Graffiti artist Sophie Mazzaro
By Ashley Brown
I discovered Sophie’s work on my last visit to the city tailor made for dream chasers, you got it, Los Angeles. The playground is a magnet for creative souls, called to explore their talent amongst the vibrant background of sunshine and happy vibes. There’s promise in the air that despite the hussle, if you keep doing what you love with passion and purpose, anything is possible. In late January 2020, following the death of beloved basketball player Kobe, Sophie’s calling decorated the sidewalk of LA’s infamous Venice beach. Crowds flocked to take selfies in front of the intimately painted legend, which she describes as ‘one of the most personal pieces of her career’. Sophie personifies what LA is all about, following your heart and pursuing what you were born to do. Here I talk to Sophie about her creative process, the challenges she faces as a woman in the industry and what she aims to achieve with her work. Pour yourself a coffee and dive in.
How did you discover your inner artist?
I already started painting when I was 5 years old. In our household we only had one TV to share with everyone and I usually wasn’t allowed to watch it. I’m grateful to have grown up in a time without smartphones. So I started doodling after school. I drew on everything – including the walls of my childhood bedroom, with oil paint- which absolutely was not met with praise… My dad taught me a lot when it comes to building stuff and being creative. I was just always creating and painting walls and bringing new characters to life. All my notebooks from school are covered in drawings. I even got kicked out of class for drawing on my desk.
What does art mean to you?
Art is everything to me. People tend to smile at it and fob it off as a hobby, but to me it’s truly part of who I am. I draw to express myself. I draw things that I struggle with expressing in words. I paint to make a difference in peoples’ lives. Every painting, every mural will evoke a reaction or a feeling in a stranger. Most artists live somewhere in between confidence and nagging self criticism. But sometimes, after I’ve finished a gigantic piece, I get this very proud and content feeling of having created something that just wasn’t there before. Without artists, we would miss out on so many beautiful experiences and impressions. And haven’t we learned during lockdown that Art is everything?
Yes, I agree lockdown has really bought that home to the world, how do you describe your style?
I find it difficult to describe my style – because all my works are so different from one another. All of them are incredibly detailed, no matter if the canvas is a small shoe or a large wall. I’d probably consider it a sort of pop art social commentary. I love picking up social issues that bug me and turning them into something fun and colourful and provoking reactions.
What do you hope to achieve with your art?
Some of my goals I’ve already achieved, for example exhibiting at Art Basel Miami, an exhibit with Shepard Fairy, being featured at Sneakertopia, and making my parents very proud. I want to paint around the world and combine my two greatest passions of traveling and being immersed into different cultures with expressing my experiences via paintings. My biggest goal is building the Mazzaro brand into a global production, getting to paint murals and having my paintings represented in galleries around the world.
Tell me about the most personal/ challenging piece you have worked on?
The Kobe mural was one of my most personal pieces in my career. The day he died I was having brunch with a close friend to whom I know Kobe was a big inspiration. That same day I vowed to create a mural in Kobe’s honor, even if I only did it for my friend.
I crawled through the city at night, which I’ve done many times, but couldn’t find the perfect wall. When I was back in my hood in Venice the most fitting, white, smooth wall appeared right in front of me. Within one day I got permission from the owner of the wall, since he was a Kobe fan as well. I painted the mural in one day. Normally, I would just have my headphones in and paint in silence, but not this time. At one point I turned around and spotted about 70 people who had gathered to watch me paint. Locals from our community as well as strangers and tourists all showed up to show their support and share their stories with me while I was painting under the hot California sun, right there by the famous Venice pier. It was a dream come true. Even Fox News came to cover the mural and suddenly, I was part of LA history and got to paint this tribute for one of our own in my own neighbourhood. It was an honour. The most special moment was when a deaf- mute girl showed up, all by herself, it must have been around midnight, and she started communicating with the finished mural. I had never experienced anything like this. She finally did a happy dance and kissed him goodbye and all of my team and I started tearing up. It was so beautiful and pure and the most wonderful example of what Art can achieve.
What are you trying to represent with that piece?
I wanted to pay my respects to a one-of-a-kind athlete and human being. He was so beloved and such an inspiration to people around the globe, I can’t think of anyone else whose death made such an impact. Painting is my favourite way to express loss, admiration or even frustration. I picked a very specific photo of him as reference – one that summed him perfectly: from being kind, to incredibly hard working and determined and one of the best athletes on the planet. I wanted to have him there in our community in Venice and give people a place to grieve. When they started putting down candles and roses, I knew I had done my job.
What do you find most challenging as a woman in the industry?
The sexism women still encounter. It’s frustrating that this is still a thing in 2020. But sometimes when I send my portfolio to a gallery, I get responses like “Can I invite you to dinner” or “are you seeing someone”. I just haven’t heard any of my male artist friends deal with the same kind of predatory behaviour. As a female, you sure get judged a lot more. I was always part of all male graffiti crews, who only started treating me with respect once they found out I can actually paint. On some projects, I found out I got paid less for the same amount of work as my male counterparts. Some clients only inquire about artworks because they’re trying to get to meet me.
Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone. I’ve worked with the most kind men and they’ve treated me like one of the boys from day one! And I definitely enjoy being a woman in a mostly male dominated field – just like my mom who is an IT specialist, we love fighting it out and showing them what we’re made of.
How and where do you find inspiration for your work?
I get most of my inspiration from my travels. I grew up in Europe and was fortunate to experience a lot of other countries, cultures and Art. Recently I’ve been inspired by the Miami colour palette, pastels, blues and pinks and I try to incorporate that. My mom lived in Sicily for a long time, so we visited often, and I am still obsessed with the vibrant colours and patterns and recently painted myself a Sicilian coffee table. Others collect magnets but I try to do a watercolour sketch or some sort of artwork of unforgettable places I’ve visited so that I get to see them every day as a memory.
What do you love most about your work?
I get to do what I love for a living. It was a long road to where I am today but being able to paint every single day and earn money doing so is the greatest reward on earth. I love creating. I can’t imagine doing anything else. And I also love seeing people’s reactions when I paint something personal for them. I’ve had a few clients in tears and as sappy as that sounds, that makes me incredibly happy.
How would you like to see the industry change for women in the future?
It would be a much needed change to treat women as equals. Again, I can’t believe we have to discuss this still in this day and age, but pay should be the same regardless of gender. When applying for a job, we should be judged by our portfolio and ability, not by our looks. I don’t want to be introduced anymore as a “female graffiti artist”. I am a graffiti artist. I work just as hard as every guy. We’ve earned the right to be taken seriously as artists, regardless how we decide to dress in our free time and we deserve to earn the same.
What is the best advice you have had?
Never take advice from someone who doesn’t follow their own advice. For the longest time I looked up and tried to impress all the wrong people. Many give unsolicited advice that doesn’t even concern you and is mirroring their own insecurities, usually because they’re scared to give up their 9-5 life and risk everything to follow their heart of what they’d truly love to do. Don’t listen to them, do your thing and trust your gut. The right kind of friends will always have your back.
What advice would you give any women looking to unleash their inner artist?
Draw. Draw. Draw. Every single day. Get in the habit of being creative every single day. It’s therapeutic, healing and will make you perfect your craft. I never went to school for Art. But I’ve spent the last 24 years drawing and practicing. And I love looking at old artwork and comparing my improvements. I never recommend spending a bunch of money on Art School and degrees. You can learn almost anything by just practicing and repetition.
And most of all- express yourself 🙂 Paint your way out of that cookie cutter lifestyle. At some point my Art teacher gave me a C. If one day my kid brings up a turquoise alligator drawing it’s definitely going up on the fridge!
I love that!
Finishing up this interview really brings home how important it is to be having these kinds of conversations, sharing experiences and views from women in the creative industries is untapped gold. And they are needed now more than ever. Not only for the insights they provide on a vital process. Somewhere in every exchange is the ultimate motivation to keep creating. Speaking to Sophie is refreshment for the creative soul, that same cooling bliss that washed through mine on Venice beach. When I stood in awe of her Kobe masterpiece, I was capturing more than the incredible art. Sophie had inspired a feeling. Every person lucky enough to experience that would have likely asked the same question; who is this artist, and where do we find her?
all images © Sophie Mazzarro