Celebrating An Artistic Trajectory: In Conversation With Serj Tankian

Diving into the art of the System of a Down frontman during his opening exhibition.

Photograph by Luis, Heaviest of Art

Words + Photographs by Luis (@heaviestofart) at Stephanie's Art Gallery:


“The best art is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.” - Toni Morrison


Art in its many beautiful formats has served as a conduit for critical thought, changing across time as a byproduct of the sociopolitical turmoil that impacts the very livelihood of the population from which the artist comes from. American novelist Toni Morrison let her literary prowess narrate her life experience no matter how uncomfortable it may have been at the time of writing, allowing her to combat the harshness of racism and advocate for change in ways still influential to this day. With Morrison's quote above as an entry point, we turn to Serj Tankian — illustrator, composer, and frontman of the celebrated System of a Down, a band known for their creative use of lyricism and instrumentation as a driver for advocacy.


Tankian, who nears a decade since first embarking on his visual endeavors, is currently hosting Shapeshift: A Dynamic Dive Into Diversity — a showcase of artwork both new and old that provided him an outlet of expression through a unique avenue. Like with his musical trajectory, Tankian looks back at his work in retrospect and reflects on his own personal growth, which allow him to capitalize on lessons learned. "Art gave me the ability to get lost in wonderment that I first experienced doing music 30 years ago," he notes. "Like composing for films and series, it's all in my mind, though in some ways, it's more structured. I'm now getting lost in a new space and just losing myself, and it is a real pleasure."

Photograph by Luis, Heaviest of Art

In seeing Tankian interact with gallery viewers and talk passionately about each artwork on display, it's clear that illustration taps into a new and constantly evolving element in his repertoire. Looking at it all and his contemporary composition, it's evident that it's very ambiguous, which is very much by design. It provides only a part small piece of the puzzle and allows for the viewer to develop an interpretation in their own way. When asked if the visual development process is distinct to the musical side, Tankian offered the following, "They're very much alike. I compose for a lot of media, some are classical, some are electronic, some are industrial, there's rock, there's weird shit, so it really depends on the painting. Each has its own persona. Just like the painting, music kind of goes with a basic guide." The paintings had accompanying music to complete an audiovisual experience that was nothing short of immersive. During our time there, several present gazed in awe at the scope and detail of Tankian's work, some with earphones on taking advantage of the intentionality of the gallery exhibit.


Given so much of what is invested within these pieces, one would assume it be cathartic for Tankian to see his work on full display and engaged by individuals from all walks of life. "In contrast to hearing about people enjoying your music, you don't really get to experience that with art once you put it out there. People are not in their car listening to the art, you know? With this type of situation that is an exhibit, you're able to see them, appreciate them, and enjoy the process of it all. They ask questions and it's great seeing seeing people interact with the work physically."

Photograph by Luis, Heaviest of Art

"As musicians, you don't get to experience that in any other way unless we perform on stage, which we do, obviously." As a proud bearer of the Armenian flag, Tankian wears his heart on his sleeve and Shapeshift is Tankian in his purest, raw form. His paintings flow from the mind and gain direction along the way, sometimes with direct intention and other times serving as a multi-layered piece waiting to unfold.


"I've never had pre-existing intentions of what I'm trying to portray. Lyrically? You know, sometimes you kind of narrow it down more of a thematic experience. You could call that intentional, but overall, it's not something I ever think. I don't ask myself, 'What am I trying to do?' It's all blank, it just comes and you do it." Tankian continues, "This piece, 'Black Fish', is a perfect example. I honestly didn't make it thinking it would be what it is now. It's a fucking splatter, and I realize it looks like a fish, and slowly, it became a full interpretation, My son loves fishing, so he really got a kick out of it."

'Black Fish', Artwork by Serj Tankian

"It's kind of like the music. If you have an idea or you have a particular intention in mind, you begin to write and it begins developing into an actual song. Painting is the same way."


The beauty of art, as we've referenced countless times in the past, is subjective. The power is in the eye of the beholder. There is no right or wrong; it means what it means to you. As we continued in our conversation with Tankian, he walks over to a symbolic piece depicting a bloody violin with a bow shoved into it. "You look at this piece and immediately think violence, right? That's our instinct. There's so many things here symbolism wise, especially with something so soft like a violin being portrayed in violence. You could say it's the plight of a nation or you could say it's a picture of suicide, which is definitely jarring. The music is basically a solo violinist playing my piece, and at the end, you hear the stabbing within the music itself."

Artwork by Serj Tankian

The duality here is very accessible and sparks thought, especially if you indulge within its accompanying musical piece. Violins have certain connotations attached, as does blood, as does forceful injection.


When asked what role the arts play in the contemporary state of affairs as political messengers, informers, or simply entertainment tools, Tankian elaborated on the power art has to capture a moment in time. "There's a beautiful truth in this medium. If you listen to certain healing songs, you feel like you're in the 60s and part of that 60s movement. It puts you in a special kind of place. It takes you away to a particular timing of sorts. Rage Against the Machine do this so well, taking you to a particular time in history, although it has been used wrongly by certain political parties, ironically so.


He continues, "I've heard so many different perspectives, interpretations of a single song. I didn't grow up playing music. When I was going to college, it served as a way of meditating away from everything. I never foresaw doing visual arts as a component of my career, but that's what's beautiful, because you know, as an artist, you have to be open to new experiences, explorations. If an artist doesn't do different things, every five years, they can easily get stuck in whatever they do and become stagnant. Every five years, I get an itch to try something."


Shapeshift: A Dynamic Dive Into Diversity will be on display at Stephanie's Art Gallery through November 1st, 2022, Monday to Friday from 10 am5:30 pm and Saturday from 10:30 am – 5:00 pm.


Stephanie’s Art Gallery

466 Foothill Blvd. Unit C, La Cañada Flintridge, CA 91011

Enjoy a slideshow of just some of the sights from Shapeshift at Stephanie's Art Gallery.


Serj Tankian's new EP, Perplex Cities, arrives October 21st (Listen/Order).