Saving Animals Through Street Art - Courtesy of Sonny!

January 17, 2018

Since the birth of his To The Bone project in 2017, the South Africa-based street artist Sonny embarked on a world art tour, painting large-scale murals in as many cities as possible. His huge portraits of wild animals now stand out the facades of buildings around the Unites States, Europe and Russia.

We reached him for a coffee break during his intense daily routine, to talk about the necessary creative process to develop such a long-term project.

Sonny, by Tessa Cunliffe
Sonny, by Tessa Cunliffe

To The Bone

Christie Bailey: Hello Sonny! Let’s start with the "To the bone" project. A year spent experimenting in the studio, and now almost six months spent exporting your creatures to the streets. Tell us something about the original idea and how you are going on with this project.

Sonny: Well if I think back, it’s actually been over a year and a half in the studio, with conceptualizing and planning even before that. Wow, it gives me anxiety to recall the time I’ve spent!

It all basically started when I wanted to create my first body of canvas work. At the time, I was really concerned with what was going on in the world’s precious animal kingdom after watching so many documentaries, news broadcasts and seeing what was going on in South Africa around me.

Living in South Africa, I’m lucky to be surrounded by the beauty of wildlife, which is what has inspired my current work, but it also means I’m very aware of the issues that these animals are facing.

My passion for these animals is why they naturally became subjects in my work, I find them amazingly fascinating, and am in awe of how they exist in the wild. Nothing can touch the feeling of being in the bush, surrounded only by nature and being able to see these wild animals in the flesh. So, the thought that they could one day disappear and future generations wouldn’t be able to experience this, really disturbed me.

That’s why I wanted to convey this message through my artwork and to do what little I could, especially after seeing the powerful impact that the street murals have on the public and the online world too.

And so, it evolved from there into the 10 canvas paintings, 8 skull sculptures and a global mural tour, all to raise awareness and funds for animal conservation. We’ve basically finished most of the mural tour and we’re now focusing on the exhibition in New York in 2018.

CB: Nowadays, it is not usual to carry out such long-term projects, I think you are one of the very few to take the risk of a broad vision. Do you think everything is going according to your plans or do you think you have lost something compared to the initial idea?

S: I think if I had to look back at what my initial aim was with the project, to raise awareness for animal conservations and make powerful artwork that creates that conversation and raise whatever money I could to help, I think I’m on track so far. The finer details around how the project rolled out has constantly changed and evolved as it’s gone on.

It’s been a roller coaster really. At one stage the project was even picked up by numerous major brands and TV networks to develop further. But this side tracked the project a lot and I ended up dropping the partnership because the initial vision was being lost, deciding to do it alone and fund it ourselves or however we could.

A huge risk and financial loss on our part, but staying true to the vision was always been what is most important to me. Going through that process though, really allowed us to develop the concept further and gave us a streamlined vision of what could be achieved, and I guess putting that out into the universe made it all happen anyways, almost to the script!

CB: The wild animals images you have produced are really powerful, and the urban context in which you have inserted them amplifies the message. What kind of feedback have you received so far? Is there any city that has welcomed your work better or worse?

S: The feedback has been pretty overwhelming and the murals have been welcomed in every city so far. For me it’s been quite eye-opening to realize how the rest of the world views these issues, especially the fact that many people I’ve encountered didn’t even realize that there was an issue in the first place.

All in all, powering the reason why there’s a great need for projects aimed at raising awareness like mine. Painting in urban cities has shown me just how much a lot of people around the world are cut off from nature. Some people didn’t even know what animal it was that I was painting, let alone the troubles that they’re facing and why!

It’s given me the opportunity to open a conversation on the streets, as well as online. That was the whole plan, I guess I just didn't realize how much it was actually needed.

CB: I think this project has defined you, I mean, I think it marks a point of precise artistic maturity. Once this is done, how will you free yourself from this label, “the one who draws animals"?

S: Haha… Yes, for sure. When I was first called a “wildlife painter” I was pretty uncomfortable about being categorized like that, especially as I’ve never really thought of myself as one.

I guess I’m painting what inspires me most at the moment, what amazes and intrigues me right now. Plus, animals are my immediate influence from my surroundings. I’d definitely like to be known as an ambassador for animals throughout my career, but wildlife is not the only thing I can paint and I don’t like to be boxed in that.

My next body of work will show that… you’ll see.

Artwork by Sonny
Artwork by Sonny

Sonny’s Art

CB: At the moment have you already glimpsed what your next project might be, or are you too focused on this one to think about the next?

S: Nope, I’m working years behind my plans it seems. I have a new body of work that features both humans and animals in my new fantasy world where future tribes live amongst these creatures. I began working on the project in 2016, conceptualizing the tribes and artwork, costume design, photoshoots etc. and I’m quite excited to get working on it again in 2018.

You'll have to wait and see, no shortcuts, lady.

CB: I ask you this because recently I read a sentence by Oscar-winning director Bertolucci: "I hate to always repeat myself. As would be great to completely renew ourselves every year, every month, to make different films every year, rich in various obsessions instead of repeating the same things, the same images... "
How do you feel about your style? I mean have you ever tempted to do something completely different? Do you ever feel repetitive?

S: My style is always evolving. As a person, I generally get bored very easily and I have to be doing new stuff to keep entertained or at least thinking about it intensely. Sometimes is a burden, but for my art it’s proved to be beneficial I guess.

I’ve constantly changed the style elements of my work while keeping a general thread in some way I think. As I say my views on what’s cool, beautiful, intriguing, complicated, challenging and what takes talent, are forever changing and my greatest challenge for myself is to aim to keep completely happy and excited with my work. I find myself always trying to do something different to what I’ve seen out there as best I can. I like to push the boundaries of what other people are doing or do it in a different way or just try as hard as possible to create exactly what is in my head no matter what the obstacle is, be it materials, time or otherwise.

