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Artist of the Month – Justin Santora

by Alexa Kitchen

in Artist of the Month


At CustomInk, we love custom artwork, and that love goes beyond custom designs created in our Design Lab. To inspire your creative side, we’ve chosen some of our favorite artists to feature on our blog.

Here we meet illustrator Justin Santora, a Chicago native who primarily works in poster art. Get to know Justin a little bit better with the help of our Q&A.

CustomInk: What made you want to become an artist?

Justin: I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember, but as a kid, I used to really resist it. I think I wrestled with gender-based expectations in early grade school. I wanted to be good at sports like many of my classmates, so I spent a few years forcing myself to take an interest in them, even though they actually made me quite miserable. I should have known better. I don’t say this as any kind of bid for sympathy but just to contextualize my complicated history with the word “artist”.

Thankfully in middle school, I discovered skateboarding and punk rock, two subcultures that encouraged me to be weird, different, and creative. I spent the rest of my adolescence playing in punk bands and drawing often but rather casually. In high school, I would excel in most of my art classes, but I was so eager to get home from school and play music or go skateboarding with friends that I think I missed a lot of opportunities to develop certain skills that I’d later wish I’d developed.

In college, I used to see drawing as more of a party trick. I could doodle on a napkin at a bar or on a repair receipt at work and it might amuse friends or coworkers. I considered myself to be a creative person, but I was more or less content with my unrefined pencil and pen scratchings remaining infrequent and unambitious. I had zero aspirations of making art professionally in any capacity; I was entirely too pessimistic.

Towards the end of college, I had settled on studying to become a high school teacher. While comumredrocks_lgpleting clinical hours in 2007, my confidence in that career path began to waver. By the time I was student teaching in the winter/spring of 2008, all I could think about was how I could escape more traditional forms of employment once I graduated. I realized I had tricked myself into thinking I would somehow be okay with forty more years of the same rigid structure that drove me crazy in my teenage years. This is not to diminish the value of the work that educators do, as I think it’s an infinitely important profession. It is no false modesty for me to say that I am simply not cut out for that particular line of work.

After a couple of chance meetings with illustrators who were making rock posters, I started plotting to learn how to screen print. Poster art and screen printing felt so democratic, and the idea that you could cobble together an affordable setup in a spare bedroom or garage made the whole thing seem much more approachable. I wanted to see if I could even just earn a portion of my income through screen printing and illustration, and if so, I would simply work one or two part time jobs to make ends meet. At 24, I was perfectly content to do that and just see where things would lead. My part time jobs didn’t last terribly long, and by the spring of 2009, I was screen printing and drawing as my only source of income and I haven’t looked back since. I finally stopped resisting the word “artist” and the word “professional”, but I more commonly just call myself an illustrator. In short, I used art as an escape route from the things I didn’t want to become.

CustomInk: What piece of your art are you most proud of and why?

Justin Santora: I’d imagine this is a tough question for any artist or illustrator to answer because like most creative types I know, I have trouble focusing attention away from the things that I wish I had done better on any given piece of work. I can think of a few posters or art prints that I have done that have sold out that I still get emails or messages about, but the more time that passes, the more I can look at things I know I could have rendered differently or color choices I should have made more wisely, etc. It would be nice to finally allow myself to feel lasting pride about a thing I made, but at the same time, that perennial dissatisfaction does a lot to drive me forward.

CustomInk: What do you hope to achieve with your art?

Justin: Comfort

CustomInk: What’s one work of art by another artist you wish you had created?

Justin: There are too many to name, but this is sort of a complicated thing to think about. I don’t want to lose sight of creating worlds that are entirely my own. Perhaps since our styles are so different, I’m comfortable saying that one of my favorite screen prints is a piece entitled “The Wanton Sea,” by my friend Jessica Seamans (of the studio, Landland). At the same time, I can’t truly wish that I’d created this beautiful image, though, because that would mean pilfering one of my favorite works from the catalogue an incredible artist. This print is mind blowing.

CustomInk: Is there another art 59p_lg form you’d love to master?

Justin: I work primarily in ink and acrylic, and though I’d love to do more painting in general, I don’t think I’ve mastered anything. I have a long way to go in developing my skills in both mediums, but I’d definitely like to get more proficient with life drawing and maybe oil painting.

CustomInk: What’s your most indispensable tool or office supply?

Justin: This is a tough one! Maybe I’d have to say my computer setup. I do so much booking, management, and promotion online and on social media, that it’s hard to imagine creating a name for oneself without it these days. And while I mostly draw and paint traditionally on paper or panels, I could–if it really came down to it–do my work with a graphics tablet in photoshop and outsource the printing. I don’t know. Don’t hold me to that.

CustomInk: Do you have a pre-creativity ritual?

Justin: I like to drink tea at the start of most days. Maybe the caffeine helps wake up my brain, but it’s also nice to sip on something kind of sweet to ease into the day. Depending on the project, I will also do research and brainstorming to make sure my concept is one that will appropriately resonate with the client.

CustomInk: Where do you think clothing fits into the art world?

Justin: At the moment, a lot of the work I do is more commercial, so I’m used to seeing my illustrations and typography on posters and t-shirts. We live in a very visual culture, and clothing is very much a part of that. This could mean a graphic that I drew being printed on a band’s shirt, but it could also mean the conversation that fashion designers are having through the construction of both high and low fashion garments. It sort of depends on what your definition of art is, but I think it’s everywhere. Utilitarian and commercial art totally counts. They are artifacts of culture.

CustomInk: Let’s say you had to invent a new crayon color to describe yourself, what would it be?

Justin: I would come up with a color that is as sad as it is happy. One that is inviting, but not used terribly often. It would be like an optical synesthesia of what it feels like to be in love for the first time during autumn.

CustomInk: CustomInk has a froyo machine in the office. What is your froyo topping of choice?

Justin: I’d love some kind of crushed cookie topping. But make mine vegan, please!

Hope you had fun getting to know Justin Santora— we sure did! If you’d like to see more of Justin’s artwork, check out his website.

Special thanks to Jack Foust, a Production Art Lead at CustomInk, for curating and contributing to our Artist of the Month list.


About the Author - Alexa Kitchen

Alexa has worked for CustomInk for over a year, and helps contribute fun content to the blog. She’s all about finding the perfect play on words to help inspire customers to create the ideal t-shirt. If you like silly sayings and catchy slogans, check out more of her posts!

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