Inside Chris Buzelli's NYC Studio
Chris Buzelli is an illustrator whose work has appeared in publications like the New York Times, Rolling Stone and on arms everywhere with his popular Hummingbird Tattly. His oil painting is realistic but surreal, with unruly animals of all sizes taking over cities and busting out of New York City subway posters.
In honor of his new Armored Bird design, we ventured to his East Village studio to chat about his work (and to pet his pup, Sota, in person). Read on to learn about his early inspiration and how a torn ACL marked a turning point in his career.
What was the first piece of art you ever created?
I don’t know my first artwork, actually. But this book (How to Draw by Ed Emberley) was a big influence when I was a kid.
My third grade teacher said, “You're so good at art! Why don’t you teach the class today?”
So I basically ripped off Ed Emberley! The book starts off with a fish, and teaches you how to draw each animal step by step. The final one is a dragon. I memorized all the steps, and I taught the class how to draw a dragon. They were like, “Oooh… Chris can draw!” So everyone drew this dragon everywhere until about eighth grade.
Another turning point: my grandfather owned a TV repair shop, and on Sundays we would watch Bill Alexander, Bob Ross’s teacher. He had an Austrian accent, a magic paintbrush, and happy trees. He was the original. And I remember being so relaxed by it. My grandfather took notice, and one morning I came into the shop and he had bought two Bill Alexander Magic Oil Paint Sets, with easels and all, so every weekend we started painting.
How do you get started with a new project these days?
I would say about 95 percent of my work is for a publication or advertising campaign. The publication will email me, and I’ll come up with three solid ideas for them. Sometimes it takes more imagination because the assignment is somewhat abstract. For instance, when I did an illustration for the New York Times for a story on the Academy Awards, they sent me the assignment before the nominations were even announced. They were like, "Seen any movies lately?"
But for regular stories, you usually get a synopsis or the entire article. I love reading through a whole book or article before I begin. You almost pretend like you’re coming up with the title or a byline for the piece to distill the message down before you get started. Then I start thumb-nailing, and I flesh out three ideas to present to them.
When did you first feel comfortable calling yourself an artist?
I got a scholarship at RISD because of one of the drawings I did, and that was a good moment. For that application you have to do a bike, a self portrait, and an interior study - this was the interior study.
I grew up with four sisters and one bathroom, and they were like, “What are you doing in there?” When I showed them the drawing (below) they were grossed out, but I could say, “Hey I just got a scholarship to RISD with this!”
So after I did that piece, I was like, I’m a professional.
When do you feel you found your style?
After I graduated and moved to New York, if someone told me it would take seven or ten years to become a professional illustrator, I don’t know if I would’ve kept doing it everyday…
But anyway, a few years of living here and I was on a volleyball league and a basketball league. One night when we were playing I tore my ACL. You’re pretty screwed after that. I was just stuck up here. (Motions to his apartment.)
I don’t know if they had overdosed me on painkillers, or if it was just the amount of time I had to think about what I was doing, but at that point I made a conscious choice. I had been doing collage work up until then, a popular style at the time - and I was like, "You know? This doesn’t feel right anymore." I was doing it because I felt like that’s just what you were supposed to do.
I did about five paintings during that time, and actually it was the first time that I had stopped trying to have a style. I never sent another promo out again and things just snowballed after that.
So what drew you to using animals in your work?
For me, it really freed me up in terms of a whole new creative world when I started using animals instead of humans in these normal situations. Because I’m definitely a more realistic painter, and the human part got really boring for me. It’s really about trying to find another vehicle to illustrate concepts.
When I started using animals it became less about the objects, the nouns, in the piece. (The cell phone, the briefcase, etc.) It became more about the action, the verbs, of the piece. The illustrations became more active for me and were able to portray concepts better.
Do you ever have an assignment that completely stumps you?
Every single one. Every time I get an email i’m like f***!
Do you have a tattoo?
No. But I love tattoos, I really do. My whole life I’ve been infatuated with them. ( I have one student who does stick and poke and her work is really cool.) But I couldn’t get a tattoo myself. I think it may be because I get tired of my own images so fast (that I wouldn’t want to put something permanent on my skin.) That’s the cool thing about Tattly!
Thanks, Chris! Shop his Tattly here.