For instance, the methods I took to create my canvas work has only been described by people who witnessed the process as ‘’madness”. Or rather, describing me as “a madman”. I spent a whole month just finding the right black for my background, so that I could create the most amount of contrast possible and recreate this look and feel I had in my head, even visiting paint labs to create and analyze various shades of black. I spent even longer mixing different types of paints and researching what could go together to be able to further this contrast and enhance the richness in my colors, as regular artist supplies weren’t achieving the right look.

Again, the labs and various paint stores got the brunt of this craziness… Needless to say, I’m not loved in paint and hardware stores (laughing). I mixed over a 1000 colors for some of the works, to create all this depth, contrast and realism in the fantasy way I had hoped for.

My murals always start the same way lately, with raised eyebrows at first, but people quickly get the idea. I mix my spray paint into 200-350 color shades to create the depth and coloring on my murals. I really want to create that touchable, realistic fur, which is only truly appreciated when seen in person. It’s my madness but it’s also my difference.

Of course, it can frustrate me sometimes, with the time it takes and the complexity of the process, but it keeps me on my toes and content with creating something different and special.

CB: Even more than the final result I have always been interested in the creative process that leads to the conception of a work. How do you live the whole preparatory phase, do you follow a method to develop a creative idea or do you only follow your instinct?

S: Well, I guess a lot of my concepts just pop into my head randomly, maybe when I’m inspired by something. Even if it has no context to what I paint, which yes has been mostly animals, I bank the cool ideas and try to paint it in Photoshop when I get a chance.

With my current mural series, my main aim has been to just emphasize the raw beauty of these animals, whether it’s their fierceness, gentleness, power etc. For murals, the wall itself has an influence on the design too. In terms of the canvas series, it was pretty tricky to conceptualize. I wanted to create beautiful work but with a definite and apparent message, of a somewhat dark issue. I didn’t want the message to be too subtle.

Take it from me, it’s quite a challenge to paint an animal in a beautiful way, while blatantly showing the sad reality of how they are dying. I do feel I managed to achieve this though. The animals are vibrant and beautiful, and break away in an almost synchronized way. What could be a rather morbid skull is revealed underneath but even this aspect is bright and colorful with the tribal patterns that symbolize our heritage.

The message is a sad one, but it can also be a very inspiring one, or at least I hope that it inspires people to feel patriotic about their native wildlife and see the importance in working to save these animals that are so much a part of them too. All creatures are more connected than I think any of us realize.

Sonny street art
Artwork by Sonny

Getting Out There

CB: Tell me something about how you promote your work, is it something you do personally or have you delegated everything to someone else?

S: I owe everything to the beautiful Tess Cunliffe, my manager, project manager, PR manager, camera operator and more recently assistant painter ;). We’re a two-man team.

The To The Bone project was pretty ambitious and I guess it should have required a whole team of people, or at least that was the original plan. But when finances are tight and you don’t end up aligning with the right people that have your same work ethic and vision, you have to do things on your own in whatever way you can.

In our case, no sleep and a lot of coffee!

CB: I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but I started this job before the world became "Social". And yes, it is fantastic. Yes, it offers a lot of opportunities. Yes, it allows you to reach an immense audience. But no, ... Fill the blank space.

S: The real world exists beyond a computer screen I guess. I mean nobody ever shows their troubles and issues online. From the street mural side, the purpose and intention is for them to be seen by the public in the streets and respected for what they are- taking that online becomes a bit detached.

For me personally, I hate taking photos of my work and posting them, they never do it justice and it always leaves me disappointed. Great photographers get amazing shots that I love, but it’s never the same thing, but it becomes something else I guess. Pictures can’t capture the size, impact or power and for me it never comes close to all the detail I spend endless time achieving.

You could argue that the detail is not necessary on a mural as it’s only viewed from far or on a computer screen, but for me it’s important. I want the person standing up close, right in front of it to be in awe and to appreciate every stroke and not just glance or walk by, or scroll on…

That all said though, social media helps a TON for artists these days! They can now expose their work to a wider audience and make a living doing so. So in this way, it’s a huge positive for art. You know, there’s always the good and the bad..

CB: For example, have you ever felt too much pressure, you know, an excessive expectation to meet? I mean, 20 years ago you could do a piece on the streets for 1000 people, now they see it in millions... Does anything change for you?

S: Haha..I wasn’t doing street art 20 years ago so this is the only world I know! But as I explained above, I paint for the people who see it in person.

The online stuff is a bonus and the only pressure I have is my own.

Sonny mural
Artwork by Sonny, photo by Halopigg

Toward the Future

CB: I’m also curious about what excites you in the world of art today, give me two names in contemporary art that blow your mind, one for painting, one for street art.

S: Only two? Geez…way too hard to answer. Well, Conor Harrington blows my mind in both! His canvas work is truly inspirational and his murals just are on another level.

Street art, there’s too many guys pushing boundaries and creating crazy stuff, so I’ll throw out the ETAM CRU only coz it came to mind first. I’m always stoked to see a new mural by them!

CB: Well, I guess our time is finishing, but I cannot leave you without asking some about your future plans. Please tell me what will you do, or what would you like to do, in the next 5 months, and in the next 5 years.

S: Next five months - complete my To The Bone exhibition in New York and have a good sleep.

Next 5 years - still be doing what I’m doing now! Keep pushing what is possible with what I do, on a bigger and more effective scale. And enjoy the painting, traveling and meeting great people!

Written by Christie Bailey.

All images courtesy the artist.