The boom and bust of TikTok artists

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The boom and bust of TikTok artists
An iPhone displays Colette Bernard's TikTok account in New york, March 3, 2021. When a 60-second video can make you famous, is it any surprise that young creators would bypass art school? But what’s left of their careers when fans move on and copycats encroach? Amanda Picotte/The New York Times.

by Zachary Small

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Although he had rarely touched a paintbrush before, Matthew Chessco found himself reaching toward the canvas to pursue his dreams after quitting a career in mechanical engineering only four days into the job.

Reinventing himself through months of trial and error, he might have taken the conventional route and tried to partner with a gallery to sell his paintings. But when it came time for Chessco to start exhibiting, he logged onto TikTok.

There, his neon-colored portraits of icons like Bob Ross, George Washington and Megan Thee Stallion have garnered more than 2 million fans — a crowd several times larger than the followings of critically acclaimed artists like Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley on Instagram. Chessco’s audience clicked in appreciation of his Warhol-inspired aesthetic and how often he choreographed the creation of his works to music ranging from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” to the rapper 6ix9ine’s “Gooba.”

Move over, Instagram. TikTok is wooing viewers in droves. Most galleries have shown little interest in finding their next big star there, and critics have eschewed its surfeit of amateurish neon-pop paintings that are more like street art. But platform creators like Chessco are building their businesses big time, courting viewers as street artists once did on Instagram nearly a decade ago.

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

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

Chessco recently discovered that he had a doppelgänger on TikTok — another artist was copying his videos’ style, subjects and music, as well as selling his paintings for a fraction of the price, alongside prints and supplies, on a website nearly identical to the one Chessco uses.

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

When a minute-long video can attract fame and fortune, is it any surprise that young artists are bypassing art schools and student loans, quitting their survival jobs and pursuing careers as full-time artists on TikTok? But the app’s insatiable demand for content is also bending their aesthetics in unexpected ways. What happens when viewership plummets, copycats encroach and fans start dictating an artist’s taste? Fortunes can suddenly fizzle.

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 work honoring basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna after their deaths in a helicopter crash that gained traction — more than 29 million views across four videos. Requests from some 10,000 potential buyers flooded his inbox in one day.

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

He created an online store, which in the past eight months has earned nearly $80,000 in paintings and print sales and allowed him to move out of his parents’ house. Other opportunities have followed, including a trip to Los Angeles to collaborate with a popular YouTube blogger in a TikTok collective called the Hype House.

But the life of a social media influencer doesn’t always gel with the demands of being an artist. Labuzzetta now feels constrained by the popularity of his photorealistic portraits and wants to experiment, even if it leads to plummeting viewership. The situation feels all the more tenuous with the knowledge that social-media stardom is often short-lived.

“Its popularity might die in a couple years,” Labuzzetta says. “But hopefully at that point, I’ll have a big enough following to go elsewhere.”

Despite the gold rush on TikTok, few established artists and institutions are participants. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which has made headlines for its humorous use of the medium, has seen a sizable drop in engagement over recent months. Photographer Cindy Sherman, a prolific user of Instagram, said through a representative that she has no interest in joining TikTok right now, calling the platform “too gimmicky.”

But art world laurels matter little on TikTok, where an algorithm allows users to infinitely scroll through related interests; rather, it’s the artists tapping into “the moment” who gain clout. Success requires artwork that can immediately catch a viewer’s attention, usually with some combination of internet culture, human anatomy and dank memes. It’s a formula that works well with TikTok’s leading demographic: the teenagers who make up nearly a third of the app’s users.

And many artists on TikTok are finding it difficult to sustain interest. While still a student, Gina D’Aloisio, a 22-year-old sculptor, posted a video of herself creating an eerily realistic silicone face mask. It received more than 22 million views; more followers came over when she shared other fleshy body parts from her oeuvre, including a belly button ashtray and a foot candle.

But audiences began to bristle at paying $255 to purchase the face masks, forcing D’Aloisio to release a video series in an effort to justify the cost of this labor-intensive product.

The artist said in an interview that she had decided to leave TikTok if the platform starts to dictate what she makes. “I’m not willing to sacrifice the expensive parts of my practice that are integral to the work,” she said.

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

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

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

“Race has been a difficult part of my life,” Thompson said, “and having people make you question it again online is traumatic.”

She also recognizes a double standard on a platform where the number of white artists who find success dwarfs the number of artists of color who shoot to stardom. In June, TikTok apologized amid accusations of censorship and content suppression by Black users, many of whom say they have seen their ideas appropriated by white creators However, many in the app’s Black community say that little has changed.

“All of my videos that have done well; my face is not showing in them,” Thompson said.

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 coming fresh out of the shower with a towel on your head, which I have, and reach thousands of people,” Bernard said. “But established artists and ancient institutions aren’t interested in showing that level of rawness to the public.”

Since joining the platform last year, she has made more than $45,000 through her online shop, focusing her efforts on low-priced items like stickers, jewelry and shirts. (TikTok’s Creator Fund, the platform’s incentive program, rewards a select number of users with a few cents per thousand views.)

“I’m going to be self-employed when I graduate,” Bernard said.

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

Her anxiety levels peaked in January when, she said, a glitch on TikTok caused two of her videos to receive zero views. She had invested more than $20,000 in her products. “If they don’t sell, I’m screwed.”

But late last month, Bernard was upward-bound on the TikTok roller coaster. Another of her videos had gone viral and fans had spent nearly $10,000 in her online store in the course of the day.

© 2021 The New York Times Company

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