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Artist to Entrepreneur: Queer Creatives Cash in on Social Media

A shirt designed by artist Ego Rodriguez (Instagram: egorod) Eivind Hansen

When Stephen McDermott graduated Sheridan College in Oakville, Ontario with a degree in commercial illustration, he thought his road would be pretty simple. Having been interested in art from a young age, this was to be the beginning of a real career in the field.

“I made a portfolio, sent it out and hoped for the best,” McDermott told NBC Out. "But it wasn’t really tailored to anything and didn’t have much substance." While that career path is still one in the making, the Toronto-based artist has already found a bit of success, in part due to Instagram.

A scroll through McDermott’s Instagram turns up a collection of sketches, personal photos and merchandise mostly centered around pins. That amalgamation comes as a part of the artist’s entrepreneurship, which got its start due to a lack of work.

“I started getting into male nudes, because I wanted to do something a little more personal,” he said of his first zine, Shades, which was all self created. That work featured eight models in a variety of poses across 44 pages. “It was actually a project I wanted to do in my final year, but my provost didn’t let me do it because he said it wasn’t ‘art enough.'”

That zine was followed by a second, titled Socks & Jocks. “When I did the second one, I wanted to make a pin out of it, because those were sort of trending,” McDermott explained. “My friends were like, 'Don’t do it, you’re not going to make any money off of it,' and I just decided to do it anyway.”

That first pin run sold out within a month, and since, pins have become a major component of McDermott’s business, which includes selling pins, tees and his artwork. Of his pins, McDermott has a variety of styles. A recent release features a glow in the dark, naked man, while prior designs like "Damn Daniel" and "Prince Eric" come as a part of a Socks and Jocks series of designs that feature muscular guys in tube socks and jockstraps.

“It was kind of a fluke, because I was just trying to make something cool, but I also did need to make money,” McDermott said. “I think pins are really big right now.” And they are.

Other gay creators who find a lot of support on Instagram, like Pansy Ass Ceramics, another Canada based account, are also creating pins. Their popular pins include one of Queen Elizabeth with the words "Yass Kween" written on it. But this generation of entrepreneurial queer artists are creating more than just pins.

London-based illustrator Ego Rodriguez has been involved in art for most of his life, with two painters for parents and a brother who works for Marvel comics. Two years ago, Rodriguez decided to focus on his sketching full-time instead of doing it on the side as in years passed. Now, through a partnership with the U.S.-based company Threadless, he boasts a line of shirts featuring his work.

“It’s not about what I like to draw, it’s about creating a [brand],” Rodriguez said in a Skype interview. “I have to make my brand distinctive in one way or another.”

So far that branding has focused on a variety of things, including portraying masculine figures in bright, happy, pop-filtered colors or popular pop culture figures like Madonna and Winona Ryder. The artist himself describes it all as gay-related but points out that it brings something new to the table as it’s not exclusively sexual.

“It doesn’t have to be Tom of Finland with a massive d-ck hanging out,” Rodriguez said of the gay art icon whose foundation also recently set up a merchandise line. “I love that stuff, but this is kind of nice and interesting in another way.”

Rodriguez said 90 percent of his business comes from Instagram.

Isaí León of Anaheim, California, got started with a cap he made for himself that said “femme” in script across the front.

“To wear that on your forehead, it meant more than it just being a hat to me,” he told NBC Out. Since he debuted his "femme" hat, he’s made a variety of other hats for sale -- some incorporate his Latino heritage and feature things like De La Rosa candies and others riff on cartoons like Sailor Moon.

Andy Simmonds, known online as Rooney, is one of the more popular designers, with products like a “Make America Femme Again” cap and a Masc 4 Masc sweatshirt in bubbly pink letters. Simmonds also contributes to the designs for Daddy Issues London, the merchandise line and series of recurring parties by Oly Innes and Borja Peña.

Instagram provides an important avenue for LGBTQ artists to flex their entrepreneurial muscles, and these artists in turn bring a diversity of options to the market for consumers. As evidenced by the ability of these creatives to support themselves by selling their creations on the platform, it’s a lot more than just likes and comments.

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