GET TO KNOW: ALIOMALLEY
“Just some illustrations based on nothing and no one.”
HEY GIRL News – Get to know digital illustrator ‘ALIOMALLEY’. We chat about her tongue-in-cheek treatment of politics and dating, forsaking the tyranny of the algorithm for real life networking, and how her most popular fuckboi illustration has only ever been bought by men…
Words: Rowena Price for HEY GIRL
Photos: Simon Clemenger www.simonclemengerphotography.com
Rewind to early 2022 and Boo Bruce-Smith is living the Parisian dream – almost. Living with great flatmates, in a secure job looking after kids for a lovely family / barista-ing, soaking up post-lockdown city life, filling her boots with cheese and red wine. What’s not to love?
She says she did love it – she was “fully in love with it”, in fact. But a global winter of discontent and a bad period of depression had left her sold on the scenario yet searching for something different. Namely, the career she didn’t know she wanted.
Bruce-Smith had been in France for most of the pandemic by this stage, developing her wry illustration work under the radar, with the ‘I’m not sure this is really a thing’ attitude of someone who didn’t study art, didn’t have any connections in the art world either side of the English Channel, and doesn’t come from a family of artists. But what started as a uni-years hobby and creative outlet (she studied Politics at Newcastle University) had quietly become a lightning rod for her energy, ideas and sense of purpose. And something shifted.
Fast forward to early 2023 and she’s about to celebrate the first full year of her artist alter ego Aliomalley being a proper ‘thing’, with a bunch of exhibitions and brand collabs with the likes of Soho House under her belt, and the fire and focus of someone who’s on a roll and finding fulfilment in their work. The alter ego is now a fully fledged business.
“We’ve been navigating it all together, free-falling through it and figuring it out as we go along”
The art itself started off with a sparse, line drawn, sad-girl aesthetic – pared-down black and white New Yorker style illustrations accompanied by pithy one liners. It’s since developed into something more zany and fulsome – think the droll sophistication of New Yorker cartoons meets the colourful wit and economy of David Shrigley meets the unmistakable ethics and aesthetics of somebody born after 1995. The tagline on the Aliomalley website describes it as “just some illustrations based on nothing and no one” – an ironically self-deprecating take on what she does and where she finds inspiration and, as such, very on brand.
In reality, it’s a response to what she notices in the lives and loves of her friends and family, as well as her own experiences and wider observations of pop culture and society at large. She describes it as “50% political, 50% basic bitch” and we briefly head off on a tangential epiphany, citing the popular podcast The High Low (by millennial pop culture icons Dolly Alderton and Pandora Sykes) as a possible unconscious reference point, checking the middle class white woman privilege caveats along the way.
Like all good satirical art, it’s rooted in reality but amplified, and delivered with a laconic light touch. The tallest of orders if you don’t possess the knack (although she clearly does), but even harder to strike comedic illustrative gold if you’re creating in a second language (French, in this case) with a zeitgeisty slang lexicon of its own and other cultural nuances to navigate.
On the decision to leave Paris to make a go of her art, she says: “By that point I realised that Aliomalley was what I wanted to do. I knew I was in a headspace where I could do it, and I realised I needed (and wanted) to move back to London. Anything was going to be easier than trying to do Aliomalley not in my first language.”
She acknowledges that she was fortunate to have a ready-made emotional and practical support system back in London in the shape of her three sisters, who were already house sharing in South London when she moved back. She credits them with being essential to the development of Aliomalley when she went full time with it in March 2022, helping her navigate the shark infested waters of social media (one sister works in content creation) and doubling up as models for the apparel lines she’s now producing. “We’ve been navigating it all together”, she says, “free-falling through it and figuring it out as we go along”.
Cue: neat Q&A bit segue…
RP: In an online world dominated by influencer culture, people are figuring it out as they go along all the time – what do you think learning on the job (or “free-falling” through it) lends to your work?
AM: Well, Aliomalley started on Instagram. I didn’t do marketing, I didn’t do art, I didn’t do any of the stuff in this world – and I think you can probably see that in the evolution of my work, for better or worse, which is maybe part of the authenticity? I don’t know. In an ideal world I would create what I want to create when I create it and people would already know about it, but that’s not the reality. So I do look at interactions with posts to partly inform things now, which my sister has helped me with. It is interesting to see what content does well and to try and figure out why.
