I joined TikTok much later than most of my classmates.
Growing up in rural Wisconsin, art was my priority, not social media. I’ve been into art and drawing for as long as I can remember. As a self-taught artist, I went through many different phases: first drawing, then origami, then pencils and pastels.
In fall 2019 during my senior year of high school, I started taking art classes and got into painting since I wanted to create bigger pieces, like murals, which would be too time consuming to draw with a small pencil.
I started my TikTok account in November of that year after several classmates told me that I should post videos of my artwork. My first video ended up getting over 400,000 views.
Before this, my art had gotten attention locally, but having hundreds of thousands of online viewers felt wild to me. After that, I got addicted to posting. The more videos I posted, the more they kept popping off. It was absolute insanity.
At the beginning, posting on TikTok every other day was hectic. As soon as I got home from school, I’d rush to my desk, start another piece, and work for six hours every night. It was a grind.
I gained over 100,000 followers in the first month on TikTok.
This felt unbelievable to me, as I’d had an art Instagram for over five years and only had about a thousand followers. After launching TikTok, my Instagram grew to over 95,500 followers. In February 2020 I gained over 500,000 followers in one month after posting a series of four videos featuring the recently passed Kobe Bryant. Those videos accumulated over 8 million views. My followers always send suggestions on who I should feature next in my artwork. After his tragic passing, I received so many requests that it was a no-brainer.
Because of TikTok, I’m now a full-time artist. I graduated from high school last year and while my original plan was to go to University of Wisconsin-Madison to study art, I convinced my parents to let me focus on making art instead of attending college.
I built a website to launch an online art store in June 2020. It was rough at first, because I have zero business experience and had to build everything myself from scratch. In the first month, I only made about $1,000. After that, I committed to learning everything I could about selling.
With my store, I’ve learned that time spent creating a piece does not always increase its value.
I’ve spent four hours on pieces that have made thousands of dollars, versus over 50 hours on art that only earned me $200. In order to make money I’ve learned it’s important to cater to your audience, not just create whatever you want.
Most importantly, I diversified and created multiple services and products slowly over time. I launched with custom work, then added originals, prints, and tattoo designs.
These days, my store makes anywhere between $8,000 and $15,000 a month.
It’s crazy to think about because my business is only a year old.
One of the popular services that I offer are custom commissions. These pieces are priced between like $500 to $2,500 per piece. Most of my requests are for artwork of family members or memorial pieces of relatives who have passed away. I also get many commissions from sports enthusiasts, so I paint Kobe all the time.
As for prints, the most popular one is Harry Styles from One Direction. I sold at least $10,000 worth of those prints after the TikTok video I posted of it received over 2.3 million views.
I also make money from sponsored posts on TikTok. Brands reach out to me directly, and I charge a couple thousand for each post. Most recently I collaborated with Sweethearts and EA Sports.
My typical day starts with checking emails and answering any customer questions. Then I work on commissions, have a midday break, and spend the rest of the day creating TikTok content or painting whatever I want. On Sundays, I spend the full day fulfilling, printing, and shipping out orders.
For new artists starting on TikTok, I recommend checking out what’s currently trending and brainstorming how you can make it fit your style and niche. The most important metric on TikTok is watch retention, so it’s important to keep viewers engaged.
Thanks to my income from my art, I moved to be with my girlfriend in Minnesota this past January. Next up, I’m saving up to build my dream art studio. I’d love to one day be recognized and collected as an artist and be featured in museums and galleries worldwide. It’s been such an exciting year and I can’t wait to see what comes up next.
By Ben Labuzzetta, as told to Kaila Yu July 6, 2021 at 10:48PM