I’ve known SABIO (Supreme Articulation Bouncing In Orbit) for over a decade and didn’t even realize it until I met him in person as SABIO. Throughout the years, I’ve seen the Clark Kent-version of him at galleries, bars and and other art events since the mid-2000s, but never had an inkling he was the city’s anonymous, billboard bomber. When he recently opened “Something the Sun Would Say,” a new solo show at Castor Gallery, ANIMAL asked if we could do an interview. It was only when he walked into the space that it hit me. “You’re SABIO?” I rhetorically asked. I commended him on being able to keep the secret for so long. “It’s not like I was going to go up to you and be like, ‘I’m SABIO,'” he joked.
A staple of the NYC graffiti scene, SABIO conquered many billboards spots with fellow writer RAMBO. In 2006, the recession and slump in the advertising industry resulted in a lot of empty ad spaces dotting the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, so he took advantage of the nearly abandoned locations. “I was like, wow that is a blank canvas,” he recalled. “All these billboards started to become black and white.” The black and white represented the cycle of life and death, a motif he often explores in his work. The billboards were also giant, high-profile spots. Some of them stand 6-stories above the ground and painting them requires a feat of physical skill both as a climber and an artist.
He jokes about how crazy some of the missions he went on were. “Looking back, it’s insane,” said SABIO. “You have less than a foot of space to maneuver and we’re painting letters 20-feet-high. You gotta be nuts to do that. And it felt like that and I never had that feeling in graffiti or bombing or vandalism. I’m literally painting to die.”
That adrenaline created a craving and soon after, he was hooked. “It was a huge rush and it became kind of like an addiction. It was like, okay we got this one done. This one popped up in Williamsburg and everyone is going to see it on the way to JFK.”
Born and raised in Philadelphia, SABIO eventually made his way to New York City as teenager, but his roots are firmly planted in Brazil. His dad was born and raised there and became a professional soccer player. His mother was born in a refugee camp in Austria, but sailed to Rio de Janeiro as a young girl with her family to escape the Nazis. The artist credits his family for his creativity. “It pours through me,” he said. “My grandfather was a craftsman. He was given a key to the city by President Reagan in the ‘80s. My uncle was an opera singer.”
SABIO, who visits Brazil at least once a year, said he’s inspired by the local culture. He has been paying particular attention to the Pixação movement, a renegade subculture birthed in the favelas of São Paulo in the ‘80s. Although its practitioners, known as pichadores, do what most people would commonly refer to as graffiti, they don’t consider themselves artists whatsoever. For the most part, they use black paint and don’t use colors, as beautification is not their intent. They’re not trying to be part of what they consider a co-opted art system, they’re creating in-your-face reminders of their very existence and highlight the huge chasm between the rich and the poor. Their cryptic lettering and fonts are unique and instantly recognizable amongst the city’s backdrop of traditional graffiti and street art. Competition amongst the various Pixação crews is fierce, pushing pichadores to tag the tallest buildings and locations they can climb. Many have fallen to their death. The message of the pichadores is very political and deliberate. SABIO went on to explain their mindset:
We’re against the government, we’re against you. We’re against exhibitions, we’re against brands. We’re our own minority. This is all we have, so don’t fuck with us.
It’s a message that SABIO gets and respects. “They want to keep it sacred,” he said.
Unlike many of his peers, SABIO doesn’t paint his name repetitively like a logo. Each one of his pieces — whether it’s on a rooftop spot or in a subway tunnel — is different, yet they’re all done in his signature style, literally. Unlike today’s new crop of urban artists, SABIO is proud that he has history and doesn’t just rely on technology like Instagram to get up, although he does admit he’s just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to using the photo sharing platform. He’s also thinks its very important to make a clear distinction between the work he does on the street and the work he puts up for sale. “My gallery work has nothing to do with graffiti,” said SABIO.
Laidback with a sharp wit, he speaks philosophically about his art without sounding corny. He showed us around the exhibit and explained some of the work, then sat down in front of a massive canvas that he stretched himself using a tarp. “This piece actually reminisces and looks like graffiti, but it’s not. It’s a homage to the pixação,” he clarified.
On the walls, there’s a series of work that look like painted canvases, but were actually constructed from marble, limestone and plaster. For this exhibit, SABIO thought it was very important to construct the work. “All of these have limestone coats and bases,” he said. “Things that civilizations have been using ever since we’ve been building. I’m doing basic masonry, but I’m just making art with it.”
His drive to paint comes from something just as basic. SABIO explains his art as an addiction; the force that, for centuries, has indulged mankind’s primal urges. “Some people like to have beer, or some people like to smoke cigarettes,” he said. “Some people like to eat a lot, some people like to fuck a lot, I don’t know. You know my vice is that I like to paint a lot. It’s my vice.”