Send nudes: The Instagram accounts making NSFW art from people’s naked pics

A subculture of artists sketching nudes has emerged on Instagram. But are they all drawing on the same values?

by Kyle MacNeill
|
24 April 2020, 2:00pm

Photography via Instagram (L) @draws_nudes and (R) @super_twunk

"Honestly I’ve been pretty fucking horny and bored during quarantine," says Caroline Calloway.

Born in Virginia, Caroline careered into the public eye in 2013, when she opened up an Instagram account during her time at Cambridge University. Her feed was simple -- dreamy, sun-drenched travel adventures -- but it soon caught on. Her estranged friend Natalie Beach claimed she ghostwrote Caroline’s captions -- via a beefy first-person piece in The Cut. Recently, Caroline has fired back with a tell-all essay behind a charitable paywall.

And that’s where the nude comes in. Last week, ever the provocateur, Caroline posted a topless picture of her on Twitter as a "humble apology" for not reaching the promised word count on her essay. It went viral -- on the top list of trends for the US, Caroline notes -- and is still pinned at the top of her feed, proudly.

The nude also caught the eye of Katy, a hobbyist artist who runs the account @draw_nudes on Instagram. The clue is in the name -- Katy sketches nudes in a style that sits somewhere between ‘still life’ and ‘erotic art’, capturing the shape of her subjects in soft, languid strokes. It’s why Caroline liked it. In typical Caroline Calloway fashion she explains: "As someone with an art history degree from a little place called CAMBRIDGE (have I mentioned I went to Cambridge? Cambridge. Cambridge) I’m very used to thinking about the nude female form as art."

"Caroline did this incredible balls-to-the-wall thing," says Katy. "She communicated that a naked photo is not currency, like 'you can't touch me'. I just felt like I had to draw this." So that’s what she did. The image she created was veritable, sellable art; Caroline bought it, and reposted it. "I wasn't expecting to get anything from it," says Katy. "It really shocked me. I looked at my phone and thought Christ what is happening!"

Katy isn’t alone. Beyond the swarm of homogeneous rich kids, the buzzword brand promos, the food porn blogs and micro-influencers, Instagram is home to a buzzy scene of artists whose sole practice is the sketching of online nudes. Some of them work to desexualise the body, their creations showing that nudity and sexuality aren’t necessarily one and the same. For others, it’s a form of erotic art, of tiptoeing past Instagram’s moderators, stark naked.

Many of the pieces they create are built on stories as much as they are on pen and paper. Katy, for example, was a victim of revenge porn -- an ex shared intimate pictures of her online without her consent. "It took me a while to come to terms with that," she explains, "and drawing had a big part to play in that and eventually this project -- this reclaiming of my own image." Katy's practice began with her own portraits: "It started with me and I had these drawings lying around and gave them a new life." It proves a recurring theme in the scene. Most of the artists start with images of themselves, not only for convenience but also a form of self-understanding.

Jazz Moodie, who runs Mude Threads with her girlfriend Elle Upshall, has a similar story. "When I was studying abroad in France, I had a lot of spare time on my hands and started taking nudes for myself," Jazz reminisces. Her art then became less of a personal project and more of a statement of intent and a way of navigating the world as a woman on her own terms. "I started posting my sketches on Instagram and doing embroidery, so I could start stitching them onto t-shirts and sweaters," she says. "The first day I walked to uni wearing a nude on my sweater, it was a fuck you statement to all the people who have told me I was asking for it or told me I was sexualised, just because I have big boobs or because I look a certain way."

Inspired by their own bodies, many of these Insta nude artists expand their network of life models by drawing their pals. "The first person I drew was one of my oldest friends," Louisa Foley tells me. She digitally draws submitted nudes for her project Are We Nearly Bare Yet. Taking the satisfyingly platonic practice of sending nudes (for review and encouragement) to your friendship groups to its logical conclusion, the project celebrates all body shapes and sizes. It's an exercise in celebrating nudity without the fear that sexualised communicating brings; and giving those that stigmatise female nudity a dressing down in the process.

And while it might seem niche, it's testament to the power of these initial illustrations that so many of these artists suddenly find themselves snowed under with commissions. "I started drawing friends, then there were colleagues, then I moved to strangers," says Katy. But as the business grows, things become stranger. What’s it like being privy to the private pics of a total stranger? "I feel really insanely privileged and I hope that I do them justice," Katy says. "It’s really nice to have that interaction with someone over the internet. A lot of people use dead accounts, so there's anonymity and a mutual bond of trust that I think is really, really important."

While some (understandably) wish to keep their artistic nudes anonymous on the internet, Jazz is one artist who chooses to show her face online. In forgoing the temptation to remain anonymous as artist, she says, Jazz can foster a sense of intimacy and trust with those who reach out to commission portraits. "It’s super private," she says. "Even now having drawn hundreds of people’s nudes it doesn’t escape me that it’s an intimate moment that they are sharing with a stranger on Instagram. I put a face to my account so people know I’m a real person and trustworthy."