RP: I saw a meme the other day that said being an artist in the eighties was 20% making art and 80% sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – whereas being an artist in the 2020s is 20% art and 80% social media…
AM: It sounds way more fun back then! I follow quite a few art meme pages and that is exactly what you’re doing – stupid stuff, which I hate, like researching the algorithm and how people go viral. It makes it seem like you’re in it for fame and glory. It would be disingenuous to say that recognition isn’t a part of it, and I want to be able to make a living from my work, but it’s still a really weird concept to wrap your head around, playing the social media game. I have a love/hate relationship with it, like so many people.
RP: Do you think you have to be an influencer to be a successful artist these days?
AM: When I went full time after moving back to London, within about a month I was like ohhhhhh, okay, I’m throwing everything at it but it isn’t going as well as I’d hoped. I’m not getting the likes and the algorithm has changed.* So I was like, you know what? I need to not rely on Instagram as much. I don’t want to lean so heavily on digital interaction, and I’m an introvert by nature, so it saps my energy. Although it sounds counterintuitive, I realised that doing in person stuff like art markets and meeting people in person is a great way to cut through all the online stuff. I’ve done more and more of that as I’ve gone along – it’s been exhausting but amazing.
*The #MakeInstagramInstagramAgain campaign in summer 2022 was an online artist and creator led movement against Instagram’s prioritisation of video and reels content (an apparent attempt to emulate TikTok), which garnered powerhouse celeb support from the likes of Kylie Jenner, went viral, and allegedly resulted in algorithm change roll backs.
AM: Also, the reality for me is that I don’t solely do Aliomalley work – I use my skills to do commissions like brand work and other illustration stuff that doesn’t have my Alio identity, which is necessary to pay the bills but also an interesting creative outlet in its own right. It challenges me in other ways. And I still do bits of Barista work – that’s also good for being part of a community, which I find fun and is another way of connecting with people.
RP: How do you feel about navigating that online world now?
AM: I’m name-checking the help! My sisters take photos or help with content or model for me, but there’s also something cringe about taking selfies and uploading them, especially for the first time, or even getting people to model for you. It’s a whole other world and I never saw myself as that person. And now I’m the shameless selfie taker – or shameful, not shameless! The intention is to show off the product, but you also want the image to look good. I also realise that I get so much of my news and inspiration from Instagram these days, so it’s useful and also provides some much needed variety and light relief, because the news alone is really depressing. The memes and lighter content are necessary to consume to balance out the intensity of everything else.
RP: And the in person stuff like markets and events in comparison? How do they feel?
AM: I had a stall at Camberwell Art Market just before Christmas and it was great and I met lots of cool people. It’s so nice watching people looking at the artwork and laughing – seeing the reactions in real time, real life. (Although I do think, like, if you find it that funny, please do a girl a favour and buy it!) You don’t get that online – a ‘like’ feels different and a bit detached in comparison, but I’m grateful for them. If 56 people, for example, told you that they loved one piece of artwork that you did in person, you would be overwhelmed! But you see 56 little hearts on an Instagram post and you feel differently and want more – the psychology is weird. The markets have been exhausting and amazing and I want to do more of them.
RP: Have any responses to your illustrations been a surprise, or challenged your perceptions about your own work?
AM: One of my older illustrations references a fuckboi themed J Hus song – and funnily enough it’s only ever been bought by men! So far, anyway. A guy bought it recently and said he really liked my stuff but was worried about being all ‘fuckboi feminist’ if he had it up in his house, and to be fair he’s probably right! I remember a group of three guys at a pop up event being really sceptical about it, but instead of walking on they stopped and chatted with me about it and we ended up laughing about it together. In the same conversation they shared their lived experiences of racism. It’s not to make things comparable, but in that conversation we were able to listen and share and seek to understand each other in different ways. Content-wise, I sometimes touch on race or other marginalised genders, but I don’t want to be a voice where it’s not my narrative.
RP: You’ve talked about in person interactions often being more fruitful, or perhaps pivotal, for you – in terms of both new and deeper connections. Are there any standouts from this past year?
