meet 5 illustrators using their art to celebrate the beauty of being queer
i-D talks to a group of artists about exploring their sexuality through their work, and the challenges they've run into when sharing their lives online.
Illustration by Wednesday.
While Instagram has become a lucrative platform for all kinds of artists to share and sell their work, a group of emerging illustrators are using the digital space to publish pieces that speak directly to their livelihood and experience as members of the queer community.
According to illustrator Florence Given, “We live in a culture where heteronormativity is pretty much the only narrative, to the point where people don’t even think that their feelings are valid!” Given, along with other queer artists, sees her art as a way to spread empathy and challenge outdated perspectives of queerness. “Queer is beautiful. It deserves to be appreciated and celebrated as much as possible,” she says.
However, with strict community guidelines and a platform known to censor female and trans bodies, using Instagram doesn’t come without its challenges. Here we speak with 5 illustrators about how they are using illustrations to showcase their lived experiences as queer individuals, and the challenges they've run into in sharing their lives online.
Gabriella Grimes, 24, New York City
I started working on watercolor illustrations when I was still in college in 2017. I switched over to digital in 2018 and that’s when my work really changed direction and took off. I became more focused on painting people of color, and then a few months later I decided to portray mostly queer people. I try to show that queer POC can be happy, weird, expressive, emotional, and multi-dimensional. Our stories don’t have to be full of only sadness and struggles. We deserve to be seen and allowed to feel as complex human beings.
Most people I paint are queer because I’m queer. I wanted to see people who looked like me. I couldn’t really find that anywhere so went after this desire myself. I want to be called a Black queer illustrator. I want people to acknowledge who I am and the fact that my hand is creating these pieces. I was afraid to come out as queer for most of my life, so showing queer people openly living has been liberating.
Recently I’ve been posting a lot of lesbian and non-male gay couples. I recently came out as gay after years of identifying as bisexual, so this was a major change for me. These pieces are really important to me as a femme aligned AFAB non-binary person. It’s exciting to be bold enough to show a girl you’re interested. It’s incredible to feel safe enough to be physically intimate on any level with your partner outside. And it’s exciting to paint erotic art featuring women as you unpack all the times you were attracted to them and thought you shouldn’t be.
It’s actually quite interesting being a Black and queer illustrator because I don’t know if, for example, someone doesn’t want to pay me for my work because I’m queer or because I’m a Black femme. I think often people have an internal bias towards the intersection of my identities and turn me into like this queer mammy figure and suddenly I’m expected to do emotional labor for and take care of non-Black queer people. People don’t want to understand boundaries and it’s very unfortunate. But I hope people take away some sense of happiness and freedom from my work. Life can be wonderful, our relationships can be healthy, and we can see ourselves as beautiful.
Cute Brute, 39, Brooklyn, NY
I've been illustrating ever since I could pick up a pencil, but professionally I've been doing it for about 20 years now. Cute Brute began a few years back as a personal exercise to myself — to generate new work and share it on a regular basis. As an impressionable child of the 80s, I was heavily influenced by Saturday morning cartoons and MAD Magazine and quickly taught myself to draw in a wide variety of styles, each tailored to convey a different concept.
My style now is a colorful blend of cuddly critters, lowbrow humor and queer iconography — a real grab bag of whatever is in my head at any given moment. At its core it draws inspiration from retro toys from the 70s and 80s, bathing culture, pinups, and the occult. It's adult humor through a child's lens, and more often than not I love taking things that seem innocent or sweet and subverting them with something a little sexy or weird or fucked up.
My subject matter is 50 percent (if not more) male nudes, so it's safe to say I explore queerness. But even then it's always meant to be playful and ridiculous — showcasing how varied the human form is and maybe highlighting the absurdity of how we make it taboo. I rarely face any issues regarding censorship — which is fantastic, considering some of my designs can be over the top.
I'm also a big fan of combining gendered imagery such as mustaches and muscles with eyelashes and hair bows. For me, it's mainly an aesthetic thing — that juxtaposition of cute with brute. If there's one thing that transcends the work, hopefully, it's humor. That's at the heart of everything I do. I also try to showcase how queer-themed art can be just as offbeat and weird as so-called straight art. Too often I feel a lot of queer art is either hypersexualized or maudlin.
My biggest challenge of being a queer illustrator is getting pigeonholed as a queer illustrator. Queer themes are incredibly important to my work, but they also can't be my boundaries. That's too limiting. I've actually found my fanbase to be pretty diverse — male, female, old, young, queer, straight. And it really makes me happy to know that so many different types of people can appreciate what I do.
Cat, 26, Portland, Oregon
Illustrating is a way that I can talk about some topics that are personal and often overlooked. I draw what feels authentic to me, and often that means drawing my pals and myself. My style is very cheeky, naive, and simple. Usually I blend graphic erotic imagery with short captions. I sort of straddle the line between dirty comics and motivational posters.
My work focuses heavily on sex-education for teens and young adults. I cover a range of topics from consent, to safer-sex practices, to ethical non-monogamy, self-love, and more. My drawings naturally tend to mirror my lived-experiences. I try to put myself back into the mindset when I was first starting to explore my sexuality. I draw the information that I wish had been available to me when I was younger.
I receive a lot of messages from my followers asking for information on specific issues they are dealing with. So, I try to use my illustrations to share resources that can help them with certain topics. In that way, Shrimp Teeth is both very personal and highly collaborative.
