Arts & Culture


Looking at John Clister Santos' artistic journey, what with his unexpected win at a local art competition to treading the path to gaining notoriety and recognition, it is easy to see that his unrelenting talent and perspective isn't slowing down anytime soon. Now, as a young multimedia arts student, he continues to make waves in the art scene with designs that make Filipinos think long and hard about our current cultural landscape.

/ 30 June 2021

As we further explore liberation towards the postmodern world in the Philippines, we look at the artistic journey and creations of John Clister Santos, the hand and mind behind Clister.Art, an art page that has received tremendous attention for its socially-relevant pixel designs that depict the Filipino reality. Santos, a 20-year old multimedia art major student at CIIT College of Arts & Technology, shared his story with The Feed, and how he believes creativity and storytelling to be a crucial tool in transforming our world.

Similar to many young creatives, Santos’ early start in the arts was sparked in elementary school, dabbling into poster-making competitions which eventually led him to take the editorial cartoonist post at the school paper. “I can’t remember exactly why I got interested in drawing, all I can remember is I really enjoyed it,” he mused.

It wasn’t until he was in high school six years ago where animation caught his eye. Attending a conference at De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde, he found himself in a talk dedicated to the animation industry in the Philippines. This fateful afternoon opened his eyes to a world he never knew existed before, and opened a small fantasy in his mind about pursuing a life in animation.

“Hustisya”. Image courtesy of John Clister Santos

“Back then, I only knew of studio giants such as Disney and Pixar. I was surprised to learn that there are Filipino animators and there’s even a college course on animation there at CSB. I come from a middle class family and even if I wanted to take the said course, I couldn’t afford it. Eventually, I found some tutorials online and I started studying animation on my own during [semestral] breaks,” he shared.

Despite the career path not being in the cards for him at the time, he pursued it as a passion and hobby on the side, slowly developing his craft without professional training or help outside the “University of YouTube”. Regardless, he submitted his work to the National Digital Arts Award 2018 for fun, with no expectations of winning a national competition. He couldn’t believe that he won 2nd place in the student category, besting other artists across the country. But an even bigger surprise was waiting.

He revealed, “Aside from the cash prize, my parents and I were surprised to know that I also won a special award that night, a scholarship for an entire bachelor course at CIIT. It literally changed my life because If it wasn’t for that scholarship, I would be studying architecture at a state university and I wouldn’t be able to reach my dream animation course, since it was a very expensive course.”

Currently, he is in his second year as a Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Arts Major in Animation, and working part-time as an animator at a local game studio. The national competition, which he didn’t even expect to win, completely changed the course of his life.

“Tumbang Preso”. Image courtesy of John Clister Santos.

The trademark style of Clister.Art is, without a doubt, its pixel art design that resembles the old-school video game aesthetic that’s largely making a comeback right now. But it’s in Santos’ subjects and backgrounds that make his work stand out amid all the pixel art styles floating around on social media. That is, its utter Filipino-ness that depicts afternoons in karinderias, early mornings on overpass bridges, and powerful images from our local news.

In fact, arguably one of Santos’ most impactful and viral works is Spoliarium 2k20, a piece that depicts a modern take on Juan Luna’s legendary work, the Spoliarium, which is also aptly one of the country’s most valuable historical art pieces. The original portrays the bloody carnage of gladiatorial matches in Roman history, with soldiers dragging away the bodies, the families left behind, and spectators eagerly watching the events unfold.

In Spoliarium 2k20, it presents an image much closer to home. Digitally painted and animated, Santos recreated an image from Philippine news, with drug war victims left bloody on the streets, police officials standing watch, a mother grieving, a *barong tagalog-*clad man being interviewed, spectators hungrily devouring the scene, and a child holding up a sign to prove their innocence. It’s a picture we all know as the tragic reality of the government’s war on drugs.

“The “Spoliarium 2k20” was originally created as a final output for my Art Appreciation class last year. We were tasked to recreate a famous painting, local or international, in our own way. We were given creative freedom on whatever we wanted to make. As a fan of Luna’s works, I immediately grabbed Spoliarium,” he remarked.

Still from “Spoliarium 2k20”. Image courtesy of John Clister Santos.

He further elaborated: “After submitting it to my professor, I got a perfect score and was initially proud of it. While doing the piece, I already thought of posting it on my art account, but after finishing it, I still hesitated whether to post it due to the red tagging issue at that time. I wasn’t expecting it to blow up on facebook, twitter, and reddit — but after seeing the people’s comments, I was actually overwhelmed. It was a very rewarding experience, knowing that I was able to put my voice out there in the world through my art.”

This art assignment for class got him the attention of Filipino netizens, praising him for boldly using his art as a statement against injustice and oppression. For Santos, art is not for art’s sake only. He believes modern artists should be encouraged to voice out their stand on different societal issues, especially now that it’s much easier to reach people from all walks of life. Whether or not these creations actually make an impact or not, he’s strong in his resolve that artists should still try.

“Art has been used as a political medium for centuries now. Even Juan Luna used spoliarium to shed light on the political landscape of the Philippines back then. I personally believe that art will continue to be a medium of expression, voice and activism. Not only that it offers countless interpretations depending on who sees the art, but also art is a visual expression that can be understood by anybody, no matter what age, race, social status, etc. — and that alone, makes it an effective tool of communication,” he expressed.

In moving forward, the young artist strives to focus more on narrative storytelling. As an animator and illustrator, he shared that he dreams of producing more short animated films in the future. He shared, “with the growing market and audience for animation in the Philippines, this is a perfect opportunity to start telling our own filipino stories and put them out there in the world.”

Storytelling is truly at the core of Clister.Art’s pieces, and he revealed that he always uses stories as the starting point before he starts any project. What story does he want to tell? What message does he want to put in it? How obvious or subtle should the message be? What medium should he use? Pixel art? 2D? 2.5D? 3D?

Once all of these factors have been finalized, he gathers inspiration from creative works from all over the world, consuming as many films, theatre productions, music, video games, and books that he can to feel fully inspired. He then tries to combine different things, innovate with different styles, and add a very Filipino twist to each picture.

At just 20 years old, it seems that John Clister Santos has got his craft down. And yet he still has so much time and space to grow and further develop this raw talent and developed training. He’s already on his way to becoming one of the most influential names in art from his generation with his 20-something thousand followers on Facebook, mostly made up of young people his age inspired by his body of work.

But for his peers, though, he has some wise words on creating amidst a pandemic, and putting one’s health before anything else: “Given the situation we are in now, you should not push yourself too much. Practice if you can, learn if you can, but don’t forget to take breaks. Keep the fire burning, consume every form of art out there, watch films, read books, listen to music, keep yourself inspired — list down your ideas on a paper, don’t force yourself to finish immediately, art takes time,” he emphasized.

Lastly, he reminds young artists to always go back to one’s core purpose as a creative, and for someone so young, he sure has a strong grasp on what’s truly important when it comes to making art: “Most importantly, don’t let social media likes, follows and shares define your worth as an artist, focus on your own growth instead,” Santos reminded.

The path forward is certainly ablaze for John Clister Santos, with his thought-provoking works and self-improving mindset. He’s got his eyes laser-focused on his craft, and the stories he wishes to share for us all to enjoy in liberation and peace.

Follow Clister.Art on Facebook to see more of his works: