Happiness is a State of Art: Meet Sotiris Fokeas
If art had a happy face, that would be Soteur; the totally chilled-out, totally loud and beer-loving character that has popped out of artist Sotiris Fokeas’s imagination. He’s also an artist, one that paints in the brightest colours and brags about his looks on Instagram. But what do Soteur and Sotiris have in common? Other than their mutual love for art, not much.
When he’s not being Soteur, you’ll probably find Sotiris creating logos for 15 hours straight, or a mural on a street somewhere around Athens. Repeated patterns, geometric symbols and sarcastic comments are all part of the mix, as are collaborations with brands like Sharpie and art projects for companies such as Adidas, Red Bull and Google. Unlike his alter ego, Sotiris seems focused, professional and not nearly as drunk. Still, never has Greece’s art scene needed the joyful Soteur more than now.
The question is, can you tell the difference?
Konstantina Pyrnokoki: How did you get involved with art? Is someone in your family an artist?
Sotiris Fokeas: My mother worked as an architect, a long time ago, but that didn’t play a part in my decision to become an artist. My family was actually very negative about it. I started drawing when I was little, by copying comic-book characters. When I was 14, I tried graffiti and I quickly realized that I wanted to be better at it. Then MySpace came along and introduced me to this great community of artists, who gradually inspired me to present myself as an artist, too – even before I was actually one. So one of my high school teachers encouraged me to take the exam for admission to the Athens School of fine Arts, which is different from the Panhellenic exams [the Greek equivalent to the SATs]. She secretly arranged for me to take it and so, at the very last minute, I told my parents, “Look; I’m taking both exams. But if I don’t get into Fine Arts, I won’t go to any other school”. Thankfully, I got in and that was it.
What other art forms besides drawing have you turned to over the years?
I’ve done a lot of different things. During my studies, I didn’t really draw or do any graffiti. I mostly did installations, performances and videos. I got involved with graffiti again in 2017, mostly as a means to promote my work – and also because I enjoy doing it with friends. Instead of going out for coffee, we set out to paint. But I did different things at the uni. At the time, I was very interested in public space; not in the sense of the street, but of the internet. That’s where we share most of our work and our personality with the world. So I became interested in all things related to data protection and the way our personal information is collected by companies through the web. Which also translates into how an artist is presented on social media and the ramifications of that when it comes to data protection. So I hired a lawyer to sort of “sue” Facebook and ask that they send me all the information they had on me. They did, and I turned it into a book for my dissertation.
How big was it?
I made a 1,000-page book, but the information I received was 20,000 pages long! I was part of an activist group at the time, and our work contributed to the worldwide demand for bigger transparency in the social media sphere. Of course, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that a real step forward was taken, with the GDPR regulations. But, to answer your question, I was doing anything but drawing for some time.
Wow, the Facebook part sounds freaky. So how did you start drawing again?
Well, after mostly doing conceptual art, I took a break to do something completely different. I worked in the marketing business for almost five years. I was managing a team, which had nothing to do with art, but I liked how everything was structured. I figured I would learn a thing or two about how to promote my work as an artist and how someone not familiar with art could understand it. I did gain some valuable marketing skills, and I am thankful for it. Still, I wasn’t truly happy. I worked 15 hours a day only to come home and think of what I was going to draw next. And so, I returned to doing art full time. I figured I’d use the power of social media to get back on the scene. I started reconnecting with artists and I enrolled in the Master’s program I’m currently doing, at the Athens School of fine Arts.
And then came Soteur?
Yes. To be honest, I feel like my current Soteur-related work is not extremely sophisticated from an artist’s point of view, especially compared to my previous stuff. But I like how people connect to it and understand it even though they might know nothing about art. Ultimately, I think that the world needs Soteur and his pieces. They need an artist who draws happy things and likes to have fun; I feel it’s an artistic statement on its own. I never really understood why art has to be heavy and pretentious or even miserable to matter. And in the end, I’m not interested in pleasing my teacher or my artist friends. I’m interested in pleasing my parents and my girlfriend, who have nothing to do with the art world.
But does that fulfil you as an artist?
