Case Study: The Insanely Relatable Work of Tobe Fonseca

How Tobe Fonseca

turned 10 years of 

freelance experience

into his own company

One of the things we love the most is seeing members of the Threadless community develop as creatives. And Tobe Fonseca is one of the long-time Threadless artists we’ve seen grow. This “bearded artist” (his words) developed his style right here through the years. His work has been featured on The Flash for millions of viewers (!!), and from cats to puns he’s found a way to tap into all of our hearts and minds. We talked to Tobe about the success of designs like “Furr Division“, seeing his designs on The Flash, and how his Artist Shop helps him take his almost 10 years of freelance work to the next level.

The Tobe Fonseca Artist Shop.

Tell the world a little bit about yourself! How is the art scene where you’re at in Brazil? 

Well, I’m Toby: an introspective, bearded artist from the South of Brazil. I started to draw as a kid and never stopped! After being a freelancer for many, many years (well I feel old saying that!), I started my own studio that’s under my name, Tobe Fonseca. It’s hard to talk about the art scene in Brazil: it’s such a big country with an effervescent culture, it’s like a melting pot of people from different backgrounds. We have big names like Os Gêmeos, who make very inspiring and high-quality street art, as well as artists like Romero Britto (Brazilians will kill me for saying this) whose work is very… Let’s just say people are passionate about his work, in a good and in a bad way. So you can find anything here and it will, for sure, spread to your work. I live in a small village of 15,000 people in the middle of nowhere, and it didn’t stop me from becoming an artist. I think that says a lot about Brazil; there is art everywhere.

Tobe at work (via Medium).

"Having Threadless Artist Shops managing my sales saved me a ton of time. I just send the link to my customers and they take care of the rest."

How has your art style changed from when you first started to now?

I literally developed my style on Threadless. If you check out my earliest works, you can see for yourself — and you’ll cry for sure. I was so immature, and my art was showing it. But I worked with the platform to grow through/with the community. Everyone is really supportive, giving amazing advice, and that made me grow as an artist. Having so many talented people around you is like a non-stop incentive machine. My style changed a lot. It’s still changing. I’ve been working with different artists in my studio and that’s added so much to my work, it’s probably a never-ending process and it’s beautiful. When you think you’ve found a style and you’re done, you see something and it sets off a spark in you, and everything changes. 

The sketch of “ Furr Division” (Via Medium)

You have some seriously classic designs, like “Furr Division” – how did the success of designs like this change your approach to design?

That’s the tricky part of being an artist. Everyone says that you have to express your emotions, get technical, and achieve new levels of excellence, and then BOOM: reality hits you in the face and you have to make a living! So, “Furr Division”, especially, is a great mark in my professional life, because when you align your passion with your job something beautiful can happen. Some people say that if you work with something you love, you won’t have to work a day in your life: they are lying. Work is still work, but it can be so much more than that. “Furr Division” showed me that: it was something I took so much pleasure in creating, and its success was the proof I needed at the moment to realize I was on the right track. That’s why I try to keep a balance between commercial and personal designs — I have to do that to keep loving what I do. It’s not easy, but it’s fundamental.

" Furr Division” worn by Cisco on The Flash.

“We are artists and we love what we do, but it’s also business - and Threadless Artist Shops helps us to reach our success.”

What’s it like seeing your designs everywhere?

Fulfilling, I think that’s the word. A couple of months ago, everyone was sending me pictures and small clips of the TV show  The Flash, where a character was wearing “Furr Division”. How cool is that? People were happy to see my work out there, and that makes me really happy too. It’s lovely to check for my hashtags on Instagram and see these people wearing something I drew… I can get really emotional over that. A couple of years ago, when I wasn’t able to travel and I really wanted to, that brought me some peace: I couldn’t travel, but my work was everywhere in the world. From the US to Japan. My work has traveled the world! How amazing is that?

What are some of your favorite products to sell in your Artist Shop?

Definitely, it’s t-shirts. T-shirts are in my core, but I’m trying to diversify and expand my ‘world’. I have some best sellers - both at Threadless and Artists Shop. My experience with Artist Shops is great for learning, allowing for trial and error that makes us open our eyes to a new way of selling.

Cat Lover” mens t-shirt, “How to Kill a Mockingbird” sweatshirt, “Feed Me and Tell Me I’m Pretty” zip pouch, “Stop, Please!“ tote bag

How has Artist Shops been beneficial to you, your customers, and fans?

I always have used social media, but for me, it was lacking a reliable platform to sell directly. I love the reliability and quality that Threadless Artist Shops brings. For me, it is peace of mind, knowing my fans are taken care of and will be delivered the best product possible. I also love that it is all integrated within my Artist dashboard, makes everything easy. The platform has a good image uploader and the team is always open to working with artists to further the Artist Shop experience and features.

Stickers from the Tobe Fonseca Artist Shop

You’ve been working freelance for almost 10 years. How did you first start marketing your skills as a freelancer? What are some of the challenges and how do you work around them?

I never took drawing classes and never went to university: all I had was my wish to become a real artist and to be able to make a living from my art, and it was wanting that so badly that made everything possible. I didn’t follow any recipe or plan, but every day I tried and I gave it my best — I drew as much as I could, I looked through and took in every artistic reference I could find on the Internet, and I tried to add that to my work. It was such a struggle trying to balance my passion with my financial needs. There were no shortcuts that I knew of or that I could take, so it was trial and error every step of the way. The worst part was when I started: you just can’t say no to any client, because you have to pay the bills and you have to embrace anything that comes your way. With time, it gets easier: you can start choosing who you’re gonna work with — and it’s not about the money: you start to only work with people who are inspiring and can make you grow. And that’s lovely! Every artist will face different challenges and all I can say is: don’t give up! Do your best, post everywhere. Send releases to every site you can, add people and talk to them, artists, everyone. Everything you do, even the small things, can have an impact on your success.

Top row: “ I Wish My Cat Was Bigger“, “ French Kiss 2.0“,  and “ Monday Cat“. | Bottom row: “ My Bear Valentine“, “ Dabbing Party“, and “ In Coffee We Trust“.

"I love the reliability and quality that Threadless Artist Shops brings."

Where do you find inspiration, both as an artist and as a freelancer?

I’ve always been inspired by nature. Going to my dad’s farm as a kid and playing around really made me more creative. I have to say that living in a small town without anything else to do helped a lot as well. I had to create my own stuff, and it was great. This kind of thing stays with you forever. So nature, animals, and more recently trying to bring that into my work, mixing it up with daily life, giving human characteristics to animals; that’s my thing. So, for my work, I’ll usually find inspiration in nature, humans, and art (Art? Groundbreaking!). Personally, I love to travel: I dream of becoming a digital nomad, that’s my ultimate goal, I guess. That keeps me moving forward. When I find something that’s really great, it shifts my work in a different direction. Even when I’m looking for references on the Internet, checking out my artist friends’ Instagram accounts, it can happen, and it’s always magical. I have many favorite artists. Some, like Van Gogh, are a personal inspiration, always lighting a spark whenever I need it. Others, like James Jean, create such beautiful and poetic stuff that brightens up my day and makes everything seem better! I have an extensive list. People like Rafael Bastos (Vó Maria) and Mathiole, for example, are IMHO t-shirt rock stars and you have to check them out!

" Flower Heart Spring

What’s your artistic philosophy?

Inspire and be inspired by people, create things that people want to wear and make them happy.

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