Unconventional career paths are very important, for me. They serve the purpose of recalibrating our minds on possibilities and their endlessness. They also offer a formula for what our future could be like. In a sense, that is part of the rationale for this series. It is important that people study the behavior of those who have come before them and see what traits they can model their careers on. Durotimi Bolaji-Idowu (no relation) is someone whose work has been an essential part of Nigerian popular culture over the course of the last decade. For those of you who are unfamiliar with him, he’s that guy whose signature illustrations have served as a visual accompaniment for Nigeria’s biggest pop stars- Davido, Mr. Eazi, Olamide, Phyno, Joeboy, and more. There’s also the alter ego character through which he’s trolled us for years. Enjoy!
Did you always think you would get to where you are?
No, I didn’t. This wasn’t the plan after university. It’s close but I never thought I’ll be doing art predominantly in the entertainment scene.
How did you get into the scene then?
I studied Mass Communication and I hated it. I was stuck in Naij. I really wanted to do 3D Animation. This whole digital art thing started in my first year of University. I was reading this comic and I hated the art direction I was getting so I said: “I want to fix this.” So I got into digital art and then I told myself I wanted to start doing animations but that never happened. I went to Babcock and Santi – he was still going as Ozzy B then and all these guys would come and meet me like “I’m dropping a song. Do an artwork for me.” From there, people kept hitting me up and it became a thing. It just scaled up from there and I became the go-to guy within the industry.
Did you ever work a 9 to 5 or a proper job?
I did it for a week. I worked at this media company. First of all, it was on the Island and I lived in Ikeja. They wanted me to be coming down there at what I felt were ridiculous hours. I went there and they wanted me to put out a volume of drawings I would never put out ‘cos it’s borderline unhealthy. Then they’d pay me peanuts at the end of the month. In my head, I was just going to do it for the work experience. Then I did an illustration that helped them win their biggest account and they gave me 10,000 naira.
What was the value of the account?
I think it was 50 million at the time. It was a new company. They gave me that 10,000 naira and I just went home and never showed up again. Fortunately for me, on the first day of not showing up, I got a 70,000 naira gig. I remember I was sitting in front of my TV in boxers, watching cartoons and working. That just showed me I made the right decision.
When was the first time you got paid for your illustrations?
I’m not sure if it was the first paid job but I remember getting paid for an Ajebutter record. I think the song was Gbono and I remember Ajebutter being kind of a big deal back then so I was gassed.
Do you remember how much it was?
It was either 10,000 or 15,000 naira.
Wow! He definitely knew he got a good deal. I’m sure it was the type of thing where you called a price ‘cos you didn’t know any better and he hears it and feels it’s too good to be true so he pays. And you start to realize what you can make and it starts to rise from there.
That’s exactly how it happened. It kept scaling up. First, it was Ajebutter then for the Olamide and Wale track. Then the Snoop Dogg one.
Did you get paid for the Snoop Dogg one?
Yes, I did. It was royalties. I got a commission off every unit sold. I think I made like $500 from that.
When did you make your first million? What did you do to make it?
Sometime in 2016, I got asked to do character development and illustration for a Doctor and his medical practice. It’s kind of how I have this alter ego (Bun x Belly). He wanted something similar and it’s been an ongoing project till now. I’ve never actually sought for or designed to get jobs from people. I’ve always felt like if the content is good then the promo is free for it. So I always focused on the quality of art and I see how people react to it so I’d get an idea what people want from me and feed into it. When I created the Bun x Belly character based on myself, this guy came on my page and I thought he was trolling. He ended up being my biggest client. He hit me up and said he wanted to do some illustrations and I gave him a bill that I thought would discourage him. I really didn’t want the gig in all honesty ‘cos it felt stressful. I just thought “I’ll add some stupid figure and he’ll carry his stress and go”. And then he paid. I was like “Shit! I actually have to do this work.” Since then, we’ve been working. He has this whole character thing that he’s turning into an animated video for his medical practice. He’s a rhinologist based in Atlanta. I did my research on him and realized like you know he’s kind of a big deal. That just became a thing and I made my first mills from him.
How did it feel?
It felt great. I had a moment where I was jumping and rapping in the mirror-like Issa. Then I was telling myself “I’m the man” in the worst Scarface voice.
How much was the first deal worth?
What’s your work process?
I do a lot of speaking to the client at first. These conversations are over email or text because I’ve been in situations where they said they wanted something and they’ve changed their minds and they made it seem like I was stupid for adding something. I don’t want any of that. We talk over emails and text and sometimes you get some nonsense description like “I want you to wow me” and I just tell them “Those are not descriptions.” You have to tell me what you want. I like getting them heavily involved in the process and I just draw… after getting my deposit obviously. Depending on the scale of the work, it takes me like a month and once the work is done we say our goodbyes.
