Photo by Wild Don Lewis

Sketch. Fill. Outline. Highlight. This four-step approach lifts Sano into a Zen state where the battle scars of a struggling artist — his unpaid traffic tickets, overdue rent payments, canceled phone service — fade beneath paint clouds. In the past two years, he has collaborated with fellow artists on numerous “mostly legal” murals on buildings, retaining walls and freight trains throughout the city. The gritty yet positive images he gilds, such as a Hiroshima girl emerging from an atomic haze, “is my perspective on the truth,” says Sano. “Hopefully it helps people see that graffiti is not just gang tags.”

Sano, who was born in an eclectic Cleveland neighborhood sandwiched between a ghetto and an arts district, grew up during graffiti’s golden age. “The ’80s was the Wild Style decade, when ‘writers’ distorted letters into urban hieroglyphics,” says Sano, who took on his moniker in 1985. “I thought it was a pretty abstract set of letters and thought I would define it as an acronym, now meaning ‘Simple Art Nice Outlines.’ Sometimes I write it in kanji [Japanese script] and it means ‘spiritual ground’ or ‘essential foundation.’” He counts old-school writers Vulcan and Kase 2, who were among the first to turn NYC subway trains into canvases, and European masters Klimt and Cézanne as influences.

After gaining local notoriety by organizing Cleveland’s first hip-hop conference and graffiti workshop at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, he moved to L.A. “to paint outdoors year-round.” To make ends meet, he also endeavors in graphic design, teaches graffiti workshops, including a recent seminar at SCI-Arc, and he was featured in Bob Bryan’s acclaimed film series, Graffiti Vérité. After 20 years of guerrilla art, Sano remains inspired: “It feels really good to paint big on any surface — wall, canvas or train. To put your ideas out there that big, that fast, is definitely a rush. It’s almost euphoric.”

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