The Insanely Relatable Work of Artist Tobe Fonseca

One of the things we love the most is seeing members of our Threadcommunity develop as creatives. And Tobe Fonseca is one of the long-time Threadlessers we’ve seen grow. This “bearded artist” (his words) developed his style right here through the years. His work has been featured on The Flash for millions of viewers (!!), and from cats to puns he’s found a way to tap into all of our hearts and minds. Now, he’s taking his almost 10 years of freelance work to the next level as one of our four Artist Shop Accelerator selectees.

Artists: they grow up so fast! We talked to Tobe about the success of designs like “Furr Division“, seeing his designs on The Flash, and got some freelancer wisdom from him that every artist will want to read.

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Tell the world a little bit about yourself! How is the art scene where you’re at in Brazil? 

Well, I’m Toby: an introspective, bearded artist from the South of Brazil. I started to draw as a kid and never stopped! After being a freelancer for many, many years (well I feel old saying that!), I started my own studio that’s under my name, Tobe Fonseca. I’m 31 years old, by the way!

Tobe Fonseca working
Tobe (+ cat friend) at work (via Medium).

It’s hard to talk about the art scene in Brazil: it’s such a big country with an effervescent culture, it’s like a melting pot of people from different backgrounds. We have big names like Os Gêmeos, who make very inspiring and high-quality street art, as well as artists like Romero Britto (Brazilians will kill me for saying this) whose work is very… Let’s just say people are passionate about his work, in a good and in a bad way. So you can find anything here and it will, for sure, spread to your work. I live in a small village of 15,000 people in the middle of nowhere, and it didn’t stop me from becoming an artist. I think that says a lot about Brazil; there is art everywhere.

…artistically, I grew up with Threadless!

You’ve been a long-time Threadhead! How has your art style changed from when you first started to now?

OMG! Yeah, I can still remember the exact day a friend showed me Threadless, but it was a long time ago. LOL! What can I say…? I literally developed my style on Threadless. If you check out my earliest works, you can see for yourself — and you’ll cry for sure. I was so immature, and my art was showing it. But I worked with the platform to grow through/with the community. Everyone is really supportive, giving amazing advice, and that made me grow as an artist. Having so many talented people around you is like a non-stop incentive machine!

Tobe Fonseca "Furr Division"
Furr Division” – one of his biggest Threadless designs.

So my style changed a lot. It’s still changing. I’ve been working with different artists in my studio and that’s added so much to my work, it’s probably a never-ending process and it’s beautiful. When you think you’ve found a style and you’re done, you see something and it sets off a spark in you, and everything changes. Ok, I’m getting overemotional about this hahaha! But I can say that, artistically, I grew up with Threadless! For real, check out my profile, and you’ll see!

Tobe Fonseca "Furr Division" sketch
The sketch of “Furr Division”! (Via Medium)

You have some seriously classic designs, like “Furr Division” – how did the success of designs like this change your approach to design?

That’s the tricky part of being an artist. Everyone says that you have to express your emotions, get technical, and achieve new levels of excellence, and then BOOM: reality hits you in the face and you have to make a living! So, “Furr Division”, especially, is a great mark in my professional life, because when you align your passion with your job something beautiful can happen. Some people say that if you work with something you love, you won’t have to work a day in your life: they are lying. Work is still work, but it can be so much more than that. “Furr Division” showed me that: it was something I took so much pleasure in creating, and its success was the proof I needed at the moment to realize I was on the right track. That’s why I try to keep a balance between commercial and personal designs — I have to do that to keep loving what I do. It’s not easy, but it’s fundamental.

Tobe Fonseca's "Furr Division" shirt on "The Flash"
Furr Division” worn by Cisco on The Flash.

What’s it like seeing your designs everywhere?

Fulfilling, I think that’s the word. A couple of months ago, everyone was sending me pictures and small clips of the TV show The Flash, where a character was wearing “Furr Division”. How cool is that? People were happy to see my work out there, and that makes me really happy too. It’s lovely to check for my hashtags on Instagram and see these people wearing something I drew… I can get really emotional over that. A couple of years ago, when I wasn’t able to travel and I really wanted to, that brought me some peace: I couldn’t travel, but my work was everywhere in the world. From the US to Japan. My work has traveled the world! How amazing is that?

Tobe Fonseca early art
One of Tobe’s early Threadless prints, “Work“.

You’ve been working freelance for almost 10 years. How did you first start marketing your skills as a freelancer? What are some of the challenges and how do you work around them?

