- Olivia Niuman | 52 O Street Studios
Bright Colors, Bold Lines & Smart Designs: Mike O’Brien, May Featured Artist
Mike O’Brien’s creations have taken many forms over the years, from highly polished professional advertisements to handmade screen prints advertising local punk bands. We sat down with him to discuss his journey as an artist to develop his unique style influenced by the cartoons of his childhood and the traditional-style tattoos of his adulthood.
Mike O'Brien surrounded by his work in his 2nd floor studio
As a kid, Mike O’Brien loved cartoons. He grew up watching Looney Toons and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and when he got to high school and college he drew comics for the school paper. When the time came to think about his career, he decided he didn’t want to be a professional cartoonist struggling against the tide of dying newspapers, so he channeled his passion into two seemingly separate realms. For his day job, O’Brien worked for a small ad agency in DC specializing in the newly burgeoning field of social media advertising. O’Brien describes this time as the “wild west” of the internet, when companies were eager to leverage newly-popular social media platforms for advertising but there were a lot of unknowns about how and why this type of advertising was going to work.
Meanwhile, O’Brien worked on passion projects oriented around silk screen printing, which encapsulated the qualities he loved about cartoons: simple but effective images that could be easily reproduced for people to see, feel, touch, and buy. On nights and weekends off from work, he would make silk screen prints to promote local bands, which eventually led him to meet and know local visual artists who were putting on pop-up art shows.
Through friends, he learned about Hole in the Sky (HITS), an artist collective in Northeast DC. At HITS, O’Brien started using their screen printing studio, and eventually moved his studio there while curating monthly underground art shows that featured street, punk, and emerging artists. Throughout his time at HITS, O’Brien organized and promoted dozens of group shows around themes that he described as “stupid, but fun:” one of their largest shows, where the theme was pizza, featured a six foot diameter pizza with a detailed pepperoni portrait of Macaulay Culkin.
Around 2016 the momentum at the Hole in Sky started to wane, and as a result, O’Brien shifted to organizing smaller events, like artist get-togethers and intimate shows. During this time, he thought of his design work and his screen printing as separate, and thought of neither of them as art. “I never really considered myself an artist at the time- it was something I liked to do, but I never really identified myself as one. Professionally, I was a designer, and I felt like in an artist there was… something that needed to be there. I wanted to be creative professionally, but I hadn’t really honed in on what that meant.”
His design work at the firm was always “evolving with the possibilities of the internet,” which meant that it experienced rapid growth at first, but plateaued around 2020 after being bought by a larger company and subsequently downsized. Getting laid off in the beginning of 2020 meant he had to reconsider his goals and priorities, and the pandemic ensured that he wasn’t the only one out of a job and re-thinking things from the home office.
Sticker designs by Mike O'Brien displayed in his studio
Bold-Lined Art, Cartoons & Design:
On his website, O’Brien now describes his work as “bold-lined art, cartoons & design.” These five words are the result of a lot of time and energy spent on self reflection and contemplation about his identity as an artist. While making the leap to freelancing full time, figuring out how to describe himself and his work was crucial, and it was driven by the support he had from friends, family, and community. The next step was also realizing that there wasn’t as much (or any) separation between art and commerce as he had previously thought. He describes his reasoning around that time:
“If people like it and want me to do more of it, then I’m gonna try to figure out what exactly it is about what I do that people like, and to use that to connect to people more and support myself by doing it. Being disillusioned with institutions also forced me to reflect on my life and to realize that I am producing things of value to people”
Prior, his screen printing and organizing work was “frivolous and extra” outside of his day job, but now he uses his whole skillset, leveraging digital and hand-on media interchangeably for his design work. Instead of designing ads for huge companies, he gets to use his talents to promote projects and businesses that he cares about.
Figure Study # 5, Watercolor, acrylic & gouache on wood. Cut & coated in resin, 2023.
As for his style, O’Brien professes a connection to low-brow art. When asked what that term means to him, he explained that he has always had a predisposition towards anti-institution and anti-establishment statements and practices, preferring things that are alternative and community-based. There are various terms to describe this type of art, like folk, punk, outsider, indie, or low-brow. This sort of art is especially accessible, O’Brien says, because “it can touch everybody without [them] having knowledge of why.”
