Living off your art: a discussion with visual artist Tava

Creative types: there’s more out there for you than the starving artist trope. Living off your art is a definite possibility, if you consider brand collaborations. So how to balance your art and your commissioned work? How to put your name and art out there? How to get those dreamy brand collaborations to begin with? In order to bring you answers to these questions, we caught up with Montreal-based visual artist Antoine Tavaglione, aka Tava, while he was painting a giant bottle of Vitamin Water, as commissioned by the soft drink brand.


Vitamin Water x Tava, Festival Mode et Design Montreal, Slasher

"So how did you get started?

Tava: I got started, professionally, full time 6 years ago. I started in my first exhibition as a test, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I started with paintings, I had these series of paintings that I wanted to display, and I wanted to get immersed into the art scene so I pretty much set up shop, rented a space, and exhibited my own art show and did my curation and stuff like that, and had friends and family to come and bring other people, and had good support. And then I decided to do another one back to back, just maybe a couple of months right after, because the momentum was right, and I started getting more press, and that’s how I started. 

There's an icon that you’ve created for yourself that we can often spot in your art: the screaming heart. Where does it come from?

T: I created it really early in my career, it’s, like, one of the first things I created when I started developing my style. It came from a time of distress and anxiety, and I thought, you know, if my heart was able to say like « help », or scream or anything… I thought that was the best way to project it. It could be positive as well, you know, it has a message to say. We all can relate to the screaming heart.

It’s also a really good metaphor for art at large.

T: I think it’s a metaphor for many things, and art is one of them, absolutely. It can be heartache, art, it could be many things.


This Screaming Heart print by Tava is up for grabs on Slasher's instagram!

Tava Antoine Tavaglione Screaming heart Slasher

Something that is really inspiring about you is how you balance commissioned art, like this project, or others with Browns or Lacoste, and doing your own personal thing. How do you manage to balance the two in a day’s work?

T: What I do is all based on schedule basically. I pick my commercial stuff very carefully. In the early stages of my career I did a lot more commercial stuff and collaborations and slowly I did a little bit of a fade out, I wanted to do a lot more of my own artistic initiatives and create really my own aesthetic and do more exhibits in Montreal and worldwide and really work my way towards that. So now I balance it. If my aesthetic can adapt itself well and it’s under my direction, and as long it doesn’t hurt my artistic integrity, I will do it. I pick the brands that I would want to work with, and at the same time this allows me to go in the studio and really focus on my paintings and my illustrations that I want to just personally do, and exhibit in galleries. 

So basically one feeds the other?

T: Exactly, and now it’s nice because I found a balance where, like you said one feeds the other. If you’re going from a 9-5 to just painting one day, you’re taking a hit you know, whether its financially or morally. Now, my art can sustain me and my commercials can sustain me equally. And my art is even something that keeps growing, year after year, and it’s nice to do a lot less commercial stuff and do things for my own artistic initiatives.

I think most beginner artists want to do what you’ve done, which is basically being able to live on their art and collaborate with cool brands. Do you have any advice for them on how to achieve that?

T : As prolific artists or beginner artists you have to put in a lot of time, a lot of hours, and the number one key is to get your stuff out there at any cost, in a sense where you have to invest your time, you might have to invest financially, you have to get your stuff out there. I started off where I was giving out my stuff on the streets, in galleries… I think that’s the way, that if you’re suitable, it can lead towards brand collaborations. 

Would you advise people to approach a brand that they would want to work with or just do their thing and wait, knowing that good brands will come knocking?

T: I think it’s more like that, where you do your thing. You don’t want to solicit people because there’s a value on what you do and if the brands see that value they will call you.

You don’t want to solicit people because there’s a value on what you do and if the brands see that value they will call you.
— Tava
Antoine Tavaglione Tava Slasher mag

If you call brands you’re kind of not giving yourself that value. Let them come to you and you just focus on your art, on creating your stuff, building your style, and building your brand.

So this way there’s not this weird relationship where you look like a fan but you’re more like an equal?

T: Exactly, you have to treat it as an equal. Just concentrate on growing your own art and your own style.

Vitamin Water x Tava, Festival Mode et Design Montreal
Vitamin Water x Tava, Festival Mode et Design Montreal

That makes sense. So with the Vitamin Water collaboration particularly, what made you say yes?

T: I like the brand, I always liked the Coca-Cola brand, and I know it’s very corporate stuff. I love doing live paintings, especially, with the type of installation, where the shape is different. It wasn’t just like a flat canvas. Sometimes it’s just for the mere pleasure to paint and doing something different.

So many artists draw a clear line between the artistry, which is considered like pure, and commercial endeavours. Having our own shop, you’ve managed to strike a balance between both of them. How does your commercial approach integrates into the way you design art?

T: Honestly the way I see it is, I don’t see it as my art and the t-shirts being so far apart. I think what’s nice about the t-shirts and all these type of things is that it caters to a demographic of people that… it’s not everybody that buys paintings, in the sense that it’s not everyone that can afford it. Regardless of the price, T-shirts are accessible. It should be for everybody and I think a T-shirt or iPhone cases or whatever, that’s where you reach a large demographic of people. 

That’s what pop art is about anyway.

T: I mean that’s the pure essence of pop art. I think that’s what it is. You apply your art on everything, anything that’s tangible and accessible to everyone, so you have the fine art aspect and you have the product art aspect and everything in between basically. 

I think it’s a smart approach in the way that it’s a good way to actually be able to live on your art.

T: Yeah, and honestly it’s not easy to live off t-shirts. T-shirts is really a business on its own, I don’t even want to get into that. I’m busy with my artistic initiatives, they are number one, those come first, the rest is all secondary."

Catch up with Tava on Instagram (@antoinetava) and head to the closest Browns store to peek his custom Stan Smith commissioned by the retailer. Thanks to Vitamin Water for making this interview happen!


Photo credit: Thibaut Désiront & Élodie Parthenay for Slasher.