LA Artist Johnny Otto’s Recent Campaign: “Buy Art, Save a Crazy Person”

“Buy Art, Save a Crazy Person” Image courtesy of artist
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Johnny Otto is a creator at the end of the day. With a career that spans over 35 years, the self-taught contemporary artist has done everything  from exhibited work with the likes of David Hockney, Shepard Fairey, Peter Tunney, to name a few; wrote and directed a film, launched an art magazine, published books, taken photographs and made some friends along the way. With comparisons made to Jean Michel Basquiat, Otto has now launched a campaign that went viral recently. It’s aptly titled “Buy Art, Save a Crazy Person” with merchandise available under his Ottophobia moniker. The artist is now raffling off one of the pieces from the campaign and hopes that through the raffle, he’ll be able to keep his art studio and continue to create the work that he’s so closely tied to as an artist, er, crazy person. Otto spoke about his work and recent struggles in an ever-changing, difficult artistic landscape. 

Tell us how you came up with the concept of “Buy Art, Save a Crazy Person.”

I came up with the concept during Covid. A few months early, around the end of 2019, I believe, the gallery that was representing me closed their doors and I was searching for new representation. Then Covid hit and all the galleries closed and I felt hopeless. I had been on a high for several years, showing and selling my work. Isolated and alone and going a bit “crazy,” I was going on long walks and just thinking out loud about how to sell my work, saying to myself, ”Won’t someone buy my art and save me?” I realized that it wasn’t just an issue that I was having, but a lot of my friends who were artists weren’t showing or selling either. We were all in the same boat. So I changed it to be “Buy Art Save A Crazy Person”

“Buy Art, Save a Crazy Person” Image courtesy of artist.

You’re now raffling off one of the paintings. What led to the raffle? 

I’ve been struggling financially since 2020. I’ve fallen behind on rent and I am trying to keep my studio and home. I’ve lived here for more than 15 years. It is more than just a creative space, it is my home. I have so many memories here. So, I decided to raffle off one of my paintings that was in my last show at Compound Contemporary in Thousand Oaks, California. It was a massive show and the piece I am giving away is one that didn’t happen to sell during the show. 

You’ve been an artist in LA for many years. Obviously you’ve seen a changing landscape as it comes to artists and making a living as an artist. Can you share your thoughts on an ever-evolving industry and marketplace? 

I moved to Los Angeles in 1990 when I was 25 and naive. I was bold then and I am now. I never took “No” for an answer. If I couldn’t get into a gallery, I’d show my art anywhere I could. I never cared about the rules or even knew what they were. I guess that’s the attitude you have to have to make it in any field. Since I moved here, I’ve curated shows with well-known artists, I’ve shown my art in countless galleries, and I even started a magazine. I have done everything I can to try and make a living as an artist. I hustle each and every day and yet a steady income stream from my art has eluded me. So, I truly have no idea how or when that will change for me, but I don’t know how to do anything else. I’ve been an artist since I was a kid. But, as hard as I try, I’ve had to make a living doing other things. I’ve managed hotels, restaurants, music venues, been a photographer for actors, done web design, graphic design, etc. I don’t know if the landscape has changed that much really. It’s always been a hustle to be a working artist, at least that’s the case for me. 

“Buy Art, Save a Crazy Person” Image courtesy of artist.

How would you best describe the outlook for artists today? 

You have to be willing to sacrifice a lot. Work hard. Hustle. Open your own doors. Do your own shows. Create as much as you can. It’s the same as always. The outlook is unknown. The future is unknowable. All you can do is do what you love and hope the world loves it as much as you do. If you love what you’re doing, eventually the world will catch up with you and appreciate all of your hard work. That’s what I tell myself, anyhow. 

“Blood Tribe” by Johnny Otto. Image courtesy of artist.

So, would you say the theory of a starving artist is not so far off base? 

I am not starving but I do have to have three jobs to pay my bills and even then it is very difficult living in a city like Los Angeles where the rent is expensive, food is expensive, everything is expensive. I know artists who are making a killing selling their art so I know it is possible. For me, that hasn’t been the case but I hope to change that soon. I know that I have the work ethics and the talent. I just have to find the right collectors. I will. And when I do I want to open my own gallery and give back as much as I can. 

How do you keep yourself and your work relevant today? 

It is hard because a lot of art has become political and my art is not. I could go that way, but it’s not what interests me the most. Not that I don’t have something to say in my art, but for me it has always been about creating a mood or energy. My art is expressive and bold and pretty intense. But it’s not political. It’s just about being human and what that means or how that feels. I think feelings, emotions, will always be relevant in art. I prefer that because politics change all the time, but we will always be emotional creatures.

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