An Interview With For Exposure's Ryan Estrada

On art, the challenges of making it, life in South Korea, and so much more.

For many, creating art on the internet is a novel business model–as such, its parameters aren’t yet fully known. Artists might undervalue their work, and clients are tempted to undersell them because of greed, be it out of sheer malice or pure naivete. A leviathan in exposing the client side of that dilemma is a Twitter account dubbed “For Exposure” managed and run by comics artist Ryan Estrada–he’s witnessed the space evolve through its many permutations, and who better to ask for better treatment of artists than one of their own.

“I didn’t intend for it to ever be a “thing.” I started it—like most projects I’ve ever done—as a joke,” Estrada says of the account’s inception phase. “I just knew there were a lot of “txt” accounts out there that quote silly things, and I’ve seen a couple of job postings that offered nothing in return, so just as a joke I thought “Twitter accounts are free, I’ll start one, and maybe I’ll have a week of material before I get bored of it” and within an hour of searching, it was already scheduled for a year’s worth of 3 posts/day of content because there’s just so much out there and it just became very popular.” 

While the account had its insular appeal in the arts community, it quickly caught fire in the meme-commentary content mill online, making it a known staple in the curation game. “It was a lot more fun to run when it started—when it was all artists following it—but then there was a period where the YouTubers discovered it and I just got this flood of hundreds of thousands of people coming just for the drama, and so now I gotta be much more careful about what I post,” he says. “People yell at me all the time for censoring names, but I’m like “I have close to 250k people who want to pick a fight. I’m not gonna be responsible for all of them, sorry.” So I gotta be very careful what I do with it—it’s a weird power I yield that I have to be cool about and responsible with.”

Relatability is an underrated feature of our most familiar interactions online, and it’s something Estrada noticed the account provided for a community of artists with divergent and disparate interests that might’ve not always gotten along together the best. “[Artists] related to it because that’s something that a lot of [them] deal with day to day,” he says. “I try to choose the silliest ones—some are outright offensive—and most of the time it’s just something you can laugh at. That not only lets artists feel better—in not feeling alone [having received these queries]—but also for people just starting out, it kinda teaches them “oh this is what to watch out for, these are the red flags.” You can laugh at it and then later be like “this sounds like something from For Exposure.” The name of that Twitter account became this kind of rallying cry and put a word into common speak that very quickly and succinctly explained what was wrong with these things without people having to [lay it out in detail].”

Estrada is acutely aware of the atmosphere his posts tend to create, and even though the account doesn’t intently set out to make it an all-out fight over who dunks on offers of exposure the slickest, he realizes these impulses are better served by taking emotional stock of them and calibrating accordingly, rather than straight up repressing them. “I’m afraid to look at the comments sometimes because a lot of people use it to vent their frustrations out and yell at the Twitter account itself—which I’m cool with, people are allowed to do that—but they’ll just scream and swear at it because they can’t do so at their clients. I don’t follow [the account]! I can’t handle the negativity, and I find it funny that there have been celebrities that have quit Twitter recently because they said it was too toxic, and I’m like “they followed For Exposure, is it my fault?”,” says Estrada as he lets out a chuckle. “I post a lot less than I did when I started because I wanna let people laugh, but not subject them to a constant barrage of terrible negativity and just hopefully people can find it funny [in the end].”

Initial entries to the canon of For Exposure were inspired by Estrada’s own escapades in the art community, limited as said entries were back then. “Some of the very earliest ones were all ones that were mine and they do crack me up–I haven’t dealt with it as much as a lot of others,” he says. “For most of my career when I was doing commissions, I ran a site called “Cartoon Commune” for a long time that was just flat rates, I’d draw whatever you need—I ended up doing a lot of like “draw my boyfriend as a superhero” or “draw how me and my fiance met, we’re gonna pass it around in our wedding”, “draw the CEOs of our company as rockstars”—and I got around the For Exposure thing just by having a website up that had very clear rules about what I do and how much it costs–[my commission scheme was very streamlined].”

But Estrada realizes that wasn’t the case for everybody, and it made him somewhat of a martyr for bringing awareness to this issue while potentially driving away some business opportunities given his perceived status as a watchdog of artist exploitation. “I think now people are afraid of me?” he says laughingly. “I think people know that if they try and get free work from me they’re just gonna end up on the account, and I think sometimes it might scare away actual legitimate work. “Oh is he gonna be offended by how much we offer him?” or people afraid of inviting me to speak at a library about my books or do a panel at a convention, etc. That’s a very different thing–if you want me to promote my books, I’m happy to do it but I think people are like “I’m afraid if I ask him, he’s gonna quote me on For Exposure”.”

The creation of a dynamic where art is undervalued is an unfortunate side effect of our species both having poor judgement of how much effort—and sometimes tangible resources—it takes to create client-side, and a learned impulse to be charitable even unsuitably artist-side. Estrada puts it all in context for those who see it otherwise, hammering home the point that artists—first and foremost—are people, worthy of fair compensation for their work, just like all laborers should be. “A lot of people think of art as fun, so they’re like  “well, why wouldn’t this person do it for fun!” but what they don’t realize is that, doing my own art is fun, but doing art for you destroys a piece of my soul that I’ll never get back,” he says affirmingly. “That’s why I quit doing custom comics–never being able to do my own work because I’m constantly drawing someone’s boyfriend as Batman, it took a long time after I quit to be able to make comics I was proud of again. Doing things for someone else sucks your time, your energy, it makes it so you can’t do your own art. Not to say that people don’t enjoy doing the things that you’re asking them to do, but they also have their own things they wanna do. After they finish their own art, they have kids to take care of, day jobs to go to, dinner to cook, families to spend time with–they’re not gonna give up their time and mental energy just to make your thing.”

Valuing one’s own work is a necessary step to actually making it lucrative in the long run, and Estrada saw first-hand the boons of adopting such an approach. “When I started doing comics for other people, I had no idea what I would charge. I was [initially] charging $5 per page for finished comics—which is ridiculous—and it was so much work that I was up day and night doing these five dollar comics,” he says recalling a much less fortunate era in his career. “Then I was like “You know what? I wanna get less work, so I can sleep more” and so I doubled prices to $10, and then more people would order, and I’d be like “double again, $20!” and then more people would order, and I was like okay it’s gonna be $50–and it kept going up, and I kept getting more orders, and then I realized that I was getting more orders because when I valued my work more, other people did so as well.”

To Estrada, offering art at the rate its author deems appropriate—at least reasonably so—is a zero-sum game–you either take what you want, or leave it all on the table. “All the people that would’ve looked at my website and said “$5 comics? What’s that gonna look like? I’m not gonna waste my time”, but when I finally got up to $200-$250 dollars, then people are like “Okay, this is a service that the artist themselves values well” so I think that the first thing is to value the work yourself, and then stand up for that no matter what,” he says. “If you stand up for what you know your work and time is worth, then other people will follow, and the people that don’t: Don’t work for ‘em.”

But not everyone is equipped to even know what their art is worth, and for them, Estrada has some fine advice. “The first thing I would suggest people do is figure out how much time they spend on a similar project, divide it by the price and see how much you’re charging per-hour with what you do, just to see how incredibly low most of what you’re charging typically is,” he says. “Art is a difficult thing to gauge, and it’s a difficult thing to compare—because people are doing completely different types of art, styles, they use tools that take different amounts of time—just look at people that are doing similar work to yours, ask them what the going rate is for what they do, see what you can find on social media, talk to people, look online, and make sure you’re not vastly undercharging. [...] It’s gonna take some work, trial and error, and probably what will happen is—just like in my case—you start low, and realize your time is worth and slowly raise until you figure it out.”

That’s not always a given though given many are coaxed into feeling like they have to make art for scraps, mostly due to the compounding effect that poor mental health has with subpar economic standing–Estrada is no stranger to this dilemma. “I work on a lot of big things, but that doesn’t mean I make money out of all of them. Everyone thinks someone else is the one that’s making it and someone else is rich, and then you find out they haven’t made any money either–I have still to this day never earned a royalty on a book in my life. I’ve been making comics since I was 6 years old, I was pitching newspapers at that age in 1986, and I’ve still to this day never earned a royalty on a book–hopefully I’ll get my first one this summer, but we’ll see!” he says. “We make little bits here and there—when I did commissions I was making money, but it took all of my time and energy—but I switched over to making only comics that I’m proud of, which is much better for my mental health, but significantly worse for my wallet.”

Being able to do triage is also a necessary prerequisite to achieving a healthy work-life balance, especially when art is involved. “The one big thing is to realize that some of the projects you do can actually make you feel worse–it can do damage to you,” says Estrada, later emphasizing the need for income diversity if need be. “One thing I always said was “you shouldn’t be afraid to have a day job that’s not related to your art” because it’s gonna be a long time before your art is gonna pay your bills so you’re gonna need one, but some people are like “if I’m gonna have a day job, I want it to be related to what I make” but I found that when I was making custom comics for a decade, the problem is if I spend the whole day doing grunt work at a job that I don’t particularly like, all day I’m like “I can’t wait to get home and make comics” but when my grunt work is sitting at a desk and making comics I don’t like, at the end of the day I’m not like “Well woo! Let’s shift this over, I can’t wait to draw comics at the same desk!”. It’s like your energy is gone, and you don’t wanna draw comics after that.”

