If you’ve ever been to an anime convention, you’ve spent at least a little bit of time in the Artist’s Alley. For fans, it’s an opportunity to find unusual nerdy merchandise that can’t be bought in normal stores. And for the independent artisans running the booths, it’s a special opportunity to sell their wares in person to the very customers who will appreciate their work the most. But, who exactly are these artisans? What kind of people are they and how do they run their businesses?
To delve deeper into the fascinating world of independent artists and dealers, we spoke to four different shop owners – primarily at Colossalcon in Sandusky, Ohio – about their businesses and day-to-day lives. Here’s what we found out!
It Comes from the Heart
The artisans you’ll see behind the booths have been watching anime, playing video games, and reading manga for close to their entire lives. Many of them grew up with Toonami shows like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon, and then carried that fascination with them into their adulthood in whatever way they could.
Maryanne Daymont, who throws and hand paints her own pottery, took her art history background and combined it with her love of anime to create unique pieces that stand out amongst the usual artisan offerings. She takes immense pride in how her clay and glazes harken back to 1800s European and East Asian tradition. J.M. Dragunas, who specializes in highly detailed line art, has no formal art training and was studying to be a paramedic before he took up the pen full time. If you polled every shop owner in the Artist’s Alley at a convention, you’d find that they all took wildly different paths to end up where they are now.
Even while holding onto their personal favorite shows and games, there’s pressure for artists to adapt their products to include the newest and most popular hot topics as well. Some try to reach every possible demographic, while others are bit choosier. J.M. Dragunas had this to say about following trends:
“If I don’t know it or like it, I won’t draw it. Even if it’ll make money, if you don’t like something, it’ll show in the artwork.”
In the end, these artisans care deeply about their work. Maryanne Daymont won’t even sell her pottery outside of conventions, since she believes that the 3D nature of her work wouldn’t translate well on a screen. Unlike a regular store employee who might just be working for the paycheck and couldn’t care less about the brand they work for, the people you see sketching and chatting in the Artist’s Alley are so passionate about what they do that they dedicate their entire careers to it.
Blood, Sweat, and Tears
No matter what kind of product a shop owner sells, it takes a massive amount of effort to get the final version on the table for you to purchase. When we spoke with the owners of Art-Toons, a store that procures and sells vintage animation cels and other merchandise, they talked about how insane it can be just to find what they want. They search old warehouses, trade with other dealers and collectors from around the world, and even seek out former employees of animation studios to buy the cels that those workers took home with them after the end of production! The more rare and high quality a cel is, the more hoops they have to jump through to get it for themselves. And since cel animation isn’t widely used anymore, the potential pool of items dwindles more and more as time goes on.
As far as traditional handmade items go, the process depends on the individual creator. Maryanne Daymont’s small cups and plates take about 90 minutes from mixing the clay all the way to painting and finishing, while J.M. Dragunas’ posters take around 30 to 50 hours for each piece. The owner of Silvered Fox Creations, a store that sells animal ear headbands and other accessories, said that her hand-sewn ears and tails take several hours to finish, while paw gloves and larger pieces can take much longer.
Burnout can be a very real problem as well. These artisans attend anywhere from 3 to 20 cons a year, and many of them also have to manage online sales and commissions at the same time. Silvered Fox’s owner finds that when she experiences burnout from working too much, “it’s hard to find the passion to put the energy into each thing that it deserves.” Making sure there are enough products in stock, pinpointing prices, keeping up with ever-shifting trends, applying for booths at cons, and even advertising are responsibilities that artisans must constantly manage – often all on their own.
Making People Smile
So with the monumental effort that it takes to manage this kind of business, how do the Artist’s Alley denizens keep going? Because in the end, they love to see their customers smile when they find the product that’s just right for them.
The owners of Art-Toons talked about how their booth tends to be a meeting place for niche collectors at cons. “People get excited when they see our flag and run over here!” And when they manage to pair up the right person with the right piece, the customer’s beaming face says it all. “There’s nothing better than seeing someone go ‘Aaaaahh!!’”
Maryanne Daymont is aware that her booth is a bit of a hard sell to convention organizers, but knows that she’s succeeded when customers gather around and marvel at how her pottery looks like nothing they’ve ever seen before. “The most rewarding thing [about being an artisan] is making something one of a kind. I couldn’t print this out if I tried.”
Silvered Fox’s owner loves how her commissioners give her new perspective on her own art. “I love being able to make custom combinations that are someone's favorite colors, and know that they're happy with my work. ... Some colors I never thought would look nice together, and then they've become my favorites to work with!”
And J.M. Dragunas tries to create a body of work that has something for everyone, while focusing on quality over quantity. He strives to constantly improve himself, no matter how far he’s come over the 20 years he’s been drawing. “When you do something over and over, you get better at it. Maybe in 30 years, I’ll be good.”
No matter where these artisans came from, what they make, or how long they’ve been perfecting their craft, each and every one of them works incredibly hard to provide unique products just for you. By following their passions and never giving up, they’ve made their way behind the booths in Artist’s Alley to ply their wares to fans just like them. So when you meet one of them, make sure you let them know how much their talent and hard work is appreciated! Otherwise, how would we get our obscure character sketches and Hanzo body pillows? Not from the official vendors, that’s for sure.