Though he had rarely touched a paintbrush before, Matthew Chessco reached for the canvas to help make his dreams come true, having only finished his engineering career four days later.
He has reinvented himself through months of trial and error and possibly taken the conventional route and tried to work with a gallery to sell his paintings. However, when it was time for Chessco to start showing, he logged into TikTok.
There, his neon portraits of icons like Bob Ross, George Washington and Megan Thee Stallion have drawn more than 2 million fans – a crowd many times larger than that of critically acclaimed artists like Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley on Instagram. Chessco’s audience appreciated his Warhol-inspired aesthetic and how often he choreographed the creation of his works to music that ranged from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” to rapper 6ix9ine’s “Gooba”.
Move over, Instagram. TikTok attracts viewers in droves. Most galleries have shown little interest in finding their next big star there, and critics have avoided the glut of amateur neon-pop paintings that are more like street art. But platform developers like Chessco are building their businesses and soliciting viewers like street performers did on Instagram nearly a decade ago.
“A video of my pictures went viral about a year ago. Suddenly I had more than 350,000 views over three days, ”said the 27-year-old Chessco. He opened an online shop and became one of the most popular visual artists on the social media platform.
Soon he was selling artwork for around $ 2,000 each, working with music labels, and working with advertising agencies. Those deals, he says, often earn him nearly $ 5,000 per post on the platform owned by Beijing-based ByteDance. But success creates competition.
Chessco recently discovered he had a doppelganger on TikTok – another artist copied the style, themes, and music of his videos and sold his images for a fraction of the price, As well as printing and supplies on a website almost identical to the one used by Chessco.
After Chessco posted a video on February 5 warning his followers of the existence of a copycat, he found that the artist had blocked comments on his page and deleted his website. But the doppelganger soon reopened his online shop and started publishing videos again a few days later. “The competition is really tough,” said Chessco, shaking his head.
If a minute-long video can make you fame and fortune, is it any surprise that young artists bypass art schools and student loans, quit their survival jobs, and pursue careers as full-time artists at TikTok? However, the app’s insatiable demand for content also degrades its aesthetics in unexpected ways. What happens when audience numbers drop, copycats invade, and fans dictate an artist’s taste? The fortune can suddenly bubble up.
Ben Labuzzetta grew up in rural Wisconsin and joined TikTok during his senior year. He shared paintings from celebrities like Billie Eilish and Morgan Freeman. But it was a work in honor of basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna after their deaths in a helicopter crash that gained ground – more than 29 million views in four videos. Inquiries from around 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 exploded,” said 19-year-old Labuzzetta. “I could make a living as an artist without going into debt for student loans.”
He created an online store that grossed nearly $ 80,000 in paintings and print sales over the past eight months and enabled him to move out of his parents’ home. More opportunities followed, including a trip to Los Angeles to work with a popular YouTube blogger on a TikTok collective called Hype House.
However, the life of a social media influencer isn’t always related to the demands of an artist. Labuzetta now feels constrained by the popularity of his photorealistic portraits and wants to experiment, even if it leads to a drop in audience numbers. The situation feels all the more difficult knowing that social media stars are often short-lived.
“Its popularity could die in a few years,” says Labuzetta. “But hopefully at this point I have a following that is big enough to go elsewhere.”
Despite the gold rush on TikTok, only a few established artists and institutions are participants. In the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which made headlines for their humorous use of the medium, engagement has declined significantly in recent months. Photographer Cindy Sherman, a prolific user of Instagram, said through a representative that she is currently not interested in joining TikTok and called the platform “too tricky”.
But laurels from the art world don’t matter to TikTok, as an algorithm allows users to scroll indefinitely through related interests. Rather, it is the artists who use the “moment” to gain influence. Success requires artwork that can instantly grab the viewer’s attention, usually with a combination of internet culture, human anatomy, and wet memes. This formula goes well with TikTok’s leading demographic: the teenagers, who make up nearly a third of the app’s users.
And many artists on TikTok have a hard time keeping up interest. Gina D’Aloisio, a 22-year-old sculptor, posted a video of herself as a student in which she created an incredibly realistic silicone face mask. It received more than 22 million views; More followers came over as she parted other fleshy body parts from her work, including a belly button ashtray and a foot candle.
However, audiences began to be reluctant to pay $ 255 to purchase the face masks, forcing D’Aloisio to release a video series to justify the cost of this labor-intensive product.
The artist said in an interview that she decided to leave TikTok when the platform starts dictating what she does. “I’m not ready to sacrifice the expensive parts of my practice that are essential to the job,” she said.
And some color artists find that success can bring a different kind of criticism that their white counterparts don’t see.
Leila Mae Thompson received more than one million views for a video announcing her intention to trust male artists. Their audacity paid off with nearly 300 new subscribers linked to their Patreon page. There fans paid $ 5 a month to get custom stickers and updates about their work.
Thompson, a 23-year-old self-taught in Richmond, Virginia, now runs a small business through TikTok that sells posters and shirts and has made nearly $ 20,000 since August. Her subject often includes the Black Lives Matter movement and artistic reactions to the death of George Floyd; As a result, some commentators have accused her of profiting from racial injustice without realizing that she identifies as biracial and Black.
“Racing has been a difficult part of my life,” said Thompson, “and it’s traumatic when people make you question it again online.”
It also recognizes a double standard on a platform where the number of white artists who succeed dwarfs the number of color artists who shoot to fame. In June, TikTok apologized on charges of censorship and suppression of content by black users, many of whom say they saw their ideas appropriated by white creators. However, many in the app’s black community say that little has changed.
“All of my videos that went well; My face doesn’t show 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, often works with five other practitioners, including Thompson, trying to convince established artists that they have one foot in the digital world of TikTok and another in the professional world Art scene can keep doors open
“You can make a video of yourself talking about art while you come fresh out of the shower with a towel on your head that I have and reach thousands of people,” Bernard said. “But established artists and old institutions are not interested in showing the public this level of rawness.”
Since joining the platform last year, she has made more than $ 45,000 through her online store and has focused on low-priced items like stickers, jewelry, and shirts. (TikToks Creator Fund, the platform’s incentive program, rewards a select number of users with a few cents per thousand views.)
“I’ll be self-employed when I graduate,” said Bernard.
Still, she recognizes that TikTok’s capricious traits can place artists in a vulnerable position. “You have to post every day or people will lose interest,” she said. “And it has completely changed the type of work I do. It’s more sustainable for me to sell shirts and stickers than the big sculptures I make for school. “
Her anxiety peaked in January when she said a bug on TikTok resulted in two of her videos not receiving any views. She had invested more than $ 20,000 in her products. “If they don’t sell, I’m fucked up.”
But at the end of last month, Bernard had ridden up the TikTok roller coaster. Another of their videos had gone viral and fans had spent nearly $ 10,000 on their online store during the day.