You are a designer. An artist. A play write. A blogger. Perhaps you're a mix of all those things. Maybe you have other skills like writing code, maybe you are hilarious and a phenomenal dancer. I'm going to tell you what I think you need more than anything else to set you apart, and succeed in today's world. Your phone book! I say phone book because the people you really know are in your phone book. The people who are more than just "a guy I went to high school with". You need a SOLID network. A network is built on real and current human relationships. Anyone can go through a list of 2000 Facebook friends, or LinkedIn profiles, and tell me all the resumes of impressive people they sort of know. How many of those people WANT to help you? How many of those people LOVE you? How many of those people would write a paragraph about your good character?
I'm going to tell you a story about how I got my first real start in the art world. It's a piece of my story not too many people know, but possibly the most crucial piece. It's the piece that gave me the tools I would use to gain traction. Traction that would eventually give me the courage to quit my day job.
It all started with a girl. A very talented girl. Ironically this girl was "someone I went to high school with" but not just any someone. She was an artist. Her and I were pretty close in high school. As teenagers we collaborated with graffiti drawings and I helped her here and there. I want to stop and emphasize that part. I HELPED HER. It may have been small, insignificant, little tips for 3D on graffiti letters, ways to blend a PrismaColor marker, but I HELPED. I say that because that's what friends do. I cared about her. She was driven. She was always hungry to learn stuff, so I helped. I taught her the few things that I knew. After high school she studied fashion and design at FIT. She became a designer, a fashion stylist and a socialite. She not only knew fashion she knew models and agencies. She not only knew how to use Adobe programs she knew big makeup companies who needed advertisements. She networked herself to a successful career at an extremely young age. Little did I know, she would be more than willing to help ME start to do the same.
When I moved back to NY in 2012, I didn't have much lined up except a dead end job, and a basement to set up my tattoo machine. I had always kept in touch with my homegirl from high school. When I moved back her and I agreed to meet up so I could tattoo one of her fingers. We met one night in Woodside, Queens at 2am. I set up my tattoo machine in the apartment and got to work. During this meeting she told me about a brother and sister who she had recently worked with styling a photo shoot. They were starting a fashion label and were housing some artists in their big studio space. She said they were looking for an intern, that they were cool and she thought it would be a good fit for me. Cool, I said. I'm down.
Fast forward not even two weeks later, I'm sitting inside of Candamill in east Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I sat down and met with Cindy and her brother Christian, not knowing what to expect. I was greeted with warm smiles, some questions, and a few good laughs. It was a match! They were both really cool, down to earth, and I hope they'd say the same about me. I started working with them the very next week. Two days a week for three months, unpaid.
Christian was an artist and an entrepreneur. In 2012 (when I started working with them) their large creative space was split into two sides: art and fashion. Christian had a background in art. He had sold art on the streets of Soho for years, and art was what he knew. Part of his business model at that time was to generate momentum and funding for their fashion launch, with art. He was brokering Art deals, mentoring artists, and building up the Candamill name. The duo had access to a large space in Soho where they curated a number of art exhibitions. They also housed an ESPN camera crew in their Brooklyn space for AVone's part in the Michael Jordan special 'it's gotta be the shoes'. Christian wasn't just an artist with a few tricks up his sleeve, he was a business man. He was an entrepreneur. Not only did he know how to leverage his creative skills and knowledge of the art world to create profits, he had a bigger picture he was working towards. The "profits" were used as funding for the big picture. He was making his own money, and reinvesting it into their bigger goals.
While all of this was going on his sister Cindy was on the fashion side. Every day I saw her constantly chipping away at handbag and coat designs. She was a skilled designer and seeing all her drawings eventually materialize into actual leather handbag samples was a trip for me. They were doing it!
Something I'll never forget about Christian and Cindy was their willingness to help me. An opportunity came up for me to be in a group art show (before @thanksnyc). They gave me full use of the studio, access to any supplies, even a concept I could apply to the typography stuff I was doing at the time. Whenever I was working for Christian doing a task like photographing pieces of art or organizing the supply shelves, he would make sure to stop and explain WHY I was doing what I was doing and what sort of role it played in the big picture. This wasn't merely a pat on the back like "you're doin a good job Kid" it was INSIGHT into his business. I was being taught so many practical things about business, art, and the world they were growing in.
Why did they care so much? I wasn't their relative, nor did they owe me anything. Sure I was working for free but I agreed to that. Well, perhaps the reason they cared so much is because they appreciated me. They were a two man team, and growing... but growing in NYC isn't cheap. My free labor a few days a week was APPRECIATED. They couldn't afford to pay someone new at that time, but they would throw me cash and buy me lunch whenever they could. More importantly, they taught me how to make money for myself.
If you want to be a hugely successful designer, an internship at a global design firm might seem like a nice place to get an internship, but do they need you? Will they appreciate you? Maybe. Unfortunately in most cases they'll appreciate you getting their coffee. That's not to say it can't be a rewarding experience if you make it one. I'm just painting a picture; how it happened in my life. Do you see a pattern yet? Helping people!
This is where I go back to the phone book. Looking back at my internship experience, I learned a lot of skills; But maybe the greatest thing I learned was how to build a relationship. Your network is everything but your network has to become your friends and your family. Those relationships have to mean something to you, not just do something for you. If your network is everything, but all you do is take from those people, what kind of relationship is that?
Hindsight is 20-20. When I was doing this internship I couldn't see all that was going on. All I knew is I liked being around these people, and when I was helping I was learning. I liked that. Sometimes it was fun, and sometimes it was hard work. I didn't just enjoy helping because I liked the people I was helping, I was soaking up every bit of information like a sponge. One thing i'll never forget is when Christian gave me half the money to fund my first order of 50 t-shirts. He never payed me a check (I think it was $150) but he did that day. I know now it was because he wanted me to succeed. He could have cooked me a salmon filet and treated me to one good dinner but instead he taught me how to fish. Wow.
My internship experience was the largest factor in getting all my gears turning. I was off to the races. I learned the inner workings of art brokering, basic business math, basic product photography, a few Photoshop tricks, how to curate and hang a large scale art show on 30 ft walls, and lots of other useful things during my time there. I still had a lot to learn, and i always will - but now i was ready to start my journey. If you read my last blog post I mention the start to my thanks graffiti escapades. I referenced a box of spray paint Christian gave me as a "thank you" gift. This was late one night at 3am. We had just finished hanging an art show for an opening the next day. Those were good times. He never realized what that box of paint would do. Oh well, it all happened for a reason!
Sometimes I get a strange question from young people or even people my age who are stuck in a limbo. "How do you make your money?" Well, I make my money in all sorts of ways. I'm an entrepreneur. I learned that about myself during my internship. I don't know what kind of person you are or what tricks of the trade you need to learn. Whatever they are I would try to learn them from someone who's successful in that trade. Not someone just teaching from a book. Today's world is too fast for books. What was printed in a book last year might not be true today. The upside is we are forced to stay on our toes!
Moral#1: Be good to everyone you meet. Help people. Do things for the right reasons. Human relationships are the backbone of life. In today's world people are brands, and "life" can be work. Don't do things selfishly we are all stronger together!
Moral#2: Want an internship? Need a mentor? Find someone who has the experience you need, and find out how you can help THEM!