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Artist Features

I am YEG Arts: Sowl

April 11, 2024

"Sanctuariii" mural by Sowl, located in Toronto. Photo provided by artist.

Sowl is a Filipino-Canadian multidisciplinary artist hailing from Toronto whose creative output includes paintings, murals, tattoo art, a clothing line and more. With a style all of his own that blends 90’s pop culture with his cultural identity as part of the Filipino diaspora, Sowl makes expressive and soulful art meant to unite people. In this week’s I am YEG Arts story, Sowl tells us about why he creates art to be healing for all, about the mural that almost was in Vietnam and what’s next for him. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got your start as an artist. What were your early influences?

I’m a Filipino artist born on Turtle Island. I do murals, tattoos, paintings on canvas, and I have a clothing line. I was born and raised in Toronto, but I’ve made Edmonton my home because my family is here (they moved here in 2014). 

I’m a curious person and I’ve watched documentaries since as far back as I can remember. I was infatuated with all these different arts. My style grew by consciously combining everything from my memory into one. My style is also influenced by a mix of graffiti, DC, Marvel, and manga because I was a TV kid in the 90s. That consumed my life and was one of my greatest sources of inspiration. 

My brother and my uncle were artists. My dad was a little bit of an artist as well, and he lives like an artist. He’s also very supportive of my art, he’d always get me art supplies (and my mom did too.) We were just always around art. My dad somehow brought that atmosphere into our home; everything was related to art, his tattoos, and the animé he would show us that no one else would know about. He would take me to the comic bookstore. It was just always around me. I wouldn’t be where I am now without my dad and uncle.

You’ve described your work before as healing for all,” can you tell us about what you mean by that? 

We’re all kind of the same: we all want love, we all go through pain, suffering and depression. So, if I can heal myself, that means I can heal others. I base my art off the real deep emotions that I’m going through at the time. My clothing line Kapwa is also based off that, we’re all one. (Kapwa is a Filipino/​Tagalog word) 

My personal healing journey transfers into the canvas and the outcome is love. It’s a journal; it’s a time capsule. If you point out a painting of mine, I’ll be like I know exactly what I was going through at that time. I know what stress I had and what I needed and that’s connected through all people because we’re all one. 

Tell us about how as a Filipino-Canadian artist you explore and express your culture through your art.

I represent the soul of Filipino culture through my art. I contemplate if being Filipino is being myself at my purest. It’s how I represent my culture through my art. It’s not really exactly copying Filipino designs. The main thing is that’s how I represent the soul. Visually I do take influence from the ancient indigenous Filipino text called Baybayin (it’s like calligraphy writing.) I abstract Baybayin and I create my own forms and structures. And I’ve fused graffiti into it, and it makes it makes its own thing. I also take inspiration from these sculptures called Bulul that were used to protect rice crops. I was always infatuated by the protection aspect of it. Rice is a sign of prosperity in the Philippines, like if you have rice, you’re good. So I took that figure, and I made it into a guardian-like protector. I’m trying to protect space now, not the rice crops — I’ve changed the narrative. I’ll sometimes take ancient tattoo designs and incorporate them into my work. They’re abstracted because I’m part of the diaspora, I don’t know what the Baybayin calligraphy means, I’ve abstracted it and I’ve turned to my own language and now I can understand it. But that’s how all ancient cultures were born; it’s all based and found through looking within. 

Tell us more about your multidisciplinary practice and some of the different art forms you work in.

I do tattoos, clothing, paintings on canvas and murals. I do rap music too. Everything is all related, it’s just a different voice, the same message, same soul.

With my art no one tells me what to do, I kind of show them what they need. With murals and paintings, I just feel the energy and what it needs and that’s our approach. My tattoos as well, I’ll have a consultation with someone, and they’ll tell me who they are and what they stand for. I ask deep questions about them and then the designs just come from there. I show them what they need. Everything I create is a reflection of what I’m going through at that time, and I design everything based off that specific energy. I recently created my clothing line called Kapwa, and it’s about caring for each other. We’re all one, I really do feel that way. 

Tell us about what you’re currently working on and what’s coming up next for you.

Paintings. Right now, I’m obsessed because it’s so much fun. It’s not – but it is. I go through a lot in my head when I create, it’s like forced therapy. It’s really hard for me to start a piece because I’m scared of getting consumed by it, but when I am consumed by it, I’m like, Oh, that’s not so bad. But starting is always so hard. 

Two weeks ago, I was working on a four-story mural in Da Nang, Vietnam for the Nam Jam Mural Festival. I was 75% done the mural and near the tail end of the festival it got cancelled, but mine was the first to get complained about so I kind of I feel like I started it almost unfortunately. The government ordered the police to take everybody’s sites down. Now I’m back home with disappointment, but it’s OK because I made friends and cool connections. Shout out to Nam Jam Festival, it’s not their fault. 

I have a show coming up with my friend in June. I’m gonna have big paintings showing and I’m working on tattoos. I’m also working on releasing my clothing line, Kapwa.

I have a big three-story mural commission going up in June in Toronto. Me and my boy, we’ve been planning this for like two years. Yeah, we’re very excited. It’s gonna be really cool. Because I laid a lot of roots down in Toronto I’m back and forth with projects. I’m gonna take over everywhere if I can with love and respect.

About Sowl

Sowl is a multidisciplinary Filipino-Canadian artist. As a member of the Filipino diaspora in Canada, Sowl has struggled to understand his cultural identity. By using his practice to study the history of his culture, he has replenished the knowledge of his people that he lost through displacement. Sowl blends his heritage into his work by combining the ancient script of Baybayin with elements of abstraction, realism, manga, history, western and Eastern calligraphy, graffiti and nature. Mindfully exploring and expressing his heritage has led Sowl to a greater sense of connection with his roots. It is this healing and placemaking that he hopes to share with the Filipino-Canadian community by awakening ways in which people can feel freedom in themselves and connect to their roots instinctively.

Sowl recently relocated from Toronto to Edmonton to be with his family. He has paintings and murals in private collectors’ homes internationally from Los Angeles, USA, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Peru, China and in Alberta, Montréal, and Toronto, Canada.