Why J Balvin, Pharrell & More Want to Work With Fine-Arts Duo FriendsWithYou

Danny Liao


Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval founded FriendsWithYou, a fine-art collaborative known for whimsical, cartoon-inspired installations, in Miami in 2002. They met as college students through the city’s rave community and bonded over a love of animated characters and a shared admiration for Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. “Next thing you know, we were making plush toys together,” says Sandoval, 42. Now based in Los Angeles, the best friends are working a love of music into their candy-colored craft, designing “Warhol meets Disney” set pieces for J Balvin and Pharrell Williams. As devotees of the mid-’90s relational aesthetics movement, which emphasizes interactive art as a medium for social exchange, the pair says its work can bring positivity to festival grounds and gallery walls alike. Says Borkson, 39: “FriendsWithYou is this idea that the universe is on your side.” 

Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Coachella
J Balvin performs at Coachella Stage during the 2019 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival on April 13, 2019 in Indio, Calif.  

Something in the Water 

When Borkson and Sandoval met Williams at a Miami art gallery in 2008, they were surprised he wanted to work with them. “We were poor, living in a piece-of-shit apartment, showing him what we were doing on a tiny laptop,” says Borkson. They’ve since collaborated on an installation for Williams’ 2010 Art Basel performance and the animated Netflix show True and the Rainbow Kingdom, which Williams executive-produces. For his inaugural Something in the Water festival, which took place in Virginia Beach, Va., in April, FriendsWithYou decorated the grounds with 21 inflatable characters 15-40 feet tall. “His persona speaks to the softer male sensitivity we’re trying to push forward,” says Sandoval. “We’re two burly men, but we’re doing cute kawaii stuff.”

Their Studio

Borkson attended the same Florida middle school as Diplo -- they even have matching tattoos of the school’s mascot to prove it. Years later, the producer-DJ is introducing FriendsWithYou to potential new collaborators like Dua Lipa, who visited their studio recently and even made a piece of art that’s going to a collector. Now, FriendsWithYou is in conversation with everyone from Katy Perry to Ty Dolla $ign. Says Borkson: “It feels like our message is working because it’s spreading to all these amazing people.”


Last fall, Borkson and Sandoval direct-messaged reggaetón star Balvin on Instagram to compliment his music. The admiration was mutual. “He responded, ‘I love your art,’ ” says Borkson. “He said he wanted to use his platform to spread love and happiness, and we were like, ‘We can do that.’ ” They opened their entire library to the artist to create a “bomb of love” for his 2019 Coachella set -- which at the time was just six weeks away. They landed on cloud costumes for the troupe of dancers and a giant toy horse. Balvin liked the setup so much, he’s taking it on tour this year.

This article originally appeared in the May 11 issue of Billboard.