“Does my art move you?” asks Derek Santiago, a mixed media artist from The Bronx. That’s his personal measure of success as an artist. The self-described “cultural remixer” has done just that to people all over the world with his futuristic/retro pin-ups of curvy, exotic beauties. He’s worked for such powerhouses as Levi’s, Target, and Dreamworks, but his real claim to fame is the unmistakable digitally illustrated Santiago pin-up portrait art that has garnered him thousands of fans and a formidable online following. He’s even expanded his canvas from just traditional prints to notebooks and clothing. We were able to talk with him during the brink of releasing his first official book in the coming months. Santiago spoke about his early beginnings, how music inspires his work, as well as what we can expect to see from him in the near future.
nocheLatina: How did you get started as an artist?
Derek Santiago: Everything started at around 5. I was a nerdy hyper sensitive kid that went crazy with Japanese animation from the late ‘70s. The Graffiti Renaissance was taking place in The Bronx. It was so rebellious and edgy at that time and it still influences me to this day. Rather than reading my school books, I spent hours making flip-book animations out of them. As a teenager I created a few animated shorts with the hopes of becoming the first Latino to travel to Japan and get a job at a Japanese animation studio. Between my schooling at the High School of Art & Design and Fashion Institute of Technology, I landed in fashion illustration. Post graduation I bounced around as graphic designer, textile designer, character designer, animator, comic book colorist, and many more odd art jobs.
nocheLatina: What inspires you?
Derek Santiago: MUSIC! I cannot create without it. If my headphones are not plugged in, it shows in my works. I need that bass. It helps me get into the zone. I am very inspired by that vintage 1950s mambo, cha cha cha vinyl record cover art with sexy dancing women, Technicolor graphics, and funky fonts. The Latinas looked sophisticated, exotic, and sensual, all without looking trashy. Now they slap a 'phat booty' on a record cover to increase sales. My other influences are Robotech, Bronx graffiti, avant garde fashion and art, mid-century pinups, design from the 1880s to 1960s, and abstract Swedish graphic design. I am a bit all over the place.
nocheLatina: Why is ethnicity so important in your work?
Derek Santiago: Don't get me wrong, I do love ALL cultures, but I am also a big fan of supporting the underdog. Growing up I looked at my toy boxes depicting Caucasian kids playing and having the time of their lives. I noticed that you would never find a child of a different ethnicity, as if they were not allowed to have the same fun. I know it sounds dumb, but being a very empathic child, I felt bad for all the other kids that may have felt left out when they looked at the toy boxes. In a society flooding all industries with a limited range of beauty I'm compelled to help display a fuller box of ‘exotic crayons.’ I recently watched a popular YouTube clip of 100 famous paintings of women that spanned 500 years of art history. Sadly, the theme was no different, white and wealthy. It sends a powerful non-verbal message that you could not possibly be beautiful if you don't fit this mold. Art history won't teach you that in the mid 1800s, legions of artists from France and England traveled to North Africa and created the most powerfully beautiful collection of exotic art displaying African splendor.
nocheLatina: Your artwork is also very sexually charged. Is there a connection to be made between ethnicity and the sensuality of your work?
Derek Santiago: Haha. I don't how to answer this question…give me any television soap opera, from Mexico to the Philippines, from Cambodia to Italy, any part of the world. For the most part, darker women are largely denigrated to maids, servants, and other small roles. They are rarely shown as the object of desire, to be shown in a strong, beautiful light. I am passionate about filling this void. Maybe it's as simple as me being a passionate Latino artist from the boogie down Bronx!
nocheLatina: How would you sum up the philosophy behind your art?
Derek Santiago: I have no clue. I work mainly on instinct. In a world where conceptual art and philosophy is overly praised, I simply love working from intuition, emotion, and spiritual connection through music to create my art. I just want be the best artist I can be and make a few fans happy.
nocheLatina: You call your art ‘futuristically vintage.’ Can you expand on that?
Derek Santiago: I have been painting traditionally since I was a kid, but when I started using my Mac to create art 17 years ago, I was hooked. My work is mostly digital-based and I have a translucent shattered glass futuristic watercolor style, always looking to push newer futuristic styles. But I have a strong admiration for the craftsmanship of the old masters and other vintage influences. I try to reconcile these opposites.
nocheLatina: All of your subjects project such unique personalities in your renderings of them. What’s your secret for being able to do that in every painting?
Derek Santiago: It might be the eyes. If the eyes are not connecting to you emotionally, I might as well quit the painting. It all falls apart without the windows of the soul connecting to you.
nocheLatina: You’ve done a lot of commercial work in the past. Is that something you think you’ll go back to, or do you think you’re at a point in your career where you’d just like to focus on doing your own thing?
Derek Santiago: Actually I am attempting to do both again. One form of art affords me to do the other.
nocheLatina: And if you weren’t doing either of those things, what do you think you’d be instead?
Derek Santiago: Probably a poet that writes love sonnets all day…that or a teacher.
nocheLatina: What’s next for you? Are there any new projects your fans can look forward to?
Derek Santiago: I’m working on so many things in the next coming months. I already released a line of sketchbooks and journals that has really taken off. My official book will be coming out in early 2012. There are several projects, including one of the clothing lines, Frankie Baby.
To learn more about Derek Santiago, click here.