A San Diego artist known only as Sake stands in the center of his tiny den, which also serves as a makeshift gallery. From the waist up, this room is orderly, with paintings hanging level on the walls. The floor, however, is another matter. Plastic toys in eye-catching primary colors litter the carpet, and a small dog and an even smaller child make frequent appearances at ankle level. It's wise to look down before taking a step in any direction.
Life bustles at this cozy house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Spring Valley. Just past dinnertime, Sake's wife, Chyna, whisks the couple's 14-month-old son, Miles, from his highchair to his bedroom so Daddy can talk about his work. Toddlers don't stay still for long, though, and pretty soon Miles is underfoot, grunting contentedly and pounding on a toy that bleats animal tones and whistles Hi-ho the derry-o, the farmer in the dell.
It must be a gift bestowed upon new parents that along with a high tolerance for slimy bodily excretions and an ability to forgo sleep, over time the cacophony of family life becomes less a distracting din and more like something an ambient sound machine might emit. Sake seems impervious to the noise creeping steadily up the decibel meter. He's fully immersed in serious art talk until an unmistakable-and unbelievably stinky-odor wafts up to his nostrils.
"Miles!" he exclaims, scooping the child into his arms. "I swear, he can be in his room playing and I'm in the kitchen washing dishes, and I can smell it the second it happens."
Sake beams with fatherly pride on the subject of his son's pungent loads, which seems all the more endearing coming from a 37-year-old man who runs a tattoo shop, Hillcrest's Red Lantern, and has a background in graffiti (legal, of course).
Then Sake utters the five words so obvious a "duh" should be tacked on the end: "Having a child changes everything."
If any parent is designed to hang out with a kid, though, it's this guy. Sake seems like a big kid himself, in his energy and mannerisms, and especially in his artwork. In the den, Sake's most arresting work is "The March of the Great Lipizzaner," an oil painting featuring a little girl dangling an apple in front of her trotting horse. Another painting points to the artist's boyish fondness for elaborately tagged subway cars; still another pays homage to Elsa Lanchester, who played the bride in Bride of Frankenstein.
Sake's biggest big-kid giveaway is his studio, a former storage shed to the side of the house. He's scrawled "Boys Only!" across the door, a nod to Little Rascals and fitting, as his studio more closely resembles a secret clubhouse than a workspace. Inside, classical music is blaring and it smells like strawberry gum. Books and vintage toys and tchotchkes of every stripe line shelves that reach to the ceiling. It's a little boy's room from 50 years ago. Sake even wears a fedora with an "I Like Ike" button.
But all is not immediately what it seems.
A closer look at the "Lipizzaner" painting from the den reveals an unexpected twist: a skull blended into the apple's white gleam. Perhaps riffing on Hans Holbein-whose 16th-century "The Ambassadors" is a spot-the-skull art-book classic-Sake brings a symbol of mortality into an otherwise pretty, almost fairytale-like scene. The detail matters to him enough that he turned down an offer from a prospective buyer who wanted the skull removed so he could hang the painting in his child's room.
On a nearby wall, that tagged New York City subway car sits undisturbed like a ghost train. The graffiti along its body is styled old-school, from the era of aerosol masterpieces when street art was fresh and audacious and revolutionary to its players. There's no question those days are gone, and, as such, the painting has a resigned and retired feel about it, even as it waxes nostalgic.
Sake's studio, piled high with eye candy, yields plenty of clues to the artist, as well. Many of the items belong to family members who've passed away. Little toy figures from the '40s were his father's; from his aunt, he inherited dentures and a pair of glasses, among other treasures.
Slightly more morbid is a wall of crosses from his relatives' caskets. One crucifix is stained with lipstick where his grandmother kissed Jesus' feet every day. A century-old cross looks unusually hefty, and Sake notes that it once doubled as a tool for breaking windows during fires-apparently a more reliable method than prayer.
The stacks of books reflect Sake's devotion to his craft. He's entirely self-taught, which means he picked up complicated techniques and learned about art history in the aisles of bookstores instead of at an expensive art school. For inspiration, he collects children's books and books about WWII and anything else that strikes his fancy.
"I have a lot of stuff. I go through magazines constantly and rip things out," he says. "I like a lot of old books. That's pretty much my process."
He enjoys tattooing. He's been doing it for eight years and is happy running his 2-year-old shop with Chyna. He's good, too, but he does it more for the money than the love. "There are people that are real tattoo artists. I'm not that tattoo-artist guy."
Eventually, he'd like to pursue fine art full-time. "How I feel about oil painting," he says, pausing for emphasis. "I've never felt that way about tattooing. It's like when I was a kid doing graffiti. I want to do it all day long."
Sake stepped into the graffiti scene in 1982. He was one of the first in San Diego to really get serious about the art form. One of his early graffiti pieces, a large eye-catching mural, still colors the brick walls of Pokez Mexican Restaurant downtown.
These days, most of Sake's paint is reserved for his canvases. He takes time off from tattooing when preparing for shows, painting 10 or 12 hours a day for two weeks straight. He recently did a group show in Sacramento and has a four-man show opening on Feb. 10 at Distinction Gallery in Escondido.
The pieces propped against the wall of Sake's studio are in various stages of completion. A large canvas features a slightly disjointed portrait of a jazz player from the Harlem Renaissance, and right next to it, a twee gothic painting of a big-eyed girl. He says there's a common thread to all his works: "Something dark."
It's certainly not a menacing darkness; it's more like a residual dusting of it, left in the wake of family members dying and children being born.
"It's the best day of your life and the worst day," Sake acknowledges of his son's birth. "Because you know he's going to die one of these days. Like myself. It makes you think of your own mortality."
"He gives me total joy. Total. But the opposite comes out in my work sometimes."
A group show featuring new paintings by Sake, Daryll Peirce and Gabe Leonard opens at Distinction, 317 E. Grand Ave. in Escondido, from 5:30 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10.