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The APC staff is pleased to bring back the Aquascaper in Focus series. Our first featured member is John Ciotti. John is a member of the Aquarium Design Group staff, located in Houston, Texas. He was recently featured as one of the Iron Aquascapers at the AGA Convention this past November, 2008. He is also noted in AquaJorunal #159.

John Ciotti and Takashi Amano

Tell us a little about yourself.

A little about myself! Oh really tell you about me? Ok.. I'm a 23 year old aquascape artist, aquarium designer/technician, currently residing in the awesome city of Houston, TX. I had just relocated from Southern California for an opportunity proposed to me by Aquarium Design Group. I'm also a student of design from MSJC and an amateur photographer following in my brother's footsteps. I love art in every form and I am a big fan of skateboarding, rock climbing and dorifto. My mom says I'm a good kid too!

photos by John Ciotti - Houston city line at night, Jellyfish from the Atlanta Aquarium

A background in design and experience in photography - you have a tailor-made background for the hobby! What is dorifto?

Photography has really shown me to see my flaws and to look for things I normally wouldn't have. Learning design more formally has shown me a way to fix the things I don't like after I see them.
Dorifto!! Or better known as the art of sliding sideways in your car. It's just the Japanese word for drifting; it's a type of auto racing.

"ahh, you have to say it in "Engrish" - "Dorifto" :)
How did you get into aquariums and planted aquaria in particular?

I believe that I started into the aquarium hobby much like many others. Having a born love for the natural elements and being interested in how things work it only makes sense. Though there is always that one aquarium that you see that intrigues your curiosity, the nature happening inside that glass box. For me it was my brother bringing home tiger barbs, from the first time I had seen that little 10 gallon cube in his room I was hooked. The progression from that point to now is like any other addiction. I moved from one aspect of aquarium keeping to another, reaching higher and higher until you find the pinnacle and focal point of it all, the nature aquarium.

You are currently working for the Senskes and Aquarium Design Group. What are some of your duties?

What I do while I am working for them is performing the art of aquascaping and allowing everyone to have a beautiful aquarium regardless of their ability to maintain one. I work with clients all over the Houston area in developing and maintaining conceptualized aquarium environments with a philosophy and purpose. Not just being your everyday "fish guy" we really do try to give you the experience of an underwater fusion of art and nature.

What has it been like working for them?

I'm glad that you asked about that. I don't really feel like working with Mike and Jeff is a job. It is more of a way to push the hobby further and further into the right direction. I think of them more as mentors and philosophers to me than my bosses. It has opened doors to so many different things, meeting influential people, the Iron Aquascaper, getting photo coverage in the latest AquaJournal (#159). Besides all of that Jeff has really taken me under his wing and pushed me to demand perfection from myself and is just a guy that you would want to be around anyway. Mike has shown me to see things from a different perspective and to reflect back and change inside and out of the aquarium world. Although no matter what scape you pull off he brings a better one then you can do the next day anyway! Both have given me every opportunity and resource to do well in this industry. I'm sure everyone at ADG can agree we don't work for Mike and Jeff we work with them.

You're living the dream of a lot of aquascapers out there - playing with plants and tanks for a living! Not to mention getting to meet influential people in the hobby like Amano and the Senskes. Do you ever get tired or 'burned out' from the work?

I do get a lot of unique exposure to things I normally wouldn't if I wasn't at ADG. Playing with (working) all sorts of aquatic flora and fauna is great. It really is hard to get burnt out on it, but like any line of work it has it's ups and downs. I have been working in this field since I was in high school in a LFS back in California. With about 9 years in the industry and only being 23 you could imagine having some days that you might want to do something other then get wet, dirty and cold. Really though I am just fortunate to have a career in something I love especially with the economy the way it is.

Obviously the Nature Aquarium style has been and influence for you. Has there been any other influences that has led to your own particular style?

I wouldn't say that I have even developed my own style just yet, but, of course like anyone in this hobby Mr. Amano has been a great inspiration to us all with his Nature Aquariums. Besides the obvious Senske brothers and their work, my good friend Matt Plane from the So Cal area has taught me the majority of what I know and has been a huge influence of what I do. Outside of people, I look to natural and urban landscapes, architecture, graffiti art, photography and various types of industrial design to draw inspiration from.

You recently participated in the Iron Aquascaper competition at the 2008 AGA convention. How was that experience for you?

