The Hone Collective | Thumb Driven
Hone Collective is an independent magazine based out of San Francisco, CA. We serve to collaborate and create a space for doers, thinkers and creatives to share their narratives in the lifelong process of becoming and honing their craft. Our aim is to document the journey and the effort made in actualizing one’s dreams.
Online Magazine, Urban Lifestyle, Music, Hip Hop, Art, Culture, Fashion, San Francisco, Bay Area, California, Urban Art, Creative, Thinkers, Doers
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Thumb Driven

a discourse into the complexities of social media and the artists thriving to remain relevant and true to their craft in that notion

by. Nina Tabios

The topic of social media and its effects is a tired one at best. A little over five years since the introduction of Instagram — arguably the most impactful platform halfway through the new millennium’s second decade — and we’ve surpassed the point of discussion for the benefits of having the world at your fingertips. Studies are now attributing depression, low self-esteem and isolation toward excessive connectivity — irony at its finest.

 

But at its core, social media is about sharing art. Where Facebook and Twitter were namely an extended outlet for Joe Shmoe’s two-cents and vacation pictures, Instagram paved the way for the added emphasis on visuals — anyone can become a photographer or videographer; anyone that’s dabbled in any type of art could become a star. But how do you separate real art from content? If the basic functions of social media are cause for negative self-perception, what does that do for the world’s young, modern artist?

 

It’s summer in Oakland. Train rides across the Bay are always satisfying, minus the howling when you’re beneath the water. But once you surpass that part, bright days are exceptionally so when passing the shipyard cranes that have become Oakland’s symbol, and the sun beams light up the houses of a town that was once infamous for notching 100 homicides in one year. Even in 2015, Oakland’s former reputation still precedes itself, but it’s getting past it; in my short encounters with the Town, I’ve found there’s beauty even in the most darkest places.

 

Francesca Mateo, artist and founder of her clothing brand, Empire in the Air, picks me up and we drive down the street to her studio apartment. Even in the long two and a half blocks she drives from the station to her place, the brick and concrete building walls are covered with large murals. The walls of her studio apartment, located in West Oakland, are covered in smaller ones; loose drawings and designs from Empire’s past collections pepper the head of her desk.


She calls the clothing brand her “main squeeze.” Aside from Empire, she is currently enrolled in a global studies Masters program at the University of San Francisco, and works part-time as a designer for ShopWeekly coupon books.

 

“I just find it funny that I started school as a graphic design major but wound up finishing in global studies,” she explains.  “And now, my first job out of college is graphic design work —  but I’m passionate about art and social justice. When I wanted to do graphic design, I wanted to do it at a personal level. Now, I have a job where I’m forced to do graphic design; it’s just so ironic.”

 


Empire in the Air was founded in 2010 as a means of pooling together a grounded love of fashion, art, writing and travel to create a legacy dedicated to reciprocating inspiration. The brand also has ties with Project Pearls, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of impoverished children in the Philippines. Oftentimes Francesca will donate proceeds from her clothing to the organization or even lend her artistic abilities to the project’s benefit.  

The brand has a genuine heart beating behind it, but it still remains a business; one that not only thrives but is dependent on a pressurized need to be relevant yet unique at the same time in a crowded, competitive industry oftentimes dominated by lesser vices.

 

“People love being able to relate to somebody,” she says. “Whenever I draw something and post it on Instagram, more than likely the ones that have a pop culture reference are going to garner more likes than if it were just a regular drawing I came up with in my head. It becomes eye-catching at that point. And it’s even more so when it’s timely.”

 

Being “relevant” and “timely” are nothing new to the world of art, but the consideration of ‘likes’ as a factor in such is. The term ‘like’ has shifted from being a verb to becoming a noun and is starting to carry more weight than it used to.

 

“It’s like we’re constantly being rated,” she says. “It could be like, ‘Oh, I spent this number of days on this sketch, I only get 20 likes.’ Then you’ll see there’s this other drawing done by someone else that was done in less time and it gets more than 100. Sometimes it can really get to your head.”

 

It’s borderline insanity the rate that we project importance or value on something as meager as double-taps. But at the same time, I get it: it’s that instant validation kicking in, one that’s become so prevalent in the life and times of Generation Y. Instead of becoming an accessory to our everyday lives, it’s almost become centerfold: the things we do, the things we’re interested in and our opinions on it; even more so for the young, budding artists and entrepreneurs and how we go about our craft.  


