Kat Bein Kat Bein | March 8, 2021 | Culture
Drips is a series that examines a new generation of modern artists breaking out of the museum mold. From the streets to the gallery, crossing over into pop culture at large, these are the artists elevating today's scene.
Like the chubby cheeks of a laughing baby or the wagging tail of a pouncing pup, FriendsWithYou's bright and child-like art works tap into a universal sense of cheer and wonder.
Founded in 2002 by Sam Borkson and Arturo “Tury” Sandoval III, FriendsWithYou’s smiling characters and imaginative environments radiate fun and possibility through a rainbow palette.
The collective straddles commercialism and fine art with equal verve, creating sculptures and designer dolls, stickers and gallery showcases, larger-than-life installations and animated TV series.
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If you bought a ticket to J. Balvin's 2019 Arcoíris Tour, you got a face full of their whimsy. Thanks to collabs with Lacoste and Guess, you can even wear it on your sleeve. What soon becomes apparent though, is that FWY is less about the “what” and more about the “how it feels.”
“It's for the kids that grew up never getting to be kids,” Borkson says. “The world is so crazy, and all these adults are out there needing love, affection and experience; some form of joy in a therapeutic type of way.”
Before they were FriendsWithYou (and Balvin, and Pharrell Williams), Borkson and Sandoval had to become friends with each other. Born in Plantation, Fla., and Havana, Cuba, respectively, the pair first met as college students in the early 2000s rave scene.
“We somehow got to see each other's sketchbooks,” Sandoval remembers, “and even though we were drawing different things, it was almost in the same manner – very textural.”
“They were kind of experiential,” Borkson adds, “with flaps and interactivity.”
Two kindred spirits connected under neon lights, and the rave scene's communal euphoria shone through their earliest pieces. Malfi was the original mascot. A bowling-pin shaped take on the ancient comedy and tragedy masks of Greek theater, the beloved plushie was said to be lucky, appearing either as a black, frowning clown or rainbow-spotted smiler.
Malfi and other designer toys caught on quickly with collectors, but what set FWY apart from contemporaries Kidrobot and Munny was the esoteric message.
“The idea was that these things were imbued with power or the psychological dynamics of an amulet,” Sandoval says, “something basic to the primitive brain. From there it was a transition like, 'why cant we design a space that's treated as a church?”
In 2005, the friends crafted Cloud City, an installation at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami. Costumed creatures, inflatable balls and dancing cones moved with true life around a smiling, circus-striped bulb. Everything was touchable, climbable and interactive, bringing the inner child out of everyone whether 12 or 62.
In 2006, Toyota Scion commissioned FWY to create 18 giant blimps and put them on parade. The Art Basel event was called Skywalkers, and it also featured a marching band. Biggest of all was 2010's Rainbow City, “a 40-piece environmental installation addressing the potency of interaction, ritual, and play" that traveled from Toronto to Art Basel, NYC, Detroit and Louisiana.
“We're more idea centric and medium agnostic,” Sandoval says. “We want to … push culture passed this little bump where we find [things we have] in common as opposed to isolation.”
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In 2007, they were introduced to Pharrell Williams through Daniel Arsham and Emmanuel Perrotin. The Grammy-winning producer was already a big fan. He came to the table with excitement, looking to mentor the collective toward grander goals. Now, they call him a “big brother.”
“He was like 'yo, I want to be part of FriendsWithYou,” Borkson laughs, “and we're like, 'what do you mean? You're an icon of the world. We're two dorky, kind of chubby guys in Miami.' What he saw in us, we didn't even quite know, even though we were working on it. He was saying amazing things to us like, 'you guys are the next Disney.'”
“He's an actual visionary,” Sandoval continues. “He really does see through The Matrix [to] the connecting nodes in culture that are hard for other people to see.”
Pharrell has worked closely with the group ever since, collaborating on the 2014 art book We Are FriendsWithYou and introducing them to fellow musicians Tyler, The Creator, A$AP Ferg, Bad Bunny and more. He was not, however, their connection to J. Balvin.
“That was just us hitting him on Instagram,” Borkson says. Huge fans of the Colombian reggaeton singer, FWY were offered the chance to design his stage production from all angles.
“He's aligned on the same wavelength,” Sandoval says, “trying to put positivity forward and make that a central part of his persona – not just as a person, but as a construct.”
Giant inflatable rainbows, costumed dancers and neon props brought FriendsWithYou’s world to Balvin’s sold-out arenas from Coachella to his Arcoiris Tour, across the Americas and a few international stops. It was the perfect opportunity for the collective that knows no bounds.
“We were students of (Takashi) Murakami, (Yoshitomo) Nara, (Alejandro) Jodorowsky, (Osamu) Tezuka and (Hayao) Miyazaki,” Borkson says. “Art changed for our whole generation. We are the kids that grew up on our phones, on video games, on TV – with screens. All those people that are diagnosed ADD – yeah duh. Our minds were just calculating information to their breaking point … It's allowed us to look at the whole world.”
“Small World,” part of the Playworks series. PHOTO BY MARTEN ELDER
Blending do-it-yourself with do-it-all, FWY continues to push its message of love, glee and healing in as many mediums and modes as the world will offer. In 2017, they worked with Netflix and Guru Studio on the animated children series True and the Rainbow King. They're currently in talks to launch another animated show, as well as a live-action series they describe as “Mr. Rogers meets Peewee's Play House.”
In 2018, their latest mascot “Little Cloud” appeared as a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. The happy, fluffy guy is the centerpiece of their spring '21 Guess capsule collection, with whom they continue to imagine new collaborations.
When FWY dares to dream, they think of one day covering the globe in water parks, skate parks, installations and other explorable little corners of brightness. Maybe some of them could be a discoverable secrets. Maybe some stuff like that already exists.
“If we can give anything to the next generation of artists, it's [a focus on] diversification and what you're saying,” Borkson says. “What holds our practice together is that it's all from like this intention of love and emotional connection… As much as we feel like we're so different from each other, there's so much more that connects us, and that's at the heart of what we do.”
Photography by: CASEY KELBAUGH / CODY BURKHARDT / BYEONGHO KIM / MARTEN ELDER / FRIENDSWITHYOU AND GURU STUDIO