Nerve racking! Ha ha, no really though it was so many different things all at once. Jeff asking me to do it an hour beforehand was something in itself. It really was so great to compete with such an accomplished aquascaper though. Jason Baliban was a blast to perform with and a cool guy to hang out with afterwards. My hats off to him in achieving his placing in the AGA contest and I look forward to the next challenger!

Photo of John's Iron Aquascaper tank

What are your favorite books? Movies? Music? Games? Foods? Beverages? Vacation spot?

Oh wow! Besides Nature Aquarium World? Are there any other books?

As for movies I would have to say Magnolia, Crash, Alice in Wonderland, SinCity, anything with Will Ferrell, Steve Carell and Zombies. I don't do TV though; I probably have not had cable since I was 12.

My musical taste is kind of mixed. I like Janis Joplin, Duane Allman, Gilian Welch, Bob Dylan, Bright Eyes, The Faint, The Beatles, Mars Volta, Portis Head, AFI and Elton John.

There is only one game, UNO!

Any food made by my mom, dad, sister, or awesome girlfriend and her mom is what I'm into. I really do like anything good though, Japanese, Italian, Mexican, French, Polish, Greek, and Romanian, the list goes on and on. Oh I can't forget Tiny Boxwoods and Jeff and Dani's Friday burger night!!

Ahhhh refreshing water, tea warm or cold, Breckenridge Brewery's Avalanche Ale (try it, it's good) and orange Goose.

I'm not old enough to go on vacations yet. I have been to some really cool places though. Tokyo, Japan is amazing; Dolores, CO and Rock Creek, CA. I love the outdoors just as much as the city.

Do you have any tips for the aspiring aquascaper?

Shouldn't I be asking this? Ha ha.

lol, well given your performance in the Iron Aquascaper, I bet you have some good advice you can give to others out there?

A couple things that always made life easier when I remembered them was to take things slowly as only bad things happen fast. Learn to grow before you scape and use quality materials. Nothing like rushing a great idea with subpar equipment to lose your vision due to lack of experience.

Do you have a favorite aquascape that you've created?

Actually the first tank I tried to do somewhat of a nature aquarium aquascape back in early 2002 would be my favorite. Prior to then I was just growing plants with no real focus. That tank was the turning point for me.

John's first aquascape

If you could be an animal, what kind would you be and why?

Your ending this with the animal question? Ha ha! You do have another question right?

Lol, ok. If you were stuck on a deserted island and could only have 3 items, what would they be?

Hmmm, besides a helicopter with enough fuel to fly back home? Well assuming there is water and natural food on or around the island. A picture of my family, my dog Ditto and a life time supply of fireworks.

You mentioned you have photography as a background. What equipment do you use? Any tips for the aspiring photographer?

I'm a Canon guy I guess you could say. I shoot with a 5D MkI and 400D. A lot of my components I got from my good friend Andy Kallsen when he stepped out of the hobby and my knowledge from my brother Nick. I guess it would be the same advice that goes towards aquascaping, along with knowing you are never good enough to not learn something new.

Photos by John Ciotti - Down by the River, California Sunset, Succulent at Night

Thanks for the interview! It's been great getting a peek at The Man Behind the Aquascapes. UNO!

Well thank you for giving me the opportunity to help out on APC, it was a lot of fun.
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Discussion Starter · #3 ·
Thanks for the interview! btw, I was thinking about this interview and you today as I was driving home on the snow-covered roads. I'd slide into my turns and say "Dorifto - the Japanese art of sliding sideways in your car". It was quite fun actually!

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LOL be careful! I don't want to be responsible for you getting in trouble now.

The interview was a lot of fun. I just hope that some might see that real people are in this hobby. Showing my earliest work I would hope might encourage others to keep doing it. I have come a long way and didn't start off being good at anything. Lots of hard work and time get you to that point.

Thanks again.

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So crazy you remind me of myself quite a bit, I'm 24. However, I started in the reef world, nano-reefs to be exact when I was 16.

Nothing beats your friends wondering why you don't have a car only to realize you spend all your money on corals! My used economy vehicle or its equivalent is inside a 3ft glass box.

Loved the interview, definitely some great insight now that I'm trying my hand at aquascaping the sweet waters.

Still feels weird not to have to mix in the Tropic Marin.


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Man, that's awesome doing what you love. And you got to meet the great Amano himself. You're right; Tokyo is awesome. Hmm, maybe I should think of a career change. :-s One of these days, I'm gonna make my way down to your ADG shop in Houston.
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