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Sand One boldly stands out amongst LA's male-dominated street art scene

Apr. 14, 2017
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If you have been to Los Angeles in the past few years, there’s a good chance you’ve seen one of Sand One’s paintings. Her style is highly recognizable: she paints long-lashed “dolls” in various settings and with various other characters. One of her most famous, on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, depicts Hillary Clinton as a doll and her opponent as an angry bear with a comb-over and dollar signs in his eyes. Fittingly, the first time I met Sand was at the Women’s March on Inauguration Day. She was on the steps of Pershing Square with a giant banner featuring one of her dolls. The banner read: “Be Independent. Be Confident. Be A Boss.” If you don’t know much about Sand, know that this banner serves as a perfect encapsulation of her brand--and her ideals.    

Sand’s dream began about seven years ago in the single-car garage of her East L.A. home. Within the confined space, she began painting large pieces and even murals on pieces of wood and whatever else she could find, often employing the use of spotlights so she could work alone in the dark. “In that 100-square-foot space, I [made] the best memories,” she recounts. “I just wanted to paint dolls forever... every single day, all day.”

via: Instagram|Sand One

From the look of her workspace, it’s obvious that Sand really means it when she says she just wants to be alone with her dolls. The “Sand Factory”--as she calls it--is a newly-acquired warehouse space with a tiny office in the front. From that tiny office, Sand’s mother Maria and sister Claudia run the online aspects of Sand’s brand. The orders come up on the computer for Claudia to print; then, together, she and Maria package the items and address them with the proper shipping labels. They’ve got a mountain of outgoing packages in one corner and a gigantic stack of orders yet to be filled.

The Sand One brand is strictly a family affair; between the three of them, Maria and her daughters run the entire business, top to bottom, on their own. As self-sufficient as Sand is, she’s also endearingly family-oriented--and she wouldn’t trust her business with anyone else. Maria came from Mexico to raise her daughters in East L.A., and they are grateful for their mother’s unwavering support. “My mother used to be a street vendor, and I always think to myself, like when I don’t want to get up or something, If my mother can get up and go out there to sell food every day, then I can get up and do art. And then I do it,” says Sand of her mother’s sacrifice. 

 via: Instagram|Sand One

As I follow her around her immaculately organized and delicately curated warehouse, Sand is all but bouncing off the walls. She’s tiny, but she has a loud voice and an infectious spark of humor. She is outwardly appreciative of where she is now, especially in contrast with where she could have ended up. “I’m just a girl from East L.A.--I’m probably expected to have a kid by now and not a 3,000 square foot warehouse.” She says it like a  joke, but you can tell she really means it. She’s become an activist and a voice for her East L.A. community, most recently doing a Planned Parenthood campaign pledging to defy abusive relationships, sexist bullying and violence against women. “Planned Parenthood opened my eyes,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it. I was like, I can learn everything without being shamed? You’re not gonna tell my mom?”

All of Sand’s dolls have backstories relating to the struggles women face. For example, Boxy is her autistic doll: “She has Asperger's, which is a mild form of autism. She was abused by her stepfather and he hit her in the ear, so she’s actually deaf in one ear.” Boxy’s hands are wrapped because she’s a fighter now, and she’s shown holding an open box of hearts.

 via: Instagram|Sand One

Sand’s newest doll to be released is named Lil’ Stranger, and she’s shown only from the waist up. Her eyes are closed to represent three things--her refusal to deal with all the chaos and drama around her; her inner reflection of her own personal struggles; and her dedication to her own life and her own goals. “You know when you just get so focused that you get tunnel vision? That’s how I am with my art and my work. I am just so focused, it’s like I’m just closing my eyes on everything else,” Sand says of Lil’ Stranger. Although the newest shirts and stickers featuring Lil’ Stranger are just her torso and face, Sand has a full body sketch of her doll in the office. She is depicted as full-bodied and curvy, to represent full-bodied women who are often excluded from street art and from today’s standards of beauty.

 via: Instagram|Sand One

Of the male-dominated street art scene, Sand has little to say. “I do not put myself in a situation where I am surrounded by men and other artists. I am here for women.” And, after all, Sand isn’t just a street artist. Although she loves painting giant murals of her dolls--“Murals were my first form,” she says, referring back to the tiny one-car garage that served as her first real studio--her truest joy comes in developing her doll’s stories as she paints alone in her workspace.  

Since her staff is solely herself and immediate family, Sand had to be largely independent from the get-go.  When she was first starting out, she sought Mexican-owned textile factories in L.A. to print her materials. “They said, Oh, she’s poor but she has a dream. We’ll do it for her. I’m my own investor. Ten dollars here, fifteen, twenty here and there.” Sand is all business, all the time, and she calls the shots. During this interview, I accompany her to get a commissioned portrait framed, and in the twenty minutes we spend with the framer she negotiates the deal to adhere exactly to her terms--for almost half the asking price. “I don’t have investors, I don’t have partners. I just have me. I’m learning to be a PR agent, a production person, an accountant, my own banker, my own boss…” Sand could list her responsibilities for days--but you’ll never hear her complain, because she is motivated solely and entirely by her own vision for the future of her art and her brand. 

Sand genuinely loves her platform for bringing beauty and joy into the lives of those who love her art. “I paint for the trans girls and the gay community and all kind of women,” she says, sitting in her giant silver throne--upholstered, of course, with fabric printed with various dolls. “I only paint women and I represent the modern dreamers of today. I paint for everybody.” Sand refuses to pain boys or men except as sweet little boys or teddy bears.  Sand has been open about her own struggles with abusive relationships, and the bears often represent one of her three ex-boyfriends. “I’m in a world where women love my art and are inspired by it,” she says, nodding to the fact that she and her largely-female fan base share a common oppression.

Despite her success, Sand stays humble, grounded, and committed to her work ethic. “I cannot stop painting,” she tells me. “If I stop, everything goes away.” She keeps her circle small and her family close to protect her privacy and the quality of her work, and it’s that privacy that gives her the courage to be the strong, opinionated artist she is--someone  willing to stand up against the injustices she sees in her community. It takes a lot of courage to radiate joy and positivity, even when handling heavy subject matter, but Sand is truly a bright beacon of light, and she’s just getting started.

But she’s still far enough along that she’s got some advice for young women who are even greener than her: “I want to tell young girls to stop being lovers. Stop putting love first. Stop putting guys before yourself, putting other people before you. If you are a teenager, the dream is not to push a stroller. The dream is to push money, to push nice cars, push success--and to live your dream!”