Even in my adolescent anticipation of moving to New York to become a writer, I knew there would be struggle involved. I wore this awareness proudly, bragging to my friends that any measure would prove worthwhile if it meant that I was living a meaningful life rather than selling out to some bland career I felt lukewarm about at best. I imagined a sparse apartment like Holly Golightly’s and began walking to school to condition myself for the city’s brisk pace. “I’ll only eat two apples a day,” I told myself, inspired by Carrie Bradshaw’s quote, “my first night in New York, I bought Vogue instead of dinner. I just felt it fed me more.”
I was ruefully self-deluded. I am the queen of hunger-induced grumpiness.
Still, I managed to join the bountiful ranks of passionate artists hustling to make ends meet while building a life they believed in. Since moving to New York, I’ve worked no less than three jobs at a time, and find myself consistently impressed with my ability to carve out roles that help pay the bills. I wondered if other artists were enduring the same process, or if there was some secret formula I missed out on learning.
Leaf8k is a New York based artist who got his start on the graffiti scene and has since expanded his repertoire, completing works for gallery shows and commissions for gates. Butterflymush is a painter whose female-positive pieces adorn canvases, bar walls, stickers, and more. Hailing from California, with work across the country, Dirt Cobain’s distinct style has earned him an esteemed reputation. As an artist and author, L. Marie Cook has travelled the world, leaving her work behind like a zen footprint. Each artist’s styles and beliefs has led them to concoct a formula that works for their career.
Is generating an income from your art a driving concern in your career? Why or why not?
“Yeah I think so,” Dirt remarked. “This is how I make my living.”
Meanwhile, Leaf contended, “I never cared about making money from graffiti. If you care about making money, there’s easier, less risky ways [to go about it.]” He does understand that funding is a necessity though, continuing, “obviously, if you get commissions then you’re getting money, and you need money to execute the ideas that you have.”
L. Marie found that her relationship to money has changed with time. “I don’t think I would use the word ‘concern.’ Not in this moment, exactly. And it wasn’t for many years, but it is a motivation now.”
Has your income increased or decreased over the course of your career?
Butterflymush confidently stated that her income has increased.
Dirt agreed. When asked about how he discerns the correct price point, Dirt jokingly told me “I mean, I’m always trying to get as much as I can.” He has found that years of experience warrant higher pay. Free work allows artists to “earn [their] stripes” and eventually leads to higher asking prices. When asked how he advocates for appropriate prices, Dirt stated that, “if people are approaching me, they already know… As long as I stay active, the value continually increases.” He pointed out that activity also shows growth, thus adding more value.
Leaf agreed with this trend, but qualified, “obviously there was a time when nobody wanted to commission any of my shit. I was doing shows where everyone else’s shit was being bought around me, but no one was buying mine. Now I’ve sold some stuff and I’ve done commissions every season.”
L. Marie noted a different trajectory, explaining, “my income has been pretty much the same for the last seven to eight years … I am still pretty low-key and unknown… It’s very possible that one of the reasons I haven’t really grown in any sort of notoriety is that my street-pieces are spread all over the place: Paris, Bali, Java, Australia, Malaysia, Cambodia, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago.”
Dirt also understood the idea’s allure, and said, “that will always cross people’s minds,” but he believes that tailoring his pieces to appease customers would make him a sellout.
Have you ever felt the need to alter your style to appease customers and make more money?
Butterflymush acknowledged that while this approach can be tempting, it can also impose limits. “Before coming into a style of my own I felt like I needed to have my art fit into a style that already existed… What I was doing was trying to appease people’s requests in order to sell a painting. What I didn’t know was that, it was making my own way and style that would help me reach a point where I would profit from my art far more than painting peoples’ requests in someone else’s style.”
Dirt also understood the idea’s allure, and said, “that will always cross people’s minds,” but he believes that tailoring his pieces to appease customers would make him a sellout. “I don’t want to go down that route, I would rather stick to my own formula.” He emphasizes the popular aspects of his work’s DNA, but eschews latching onto others just for the sake of being trendy. “I would rather be broke and true to myself.”
Leaf echoed similar sentiments, and said, “I don’t feel like I need to change to make more money. I would rather paint original paintings that don’t ever sell… I don’t want to live my life painting stuff I hate.” He continued, “I love everyone who loves my shit and I love everyone who hates my shit too. Because you’re not going to please everybody so don’t try. Just do you, and there’s going to be people who like you and people who don’t. And the people who don’t, you just don’t have to pay attention to.”
L. Marie noted that pandering to one’s base in the age of social media can potentially stifle an artist’s growth. “I can see how other street-artists are doing on Instagram and have noticed that the majority of people really like and get to know the branding signature of certain artists because they really hone in on doing one thing, doing it well, and blasting it all over. I would probably be far more popular and recognizable if I did, but I have too many different things I want to make and say. I have thought a few times, things would be easier if I really refined my style, but that will have to happen naturally. I don’t think I can force it.”