O’Brien describes his visual style as a blend of cartoon and tattoo. He has always been inspired by the early 90’s cartoons he grew up with, like Calvin & Hobbs, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Looney Toons. Cartoons, with their aura of childlike innocence, may seem sharply contrasted by the adult-only realm of tattoo culture, but the two share many commonalities.
Like cartoons, traditional-style tattoos utilize bright color and distill meaning into a handful of symbols rendered in bold and simple lines. American Traditional style tattoos often have great depth of meaning if one has taken the time to learn and understand the system of symbols, but if not, they are still aesthetically pleasing images that retain the same universal appeal.
His interest in tattoos extends beyond the aesthetic- he describes tattoo culture as a sort of case study for questioning people’s assumptions. While people with tattoos are often portrayed as dangerous or irresponsible, they are kind people who also work for a living to provide for themselves. He explores how people can be mislead by their gut instincts. "What is your gut, really, except for your collection of experiences?" he asks, "and how many experiences do you have that are real, and how many were fabricated by a story from a movie or television show that you consumed?” Providing people with alternative ideas and experiences to consider is an important goal of low-brow art.
O’Brien realizes that it can be uncomfortable for people to confront their beliefs, which is why he always tries to provide a way in - which is where the childlike, colorful, and bold comes back in. He references well-known children’s authors like Shel Silverstein who also made work for adults with adult themes, or cartoons like the Simpsons that have childlike graphics and slapstick humor along with sophisticated writing that has cultural and political references.
“I love situations where adults and kids can enjoy the same thing for different reasons, and no one feels bad or uncomfortable.” O’Brien says that he learns a lot about his work from the way people respond. If children like it, then he knows there’s something about the universal appeal of color, line, and shape that he’s done right. From adults, he learns more nuanced perspectives about the theoretical or sociopolitical positions of the work that he may or may not have been conscious of. Connecting with people by meeting them where they are is always a central goal.
Detail of Figure Study # 5
Learning about his journey, it is clear that community plays a big role in O’Brien’s work. Part of this is strength in numbers; putting on a show is a lot less nerve wracking when you have a group of friends exhibiting alongside you, whereas a solo show brings anxiety and fear of failure. Building on his efforts that began at HITS, O’Brien continues to curate shows and events, like the annual Land of Skulls Halloween Art Party in the fall and Spring Cleaning, a pop-up market for artists to sell small works- both of which were co-curated with his friend and fellow artist Emon Surakitkoson. Curating can be difficult work, but it can also be a powerful platform to bring communities together and to uplift voices. “Sometimes it feels like in big group shows the artist is the commodity that is being sold, rather than the talent that is bringing in the people, which is what they really are,” he explains, “that’s why I enjoy organizing and curating these projects, because I see things from the artist’s point of view.”
O’Brien has spent years building friendships, relationships, and professional contacts, which is why he doesn’t have any plans to leave DC: in any other city he would have to build another community from scratch. “I don’t want to feel like I have to move to New York or Baltimore to succeed; right now I don’t.” He acknowledges that he does benefit from the digital space; as part artist, part graphic designer, much of his work can be done virtually with people across the country or across the world.
Reflecting on his eight-year long career working in advertising, he shares, “There was a disconnect between the effect of my work and my immediate community [...] Now I’m more focused on the work I’m doing because I can see the physical impact of it around me.” O’Brien prioritizes working with small businesses, especially when he can use his design skills for practical purposes, like reorganizing a menu or a sign to make it more legible and effective. “If someone wants to appear more interesting, more professional, more organized: there’s usually a design solution that I can provide.” In addition to being practical, design can also help express the voice of a business. “It’s nice to feel like I’m helping somebody; I want to solve a problem, not just trick people into thinking I’m helping them in order to make money.”
The utility of O’Brien’s design work can be seen firsthand right here at 52 O Street Studios; for the past few months he has been working with us to redesign our logo, produce a brand guide, and improve way-finding within the building. “That was such a cool opportunity - doing all this design work means that my studio building also functions as a real-life portfolio, which is awesome.” O'Brien's work in our building is a living example of how his talent, attention to detail, and passion for community have tangible effects.
New map & directory of 52 O Street Studios designed & applied by Mike O'Brien
Exterior signage at 52 O Street, designed by Mike O'Brien and hand painted by Caswell Sign Co.
To learn more about Mike O’Brien and his work, click here.
To RSVP for our Open Studios event where you can visit Mike and other artists in the building, click here.