It took a while for Estrada to unlearn some of the toxic habits of his commission era, and though its impact has been everlasting, he’s learning to lean into the confidence that professionalism demands without guilt-tripping over it too much. “I quit doing [comics commissions] a decade ago, and I still haven’t fully recovered from it because I’ve had to completely retrain my brain to be like “you can enjoy this, you can get weird with it.”,” he says. “I’m working on a book now that I’m illustrating and I have to keep reminding myself: You can make characters goofy-looking, ugly, and with weird bulgy eyes. Because I got so trained on the fact that if you’re drawing a comic for someone’s wedding, if they look even the slightest bit weird, you’re gonna get an angry phone call that you ruined their wedding, and they’re gonna call PayPal and try to get your account shut down and financially ruin you because they don’t like the way you drew them. You can do [art-for-hire], enjoy it, make money from it, but if it starts to take away your energy from enjoying what you do, then you need to think about “is this worth it, should I move on to making something else, is there a way I can use my art to make money that I enjoy?” It’s always a balance to find what brings you financial rewards and also doesn’t destroy your soul.”

Something that is rarely discussed in reference to the posts that do fit For Exposure’s character is how the dynamic would radically change if there was a UBI (Universal Basic Income) in place–those who usually can only pay with exposure can no longer afford to, and artists are free to pursue projects that don’t necessarily line up their pockets the fullest. Estrada helmed a similar experiment on the micro scale, but he has no doubt it would work if implemented more broadly. “I know all the projects I wanna make that I never have time for and thousands of other artists that have dream projects that I would love to see, but they’re not necessarily ones that are gonna pay the bills and the day jobs come first. Worries about money keep artists from making the art that they want to make,” he says. “When I first started that custom comics business, the way it started, was that I had done a traditional day job for a while, saved up a bunch of money, then went to Mexico and just rented a big house, and I posted on the internet—it was LiveJournal at that time where all the artists hung out—and I said “I got a big house, I’m gonna be in there making comics, if anybody wants to show up and make art, you can live there for free.” Not a huge number of people showed up because it was a bit far, but there were some people that came and developed new projects that they wouldn’t have otherwise, and it was a very small experiment from an already very poor artist so it’s not like I was making a big dent in the world but I saw first-hand that when artists don’t have to worry every second about how to pay rent, interesting art happens and careers get built out of it.”

Those less familiar with Estrada’s own personal ongoings might not know he’s currently calling South Korea his locale–away from the trepidations of everyday American life, he learned to appreciate the completely-different way in which art is funded and perceived. “I live in Busan, South Korea and I’m originally from Michigan–I really love Busan because for over a decade I lived in new country every year—I was making art through the internet so I could live wherever I wanted, and I just traveled all over—and I kinda balanced between going to big cities that had a nice art community, and then went to some small remote jungle where I hung out with monkeys and saw nature,” he says. “Once I landed here in Busan, I just fell in love with the art community, the infrastructure, the nature, and it just has everything I need–there’s a really cool community of artists—both local and international—that is really tight-knit and very welcoming, and [they’re eager to embrace their divergence of styles]. Everybody just works together, makes films, makes comics, does plays… and I also love how much support Busan gives to the arts. Like if I look outside my window right now, I can see the Busan Global Webtoon Center—a few different cities have places like this—and it’s just a giant building with free offices for cartoonists because they just wanna support local artists and be like “here’s some space, make a comic!”. Right next to that there’s a place where you can borrow cameras, boom mics, giant green screens, editing bays and recording studios you can all use for free and just all of these resources across the street from my house that are there for artists to use, and just a lot of support, so I love living here as an artist.”

This naturally invites comparisons with America’s sorry state of arts endowment, but Estrada can only muster apathy after the country’s national news cycle had been occupied with calamity and sorrow for so long. “America is uh… it’s not doing too good these days. Every time I see news from back in there, I just don’t know what’s going on,” he told me. “people are constantly talking about how it’s the greatest nation in the world and I’m like “everything I see in the news is a thing that everywhere else that I traveled it’s not an issue” so… I don’t know.”

That idleness in the face of negativity so pure is perhaps what makes Estrada’s work on For Exposure distinct–he didn’t make the account with the purpose of putting low-life artist thugs on blast, but it was nonetheless what was taken from it. Still what stands out as a key characteristic of For Exposure—rarely found elsewhere—is the sheer comedy it offers from a trend whose sole purpose is to emiserate artists–obnoxious as it might be for some to see, it is a source of catharsis both for responsible clients, and artists who’ve been on the receiving of that behavior in the past.

Still for Ryan, he’s working on two books right now—sequels to the newly-released entries of Banned Book Club and Student Ambassador: The Missing Dragon—and they’ve attracted some much-deserved fanfare. The For Exposure account simultaneously feeds into and from Estrada by virtue of it being a distinct brand, but it’s regardless been a sort of poetic justice that this account exists, and the one running it is part of the cohort it concerns most–it’s not always a given since it’s the internet, but here it is very much resoundingly the case.