Artist Alleys and the Growth of Convention Culture

Written by Cheryl Cottrell-Smith

Artist Alleys are a convention staple. An easy way to spend the better part of your day browsing paintings of your favourite comic characters, canvases filled with fantasy worlds, and prints of mashups that you couldn’t have dreamt up even after an entire bottle of absinthe. While cosplayers might bring your fandoms to life, the artists of Artist Alley capture them in ways that are less ephemeral—on raw materials that you can take home with you at the end of the day.

It’s a beautiful sight, Artist Alley—usually stuffed full of people examining artwork, discussing fandoms and techniques with the artists. Street clothes and cosplays mingle in a delightfully quirky mix of multi-coloured hair and elaborate costumes alongside those outfitted with anime t-shirts and button-riddled backpacks. When a multitude of fandoms come together, you can feel the solidarity. The instant connection.

Link by Johnni Kok (2015)

Except for some. If you’re even remotely interested in comics or cosplay, you’ll have heard about the Pat Broderick fiasco late last year. Broderick, a comic book artist known for the Micronauts and “Batman: Year Three,” made a public Facebook post on December 4, 2014 against cosplayers, saying that the people who cosplay and the conventions that promote them “bring nothing of value to the shows.” This derailed into a full-on social media debate, with many artists admitting that their distaste for cosplay stemmed from the attention (and revenue) they drew away from the artist booths.

Artist Alleys are, of course, about the artists. The attention should be on the people making the effort to come to the event, set up, and put themselves and their hard work on display. While cosplay might steal the spotlight once in a while, not all artists believe there needs to be a divide between the two groups.

Johnni Kok, an artist known for kitbashing pop culture themes and putting his own unique spin on them (including toughening up categorically weaker characters and adding a cute side to terrifying ones), looks at the bright side to the growing popularity of convention culture.

“…never treat a cosplayer poorly if you don’t think they’ll spend money at your table. They might come back dressed [in street clothes] later to pick up art since now they’ll have their wallets, purses, and, you know…pants.” – Johnni Kok

“The growth means more opportunity,” says Johnni. “[Celebrities and cosplayers are] great from a marketing standpoint…I love cosplayers! Some of my best supporters are cosplayers…and when [one] makes a costume based on one of my designs, I’m on cloud nine. As an artist in Artist Alley, never treat a cosplayer poorly if you don’t think they’ll spend money at your table. They might come back dressed [in street clothes] later to pick up art since now they’ll have their wallets, purses, and, you know…pants.”

Sylvia Moon is an anime and manga artist who has been attending, displaying, and volunteering at conventions since 1999. A graduate of MacEwan’s Design program with a specialization in Digital Media, Sylvia dabbles in a variety of genres outside of her primary artwork and helped begin Animethon’s first Artist Alley almost a decade ago.

Tentomon by Sylvia Moon (2015)

“[Celebrity guests and cosplayers are] a double-edged sword,” says Sylvia. “Celebrities are great but too many at a comic-centric con might not make it seem like they care much about the latter. As for cosplayers, it really takes guts and skill to get into a costume before arriving at a con, let alone creating it.”

Showcasing any form of art or creation to the world can be a stressful task. Many people might not realize the patience and tenacity it takes to run a booth at a convention—artists in particular tend to manage their booths solo and are required to arrive before open and pack up after close.

“It’s stressful to personally bring your gear and set up your table every day that the con is open,” says Sylvia. “Especially if you don’t have help or a system of help from others…[but] exposure, just getting your name out there, is important. Seeing what’s new and who is coming into the industry is important to know.”

There’s a lot of pressure on artists to be at the top of their game for conventions. It’s a large investment of time and money, with long hours promoting your work and fielding requests and comments from convention-goers. And, as Johnni says, there are “the smells” that you have to put up with (thousands of people in a confined space make certain things unavoidable).

“I love conventions because you can really get that moment to geek out with people who love the things I love and who usually like the things that I draw,” says Johnni. “It really means a lot to me that people will spend their time and hard-earned money at my table.”

Vincent Valentine by Arty McFly (2015)

Arty McFly, a newcomer to the Artist Alley scene who creates mashups of what she terms “pop culture and boredom,” made her Artist Alley debut at A Taste of Animethon last month.

“It was exhilarating! I love being able to talk to people about what they like, why they’re here, about my work, [and] about their favourite pop culture things,” says Arty. “There’s a lot of foot traffic…you’re exposed to a lot of people in one area and that’s pretty terrific. [Although] a downfall is that there are a lot of other artists there to do the same thing.”

Madoka Is Content by Sylvia Moon (2014)

With long hours, plenty of competition, and minimal time available to actually enjoy the events they’re at, our artists deserve all the support they can get. But what can conventions do to make the experience even better for the people manning Artist Alley?

“I find that some shows treat Artist Alley and comic creator guests as an afterthought,” says Johnni. “I understand that we have the lowest cost of entry when you compare our tables to general vendor booths, but some shows almost make you wonder if someone from the organization was debating between putting a ball pit or an Artist Alley in the corner of the hall. Regular correspondence from event coordinators and getting prompt replies to my emails is [a] huge deal to me.”

“Artists are always a strange grey area for conventions,” says Sylvia. “We pay a reduced fee for a small space with more restrictions and we have to reserve our space for the following year by the con’s end. It really doesn’t encourage change and makes the Alley predictable. [They could] really study what artists are doing to their tables and find guidelines to streamline that process.”

And, of course, artists gotta eat. “Lunch or coffee vouchers would be rad,” says Arty. “Not gonna lie!”


Find out more about these artists:

Sylvia Moon | Facebook | Twitter | DeviantArt

Johnni Kok | Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

Arty McFly | Facebook | Tumblr

Cover photo by Johnni Kok

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