Charles Soto started tattooing four years ago, after his mother died following a long illness.
“[It] was a moment in my life of desperation. I hit rock bottom," he says. "I was dead broke."
Three years later, Soto reconnected with his estranged older brother, just months before the latter died of HIV complications. His grief influenced his art with dark overtones, but also put him in the sightline of a company now displaying his work during Art Basel.
After his brother's death, Soto continued tattooing, but he was also sanding and sculpting shapes of hearts from clay and piercing them with bullets. Some sat on torn, partly burned American flags. He said he was contemplating negative thoughts.
“You had everything: Sandy Hook and Trayvon Martin," he says. "The war in Iraq, the things happening in Syria. You know, the psychological aspect of having a loss, whether it’s through gun violence or any form of loss, it changes you tremendously.”
He posted photos of the clay-hearts series on Instagram, and that’s where Erika Sevallos first saw them. She was the manager of the Banana Republic store on Eighth Street and Collins Avenue in Miami Beach, and she loved his work as a tattoo artist.
She thought: Why not feature Soto’s work in the store during Art Basel weekend?
“We have that international customer so, why not get not get the local customer involved with our store?" Sevallos says. "I feel like he already has a big following, so why not utilize that?”
But that series, with its torn and burned American flags, could alienate customers. When Sevallos asked her corporate bosses about displaying it, the work was deemed too controversial.
“When it comes to making something political, when you dive into that, it’s never pretty,” Soto says.
Instead, Soto’s pen and ink drawings – which often portray whimsical images of children in a nightmarish, gritty landscape will be on display this week at Banana Republic.
Soto’s grateful for the exposure, even if he can’t show his latest series.
“I remember my mom used to say, ‘Todo entra por los ojos,’ so it’s one of those things," he says. "If you can create the attraction and gets somebody’s attention, you can definitely relay the message."