As he sips his coffee, Sean Amador, a dancer and photographer, empathizes. Interview over coffee is the motion for this San Francisco afternoon. I tell him of my aversion to the post-caffeine jitters I get whenever I drink it being my main distaste for it. Coffee may not be the one consensus we agree on, but social media’s effect in our craft is one we both take note of and attest to.

“Sometimes I find a really dope artist online who has cool, original stuff that I’ve never seen before, but more often than not, he’s not getting the attention or exposure that he needs,” he explains. “Meanwhile there’s someone else with thousands of followers and supporters, but is doing mediocre stuff — stuff that’s easy to do for the first guy. The first guy sees how much success the second guy is experiencing; who’s to say that he won’t dumb himself down to make try to break even with the second guy?”

 

Though the concept is loud, clear and understood, Sean seems to be among a few who can actively recognize that phenomena and still make the conscious choice to drift away from it. For Sean, the creative expression and genuine interest comes first: from his dancing to his visual art, likes and everything else after that come dead last.


Sean first started dancing in high school, during a time where he “felt like he was hitting a dead end at a time when kids don’t usually hit their dead end.” Dance became his medium for musical expression: limiting his style to popping and tutting doesn’t do him any justice. Sean’s moves are sharp, hard and simultaneously fluid, almost an exact mirror of his approach to everything else: while the music (read: outside influence) lends a direction, it doesn’t entirely dictate the motion — Sean does as he sees fit.

 

Nowadays he frequents dance competitions, traveling as far as  Portland and Vancouver. For him, competing is less about the prize and more about the self-pride for his love and respect for the art form. But in another effort for artistic expression, Sean picked up a camera. Dancing was a seamless segue into adopting photography into his creative repertoire.  

 

 

“(Photography) has definitely influenced my style of dance and even how I listen to music,” he said. “I prefer to take a journalistic approach to photography. I’m more about capturing the moment; what’s then and there right now.I feel like that’s where I lie because quality of the emotion is not the same if you fake it to make it.”

Coffee connoisseur by day, creator in all other hours of the night, Sean says that the dance community is just as much influenced by social media as visual art is. The consensus is that likes equate to exposure, exposure leads to popularity and popularity leads to influence.

“The reality is that the most popular dancers are nowhere near the best dancers in the world,” he says.

The social currency has even permeated business models. Social media marketing schemes aren’t so much on garnering triple-digit likes on posts, but instead focus on employing enough interest to hit that “Follow” button. Visuals are the key here, but that instant gratification and feedback seems to take precedence over individuality.

“I feel like it’s a huge ripple effect that has taken place with a lot of people and it’s a shame, because who knows how much good content potentially gets cut off because of that phenomena?” he wonders. “It really makes you think, though, about what people like. What do people want to see?”

This is a question often left to media outlets. In the big umbrella of news-reporting, the tradition used to lay with the telling of important stories that communities cared about;

in the modernized digital world, clicks aren’t necessarily the priority but sit shotgun to the content. But that doesn’t mean the two can’t take turns driving.

For tonight, Melissa Catalan is at the wheel. She just wrapped up a photoshoot and I tagged along as she coasted the Dogpatch hills looking for the most colorful backdrops in the area. We lucked out with a bright blue garage door; a perfect pop against her model’s white pleated skirt and top. One more perfectly paletted wall — pumpkin this time — to contrast a stark black outfit and the shoot’s a wrap.

 

“I’ve always honestly loved the sound of the shutter and the feel of a button clicking,” Melissa tells me over pizza. “It’s really one of my favorite parts of photography.”


Photoshoots are always fun, depending on which side of the camera you prefer. For that period of time, participants are in a state of make-believe; the photographer, a time machine. It’s cliche, but the whole “a picture says a thousand words” just might be flipped on its head at this point in time with the whole Instagram-thing; those thousand words can mean everything and nothing at all at the same damn time. Depends on who you ask though.

 

Peel through Melissa’s portfolio — be it her Instagram or the online version — and surges of personality are injected in every pose, every angle, every outfit and in every edit. Skies are pink, blue and purple; precise distortion and white noise are simple but bold. For every perfectly crafted image, the next one screams obscurity and daring. It’s what separates photographers from artists.

“For me, I can shoot and take those shots and make them into something that I would consider better, more unique, more artistic. I like the more unnatural-looking things anyway,” she says. “That’s a big reason why I don’t want to just be a photographer, I want to leave an imprint somewhere because I did more than take a picture.”