Onlookers may be baffled as to why someone would entrust a complete stranger with their nude. But it's also, perhaps inescapably, a rush too. As Jazz says, jazz poetry style, it’s a "scary fuzzy hot feeling." And the result, for many of the artists’ muses, is one of raw catharsis. "The most emotional stuff is the people doing it out of some kind of vindication," Katy explains. "So maybe after years of being told to hate their bodies, they are finally OK with it. Maybe it’s someone who has finally accepted how they look, or someone who has been struggling with an eating disorder and to them it feels like a nice quiet victory for them to keep to themselves."

"To divulge a photo for no other reason than to become a piece of art, it feels like something completely different," adds Jazz. "You never have that opportunity to see ourselves in a neutral way and be a muse. To be able to have yourself mirrored back to you is very refreshing." She, too, receives messages of extreme gratitude: "People initially come into the process with so much emotional baggage and anxiety about sharing the photos then respond with some of the most amazing things."

For the most part, then, the process is about untethering your body from your own biased perception; of swapping that fidgety observation in the mirror for a fixed image. A nude sent to a new flame or partner is clinically realist, prone to the same spotting of flaws. Somehow, though, turning it into a piece of art softens it, and brings out feel-good vibes. "It’s thrilling to be part of art," Caroline says. "Whether you are making it yourself or you are inspiring someone else’s creativity."

Undoubtedly for others, though, there’s something more sexual at play. Enxhi runs @viceerotic out of his home in Uzbekistan. Like Katy, Jazz, and Louise, he started drawing those close to him (his wife Kerry) before moving onto commissions. His art is, however, way more extreme -- a cheeky glance at his page reveals bukkake, bondage, blowjobs and ball-sucking. It’s hardcore porn, graphite gone graphic. "I think it's great," Kerry says, in between acting as interpreter for her husband. "I think he has raw talent so I love it and love that it's an outlet for him and he spends his time doing it. Some of his work is, quite, I guess, vulgar? But I don't mind it so much, it's not something I'd put up on the walls of the house but I think it's really cool."

Mickey Harmon, who runs queer project @super_twunk, also doesn’t shy away from the more explicit. For his recent Send Nudes project the artist gathered forty-five pieces of nude art from across the world to show at for Buffalo Pride. "There was, I remember, one particular Bi Sub who loved to show off," says Mickey. "We chatted for well over a month so I coached him on what angles would translate best for an illustration. After sending nudes back and forth to direct angles, I ended up with one of the best pieces among the 45." But it's certainly divisive work nonetheless. Mickey actually lost his job for the nature of his artwork, but is unfazed: "I’m glad that my boss got offended by my work all that time ago, who knows, I wouldn’t be talking to you today if she didn’t," he messages, complete with a cowboy emoji.

With this more sexual content, there’s a greater risk of unwanted seediness. Enxhi has built up trust in the community for being a legitimate artist, and not, as Kerry points out, "some creep out there pretending to be an artist to get people’s photos." Even the desexualised accounts of the other artists have seen sleaziness. One guy asked Katy to accentuate his girlfriend’s breasts in a submission, others have received requests that they know are from guys getting off on it. It’s not just lustful men, though. "I had girls messaging me saying what would you do if I sent you in a picture and your dick got hard," Katy laughs. "I'd have to be like 'oh sorry I'm actually a woman' - and they'd say 'oh that's embarrassing -- you can still draw me right?'"

It’s this edging towards the sexual, this association with nakedness and porn, that means that many of these artistic accounts face being banned by the very platform they rely on for work. "Instagram hates penises," says Katy. "They always get immediately deleted." Both Katy and Jazz have had their accounts deactivated, but overturned after fighting for their feelgood philosophies. Mickey had to start a new account altogether.

In some ways, this grouping together of graphic, erotic art and desexualised art seems counter-intuitive; one is a turn-on, the others bravely turn on those who sexualise all nudity. But regardless of the differences in practice, style and intent, there is something that unites the artists. As Mickey puts it: "Whether people get their rocks off on sending nudes to one another or whether they simply want to celebrate their bodies through art, I think it evolves that situation which can be so incredibly intimate and brave." This overlap between the aesthetic and the sexual showed itself via - err - a prolapsed anus. "[A slave master dom] sent me his prolapsed anus. In all my life, I’ve never seen such an image. The composition was beautiful, the colour, the angles."

When asked whether she thinks there's a link between her work and more extreme accounts like Mickey's, Jazz pauses for a long think. "With the erotic side, it's so polar opposite to the mission of the work I do. But I don't think it treads on the toes of what I do," she eventually says. "There are so many stigmas associated with the naked human body. So I think different kinds of nude art can sit by side and complement each other. There's value in the difference. I mean, it's all nudes isn't it!"

Tagged:
Art
Instagram
nudes
caroline calloway