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In most ways, Sam Borkson had a typical American childhood. Growing up in the suburbs of western Broward County during the '80s and '90s, he watched Saturday-morning cartoons, read comic books, and played videogames. Like most kids from his generation, a ceaseless stream of pop-culture images seeped slowly into his consciousness, from Sesame Street to Spiderman to Super Mario Brothers.
Arturo "Tury" Sandoval III, on the other hand, moved to Florida from Cuba when he was 14. As a young child, he'd not been influenced by American commercialism and entertainment, Claymation Christmas specials, or the powerful mouse ears of Disney. "When I first came into contact with all this stuff, it was overwhelming," says Sandoval, now 33.
Together, Sam and Tury are the inventive minds behind FriendsWithYou, a Miami-based artist collaborative producing a peculiar brand of modern art. They're getting plenty of attention from the international art community and international corporations alike. FriendsWithYou has produced hand-stitched toys, a giant parade of blimps floating down South Beach, a custom-built, interactive bounce house installation, and plenty of prints. Through it all, FWY's art is something like a psilocybin-induced vivid dream set in a secret level of Super Mario Bros. 3.
"It's shiny happy graphic candy with sugar on top," Sam says.
"A colorful doorway to a bigger idea," says a pensive Tury.
They've created several simple, amorphous characters with names like Buddy Chub, Malfi, and Fluffy Pop. Although most of them are adorable, some mix the adorable with the horrific. Certain characters are rainbow-colored and sparkly; others are black and white, with X's for eyes. Each has an imaginative backstory involving other worlds and times, and they all incorporate FWY's overall theme of "magic, luck, and friendship." FriendsWithYou's website is described as "a portal to a secret club and lifetime adventure."
Though on the surface the products and concepts seem geared toward children, there's something about the images that will seem familiar to members of Generation Y — Americans in their late 20s and early 30s. And that's by design, says Sam.
"We put the things we like to see into a context," he says. "It could be taking the Mario Brothers iconography, which is very familiar and relatable to people, and giving it a higher purpose. We're making aspirational art, like when artists were painting across giant churches, but more modern and relatable."
The religious overtones are no accident either. "The philosophy from the get-go has been to bring this uplifting redesigning and remarketing to the parts of life that deal with the spiritual side of the human race," Tury says. "Our generation has had a hard time feeling spiritual outside of the dogma of the mainstream religions."
That's right, with their stuffed toys and 60-foot blimps, they aim to not only please the eye but to heal the soul. It might seem like quite an ambitious goal, but to these burly men who draw like little girls and stitch like seasoned grandmothers, that's just the beginning.
They met through mutual acquaintances in the rave scene when Sam was at school at the University of Miami. Immediately they recognized in each other a sense of childlike positivism. Sam says he's worked hard his entire life to "maintain that special way of thinking like a child, not giving boundaries to your imagination." They started making designer toys together under the name FriendsWithYou in 2002.
Since then, they've expanded their operation to include multimedia and animated projects, installations (which often include designer bounce houses), and participation in some of the world's preeminent art shows. In 2006, during the week of Art Basel, Sam and Tury (with help from their network of buddies) arranged a giant blimp parade on South Beach. As part of a Scion car promotion, the "Skywalkers parade" included more than 150 rope handlers walking the enormous, colorful, helium-filled characters down the beach and back — like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade on acid. The Hialeah High School marching band led the parade, playing music written by jazz trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, Tury's father.
If the art is inspired by the iconography of the late 1900s, the group's approach to business is firmly rooted in the 21st Century. The guys designed the children's playground inside the Aventura Mall. They've done image work for companies like Volkswagen, MTV, Nike, and Red Bull. They say they're in negotiations with executives from Target, Mattel, and Disney.
What, exactly, can Sam and Tury do for such businesses?
"We're a universe creation factory," says Sam. They envision a day when they introduce new characters on multiple platforms, with plush toys, animated features, maybe even FWY theme parks. "We think so huge, we have to scale it back. We're waiting for the day when the sky is the limit, literally and physically."
For this year's Art Basel, FWY will open a new headquarters in the Design District. They insist the new space will be a work of art itself. Says Sam: "It looks like the Rainbow World from Mario Kart."