a negative light. What do you think about this and why do you think it has so much negativity attached to it?

I see many advertisements online and outside in a negative light, so people who don’t like graffiti are entitled to their opinions. Sometimes I see ugly graffiti that I don’t even like.

For those that hate on it, they don’t understand the art of it and think of it as scribbles. The main reason that it is disliked is because it is recognised as vandalism. Now I wouldn’t want someone tagging on my house, and I never have done that myself, but when I see tagging on freeways, or shitty looking train yards, tunnels and abandoned buildings, it doesn’t bother me at all. It bothers me when I see those places left unkept, so why not put some good art on them?! I don’t mind that people dislike graffiti because it is impossible to please everyone, and if you do, then you are probably compromising yourself as a person.

Can you explain what a handstyle is? Is it simply a tag or is there much more to it?

Handstyles are your signature, and a trace of where your hands moved to write. These are the basis of your expressiveness. They are your personal styles, and gestures.

Some people have such a unique style they don’t even need to write a specific word or name. A tag shares these properties, but isn’t necessarily a hand style since it can also be some crap you see in a bathroom stall like, “for a good time call ….” Hahaha!

You’ve been described as an artist who portrays or captures life’s moments which is such a beautiful way to look at your work. Can you describe your creative process for us?

As artists, we are constantly absorbing. I just pay attention to random things I see on the daily and store the good ones in the memory bank. My creative process must begin with music. Sometimes I will leave a song on repeat for hours. I like to start off with a foundation concept, but leave plenty of room to improvise. I love using all types of mediums to create artworks.

I feel lucky to have studied as an artist in the streets and later in a college. In doing so, I always felt like I had to keep my artistry of the streets and love of letters separate from what I was learning in school. I used to separate what I could create, so for example I would tell myself “this is for graffiti”, and “that is for the galleries”, today I don’t. Now I am combining my love of everything together, which you will begin to see unfold in the years to come.

Can you tell us about You, Me, We? What does this body of work mean to you?

The exhibit explores the art, style and movement of communication through letters, and faces. I am trying to illustrate the co-dependency of language, by showing a connection between words, letters and facial gestures. This body of work signifies a turning point for me as an artist.

I have spent the last 10 years or so trying to find something that could allow me to explore my different artistic personalities, and this new body of work allows me to do that.

This first show will display one word that is built up of 20 smaller panels. Each letter is composed of some of those panels that contain the corresponding letter within them. When they are together, the portraits will seem to interact with one another and simultaneously spell out that word. I plan to expand on this idea further in future exhibits by creating whole sentences, statements or alphabets. I am also going to be painting the type-based portraits on very large-scale walls soon after this show.

It’s your first solo show, is that right? How are you feeling about it?

Yes this is my first solo show and I am very excited about it, and can’t wait to do the next one, hopefully twice as large with an outdoor wall included.

Do you still do much street work? How have you adjusted to the gallery or commission environment?

Nowadays, for me, the lines between these different environments seem blurred. I still do street work, and I have adjusted fine to the commission environment, because I manage myself from a professional and business perspective. I try to put the same love and care into all of the above.

You had quite a successful show, Mano Y Mano, with Aaron De La Cruz at Above Second earlier this year. How important is it to you to work closely with other artists?

Yes, showing with Aaron, was great, he’s a dope artist, and a fun person to be around. Working closely with other artists is important to me because visual art is a language of its own, and it is very important to communicate with those that speak it.

What about collaboration? Is there anyone you’d really, really love to collaborate with?

Although I’ve known Jasper Wong for a long time, we have never collaborated, so if that could somehow happen it would be fun. It would be awesome to work with people that live in other cities, states, and countries because it creates an opportunity to learn about different lifestyles and cultures. Really though, if the match is there, I wouldn’t mind jamming out with anyone, all I ask is for a good attitude.

You’ve got quite a folio, your work ranging from fine art to bikes and a clothing range. How do you keep up with it all?

I work as long as it takes, everyday, and I love doing it. I can sleep when I’m dead.

What’s been your favourite project so far?

I see all of these projects as one continuous art piece.

And what sort of projects can we expect from you in the future?

I want to expand further on the concept of these type-based portraits, I feel like the current show is only scratching the surface. I would like to travel to other places and see how they will inspire the work. My goal is to paint them on walls, hopefully an entire building, and to get crazier on the smaller panels idea by creating entire statements or even paragraphs!

I really loved reading about ‘El Cucuy’ on the Cukui website. Can you tell us your favourite or most inspiring Mexican folklore tale?

There are so many, but rather than point out a specific story, I would say my favorite style of Mexican folklore story-telling is through Norteño music, look it up!

You, Me, We opens on August 12 at Cukui, San Jose California. For more details on the exhibition, head to The Book.

To see more of Sammy’s rad work, hit up his website

All Images Copyright Sammy Rodriguez