You charge $600 at a minimum. How do you charge people? Do you look at the face or is it based on the scale of work?
It’s based on the scale of the work. Some people have come to me and said “Duro, how much do you charge for this thing? I’m not Davido.” It’s the same price for everyone. I like to be as transparent as possible with everyone ‘cos word of mouth spreads. If I’m scaling up, everyone will know I’m scaling up. I get the brief and look at the style of art that they want ‘cos I have like three different styles, how soon they need it and how much detailing and painting will go into the work.
What’s the most you’ve ever made off one illustration?
$2,000. It’s work I’m currently doing for a U.S client.
You’re doing a lot of remote work. How has that experience been servicing clients on both sides? Are there any differences between your foreign and local clients?
It’s been amazing. First of all, ‘cos of the exchange rate. Every-time, the naira goes up against any foreign currency I am so happy. I know it’s selfish but it favors me so much. When the pound was close to 600, I was excited. It was one of the happiest days of my life ‘cos I know it’s still going to drop. Dealing with international clients- At first, I thought it was going to be different from dealing with Nigerian clients but I’ve come to the realization people are the same across the board. I’ve been in some bad deals and good ones but all the same, the international ones favor me better because the bad ones have not been as bad as the bad Nigerian ones. The thing with foreign clients is that they know that there’s a structure in place and it can harm them. If you start to go a certain route when they’re messing up, it’ll shake them but Naij guys tend to stretch it out a bit.
What would you say are the secret(s) of your success?
Always delivering on time. I feel like this thing I do is in a very saturated market and if I constantly put out good content and people interact with it, my name would be one of the first names that come to mind when people need these sorts of services. Also, I’m always practicing. I spend about 42 hours drawing on a weekly basis.
What experience(s) would you say have shaped your financial attitude?
I think it’s every time I found myself in an uncomfortable situation that I could have prevented by being responsible. I’ve hit rock bottom before and it was horrible. Also, I have friends who work in finance that I speak to once in a while and they give me options on how to manage money wisely.
What do you mean by rock bottom? What happened?
I was a very impulsive spender. This was in my Uni days so parties and all that stuff. I just finished doing things for Olamide and Snoop Dogg. I was 23 entering the entertainment industry and things were getting real. I’m getting all this money and it’s going to keep coming. Or so I thought. I totaled my car and I’m stranded and I had all that money a couple of days ago and I’m suddenly broke. Shit got real. I had to leave my car and come and tow it the next day. There was nothing I could do. I was on my way to a party when this happened. I still went to the party because I wasn’t ready to deal with it. I’m coming back from a party where people were hitting me like “Yo! I’m a big fan of your work” thinking I have money and I’m going back to stand in front of my totaled car and trying to figure out how I’m going to get home.
What is your basic business philosophy?
Simple. Spend less than you earn but also scale up so you can spend more.
What was the most challenging period of your career?
It was late last year when I was working on illustrations for Davido’s second studio album (A Good Time) and a series of things went wrong so fast. It was in late August when he asked me to work on it. I had submitted the sketches, gotten approval, and started working on it. I turned in the front cover around the same time I had finished working on Peruzzi’s album cover which he had posted on Instagram. Next thing, I’m in a group chat with his team and they’re asking me to change it ‘cos it was too similar to Peruzzi’s. We were able to work around that and then my laptop crashed. I lost about 4 days of work. I was going to pick it up on my iPad and then that broke, as well. I had 24 hours to wrap up that illustration and it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.
I really like the story you tell about the Davido piece. To me, that was such a powerful representation of your work. From the quality of the work to the fact that it was a cover for one of our biggest artists so the whole world gets to see it. Then, there’s the last supper theme and an appreciation for the entourage/collective that makes him who he is. Correct me, but it’s probably your biggest piece. You now saying that you had to pull it out last minute has heightened my appreciation for it.
I fought for that art direction. When they wanted to go a different direction, I insisted. I remember when David told me A Good Time, I thought it was a representation of a big party. They saw the vision and decided to go with it. Before he dropped the album, he was promoting this whole gang unit- in a good way and now we’re seeing the whole music industry try to copy that. I felt that if we were calling it A Good Time, you have to put everybody who has contributed to this thing there.
The original artwork was the same concept but more medieval-themed. We pulled it because Peruzzi’s own is also medieval themed. Next thing I know, I’m roped into a group chat and David goes “Duro, you fucked me up” and everyone is just going in on me. I remember putting Robb on my cheeks just so I could stay awake to finish this drawing. It was a very horrible time. I ended up in the hospital after.
Did you feel validated by the final product?
