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Taking emoji art to the next level

Navigating the post-ironic art world with Isaiah Toothtaker's all-emoji art book

Last week, Tucson’s resident polymathic indie rapper/tattoo artist and shop owner Isaiah Toothtaker turned his talents to digital art with an all-emoji art book. THAT’S NOT RELEVANT takes the culture’s current cryptographic obsession out of the iPhone and into the physical realm – the book, out from Toothtaker’s local and badass Spork Press, uses imagery from both pop and underground cultures (though the two are increasingly intermingled anyway) in a post-ironic interpretation of the way we communicate now. We caught up with the Arizona-based (God) artist over email to talk about his work and what emojis can say that words can’t.

Where did the idea for the THAT'S NOT RELEVANT project come from?

Isaiah Toothtaker: I was working on an emoji project for a larger client and developing specific keywords and characterizations of sorts, so I was already working on the idea and theme. After the project's process of elimination, there was a lot of rejected imagery and symbolism I really fucked with and still wanted to present in some way. I hollered at Spork Press to possibly publish my shit, they were down, so boom. I've been watching what Spork Press has been doing for a while and have big respect for everything they've set up, so I knew they would be the proper team to handle this release. Although the imagery is in book form, I think it's still clear the aesthetic is intended to communicate more literally, in the dialect of today's technology.

Have you done graphic/digital work like this before?

Isaiah Toothtaker: I've never really worked directly in digital media, like Illustrator or in vector; beyond tattooing it's been mostly watercolor or ink – aside from video work I guess – but I have daily contact with icons and similar symbolism, whether it's on restroom doors or street signs or, obviously, utilizing emoji in conversation – constantly influenced by it all. Although I haven't hyper-analyzed the relation about all this type of art and its connection to the others, it might be intended to make a statement or invoke reaction or cause curiosity, but idk really. I picked these designs for the book because they resonated with me the most or for the longest. 

“I think what's garish to some is costume to others, but overall being hyper-serious about anything isn't healthy. I just do what I do and it does what it does.” – Isaiah Toothtaker

How do you see your work with visual art/tattoos (do you consider them the same?) relating to your music? 

Isaiah Toothtaker: All that shit's the same, interchangeable and beneficial to one another as I learn more and do more. I might get a tattoo or do a tattoo of something that's a reference to culture or [something that] originated in rap. Most things are crafted from my experiences. Maybe I paint something that was inspired by music since it's such a big part of my life. All the visual art relates to music in the same sense of framing ideas and bringing concepts into fruition; I usually shape both until I feel completely expressed. I don't have a formula with any type of art I make; I try to allow the process to be natural or organic and develop with as little inhibition as possible. It's very much hand-in-hand for me.

The book seems really self-referential/at least partially ironic (but not totally), which is how a lot of people use emojis – so I guess it feels more like you're putting a personal spin on the irony rather than making it more or less ironic. Does that sound at all accurate? 

Isaiah Toothtaker: I can't be nobody but me, man. Most def with some jest or slight humor but I'm not really being ironic. I'm not into mockery and haven't ever used that sort of position when creating any work. I guess I primarily use irony in response, so emojis being in regular dialogue they get applied in ways, sure. I didn't mean for the book or my designs to only be ironic, but I definitely don't have any issue with how people perceive my work or how they interpret my art, music or visual.

What's your take on the popularity of emoji? That sounds like a fucking ridiculous question in some ways, but they're such a cultural obsession, and I think they're interesting because they take that sense of at-least-partial irony across a lot of classes/social groups. That kind of ironic self-awareness layered on top of good, old-fashioned art/music seems present in your music as well; I'm thinking of the "La Mer" video?

Isaiah Toothtaker: I think it's typical of communication to grow or change whatever the language is, so this book is more on the trajectory of using symbolism or icons as technology’s slang, emojis maybe being in the dialect of technology. Idk. I really enjoy communication through iconography – how it's more universal than lettering. You don't need to translate the fire symbol – you know it's fire – maybe that's why emoji is popular, because it's so practical. There's only a few emojis that confuse people in their meaning, like the praying hands being mistaken for a high five.

I mean, I was going to ask you, "What if I did this whole interview in emoji." It's deadpan and absurd, but it's only half-joking; it also has a genuine aspect of "That could actually be a possibility, that's not totally a joke" about it. Do you know what I mean, or do you think that's completely off-base? 

Isaiah Toothtaker: I'm not against an emoji-only Q&A, but these questions are a bit more complex or specific – maybe it wouldn't be as effective, or maybe it would usher in more of that practice. I think what's garish to some is costume to others, but overall being hyper-serious about anything isn't healthy. I just do what I do and it does what it does.