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  • Words and Photos by John Domine

Beauty...To The Bone

Recently, a giant lion was spotted on the streets of New York City. This was no ordinary feline, but rather an exceptional 30-foot-tall African Lion with golden claws, painted in exquisite detail, by South African artist, Sonny, to launch his worldwide wildlife campaign, To The Bone Project. It sits lurking high above at Allen and Stanton Streets, in the Lower East Side.

I was there from start to finish to capture the moments of this extraordinary mural and to chat with Sonny, and Tess Cunliffe, the Project Manager, about this incredible endeavor.

"Living in Africa, I’ve always been inspired by wildlife, which is why they have always featured in my work. But the more I learnt about the extinction crisis we’re facing the more I wanted to use my art to make a difference, especially learning the powerful impact that the murals have. At the same time, I wanted to test myself by bringing my work indoors and onto canvases. I spent over a year in the studio painting my 10 canvas pieces. It was very challenging mentally, but also very rewarding. I wanted to show that the issue is a global one, which is why I selected to showcase endangered animals from different parts of the world. Each piece shows the animals' faces being stripped away, and the skulls underneath have patterns from their native homes painted on them. The idea behind the imagery is to show how these animals are fading away, taking a piece of our culture and heritage with them. I wanted to make people see how these animals are tied to us, in the hopes that this will drive them to act. The gold teeth and tusks represent the true value of these animals, while also highlighting the role that wildlife trade has to play in their demise.

The canvas pieces will be exhibited in London (details still to be released). In the meantime, I’m releasing some of the limited edition, hand-finished prints for sale online through my website. 10% of each artwork sale goes to IFAW’s Russia tiger work and South Africa landscape work.

The idea with the mural side of the project was to visit the places where these animals come from and paint large murals that will honour these animals and hopefully inspire the local people to protect them. But I also know that the places that have the most influence on these issues are the major cities. That’s why I also wanted to paint murals there, to bring the issue to the forefront and to start a conversation around endangered wildlife and what we can do to help. My conservation partner, IFAW, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, has been really great in helping to facilitate these murals, but I’m also looking for mural sponsors to bring more To The Bone murals to different locations around the world.

The first mural was of a lion and was in New York City. [From there, I moved on to Canada], and have plans in the near future to paint in Russia and India too. I thought the lion was an appropriate animal to paint in the US, as there is a real issue with canned hunting [by Americans]."

The Project aims to paint murals in several locations around the world, bringing awareness to the plight of various threatened or endangered species.

"Each place is unique with its own challenges or nuances. That’s what makes it all so interesting. I’ve had people think that my animals are too fierce, but I tell them that they are supposed to be, they are wild. Mostly people are excited to see the murals come to life I think."

What can we expect to see from Sonny in the future?

"I’ll always be passionate about wildlife, but in terms of my art, I have loads I want to explore. I always want to push myself creatively and try new things, so I think my next project will likely go in a new direction. I’ve been doing some interesting photo shoots, which I really enjoy and am planning a future series of artworks that are based around these images."

But before moving on to another project, there is still much work to be done on this one!

Keep your eyes peeled on the streets on New York City. My sources tell me there may very will be another animal encounter in the very near future. Until then, do yourself a favor and check out the incredible work Sonny has left in our Urban Jungle, otherwise known as the Lower East Side!

If you would like to get involved with this amazing project, here are ways in which you may do so:

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