I was very happy with the final product. I practice every day and I actually never had a platform to put out everything I’ve learned on a grand scale. For me, that cover was to put out everything I learned last year. I used to hate drawing backgrounds- environmental paintings and all that. One of the landmarks of environmental paintings is from the Renaissance era. Then we’ll do the medieval theme. It was an experimental thing for me. So we’d do the medieval theme and at the same time, we’d try and make it a textured painting. We did that and it worked. They liked it. They loved it. We just had to change the background setting and add people into the cover and change some people’s positions. That became a whole political Yoruba thing. “Why is this person at the back?” “If this Uncle is on this cover, we have to put that Uncle” I had to start moving people around. In the original cover, David in the middle wasn’t standing on the table. He was sitting down but we had to change that ‘cos Peruzzi was sitting down on the throne. I made another version where he was the chef. That was his creative director’s idea. I put it in the group chat and David responds “Fuck Chef”. Then Bobo came with his jokes and I was just frustrated. I decided to just sketch him standing on the table and sent it out of annoyance. And that became the signature thing of the whole illustration.
Your career path is pretty unconventional. How have your parents accepted this?
They’ve been very supportive, actually. My mum got me my first tablet. She got me the first two drawing tablets I ever had. I remember my laptop spoiling in school and anyone who knows me knows I have to draw every day. I started panicking and they sent me a new one. I’ve been drawing all my life and they knew I would do something art inclined. It has not been an issue at all.
Also, I don’t plan on doing this for the rest of my life. I’m already looking into phasing out of this industry. The stress is too much. Dealing with artists and their entitlement. Chasing people up and down for funds is annoying. It takes up much of my time. I probably spend more time doing that than actually drawing. I want to do other things. One of the reasons is that I don’t want to be 46 and waiting for Mr. Eazi to drop an album before I eat.
I’m surprised you haven’t tried to do more comic stuff.
The thing with comics is you need a whole team of people and I’ll want to do my own thing, then you get a new job from a client. The thing is me I don’t know how to say no to these jobs because it means more money and more money means more things. When I start my own personal project, someone will hit me up “Yo! Duro, do this album art” I’ll front like “I can’t do this right now I’m really busy” and then the guy will be like “I’ll add another 50” and I’m like “Ha! My personal project can wait”. I need to be more disciplined with what I really want to do with the comics and everything. It will happen. I just don’t know when.
When you say you’re transitioning out, what next?
Maybe I would go and do the 3D animation thing for real. I mean, that was the plan at first so it’s only right I see it through.
Do you believe in the concept of retirement?
I’ll say retirement doesn’t really come with this art thing, to me. I’ll draw if my hands are working but I may or may not take commissions. Time will tell. I do believe in planning for it though.
What would post-retirement life be like for you?
Ideally, it would be a lot of traveling the world and drawing interesting things. Kind of like a diary but with paintings, consuming culture, and all that. When I’m not traveling, I’d be in my house by the beach with my life partner or a pet.
What’s your attitude on giving back to the community?
To be honest, my reasoning is quite selfish. I am a part of the community and if things are better for everyone, chances are it’ll be better for me, as well.
Do you believe in leaving everything to children?
Nope. I believe in leaving stuff for them but not everything. It’s important that they understand that societies thrive off people’s individual contributions. They have to create more than they consume.
Your favored form of investment?
In myself. Putting time into digital art and trying to be better at it.
How do you save your money now?
Did you have any mentors?
No, I never did and I doubt I ever will. It’s a thing where I see things I like in someone and see if it’s beneficial for me. I’ve never been the type to bother people for advice and all. Some lessons stick harder when you learn from your mistakes.
Do you indulge yourself? How?
I am always indulging myself. I have this weird thing I do where I go stay at hotels because who doesn’t love room service? Sometimes, I buy stuff on impulse. It just feels good to treat yourself to nice things because you can.
What one thing do you spend on most?
Hotels. When I am stressed or pissed off, I just up and leave and go and stay in a hotel. Hotel TV is terrible. I would not watch any of the things on those TVs on any other normal day but it just seems more interesting when you’re in the hotel. I can’t explain it. I’m the type of guy who’ll go on holiday to a foreign country and not leave the hotel. I just love the idea of room service and people waiting on me. The sleep hits different. I probably haven’t had sleep so sweet since the first year of boarding school. That afternoon siesta.
How often do you do this?
It’s a monthly thing. I usually go for a weekend.
What is the most you have ever paid for a meal?
On myself, it was £70 but on a date – 62,000 naira.
Who are five people you’ll love to see answer these questions?
Femi Maiyegun, Stephen Ologeh, Nduka Abii, Muyiwa Awoniyi and GMK.