Portion Artist Spotlight: Tommy Siegel

Tommy Siegel is a Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter, guitarist/bassist, producer and sometimes-cartoonist. Raised in Richmond, Virginia, he has always split his time between playing in rock bands and doodling in the margins of notebooks.

In 2004, he met the other members of Jukebox the Ghost from a flier in George Washington University's music department. After recording their debut indie-pop album over a holiday break, the band started touring in 2007 after graduating and haven't stopped since. The same lineup continues today after five studio albums, a live album, and over 1,000 shows all over the world, including festivals like Bonnaroo, Outside Lands, and Lollapalooza, and late night shows like Letterman and Conan.

On any given day, you can find Tommy getting over-caffeinated and producing music in his home studio for commercial use, film and TV, other artists, and his own projects.

Portion recently teamed up with Tommy Siegel to host a gallery show at the Blue Gallery in NYC. In the interview below, Tommy shares more about his art and music, bringing digital art to physical spaces, and how he thinks NFTs might take revenue from social media companies and instead put it in the hands of creators.

Can you introduce yourself and explain a bit more about your artwork and music for those unfamiliar with your work?

My name is Tommy Siegel – I'm a cartoonist and musician. On the music side, I'm a singer/songwriter/guitarist in a band called Jukebox the Ghost, which started back when we were in college and has kept us busy with recording albums and touring constantly for the last decade and a half. On tour, I used to take drawing requests from fans of the band as a social media schtick during idle time in the van on long drives between shows, but to challenge myself in 2018 I started drawing a comic every day for 500 days. Since then, drawing comics has really taken over my life! After finishing 500 days of comics, I published two books through Andrews McMeel, "I Hope This Helps" and "Candy Hearts", and still publish comics on my own social media... but without a daily deadline.

I find that my work tends to fall in a few different categories these days, but I try not to tie myself down and let myself go wherever I have ideas. A lot of comics I draw are inspired more directly by the political climate or the news cycle. Some of them are just silly. And some of them are about relationships – my candy hearts series is centered around internal monologues in relationships and the things we don't say out loud to our loved ones. In general though, I like having no limitations and letting my work be whatever it wants to be in that moment!

What is the story behind publishing 500 cartoons in 500 days? What inspired you to take on this goal?

At one point in 2017, I had submitted a bunch of cartoons to the New Yorker. They got rejected – but I was looking at them after the fact and thought "I can do better than this." I had seen another cartoonist undergo a daily comics challenge and watched his stuff get better and better. I thought something similar might happen for me if I really forced myself to look at my work under a microscope on a daily schedule.

How did you keep the creative juices flowing during the 500 days and what was your artistic process?

Having a notebook of ideas around was my lifeline! I generally had 20 or so ideas in the pipeline to choose from. Generally speaking, I was usually working on the next day's comic the day before, so it was a constantly-moving hamster wheel. In hindsight, I'm not sure how I pulled it off. Nowadays, two cartoons a week feels like plenty to me!

You have a long history of using social platforms like Instagram to publish your work. How have the constraints of those platforms affected your art over time?

For sure. I think if you're making your art for an online audience, it's hard not to be influenced by 'likes' and the preferences of the algorithm. That definitely influenced what format of comics I was making (single panel seemed to work the best) and what kind of jokes I crafted. It's been nice in the last couple of years to decouple myself from the algorithm and sit with work without a deadline – I've discovered that some of the work I'm the most proud of doesn't perform well on social media, which tends to highlight stuff that's shocking, meme-like, and controversial.

Curating my own gallery was a really interesting challenge – what looks good on Instagram doesn't necessarily look good in an art space! I found myself drawn to making some different kinds of work than I normally would, particularly the large-scale ones. The kind of stuff that wouldn't look great on a phone, but looks awesome on a wall.

What are your thoughts on the recent excitement around NFT collecting?

Honestly, it's just not a world I've explored yet! The debate around NFTs and their ecological and cultural implications was raging intensely this spring – I was much more comfortable to sit back and watch the discourse unfold in the art community. A lot of the early debate centered around the ecological impact of the computing power required for crypto art, but if NFTs move into a more eco-friendly space, it seems like that part of the conversation could change quickly. It's all really fascinating!

How have people collected your work in the past, and how might NFTs change that?

If there can be eco-friendly NFTs, it seems like a promising long-term platform that every artist would get on board with. Mostly, people collect my art as consumer goods – my two published books, prints, stickers, t-shirts, etc. But it's nice to think that my digital art could have inherent value as well. That's definitely the most interesting element of the NFT world to me.

What opportunities do you think NFTs present for cartoon artists similar to yourself?

Currently, I post most of the art I create on social media, which these various social media companies monetize for themselves by collecting ad revenue. And of course, none of this profit is ever shared with the creators – the system of 'likes' tends to keep us all complacent with the idea of not being paid for our work. I like the idea that the things I make can have inherent value, so that's the most intriguing element to me about the NFT space. It seems like there's a liberation model for digital art outside of social media, which is really interesting to think about – there's a utopian model in there somewhere, even if not in its current form. It's all fascinating to think about.

Can you describe your vision for an ideal online space of the future?

It's a really interesting question I've thought about a lot. It would be nice for social media companies to acknowledge the value that creators bring to them – there's no reason that people couldn't be paid for their work on these platforms, aside from greed. I would also love to see a social media space that's not entirely centered around maximizing 'engagement,' which generally translates to inducing rage, manipulating users' sense of self worth, and prodding users to exacerbate cultural fault lines. It seems possible to have platforms that share profits and allow art to flourish. I haven't seen them yet, but I want to believe it's possible!

Tommy Siegel - Moon Crab

Check out Tommy Siegel's Collection on Portion.

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