I never took drawing classes and never went to university: all I had was my wish to become a real artist and to be able to make a living from my art, and it was wanting that so badly that made everything possible. I didn’t follow any recipe or plan, but every day I tried and I gave it my best — I drew as much as I could, I looked through and took in every artistic reference I could find on the Internet, and I tried to add that to my work. It was such a struggle trying to balance my passion with my financial needs. There were no shortcuts that I knew of or that I could take, so it was trial and error every step of the way. The worst part was when I started: you just can’t say no to any client, because you have to pay the bills and you have to embrace anything that comes your way. With time, it gets easier: you can start choosing who you’re gonna work with — and it’s not about the money: you start to only work with people who are inspiring and can make you grow. And that’s lovely! Every artist will face different challenges and all I can say is: don’t give up! Do your best, post everywhere. Send releases to every site you can, add people and talk to them, artists, everyone. Everything you do, even the small things, can have an impact on your success.

Tobe Fonseca Threadless products
You’ve gotta recognize at least one of these Tobe originals on Threadless! T-shirt: “Cat Lover” | Sweatshirt: “How to Kill a Mockingbird” | Zip pouch: “Feed Me and Tell Me I’m Pretty” | Tote bag: “Stop, Please!

What are some of your main goals now that you’ve been selected for the Accelerator program! What can we look forward to seeing?

That email changed all of my ‘business plan’ for sure! I’ve been having so many ideas… now I just need 48 hour days and an army to put everything together and make it all work out! LOL! I think soon you guys will be able to see a radical change in the quality and volume of my work. I’ve been starting some partnerships with brains all around the world to bring the best I can to my art. And more than that: you will definitely see more of my work around on big Instagram profiles and stuff like that. That’s all I can say for now!

Tobe Fonseca Artist Shop
The rad Tobe Fonseca Artist Shop.

Is there something you’re particularly excited about that you can try out now that you’re in the Accelerator program?

I don’t want to be a reductionist, but I’ve been craving to learn more about advertising both on and off the Internet. That will be really exciting! I’ve also been wanting to hire quality people to work with me so we can put as many ideas as we can into the work we’ll be doing! Can’t wait.

Tobe Fonseca Artist Shop designs
Just a few of the amazing designs in Tobe Fonseca’s Artist Shop. Top row: “I Wish My Cat Was Bigger“, “French Kiss 2.0“,  and “Monday Cat“. | Bottom row: “My Bear Valentine“, “Dabbing Party“, and “In Coffee We Trust“.

Where do you find inspiration, both as an artist and as a freelancer?

I’ve always been inspired by nature. Going to my dad’s farm as a kid and playing around really made me more creative. I have to say that living in a small town without anything else to do helped a lot as well, LOL! I had to create my own stuff, and it was great. This kind of thing stays with you forever. So nature, animals, and more recently trying to bring that into my work, mixing it up with daily life, giving human characteristics to animals; that’s my thing. So, for my work, I’ll usually find inspiration in nature, humans, and art (Art? Groundbreaking!). Personally, I love to travel: I dream of becoming a digital nomad, that’s my ultimate goal, I guess. That keeps me moving forward.

Tobe Fonseca Flower Heart
Flower Heart Spring

You have such a unique style! How did you hone your style? What artists and styles are you inspired by?

It’s a lot of work, but I love to get/be inspired — by nature, by watching people, traveling, going to museums and seeing tons of art. When I find something that’s really great, it shifts my work in a different direction. Even when I’m looking for references on the Internet, checking out my artist friends’ Instagram accounts, it can happen, and it’s always magical. I have many favorite artists. Some, like Van Gogh, are a personal inspiration, always lighting a spark whenever I need it. Others, like James Jean, create such beautiful and poetic stuff that brightens up my day and makes everything seem better! I have an extensive list. People like Rafael Bastos (Vó Maria) and Mathiole, for example, are IMHO t-shirt rock stars and you have to check them out!

What’s your artistic philosophy?

Inspire and be inspired by people, create things that people want to wear and make them happy.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Just to thank you guys for this opportunity! By the way, please, follow me on Instagram! @tobsfonseca

Curious about the other Accelerator selectees? Check out Ego Rodriguez’s spotlight here!

Don’t have an Artist shop? Click here!

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Carlyn Hill

Dad joke aficionado, cartoonist, & contributor for sites like HelloGiggles and The Mary Sue by night. When I'm not writing or drawing, you can find me in my cave of a room hanging out with my boyfriend, Netflix.