TikTok Artists’ Success and Failure.
Is it any wonder that young artists will forego art school when a 60-second video can make them famous? But, once their fans have moved on and copycats have encroached, what will be left of their careers?
Matthew Chessco, who had never touched a paintbrush before, found himself reaching for the canvas to follow his dreams after leaving his work as a mechanical engineer after just four days on the job.
After months of trial and error, he should have gone the traditional route and attempted to sell his paintings via a gallery partnership. Chessco, on the other hand, logged into TikTok when it was time to start exhibiting.
His neon-colored portraits of celebrities such as Bob Ross, George Washington, and Megan Thee Stallion have racked up over 2 million Instagram followers, far outnumbering the followings of critically acclaimed artists such as Jeff Koons and Kehinde Wiley. Chessco’s audience was captivated by his Warhol-inspired style and the frequency with which he choreographed the production of his works to music ranging from Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” to 6ix9ine’s “Gooba.”
Instagram, take a backseat. TikTok is attracting a lot of attention. Most galleries have shown little interest in discovering their next big star there, and reviewers have shied away from the overabundance of amateurish neon-pop paintings that mimic street art. Network designers like Chessco, on the other hand, are putting their companies on the map, courting audiences in the same way that street artists did nearly a decade ago on Instagram.
“A video of one of my paintings went viral about a year ago; in three days, I had over 350,000 views,” Chessco, who is 27 years old, explained. He started an online store and quickly became one of the most well-known visual artists on the social media site.
He was soon selling artworks for $2,000 each, working with music labels, and partnering with advertising agencies. He reports that such business deals pay him nearly $5,000 per post on the website, which is owned by the Beijing-based firm ByteDance. However, achievement breeds rivalry.
Chessco recently discovered that he had a TikTok doppelgänger — another artist was cloning his videos’ design, subjects, and music, as well as selling his paintings for a fraction of the price, along with prints and supplies, on a website that looked almost identical to Chessco’s.
Chessco discovered that the artist had blocked comments on his page and deleted his website after posting a video on Feb. 5 alerting his followers to the presence of an imitator. The doppelgänger, on the other hand, quickly reopened his online store and began uploading videos again a few days later. Chessco shook his head and said, “The rivalry is very fierce.”
Is it any wonder that young artists are foregoing art schools and student loans, leaving their day jobs, and pursuing careers as full-time TikTok artists? However, the app’s insatiable appetite for material is bending its aesthetics in unpredictable directions. What happens when audience numbers fall, copycats proliferate, and fans begin to dictate an artist’s taste? Fortunes will vanish in an instant.
Growing up in a small town in Wisconsin, During his senior year of high school, Ben Labuzzetta began using TikTok to share paintings of celebrities such as Billie Eilish and Morgan Freeman. But it was a piece honoring basketball player Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna, who died in a helicopter crash, that gained traction, with more than 29 million views across four videos. In a single day, he received requests from over 10,000 potential customers.
“My initial intention was to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but it changed after my social media went viral,” said Labuzzetta, 19. “I could still support myself as an artist without taking out student loans.”
He opened an online shop, which has brought in nearly $80,000 in painting and print sales in the last eight months, allowing him to leave his parents’ home. Other opportunities have followed, including a trip to Los Angeles to work in a TikTok collective called the Hype House with a prominent YouTube blogger.
However, the demands of becoming an artist don’t always mesh with the demands of becoming a social media influencer. Labuzetta now feels limited by the success of his photorealistic portraits and wants to try new things, even though it means a drop in viewership. The situation is made even more precarious by the fact that social media fame is always temporary.
“Its popularity will fade in a few years,” Labuzetta predicts. “But hopefully by then, I’ll have a large enough following to branch out.”
Despite the TikTok gold rush, few existing artists and institutions are involved. The Uffizi Gallery in Florence has seen a major decline in interaction in recent months, despite making headlines for its satirical use of the medium. Cindy Sherman, a regular Instagram user, said via a spokesperson that she has no plans to join TikTok at this time, calling the site “too gimmicky.”
On TikTok, however, where an algorithm allows users to scroll indefinitely through related interests, it’s the artists who are able to tap into “the moment” who gain clout. Success necessitates artwork that can capture a viewer’s interest right away, which is normally achieved by a mixture of internet culture, human anatomy, and dank memes. It’s a formula that appeals to TikTok’s most common demographic: teens, who account for nearly a third of the app’s users.
And many TikTok artists are having trouble maintaining interest. Gina D’Aloisio, a 22-year-old sculptor, shared a video of herself making an eerily realistic silicone face mask while still a student. More fans came over when she posted other fleshy body parts from her oeuvre, such as a belly button ashtray and a foot candle, which got more than 22 million views.
However, when viewers balked at paying $255 for the face masks, D’Aloisio was forced to release a video series to justify the price of this labor-intensive product.
In an interview, the artist stated that she had decided to quit TikTok if the platform began to dictate her work. She said, “I’m not willing to compromise the costly parts of my practice that are important to the job.”
And some black artists are discovering that success will carry a different kind of scrutiny than their white counterparts.
Leila Mae Thompson’s video in which she revealed her intention to adopt the faith of male artists earned over a million views. Her audacity paid off, as she gained nearly 300 new subscribers to her Patreon website, where fans could pay $5 per month to receive personalized stickers and updates on her work.
Thompson, a 23-year-old self-taught artist from Richmond, Virginia, now runs a small business selling posters and t-shirts on TikTok, which has brought in nearly $20,000 since August. As a result of her frequent references to the Black Lives Matter movement and creative responses to the death of George Floyd, some commenters have accused her of profiting from racial discrimination, despite the fact that she is biracial and Black.
Thompson said, “Race has always been a complicated part of my life, and having people making you doubt it again online is traumatic.”
She also sees a double standard on a forum where the number of successful white artists far outnumbers the number of successful artists of color. TikTok apologized in June after being accused of censorship and content suppression by Black users, many of whom say that their ideas have been appropriated by white writers. Many in the app’s Black community, on the other hand, say that nothing has improved.
“My face isn’t visible in any of my videos that have done well,” Thompson said.
Because of the ebb and flow of life on TikTok, some artists have formed support groups. Colette Bernard, a 21-year-old sculptor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, often collaborates with five other TikTok users, including Thompson, and seeks to convince existing artists that having one foot in TikTok and the other in the professional art scene will open doors.
“You can meet thousands of people by making a video of yourself talking about art while fresh out of the shower with a towel on your head,” Bernard said. “However, established artists and historic institutions aren’t interested in exposing the public to that degree of rawness.”
She has made over $45,000 via her online store since entering the site last year, concentrating her efforts on low-cost items like stickers, jewelry, and t-shirts. (The platform’s incentive scheme, TikTok’s Creator Fund, pays a small number of users a few cents per thousand views.)
Bernard declared, “When I graduate, I’m going to be self-employed.”
Nonetheless, she admits that TikTok’s capricious nature can put artists in a vulnerable position. “If you don’t post every day, people will lose interest,” she explained. “And it has completely altered the type of work I produce. I will make more money selling shirts and stickers than I can making big sculptures for school.”
Her anxiety levels peaked in January, she said, when two of her TikTok videos received zero views due to a bug. Her goods had cost her more than $20,000. “I’m doomed if they don’t sell.”
Bernard, on the other hand, was on the TikTok roller coaster late last month. Another of her videos had gone viral, and in the course of the day, fans had invested almost $10,000 in her online store.