L. Marie’s top-grossing piece came from a personal place. “A guy wanted me to do a pair of nude charcoal portraits of him. He was out of state and sent me photos. I won’t disclose the price publicly. But it was my highest…”
Tell me about your highest selling piece.
Leaf recalled, “I did a painting for somebody in Japan for $1,200, that was my number for a while.” He matched that number, selling another canvas for $1,200” at a Wu Tang-themed show. “That fucking ruled,” he remembered.
Dirt doesn’t typically sell large pieces. His highest grossing work came from a bar in NYC. “They really liked my artwork, so I had the leverage,” he explained. “It was exciting, I was like, ‘what happens next?’” Increasing his profits motivates him to push harder.
L. Marie’s top-grossing piece came from a personal place. “A guy wanted me to do a pair of nude charcoal portraits of him. He was out of state and sent me photos. I won’t disclose the price publicly. But it was my highest, due to the sensitivity of the content, and also with the handling of his photos as references.”
Butterflymush also counted a private commission as her top-seller. “My highest selling piece so far was a commission I did for a customer from my previous job in a strip club. It was a painting of the Wall Street Bull. It was my highest selling piece not because of the actual art on it but because I was able to get a man to pay a ridiculous amount of money for it. I did the two things I know how to do best: paint and hustle a man for his money.”
Have you explored other revenue streams like merchandise? What was your experience? Do you have recommendations for other aspiring artists?
Every artist I spoke with dabbled in merchandise, though none of them found it generated large profits. Instead, merchandise’s true value lies in its potential for promotion. Dirt specializes in t-shirts, pins, and stickers “for the art fans” because “not everyone can afford an expensive piece of art.” He said, “it helps out, but I’m not going to get rich off of merchandise.”
Butterflymush agreed, adding that “selling merchandise is definitely a hit or miss. I wouldn’t recommend doing it solely to make money. I think it’s something artists do as another way of sharing their art with the world. If you can find a way to have merchandise available for sale on a site using tools that make it easier on you, and less time consuming so you can focus on your priority, then it’s a good side gig to have.”
Leaf joined the merchandise game rather reluctantly. “Everyone kept asking me, ‘when are you going to make pins, when are you going to make shirts?’ I was on Instagram and one of the ads was for pins. I was high and I was like ‘let me look’ and I just got pins and people started buying them. I was like… ‘fuck.’ If I sell one pin a day, that’s coffee and breakfast and maybe a train ride. So if I sell more than one a day, it obviously helps me. It’s like being tipped for being alive.”
Do you work other side gigs to sustain your career? If so, what’s the craziest one you’ve worked on? Are there any unexpected ways it’s effected your career as an artist?
In her side gig as a cook, L. Marie managed to blend her sustenance work with her creative pursuits. She explained, “when I was cooking, it was behind a coffee bar in my neighborhood so most of the customers were my friends coming in to hang out. I am lucky enough that I keep getting gigs with friends or in the art world, so I feel like I’ve been on vacation for like four years, even though I’m making money… I burn out sometimes, but that’s usually due to taking too many trains in one day for too many days in a row.”
Leaf also worked as a cook for some time, before he attained a hustle related to his field, teaching art to new students. “It helped me talk to people. Unless I know you, I kind of generally don’t give a fuck. When you do stuff for people they want to talk to you, and they have questions about you.” Working in a teaching role has enabled Leaf to open up to interested fans about his work.
Three years ago, Dirt worked a day job in construction, but it prevented him from putting his “full focus on art.” He described the move from a consistent day job to the riskier life of an artist as a relatively easy transition. “I just had to cut back on spending,” to compensate for the lack of a steady paycheck. Regardless, he noted that his previous job “was very time consuming” and that opting out of it was the best move for his future as an artist.
Butterflymush boasts a work history that has richly informed her art. “I no longer have a side gig but I had several throughout the years. The ‘craziest’ was my time as a stripper. Although painting was always a part of me and something I’ve always been and done, my experiences in the adult entertainment industry, surrounded by badass unapologetic women who love money, definitely had a huge influence on my art career, and became the inspiration and focal point of my art’s style and subject matter today. The experiences I’ve had come to life on my canvas. Once I found my style I quit everything else and began producing and refining my craft.”
As it turns out, the alchemy of success doesn’t involve any mystical forces like newt ears or virgin tears. Instead, it requires the unsexy, but incredibly motivating power of effort. Building a successful career in the arts stems from hard work, hustle, and a commitment to your own unique vision. Legacies are built three jobs and two apples at a time.
For more by the author, check out her website: vittoriabenzine.com
For more by the artists, check out their instagrams & websites: