There are certain artistic styles that almost everyone recognizes, even if the artist behind them isn’t well-known. This is largely because spreading media on the internet has never been easier: within seconds of anything being posted, it can be shared, downloaded, retweeted, and reposted millions of times over, reaching people and places beyond its creator’s wildest dreams.
But getting paid for that piece of viral content has become far more complicated than it once was, especially when an author’s work can be so easily modified and repurposed.
There is perhaps no better example of this phenomenon than what occurs on Reddit, a social media site that defies most attempts at defining it. Communities there can be some of the most welcoming and supportive on the web, and they’re endlessly eager for fresh submissions… but many of the platform’s users are notoriously hostile to anything resembling a request for money. Because of that, earning a living on Reddit-based content creation can be seemingly impossible for many hopeful artists.
Still, creators like SrGrafo (pronounced “Señor Grah-fo”, and who prefers to be known by his handle over his given name)—the originator of the single-panel comic seen above—have found clever ways to monetize their work, all while remaining in Reddit’s good graces. But it wasn’t easy.
Grafo—the shorthand he uses for his handle—grew up in an underprivileged region of South America.
“It’s not like our house was made of mud,” he jokes, “but if you call some places ‘third-world,’ ours was ‘fourth-world.’”
His family worked together to make ends meet, with his entrepreneurial mother carving out a niche by printing unofficial merchandise adorned with familiar characters.
“Every day, she’d deal with some part of the process,” Grafo says. “You know, she’d buy the stencils, then maybe a lot of blank shirts, then the ink and supplies. She’d bring all of that home, and I’d help to make the products.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Grafo recognizes that his upbringing was far from typical.
“My fingers hated me, but I thought it was all normal. I’d be working with these machines, you know, and I’d assume that other people’s houses were also filled with them,” he says.
Memories of a childhood spent at work might prompt regret or resentment in some people, but SrGrafo talks about them with fondness. The only truly harrowing moments, he says, came when he’d watch his mother struggling to keep food on the table. “I’d see her trying to make deals with shopkeepers, and they’d always be lowering their payments, trying to get more from her for less. It made me feel sad.”
It was a stressful life at the best of times, but there were enjoyable moments: “I’d sometimes be allowed to come up with my own designs,” says Grafo, “even if some of them were just text.” He was immediately drawn to the freedom of turning his ideas into something tangible, but he knew it came bundled with a new level of responsibility. It prompted a sense of needing to do right by customers, which would later inform many of his decisions.
Although Grafo’s love for creative expression had already become one of his defining traits, he didn’t initially feel any need to seek out an audience. In fact, the discovery of the site which would later become his primary platform happened almost by accident.
“When I started using the Internet,” Grafo says, “I was frustrated by how difficult it was to find what I was looking for. I’d want to read what people thought about a new game, for example, but I’d have to dig through long articles with titles like ‘10 Things That Will Shock You!’ Like, I know now why they were padded out, but the whole time, I was just thinking ‘Where are the real opinions?!’”
Finding a following on Reddit
This search for less-constrained conversation eventually brought Grafo to Reddit, the self-proclaimed “front page of the Internet.”
For some, Reddit is a content-aggregator; a place to casually scroll through news headlines, viral videos, and pictures of other people’s pets. Others view Reddit as a community hub to discuss topical stories or seek expert advice. Still others approach the site in the same way that an aspiring comedian might approach an open-mic night: as a platform to submit their original content for the cheers (or jeers) of a quasi-anonymous audience.
Each submission on Reddit begins its existence in one of the platform’s subject-centric communities—known as “subreddits”—then slowly climbs toward greater visibility as subscribers “upvote” or “downvote” the post.
It was Reddit’s comment sections, which automatically appear beneath every post, that initially attracted Grafo to the site. “If I included the word ‘Reddit’ in my Google searches,” he says, “I’d get to see these debates that were a lot more genuine than what I’d find anywhere else.”
He first registered his account in 2012, and eventually discovered a subreddit devoted to RimWorld, a videogame where players build and manage a futuristic colony.
“I got maybe a bit obsessed with the game,” Grafo says, “but I started writing these comics that were inspired by it, and they did well.” He had been on Reddit for several years by that point, and hadn’t previously imagined that his artwork would resonate with so many people. The lack of original content in the community may have been a factor—most of its submissions were screenshots of the associated game—and it motivated Grafo to create more. “It was January of 2019 when I decided to really focus on making comics. I thought if the demand was there, I should do my best to meet it.”
That newfound focus came with an increased desire to understand the things that made Reddit tick. “I started doing research. I’d look at what was being discussed, what the best timing for a post was—stuff like that.” He wanted more visibility, but he also wanted to ensure his work struck the right balance of being unique and relevant. “I didn’t want to repeat someone else’s joke by accident,” Grafo says. “But I also didn’t want to post things that were off-topic.”
I thought if the demand was there, I should do my best to meet it.
A routine began to emerge, with Grafo splitting his time between art and analysis. The results of his efforts were evident almost immediately, with drawings that had previously attracted little attention suddenly dominating the front page of the quiet community. The shift was so stark and abrupt that it left the artist feeling embarrassed.
“People liked them, but one guy started to get a little bit angry at me,” Grafo says. “He didn’t like that he was always seeing my comics. If someone gets mad at you for being too visible, well, it probably means that you’re doing something right… but I thought that maybe I should take a break for a while. Sometimes less is more.”
But Grafo’s drive to create couldn't be stifled. Even as he limited his activity on the RimWorld subreddit, he posted comics elsewhere, and new readers found him through surprising ways.
Cracking the Reddit code
“It was the first high-scoring repost that really set the ball rolling,” he says. “My original post didn’t go anywhere, but then I saw someone else post it again later, and it went viral.”
That post was a multi-panel strip about tropes in gaming—a niche concept that seemed to really resonate with Redditors:
Grafo watched the event with the air of a scientist testing a theory, hoping to understand what made the repost outperform his original submission. His desire to entertain his audience only grew. “I always had Reddit open during the day, but I would spend a few hours really focused on it. Some of that was research, and some of it was talking with people. My best comics were always the ones that were relatable; the ones that everyone could see themselves in.”
The internet’s tendency to recycle content also worked in Grafo’s favor. His style is simple yet expressive, which made many of his comics ideal “templates” that others could easily remix and share on social media.
“There’s no point in fighting it,” Grafo says, referencing the permissionless nature of turning artwork into memes. “Actually, I think it can be good to encourage it. If someone wants to use one of my comics, well, then I want to see what they come up with! It’s fun for everyone, so I release blank versions pretty often.”
Grafo’s artistic style became more recognizable, but praise prompted by memes of his work rarely found its way back to him. Even so, subscribers and followers began to steadily trickle in, and requests for additional comic strips started to grow. Critics arrived as well, and their presence eventually prompted an activity that would come to be celebrated as the artist’s signature.
“I wrote a comic about how choices in videogames usually don’t matter, and someone replied with a really dumb argument," Grafo says. "I wanted to answer him, so I just drew him as a little doodle.” He pauses. “It exploded. Suddenly, everyone was saying ‘Do me! Do me!’ and leaving comments about what they wanted me to draw.”
Had the scene taken place in a comedy club, it might have resembled a comic riffing off the audience. Those back-and-forth exchanges soon became the most-anticipated parts of any posts made by SrGrafo, with hundreds of users vying for one of his coveted replies (which he always presents with the all-caps word “EDIT”).
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I mean, they were just doodles. I used to draw them for my friends, you know, just to make them laugh. Now they’re everyone’s favorites? It’s incredible to me.” His on-the-fly replies also added to the amount of time Grafo was spending on Reddit. “Then it was research, drawing, and ‘EDITs,’” he says. “If a post was doing really well—you know, if lots of people were joining in—then I’d be there for longer.”
