Whether it’s a brick wall or a canvass, SoCal native Jeff Soto’s work never fails to present alternate worlds – ones that seem to thrive on sweet decay and turmoil, edging closer to that revolution fringe.
When did you first get into art? Were you into it as a kid?
I think seeing Star Wars when I was really little and trying to recreate that world just led me to drawing. My parents were into art too, but I don’t really remember them sitting and drawing with me. Then as I got older I was the kid in class who could draw pretty well, and I guess I received enough kudos that I decided early on it was a big part of me.
How does living and having grown up in California impact your work?
There was something special going on in the sunny California 80s. Similar things were going on all over the U.S. and in other countries, but my younger years were filled with skateboarding and graffiti. The two went hand in hand and there were other counter culture things happening in Southern California – custom cars, surfing, the music industry, tattooing. There was a lot of art to see on the fringes, from the gang graffiti and cholo artwork on other student’s Peachy folders, to super inspirational skateboard graphics. California is also kind of weird and free-thinking compared to some places. I did not get to travel that much as a kid; in fact the first time I flew on a plane I was like 21! The first place I went that was really different than California was Pittsburgh. It was just so, so different.
How does street art compare to your studio work? Which do you prefer?
I like them both for different reasons. Painting outside on a big wall is cool because there’s a real connection to your environment. You have to deal with different problems – different scale, weather, people, different materials. It’s just a different feeling than working inside in your studio. Studio art is safer, there’s typically no one watching you or anything. It’s more of a place to experiment and take your time.
I try to stay open to inspiration, exploration, keep my mind free, but at the end of the day there’s that thought that all the success I have could be lost.
What did you learn from graffiti?
I learned about people. You see who you can rely on and who is flaky. We had so many stupid arguments and beef with other kids and other crews. I was always so kick back, I hated that crew shit. I was never a fan of the graffiti lifestyle and I retired in 1999 but started again 10 years later on my own terms and without a crew. Technically, graffiti taught me all kinds of things. I started painting walls around when I started on canvases so I was learning from both. I think it teaches you about scale and composition. You end up learning what colors look good together, stuff like that.
In your work you cover themes of nature, life, death, technology, decay, politics, society, etc. What makes these motifs significant?
It’s just all the things I think about. I’m going through a phase where I’m thinking about getting older, and it’s a bit depressing! I try to use art to explore all these ideas floating around in my head. I used to try to send more of a message – political, environmental, things like that – but I don’t know how many people you can reach in an art gallery. My work is still political, but less “preachy” and a little more emotional.
What’s the relationship between control and letting go in your art?
I have done both where I really just let paint fly, build weird shit, you know make things just on gut reactions. Right now the stuff I’m working on is really planned out and rendered, it’s really detailed and finished. But I feel like I need to loosen up a bit.
What’s the greatest enemy of creativity?
There’s many enemies of creativity. My enemy right now would be bills and adult responsibilities. I have two kids, a wife, a nice place to live, and pets. I enjoy everything about my life and I have no regrets. But I have to make sure I do the work that will pay the bills. I try to stay open to inspiration, exploration, keep my mind free, but at the end of the day there’s that thought that all the success I have could be lost. When I started making a living from my work I was afraid to change things up, and my work started to get a little redundant. I try to avoid that.
You are able to travel all over the world for art. What was your favorite traveling experience?
I travelled a lot the last couple years, especially to Europe. Man there’s some great memories! But my favorite was last year – I was invited to the Pow Wow art festival in Hawaii. I ended up bringing my family and we got a condo on the North Shore. We had never been to Hawaii and it was just so perfect and different and beautiful. There were wild chickens all over, geckos in our condo, frogs and weird snails right outside. My kids loved it. During the day I was in Honolulu painting a wall with Nychos, which was rad, and in the evenings I was with my family. We were there for over a week and got to explore the island and Polynesian culture and it was just one of those unforgettable family/work trips.
How do you balance family and work?
I always say I could easily work all day every day for months and still never finish all the projects I have. But it’s important to me to make time for my kids. I try to have set hours at the studio most days of the week, like 9 – 6 or so. I’m always home for breakfast and dinner and I usually take one day off. I work at home sometimes too, if I have to pull an all-nighter I have a mini studio set up in the garage.
Are your daughters creative? What’s different about art and creativity now compared to when you grew up?
They are creative and like to draw and tell stories. I don’t really push them to draw that much, maybe I should. One of the big differences is technology. Kids today have everything at their fingertips – apps, 24 hours of on-demand television, immersive video games like Warcraft and Pokemon. When I was a kid we didn’t even really have more than a handful of TV channels and the video games sucked. You really could only play Atari for about 30 minutes before it was super boring. So you’d go outside, play, create and imagine things. You’d read a book, build something, or in my case I’d spend hours drawing and creating worlds. Some of the games like Minecraft do promote world building and creativity, but we still try to make sure they’re doing some old fashioned reading and getting outside to play.
I think every generation feels like theirs is the last one before shit hits the fan.
Where do you see society going?
Oh shit, I don’t know. I think every generation feels like theirs is the last one before shit hits the fan. I think as long as the government keeps us fat and happy, as long as we have our processed foods and some TV we’ll keep on keepin’ on! We’re sheeple. Sometimes I see signs that people are changing – planting gardens, getting healthier, putting their minds to work. Many of my friends in the U.S. and overseas believe we’re in for a revolution. I disagree, I think things will need to get much worse for the average American before we take to the streets, but I hope it never gets that bad.
Why is art important?
Is it? I don’t know if the average person thinks art is important. For me, it makes me think about things. Looking at and making art and being creative in general leads to innovation, and that’s one of the things that makes us humans! But the average guy on the street probably doesn’t give a shit.
What’s your greatest accomplishment to date? What are you the most proud of?
I marvel at seeing my kids grow. It’s like planting a garden and seeing the plants get bigger and start to produce fruit. With kids though, they’re growing physically and you go “Wow, we feed them, make sure they’re healthy and get enough sleep” and it’s very similar in that aspect to growing a plant. But the cool thing is, they also grow mentally and at some point you realize they’re their own person. It’s so rewarding and scary at the same time. We give them love, guidance and sustenance, and they hopefully grow into well adjusted loving humans. It’s pretty fucking weird actually. But as far as my career, I am proud that I’m still doing this after 12-plus years.
I marvel at seeing my kids grow. It’s like planting a garden and seeing the plants get bigger and start to produce fruit… they also grow mentally and at some point you realize they’re their own person. It’s so rewarding and scary at the same time.
What’s something that not many people know about you?
I have been researching my family tree as a hobby for the last few years. It’s really fascinating. My great-great-grandpa was arrested for killing a man in a bar fight in Iowa. He was in jail for life, but after 20 years he was pardoned by the governor. I would not exist if he was not pardoned, as he had kids after he left prison. There’s all kinds of stories like this and thousands that we will never know. It’s fun because we all have eight great-grandparents to follow back, and some are dead ends and some you find all sorts of info on.
What is something you will continue to do until the day you die?
I hope to be a lifetime learner. I’m still reading books and learning about history and stuff. I’d like to keep traveling too.
What two celebrities would you pick to be your parents?
Aragorn and Arwen.