For a long time I didn’t openly identify as queer since my primary relationship was straight-passing. It took awhile for me to feel confident enough to start posting the art I made surrounding my queer identity. It’s appalling how much sex-education material is so heavily heteronormative and I realized I can’t leave my queerness out of this work. My voice is that of a polyamorous, bisexual, cis-woman, and I try to stay true to that by discussing the experiences and topics that impact or interest me.
As someone who identifies as bisexual, I’ve heard and witnessed a lot of bi-phobia, especially on social media. I preach sex-positivity through my work, and that includes having the freedom to express your sexuality however you want, as long as it is safe and consensual.
A lot of queer artists, including myself, rely heavily on social media platforms to show our work and make a living. But Instagram does not support queer people, and especially POC, GNC, and Trans folx. The platform regularly targets and censors our voices under their “community guidelines.” I’ve received far too many r*pe threats that have been reported and found not in violation of Instagram’s terms. If I see any bullying, homophobia, transphobia, racism, misogyny, on my page I block the accounts. It’s really important for my followers to feel safe to engage with my work since it can be very personal and vulnerable.
When I was first exploring my sexuality, I felt so overwhelmed, confused, and plain broken. I think that’s an unfortunately common feeling, especially if you identify as queer. I hope that my work can connect with young people and give them the courage to seek-out more information about their sexuality and identity. I want other people to realize they aren’t alone.
Wednesday, 25, London, UK
I’ve been working as a full-time artist for about three years. I love how much power illustration holds. I can express myself, and connect to people in my community, it’s a huge part of my daily self care. It’s also had the power to change my world. My style is joyful, it’s colorful, and it’s super queer!
Illustration has been a brilliant way for me to examine queer existence. I’ve learned that I can take my art beyond gender and towards my own liberation. All of my characters are transgender. I’m trying to practice radical vulnerability with my art. I make art exploring personal experiences and struggles in the hopes that allies will show empathy towards us.
Through my work I aim to tell people the things I wish I knew when I was younger. I want to use my art to be the person that I needed as I kid, in the hopes that other queer people might have more empathy towards themselves and other people, too. I want to get our community talking about ways we can support each other. It’s also become important for me to talk openly about mental health and self-care.
Throughout my life I have felt that people have this attitude like “we know you’re queer, but don’t talk about it because it makes us uncomfortable.” I decided to talk about it because these conversations are needed. I was tired of the silence and I knew that it was destroying and killing queer people. There isn’t a line between my art and my life. My art is me.
I’m a privileged person. I’m a white, able bodied, cis passing, small fat person. As far as challenges, I don’t experience what many queer people are subjected to every day. I’m also incredibly privileged to have the chance to make art for my job. There are so many brilliant queer illustrators who are not given space due to marginalisation further than my own. The challenge is that we need to work to give other queer illustrators space. For a start, privileged queers should pass jobs and opportunities to others as a regular practice.
Sometimes queer artists can be hired as tokens. We need to move beyond that and start to recognize the excellence and diversity of the queer artist community by supporting us all year - not just for pride projects. We need more permanent seats at the table because our point of view is valuable and needed 365 days of the year.
Through my work, I hope people will realize that who they are is valid. That they are worthy of support, love and greatness. I hope that cishet people can see my work and feel like they have the power to be good allies to LGBTQI + people. I hope that they can also start to understand that sexuality and gender are incredibly expansive and have the potential to give anyone a sense of freedom. Nobody should have to feel boxed in.
Florence Given, 20, London, UK
I’ve been drawing naked women since I was 14 or 15, but I didn’t start turning it into a freelance job and voicing my opinions alongside my work until I turned 18 when I started sharing it on Instagram, and eventually set up a print store.
I am obsessed with bright colours, and creating shocking, thought-provoking pieces that make people reflect on their own lives and the world around them. I would describe my illustration style as sexy, 70s inspired, vivacious, thought-provoking and bold. I’ve been in love with the female form and 70s aesthetics since I was little.
I try to use my work to encourage young people, especially other young women like myself, to question their identity and learn to love the shit out of themselves. I want other women and non-binary people to know that they don’t need to rely on external validation to feel whole. Everything they need is already inside of themselves just waiting to be tapped into.
Validating my bisexuality through my work reconnected me to parts of myself I had been squashing for years, and I think this is evident to anyone who has followed my journey on Instagram. As an artist, your work will always reflect your mind and identity, and I don’t think there’s any way to separate my art from my experiences as a queer woman. Speaking about my sexuality was such a release and has informed everything I’ve done since.
I hadn’t validated my own queerness as legitimate until about a year ago, I’m still only 20! I had always invalidated my genuine feelings towards women as "girl crushes," which is something I started speaking loudly about through my art work towards the end of last year.
We often box genuine crushes into "girl crush" because of internalized homophobia, and the narrative that "bisexuality doesn’t exist." But since speaking about this on my Instagram hundreds of other women have said it helped them open up to validating their own feelings, too.
Often people steal my work, plagiarize my words, harass me in my DM’s… which is just classic for a woman who speaks so boldly and confidently to the world about very uncomfortable topics.
But particularly since I have been encouraging people to leave toxic relationships (which was fueled by my own decision to #DumpHim last year) – and then also encouraging women to question their sexuality – you can imagine the abuse I get from cishet men who are mad that their girlfriends are now realizing that they deserve better, and that they might in fact be bisexual.
In a society saturated with narratives of marriage, "settling" and heteronormativity, I want to contribute an alternative that says you don’t have to suffer for "love" and that your "girl crushes" could just be your uncovered bisexuality. It’s exhausting, but I will always be the change I want to see in the world. There’s no other way for me to exist.