Grafo’s rise in popularity began in earnest at that point, and he's quick to recount the things that actually mattered. “If you really want to be successful, you need to develop and maintain an audience," he says. "People need to know what to expect and when to expect it.”
For up-and-coming artists, his advice is simple and straightforward—and it looks like hard work. “You do your research, make something original and relatable, get your timing right, and you stay consistent," Grafo says. "You find places where people like your work, and you say ‘Hey, I have more over here!’ That’s probably the most important part: You attract people, then you make it fun for them to keep coming back.”
Like every road to success, there were occasional missteps, one of which resulted in the most-significant backlash Grafo has experienced to date. He wrote a comic that cast flat-Earthers as the butt of a joke, then received a flood of bitter messages in response.
“You know, I always have learning to do,” he says. “I’ve made jokes that I didn’t realize could be taken the wrong way… but that?” He laughs. “I remember thinking ‘Wait, you guys are real?’” Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and any readers who threatened to leave were quickly replaced by new fans.
To merch or not to merch
It was a fulfilling and formative time for Grafo, but it also brought some discomfort. By April of 2019, a previously unseen aspect of online fame began to rear its head.
“People started asking me if I had any merchandise for sale,” he says, “I had flashbacks to my childhood. I couldn’t imagine doing all of the designing, printing, and shipping, especially not when so many people were from other countries.” He describes thinking about the struggles endured by his mother. “I mean, if someone wants to tip me on my Patreon, it’s flattering, and it lets me keep drawing. With merch, though… well, I said I was sorry, but I didn’t have any.”
One fateful day, a longtime reader reached out to inform Grafo that someone was selling low-quality prints of his work on t-shirts. “They were really horrible,” he says. “I was only uploading low-resolution comics, so they looked awful when they were put on clothes.” The irony of the situation —seeing his intellectual property reproduced by an unauthorized party—didn’t escape him. “I didn’t like it, but I accepted that I’d have to make my own merch if I wanted my readers to have things that were high-quality. Besides, if Mom could do it, so could I.”
Grafo quickly learned everything he could about merchandising, once again drawing on Reddit as a resource. His research led him to lots of services that would allegedly handle all the logistics for him. “Really, I was nervous,” Grafo says. “It seemed too good to be true, you know, but I gave it a try.”
If Mom could do it, so could I.
Next, he chose a launch strategy that would fit his brand. “These products were supposed to be for people to enjoy,” Grafo says, “so I wanted to be sure that they’d enjoy hearing about them, too.” He chose to announce his merchandise in comic strips, and to welcome community input. “I thought about saying something on Twitter, but you don’t get the same kind of interaction there. Reddit gave me fun ways of making sure that everyone could participate, so I stuck with that.”
This carefully considered approach came with potential hazards—Reddit is known for being welcoming to memes, and hostile to monetization.
Creators are generally welcomed (provided their work is good), but attempts to make money online can turn the crowd against you, resulting in accusations of ulterior, self-serving motives. Concerns about stealth advertising also run rampant on the site, to the point where even an incidental mention of a brand can arouse suspicion. All of this is compounded by how easy it is for rumors and speculation to spread through Reddit’s comments sections, meaning that a reputation can be stained by a single bad post. Unsurprisingly, promoting a product on Reddit can be exceptionally difficult.
In spite of all this, SrGrafo’s merch launch quickly bore fruit.
From community to commerce
Before long, Grafo was featuring characters and scenes from his comics, along with a growing number of unique designs, on shirts, hoodies, mugs, and stickers—and fans were clamoring for more.
“There were a few people who accused me of selling out,” Grafo says, “but I didn’t really get any of the normal backlash.” He refers back to his audience-first philosophy as an explanation. “I think because I was asking ‘What do you want?’ all the time, people knew that the merch really was for them, not just because I wanted to make money.”
One tough and useful lesson he learned quickly: that creative effort wasn’t correlated with popularity. “I could spend hours and hours making a really good design, then spend only a few minutes making, like, a potato. Then I’d see the potato being more popular.” He lets loose an amused groan. “It’s great to see people like something, but sometimes you feel like a lot of work was for nothing.”
Frustration aside, the discovery complemented a decision that Grafo had already made.
I could spend hours and hours making a really good design, then spend only a few minutes making, like, a potato. Then I’d see the potato being more popular.
“I always try to offer new, fresh things,” he says, “and I want them to be high-quality. Also, I see my merch as art that someone can wear or use, and I want to personalize it for them. I’ll ask everyone what they’d like, then do my best to make it available. I might only get one sale, but that’s okay, because that one person will be really happy.”
Grafo soon realized that his earlier choice of online store software had unintentionally limited his options. The tool didn’t allow for much customization, and made it difficult to add new products. “I didn’t want to be someone who was always selling the same thing. It would be like always posting the same comic. And I wanted every new release to be a fun event; something people could enjoy on its own, no matter if they bought something or not.”
He decided to explore other options.
Going all-in on merch with Shopify
“I’d learned about Shopify when I was first doing research, but I had been worried about the cost,” Grafo says. “I kept thinking, ‘What if I don’t make enough in one month?’ You know, thirty dollars, it sounded like a lot. Where I’m from, it is a lot.”
Memories of tough times and tight budgets were hard to shake off, but Grafo was encouraged by other creators’ positive experiences with Shopify. The levels of control and flexibility were exactly what he’d been hoping to find, and he decided they would be worth the cost.
“Starting that Shopify store, you know, it felt real; it felt legitimate. Having an official shop makes you feel like you have some credibility and dependability.” After getting set up, Grafo committed himself to updating his merchandise every week, just as he had previously committed to connecting with his audience. “It’s all part of the same thing,” Grafo says. “I interact with people directly, I respond to their questions, I post my ‘EDITs,’ and I try to make everyone happy.” He laughs. “Of course, there are always people who complain about my content, but I feel like their feet must be full of holes: If you want to make people forget something, you don’t keep talking about it.”
SrGrafo himself does seem to be a topic of conversation: Although he’s no stranger to the drama and hearsay that follows prolific creators, the majority of his readers—even some who were once cynics—describe the man behind the comics as refreshingly honest and insightful.
“I don’t think I’m doing anything special, I just try to do the best I can,” he says. He hasn’t forgotten about his family, and hopes his personal success will improve their lives as well. “Merch, you know… buying it is a way for people to support an artist. I don’t need much, so I hope that I can also support people.”
Starting that Shopify store, you know, it felt real; it felt legitimate. Having an official shop makes you feel like you have some credibility and dependability.
Nowadays, Grafo works at a tireless pace, writing, drawing, and designing throughout his waking hours. While streaming on Twitch or posting on Reddit, he churns out dozens (sometimes hundreds) of his “doodles,” usually playing off interactions with viewers and readers. During his rare downtime, the artist makes notes for himself, drawing inspiration from the fantastic and the mundane alike.
[Author’s note: On three separate occasions during our conversation, Grafo interjected to ask, “Hey, can I make a comic about that?” Those comics are embedded in this article.]
His work gets revised and reposted more frequently than ever, but because he’s now creating his own high-quality merchandise that showcases his well-loved style, that fact has become an advantage.
As for what the future holds, Grafo prefers to act rather than talk. “I’m going to keep posting my comics,” he says, “but I’m always drawn to stories. I love telling them, I love finding them, and I want to create more of them. That’s why I’m so happy when my audience can all come together, either on Reddit or on Twitch. It’s a chance for us to make a new story together.”
Entertaining people has never been easy, and earning a living from your work is even harder. Chasing success on the internet brings its challenges, some of which can end up being pretty bizarre. The research, the grind, and the need to constantly connect with one’s audience can make pursuing a career in content creation seem daunting… but every so often, a talented individual comes along who manages to not only entertain and thrive, but also inspire.
In the case of SrGrafo, and other creatives like him, this story is only just the beginning.