It’s also what separates Melissa from Sean, at least on a creative level. Sean and Melissa have been together for a couple of years now, making coffee, taking photos, modeling for each other, being the other’s cheerleader in arguably the most crucial chapter of growth their careers. But most importantly, it’s this mutual respect for their crafts — for art, period — that makes them so compatible.  

 

“I made him stand in front of my camera a million times, and with him being the creative person that he is, he was able to give me all these different looks and different types of feels; just new things that I wasn’t used to,” she explains. “Before him, I was used to just making everything look pretty.”

 

And she’s right; pretty isn’t necessarily everything, but eye-catching is.  There’s an influx of visual artists thanks to platforms like Instagram and even Vine, but the age-old adage of needing to separate yourself from the pack remains the same. And in the cutthroat Internet world, it all comes back to branding.

 

It’s an annoying take on graphic design/clothing brand reality for Francesca. She says that her brand strategy is definitely influenced by similar methods of popular brands and influencers like PUMA’s Sophia Chang or even Soulection DJ SoSuperSam, even if it’s a pathway she isn’t necessarily comfortable with.



“I hate being in front of the camera and I don’t like pictures of me,” she says. “But part of the strategy is to just imagine how much more Empire would grow if you slap a cute girl’s face on it. I guess in a sense of trying to compete and being known or recognized these days through social media, a part of me is just saying I have to suck it up and just do it.”

 

Again, this isn’t to discredit Sophia Chang specifically or anyone else that has made a successful career by way of social media brand marketing. But it does present a question: with such an influx of self-proclaimed creatives coexisting on these platforms, how do you siphon between what is art and what is content? And who gets to define that? Even more so, how is value placed upon art? How do you pit subjective material against each other?


“Competing in anything adds a whole new factor into any art, because it throws you off in that the art then becomes a competitive thing — which I don’t really think it is, but it seems to be nowadays,” Sean said.


Like it or not, competition within art is the name of the game. The nature of the various social media platforms rely on the tumultuous numbers between one’s likes and followers. There’s no guesswork when resonance can be measured in hard data and statistics. It becomes formulaic after a certain point.

This might be the first part in deciphering the blurred line between art and content. In the strive for recognition, redirecting one’s approach to fit with what’s pulling in more double-taps would mark the first stepping stone where art goes awry into content territory, but the thought still might be a bit premature.

 

“The other week I made my Facebook account inactive and deleted Instagram and Tumblr from my phone,” Sean tells me on our coffee interview. When I press him on why he did that, he laid out an honest truth that is often unsaid nor understood; simply put, social media and its influence was changing who he was.



I felt like internally I was going crazy because I was changing my daily methods and practices – the way I would practice dance and the way I would shoot – and the way I would search for beats or music,” he explains. “I kept seeing all these random memes and articles on what was cool and what was not. And it made me think, ‘Why am I listening to this album, I would never to listen to this before,’ or ‘why am I dancing this way, I’ve never danced this way before,’ and it’s because you’d get props for things that you don’t even like doing, but deep down you want to please someone, right? That’s what those likes and posts do for you; I felt like if I cut that off then I am free to think however I want.”

 

The domino effects of this phenomena are too complex to offer turning off the phone as an easy solution. It’s become such an integrated part of modern communication that there has to be validity in there somewhere.

 

“I think I’ve gotten past this weird threshold where you feel like you made an impact just because certain people reached out to you or you’ve reached people that make you feel good about your work,” Melissa explains. “That’s exactly what I wanted out of a social media platform  –  whether you have 200 followers or 100 million (followers,) what I want the most out of social media is for my art to reach a specific community. And I don’t care if that’s a small community of people or not.”



There’s more pros in being able to instantaneously share how we feel, what we’re thinking or show what’s taking our breath away at that very moment than there are cons. Social media was made to share bits and pieces of the human experience, selfies and all. By that definition, the platform’s mere existence nearly sets it perpendicular to art — a testament to the large conglomerate it’s evolved into. At the end of the day, social media is a tool. If it were to become a scapegoat for whatever millennial dilemma that spurns from it, the finger must also be pointed at the thumbs operating behind it.


Besides, it’s all just media anyway.

1. Francesca Mateo at her desk: Nina Tabios
2. Francesca Mateo + Empire in the Air board: Christopher Nguyen
3. Sean + Melissa: Melissa Catalan
4. Sean Amador (solo): Melissa Catalan
Slider. Melissa Catahan at photoshoot: Nina Tabios