Artists are nonessential, so rethink your strategy

Lockdown day 38: I actually just counted the days on the calendar, because I barely know what day it is most of the time. That’s 38 days I’ve had my shop closed. 38 days without income. 38 days my staff has no income. As of now, we don’t even know when this will end. And as far as experts are saying, this exact thing will happen again this winter.

Yeah, it’s going to happen again. Only next time it very well could be worse. That puts a lot of us into some strange predicaments. There’s no doubt in my mind that we should be closed, and so should just about every other business. Without efforts to mitigate damage, estimates have put the death toll in America at over 2 million. So, yeah, I’m staying home.

But I’m chomping at the bit. We’re all hurtin for money, our bills keep coming in, and even the shit that’s deferred or the utilities that won’t get disconnected during this time will still want their money. Some of them won’t even wait, and they’ll expect it as soon as you go back to work.

In the same breath, I’m fuckin terrified to go back. God knows how bad shit could actually get, and while I trust my own sanitary behavior, I have zero faith in the general public. People are animals. But hey, just like millions of others, I’ll go back to work because I don’t have the luxury of choice right now.

*side note: I’m super ADD, and I had to google what a million people looked like when I mentioned it. It’s kind of crazy.

And luxury is a key word. The first businesses to open are ones whose workers are most affected by the shutdown. And while this may sound good, like “cool, we’re going back to work,” it’s actually the exact opposite. We’ll be going back to work before the pandemic is over, and the flood of people back into social settings will just cause a spike in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

The reason the government is trying to get us back to work before the pandemic is over is because they don’t want to pass the measures other nations have taken to support their people. Things like monthly payments, freezes on mortgage and rent, food assistance. They’d rather just send us back to work and put us at risk of infection. Because ultimately, we’re expendable.


“But Tim, this has nothing to do with the blog title!”

Well, yeah, I know, but you’re interrupting before I can finish. This leads up to the fact that this is what will happen, and we’ll work through the spike of returning to work, and it’ll level out. We’ll work our asses off and struggle to play catch up with the rent and mortgage that didn’t stop accumulating, or the utility bills that didn’t disconnect, but they want their money in 30 days.

And that second wave will hit us later this year, and it’ll be bigger, and worse than the first. Then between COVID-19 and the flu, and a dozen other illnesses that are more severe in winter months, our hospitals will be completely overwhelmed. We’ll be ordered to stay home again, the government will argue about how to take care of us, and times will be very lean.

As artists, the things we’ve been doing seem to be working to bring in a little extra money. Selling prints, gift certificates, taking deposits for future appointments. But how sustainable is it? When we reopen, we’re accountable for the money our clients have given us, and we have to make good on gift certificates, giveaways, and other promotional efforts we’ve been using to stay afloat. And we all know that when someone cashes in a gift certificate, it’s like working for free.

And that second wave. That second wave in winter. Will we be able to put enough away to survive a couple more months without work? Will our clients be willing to walk through the same shit we did during the first shutdown? Will we be able to rely on the government to help us in crisis?

The answer is simple. No. No we can’t rely on any of that and just expect it to work the same way. We need to diversify our skill set; cast a wide net. We have to start practicing the creativity and flexibility that are supposed to be hallmarks of artists, and find ways to generate money. We need to actually *gasp* WORK!

Toni Collette in “Hereditary” 2018

How can we think outside the box? How can we break from our industry and venture into unknown waters? Well, it’s very much a personal decision. Unless it’s absolutely necessary, we shouldn’t trap ourselves into something we hate doing, that’s just a given. But we also need to be open to things beyond our comfort zone. I’ll tell you what I’m doing, and maybe that will get the creative juices juicing for you.

My first step is I’ve started putting more effort and attention into things I already do. I’ve been working through several print on demand sites for a number of years now, producing tee shirts, coffee mugs, tote bags, and a bunch of other stuff. I’ve never really pushed it too hard, and upkeep on my profiles has been lacking. I’m going to change all of that.

Some of my designs for Teepublic

My site of choice has been Teepublic, but I’m going to put more energy into Society6, which allows you to upload designs for a wider range of products, focusing heavily on decor and home goods. That means more pattern and print, as opposed to the imagery I use for shirts. That will allow me to use a huge amount of my abstract paintings and mixed media pieces. Maybe I’m not 100% sure of myself and comfortable with designing a fuckin bench, but I’m willing to put myself out there and learn.

I’ve also been stepping up the sale of vintage goods and repurposed/recycled artwork. I’m an avid collector and pack rat of old shit and weird, unique items, but my joy is in acquiring them, not keeping them. But the sale isn’t the fun part, so I’ve always slacked on it. So now I’m stepping up my eBay and Etsy sales. This has never been anything more than a hobby, and has only brought pocket change in the past, but right now it’s becoming a necessity to get better at it.

There’s a lot more I’ve started dabbling in. I’ve done a tee shirt design for a fledgling company, I’m working on an Instagram ad for a podcast. I’m trying to figure out how to put together a Patreon that would bring enough value to be worth a subscription. The sketchbooks and coloring books I published on Amazon will be available as digital downloads on my website, as well as a book on cover up tattooing that I’m working on.

And that should be the takeaway here. I’ve been telling people for years that we were bound to hit a devastating economic downturn, and that only the flexible artists will survive. We’re going to see a lot of tattoo shops close, and a lot of tattooers quit and get real jobs. You won’t survive tattooing unless you work in multiple styles and you get off the high horse and serve your clients instead of your own ego. Even then, you may not survive unless you can diversify your skills and work outside of your comfort zone.

You think the landscape is bleak right now, just wait a while. We’re early in the game. Start making moves now if you haven’t already. You’re going to need it.

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