It does. I think that artists need to take a look around and get in tune with what’s happening outside of art. You can’t ignore how well stand-up comedy or the memes are doing, or even how fashion presents itself artistically. You can’t keep doing art for artists. You can’t keep drawing landscapes while someone else can say it all with a meme. As soon as you realize that the world of art is a limited ‘bubble’, you understand that, by making art for art, you’re only getting through to a very small minority of people, and that’s not right. I think I’ll never stop wanting to communicate with my neighbour or my aunt through my art, even more so than with other artists. And I can still comment on the serious stuff that’s been going on, but with a more humorous, sarcastic kind of style.
So tell me more about this Soteur character. Is he so different from you?
Well, Soteur is part of a project that I am working on at the moment. I haven’t really defined it yet myself, but it’s based on the entirety of the things I post on Instagram, as Soteur. The way this character presents himself and posts on Instagram is very different from the way I am as an artist. And the artistic value of what I do on Instagram is not placed on the artworks I create and then post about, but more on Soteur’s entire presence. He’s like this really chill guy, who ‘talks’ in Caps Lock as if he’s yelling all the time. He likes to draw cute kittens and drink a lot of beer. I couldn’t possibly relate to his lifestyle.
But do people know that this isn’t actually you? Can they tell the difference between Sotiris the artist and Soteur the persona/artist?
No, they can’t; they think that’s actually me. And I like that, that’s the whole point of the project. They call me to paint at events and they have me sit by the bar, because they think that all I do is drink and paint! [laughing] But it’s really fun! For one night I can be that guy and not care about anything. It’s like I’m 15 again, doing graffiti and drinking beer. In reality, I make logos 15 hours a day, I can’t afford to be this ‘yolo guy’ who fools around all the time. But it’s amazing how people have fallen for that and I find it intriguing how I’ve managed to convince them that I am him. But that’s the beauty of it and that’s what the project focuses on; on how you can present a persona on the internet and let that character consume you, to the point that you almost become them. Obviously, the people who know me and know my work, know that I am not Soteur, but those who discover my work on Instagram at the moment, can’t really tell the difference; and I find that fascinating!
But I noticed your art has turned slightly darker recently?
Oh yes! My ‘black metal’ phase! [laughing] Having done two solo exhibitions in a row during the summer, I was exhausted and felt like I needed a break. When I was ready to draw again, I didn’t want to do the things I would usually do. So instead of all the bright colours and little clouds, I started using more black and drawing things like thorns and lightning strikes. It’s been real fun! I’ve named it ‘black metal’ as a joke.
So what kind of techniques and materials do you use?
I include a lot of patterns in my works and I fill in surfaces with random things. I mostly work with ink, spray and markers. I prefer cheap materials that dry fast, because when I have an idea, I want to make it work as soon as possible, since a new one is usually on the way. So I don’t like to work with materials that take a lot of time. One of my favourite hacks is to use the paint roller that you would use for painting walls, but from its smaller round side, so that it works as a bigger, two-centimetre marker. And, generally, I love doing freestyle. Being offered a white surface – whether that’s a canvas or a wall – and getting asked to do anything I want with it adds a new level of challenge. That’s my favourite part of the process; getting to ‘solve the puzzle’ of what to make of the surface. It’s inspiration on the spot, just like in stand-up improv or in hip-hop battles!
Have you done any exhibitions outside of Greece?
Yes, I have. But I feel that if you’re going to do one abroad, you will have to connect with that specific audience. And right now, I believe that Greek people will relate more to what I do than a French or a German would, for example. And not because I paint about the financial crisis, because I don’t. I don’t want to be associated with the crisis. I’ve lived it and I grew through it. But I do want to show what Greek art is all about to people living abroad, through the use of social media. And that’s one of the things I’m also working on at the moment. Athens is full of hard-working artists who haven’t made it one of the hottest art hubs in Europe right now just because they’re adequate. They have done so because they work relentlessly night and day.
It seems you love your city. So how would you describe Athens?
I’m in love with Athens! I can’t really describe it. It’s so alive, so full of energy and it has this sense of beautiful unruliness that resonates with the graffiti artist in me. But most of all, it’s filled with people who have experienced pain and have managed to create something through it or even because of it. Athens rules! ■