The boom and bust of TikTok artists

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Although he had rarely touched a brush before, Matthew Chessco found himself reaching out for the canvas to pursue his dreams after quitting a career in mechanical engineering just four days after starting the job.

Reinventing himself through months of trial and error, he could have taken the conventional route and tried to partner with a gallery to sell his paintings. But when the time came for Chessco to start exhibiting, he connected TIC Tac.

There, his neon-colored portraits of icons like Bob Ross, George Washington, and Megan Thee Stallion drew more than 2 million fans – a crowd several times the size of subsequent ones from critically acclaimed artists like Jeff Koons and Kehinde. Wiley on Instagram. Chessco audience clicked to enjoy his Warhol-inspired aesthetic and how many times he has choreographed the creation of his works to music ranging from “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi to rapper 6ix9ine “Gooba.”

Move on, Instagram. TikTok is wooing viewers in droves. Most galleries have shown little interest in finding their next big star there, and critics have avoided its glut of neon-pop amateur paintings that look more like street art. But platform creators like Chessco are growing their business on a large scale, wooing viewers like street performers once did on Instagram nearly a decade ago.

“A video of my paintings went viral about a year ago; so I had over 350,000 views in three days, ”said 27-year-old Chessco. He opened an online store, becoming one of the most popular visual artists on the social media platform.

Soon he was selling works of art for around $ 2,000 each, partnering with music labels, and collaborating with advertising agencies. These trade deals, he says, often earn him nearly $ 5,000 per post on the platform, which is owned by the Beijing-based company ByteDance. But success breeds competition.

Chessco recently found out he had a lookalike on TikTok – another artist was copying the style, subjects, and music from his videos, and selling his paintings for a fraction of the price., alongside prints and supplies, on a website almost identical to the one used by Chessco.

After posting a video on February 5 alerting his followers to the existence of an impersonator, Chessco discovered that the artist had blocked comments on his page and deleted his website. But the lookalike quickly reopened their online store and started posting videos again a few days later. “The competition is really fierce,” said Chessco, shaking his head.

When a minute-long video can attract fame and fortune, is it any surprise that young artists bypass art schools and student loans, quit their survival jobs, and pursue full-time artistic careers on? TikTok? But the insatiable demand for app content also changes their aesthetics in unexpected ways. What happens when viewership plummets, imitators encroaches, and fans start dictating an artist’s tastes? Fortunes can suddenly vanish.

Growing up in rural Wisconsin, Ben Labuzzetta joined TikTok during his senior year of high school, sharing paintings of celebrities like Billie Eilish and Morgan Freeman. But it was a job honoring basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna after they died in a helicopter crash which has gained ground – over 29 million views across four videos. Inquiries from some 10,000 potential buyers flooded his inbox in a day.

“My original plan was to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but that changed when my social media exploded,” said Labuzzetta, 19. “I could already make a living as an artist without going into debt on student loans.”

He created a Online Store, who in the past eight months has earned nearly $ 80,000 in sales of paintings and prints and has allowed him to leave his parents’ house. Other opportunities followed, including a trip to Los Angeles to collaborate with a YouTube blogger in a TikTok collective called the Hype House.

But the life of a social media influencer doesn’t always match the demands of being an artist. Labuzzetta now feels constrained by the popularity of his photorealistic portraits and is keen to experiment, even if it leads to a drop in audience. The situation seems all the more precarious given that social media fame is often short-lived.

“Its popularity could die out in a few years,” says Labuzzetta. “But I hope that by then I will have enough followers to go elsewhere.”

Despite the gold rush on TikTok, few established artists and institutions are participating. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which made securities for its humorous use of the medium, has seen a dramatic drop in engagement in recent months. Photographer Cindy Sherman, a prolific Instagram user, said through a representative that she has no interest in joining TikTok at this time, calling the platform “too nifty.”

But the laurels of the art world don’t matter much on TikTok, where an algorithm allows users to scroll endlessly through related interests; Rather, it is the artists who exploit “the moment” who gain influence. Success requires works of art that can immediately grab the viewer’s attention, usually with a combination of internet culture, human anatomy, and stunning memes. It’s a formula that works well with TikTok’s main demographic: teens who make up almost a third of the app’s users.

And many artists on TikTok struggle to maintain their interest. Still a student, Gina D’Aloisio, 22-year-old sculptor, posted a video of herself creating an eerily realistic silicone face mask. It has received over 22 million views; More fans came when she shared other fleshy parts of her artwork, including a belly button ashtray and a foot candle.

But the public started to get excited about paying $ 255 to buy the face masks, forcing D’Aloisio to release a video series in an attempt to justify the cost of the labor-intensive product.

The artist said in an interview that she has decided to quit TikTok if the platform starts dictating what she does. “I’m not willing to sacrifice the expensive parts of my practice that are an integral part of the job,” she said.

And some artists of color are finding that success can bring a different kind of criticism that their white counterparts don’t see.

Leila Mae Thompson has received over 1 million views for a video in which she announced her intention to embrace the confidence of male artists. Her daring paid off with nearly 300 new subscribers linked to her Patreon page, where fans paid $ 5 per month to receive personalized stickers and updates on his work.

Thompson, a 23-year-old self-taught artist from Richmond, Virginia, now operates a small business through TikTok selling posters and shirts that has grossed nearly $ 20,000 since August. His subject often concerns the Black Lives Matter movement and artistic responses to the death of George Floyd; as a result, some commentators have accused her of capitalizing on racial injustice, not realizing that she identifies as biracial and black.

“Running has been a tough part of my life,” said Thompson, “and having people challenge you online is traumatic.”

She also recognizes a double standard on a platform where the number of successful white artists eclipses the number of colored artists who shoot for stardom. In June, TikTok excuse amid accusations of censorship and removal of content by black users, many of whom say they have seen their ideas appropriated by white creators. However, many of the app’s black community say that not much has changed.

“All of my videos that worked well; my face doesn’t show in them, ”said Thompson.

The volatility of life on TikTok has led some artists to form support groups. Colette Bernard, a 21-year-old sculptor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, frequently collaborates with five other users, including Thompson, and tries to persuade established artists that keeping one foot in the digital world of TikTok and another in the professional art scene can open doors.

“You can make a video of yourself talking about art while getting out of the shower with a towel over your head, that I haveand reach thousands of people, ”said Bernard. “But established artists and old institutions are not interested in showing this level of cruelty to the public.”

Since joining the platform last year, she has earned more than $ 45,000 from her online store, focusing her efforts on low-cost items like stickers, jewelry, and shirts. (TikTok’s Creators Fund, the platform’s incentive program, rewards a number of users with pennies per thousand views.)

“I’ll be independent when I graduate,” said Bernard.

Still, she recognizes that TikTok’s temperamental qualities can leave artists in a vulnerable position. “You have to post every day or people lose interest,” she says. “And it has completely changed the type of work that I create. It’s more sustainable for me to sell shirts and stickers than the large sculptures I make for school.

Her anxiety level peaked in January when, she said, an issue on TikTok caused two of her videos to go unviews. She had invested over $ 20,000 in her products. “If they don’t sell, I’m screwed.”

But by the end of last month, Bernard was riding the TikTok roller coaster. Another of her videos have gone viral and fans had spent nearly $ 10,000 in his online store during the day.

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