AG Saño talks about art, marine conservation and volunteerism

On June 9 and 10, as part of Tubbataha’s 25th anniversary activities, renowned mural painter AG Saño collaborated with local artists and volunteers in Puerto Princesa to create a public mural of marine life in Tubbataha for Coral Triangle Day.

Saño is a painter and activist who is passionate about street art and the marine environment. He has developed a painting style that can involve thousands of volunteers. Community involvement in Sano’s art give it greater meaning and impact.

In March, Saño was among the Heroes for Peace awardees in the 5th Multiple Intelligence International School Awards. He is also Arts for Peace Ambassador of the Asia-America Initiative for his contribution towards the peace process in Mindanao.

During a break in the Tubbataha mural painting, Saño talked to Katherine Jack about art, marine conservation and volunteerism.

Where did your passion for art originate?

I can remember clearly in fourth grade I saw my seatmate working on a drawing and asked him ‘maybe you can teach me how to do that?’ By chance, the first drawing that I did was of a shark. Little did I know then that I would end up working in marine conservation. I joined the school art club and was given an award, so my mother enrolled me in summer art classes with Fernando Sena, who is now considered the best art mentor in the Philippines. After four summers attending his classes I became his assistant teaching in different venues around Manila.

Did you study art at University?

I studied landscape architecture at the University of the Philippines with another great mentor, Ildefonso Santos, who is now National Artist for Architecture. After college I spent a time working for an architectural firm but I then left to become a landscape and travel photographer.

You spent time in the US and Europe, what took you there?

I was up in the Cordilleras doing missionary work and a friend who was living in the US asked me to bring him to Sagada. He told me they were looking for photographers in Miami so I applied. It was a fast process and within three months I was on my way to the US. I was assigned to the maiden voyage of Disney Cruise Lines in the Mediterranean. Part of my job was taking photos of European landmarks but while I was there I became interested in street art and started taking photos of graffiti in my free time.

What pulled you back to the Philippines?

I was watching a CNN report on TV about some celebrities trying to protect a pod of pilot whales. It struck me really hard and one of my work mates commented “aren’t you supposed to be doing something like that?” It was meant as a joke but it stuck in my mind, he was right. I soon resigned from Disney and returned home to the Philippines where I resumed working with a group of friends on humpback whale research in the Babuyan Islands.

How did you begin painting dolphin murals?

I had heard about The Cove [a documentary about the annual slaughter of 23,000 dolphins in Taiji, Japan] but it was a year before I could get someone to send a copy up to the Babuyan Islands. After watching The Cove I was instantly moved to paint a mural as a tribute to the dolphins that died. That was in 2010 and I decided to continue working on murals until I had painted 23,000 dolphins.

Tell me about your painting style and working with volunteers…

I had a deep interest in painting mural ever since my days as a travel photographer when I saw large alter mural in Negros called The angry Christ. It really inspired me and I decided that I wouldn’t paint any more canvases, I wanted to do big paintings.

I began painting murals with my friends and team from the humpback whale research project. I was the only artist among them so I formulated a way to let non-artists paint. I draw an outline defining the blank spaces that are painted in by others. So far I estimate I’ve painted with around 45,000 volunteers.

I hear you look up to the British street artist Banksy?

Yes, he’s a hero of mine. I like the way he is able to send out his message in a humorous and sneaky fashion. Graffiti is an act of expression as well as rebellion and Banksy puts purpose in rebellion. He is known everywhere, even kids who I meet in the slums of Manila know about him.

Are there any mural painters you view as role models or are you mostly inspired by street artists?

I have always been in awe of the murals of Diego Rivera – grand, full of details, meaningful and always with a purpose to tell stories.

Tell us about the mural you have painted for Tubbataha…

It is exciting to be working with a big NGO [The World Wildlife Fund] on a grassroots project for the Coral Triangle. Tubbataha is a very important site for marine conservation in the whole world so, as an environmental campaigner and activist, this mural is symbolic for me. But I’m also here to promote the use of art to advance advocacies ­– art is a big part of who I am.

What might the next few years hold for you and your work?

I believe there is reason to continue painting public murals and for as long as there are environmental issues that need to be heard, I will still paint to create walls that speak.


Humpback whale project:
EDSA peace mural: