Justin Santora is an artist from Chicago. He creates his brilliant drawings and illustrations with pencils and pens, then makes their posters and screen prints. His artwork shows moments of crisis and unease in ethereal manner. The muted tone of his art adds to the intensity and drama, it’s complex yet presented in a simple style. It brings nostalgic with a sense of loss gripping the viewer who gets reminded of decay and degeneration penetrating into the core of our existence and values. Justin’s posters and art prints have been exhibited in many countries around the world and he has a fancy line of clients. We’ve viewed 5 years of his work and see him steadily evolving as a seasoned artist.
I live and work in Chicago, USA. I was born and raised in the suburbs, and I’ve pretty much always lived somewhere near Chicago. I went to university for studio art and secondary education, but I ultimately decided against a career in education and began teaching myself how to screen print. I currently work full-time as an illustrator and screen printer. When I’m not working, I spend time with my wife, go skateboarding, and play in and occasionally tour with my band, The Sky We Scrape.
When did you begin your journey into art?
Like any little kid, I drew a lot. I have a pretty vivid (albeit brief) memory of scribbling on a sheet of paper with highlighters making what I recall was supposed to represent the first level of the original Donkey Kong video game from the 1980’s. It seems like most children eventually lose an interest in drawing, but I just continued doing it. When I was in grade school, I can remember being sort of resentful of drawing, wishing I was good at sports like the other kids, haha.
I think picking up a skateboard for the first time when I was twelve was an important development because it presented to me an alternative community and a culture that embraced creativity and showed me a whole new way to look at the world. I wasn’t ashamed of being different anymore, and I think that helped me embrace my creative side and begin to actually nurture and develop it.
What’s your artist statement and how does art affect you?
The personal role that art plays in my life has changed over the years. Working sort of commercially and using illustration and art as my only source of income, it’s become intertwined with how I think and make life decisions. Not only am I constantly looking at the world and thinking, “How would I draw this?”, but I’m also always thinking about scheduling, deadlines, finances, and other aspects of running this weird little business I seem to have started.
In my more personal work, I tend to focus on a few recurring themes. I think a lot about autonomy and independence through an interest in anarcho-syndicalism; so I’ve often used construction/deconstruction themes, flooding imagery, and a juxtaposition of nature and humanity. The latter two are used as an environmental commentary, as well as kind of a personal examination of our relationship with non-human animals. All three, I think, can be tied back to the relationship between security and autonomy and how they’re often pitted against one another in contemporary capitalist structures.
I like all of what I do, but I really appreciate that I’ve had opportunities to do work outside of screen printed posters and art prints. I will always love screen printing and making posters, as well as the whole culture surrounding poster making/collecting, but it feels great to break out the paint brushes from time to time or to work on art for album covers, beer bottle labels, book covers, and things like that. There are a few areas I’d really love to explore further and break into, like maybe editorial illustration or something. When it comes to screen printing, I handle both the art and production, so I feel like I can never get burned out on either drawing or printing because I split much of schedule between the two.
Tell us about creative challenges (if any) you face:
For as often as I draw, I’m still incredibly challenged by it. I spend a lot of time (perhaps too much) trying to approach how to render something. I think the constant desire to progress is another perennial albatross. I work in a field in which my peers are remarkably talented, and I regularly feel pressure to try and step up my game.
I use an ordinary assortment of drafting pencils, brush pens, and technical pens for drawing. I have an old light table that I usually draw at. I also have begun doing the color separations for screen printed work in Photoshop using a tablet monitor, which allows me to essentially use my computer as a digital light table. For printing, I have an old American Cameo semi-automatic press, misc screens, drying racks, etc. I can print much more quickly with the semi-automatic press, which is especially nice when dealing with large quantities.
With regard to painting, I use acrylic paint, as its short drying time allows me to work fast and layer colors on top of each other in rapid succession. I tend to avoid canvas, and I prefer to work on wood panels or water color paper. When working on paper, I will cut my paint with ink and dilute it in water. I’ve also used my tablet to do a couple of small digital “paintings” right in Photoshop. I’ve been pretty surprised at how accurately an analog painting can be simulated with the right brush settings!
I have been able to travel to various parts of the US and Europe to exhibit work in galleries, trade shows, or conventions. I’ve been invited to both high schools and universities to give talks about my job, and I’ve done work for The Lumineers, Ray LaMontagne, The Black Keys, Ween, James Blake, Phish, AMC’s Breaking Bad, Hot Key Books, and many others. I feel like the most important thing I’ve achieved so far has been being accepted as a peer among the artists who inspired me to learn to screen print and make posters in the first place. I cannot overstate how important the screen printing and poster community has been in getting my little operation off the ground and keeping it afloat.
Tell us what keeps you inspired and motivated:
I get a lot of inspiration just by being surrounded by the means to create. I share studio space with three other excellent designers/printers, so just being around someone else while he or she is working hard on something motivates me to keep moving on my own projects. I’m inspired nearly every time I leave the house. I’m interested in architecture, punk rock, animals, plants, bodies of water, and class warfare. I stay hungry and inspired because I have to continue running from all of the things I never want to become.