AM: I did a Soho House pop up last year, which was amazing for me. On NYE 2021 my sister and I went to Brixton Studio (which was like a sister thing to Soho House, but sadly no longer open) – they did incredible music nights, filled the place with art by local artists etc – it was great. That night we got chatting to this girl who I think clocked us as not really knowing anyone there, whereas everyone else seemed to know each other. She was super friendly and turned out to be a musician – an incredible one, Cyan, check her out @cyanofficially! – and we started talking about our creative work and exchanged Insta handles and then weirdly bumped into her somewhere else a while later and she was like, oh I was gonna say you should speak to the organisers of the event about pop ups for local artists and sort of just connected me in, and it went from there. Actual networking / word of mouth! Unless you’re a ‘nepo baby’ and already have those connections, you have to just get out there, be proactive and get chatting with people.
RP: Online chat about ‘nepo babies’ and related themes is definitely having a moment, which speaks to the observational eye for trends in your work…
AM: Yeah, your feed can quickly get flooded with trends like that that can take off. I heard that the word of the year last year was ‘gaslighting’ and the resurgence of that word and it trending so much could be traced back to a New York Times article about gaslighting and Donald Trump. It might be a couple of years late on the actual word but I remember my feed being full of it! The word is everywhere and then it gets used more and more casually as time goes on.
RP: Do you notice the idea of concept creep coming into play here?
AM: Yes – politics and dating are two areas most prone to this, I think – words like gaslighting, toxic, love-bombing… I do wonder at what point they stop being relatable and start to lose their meaning.
RP: Your illustrations inherently amplify trending words and zeitgeisty phrases around politics and dating. How do you tread that delicate line of balancing humour, relatability, sensitivity and ethics – and avoid that concept creep?
AM: You want to jump on the bandwagon at the peak of the wave so you’re coming in with the right content at the right time, but I’m always really wary of jumping on something without knowing the facts or considering different perspectives. Shining a light on mockable behaviour in a humorous way requires empathy and balance, I think? I also know that my opinions and observations expressed through Aliomalley are subject to change! I don’t want it to be too confrontational or attack-y, I’d rather it invite curiosity and conversations than make people baulk. My initial ideas might be more cartoonish or extreme, but I do sense check them. By nature I’m quite politically correct, I guess. With a lot of the tropes and clichés, my sisters are my first port of call as the voices of reason or litmus test for how something might land. Also the Instagram landscape itself, to a degree. I actively seek different peoples’ opinions about stuff I create because it’s important to me to still be respectful while I’m working with those tropes, and keep good natured humour at the heart of it. There’s definitely been an evolution in my work in that respect. It’s become more balanced and considered.
RP: What artist or creative doesn’t have a trash can of all the ‘process’ stuff that didn’t make the cut?!
AM: Exactly. And everyone has the right to evolve and change through experience and education. Which is what I want to keep doing. There are lots that I haven’t published, or ditched along the way! And a few that I’ve archived (the odd dating one!).
RP: The general environment online can be pretty stark and unforgiving. What’s your take on that in respect of your work?
AM: In the world of online anything that I say can come back to haunt me at any point. I reserve the right to change through being educated myself, and I hope that’s met with compassion as I would always try to do in reverse. But obviously there are lines and extreme cases are exactly that, and can’t be excused. Accountability is critical, and it involves a dialogue and an openness to change – I hope my work invites that and I want to embody it. “Calling in”* rather than calling out. Art can be a really useful catalyst for that.
*We go down another tangential road talking about the work of Thought Leader, TED Speaker, Author and Producer Nova Reid who coined this phrase – check out her excellent work at www.novareid.com
RP: Have you ever got into hot water or experienced any kind of backlash because of your illustrations?
AM: Creating dating content can be tricky territory – I’ve definitely had a few unfavourable responses to that stuff, especially when it might be close to home. I think about that with writers who do dating columns, too. I’m always worried that if I’m dating someone and it’s been going for a while then they’re going to think it’s about them. When in reality, even if there might be a trigger in there, it will always be a representation of something more widely relatable that I’ve consistently observed. I’ve been trolled, too! I remember that happening and being, like, oh my God, I’ve made it, I’ve got my first troll! There was nothing constructive about it of course, it was a straight up unsophisticated attack – mean, playground level stuff – so I just blocked them.
RP: Although your work is first hand observational, you also talk about spending a lot of time immersing yourself in broader reading and research to inform it…
AM: To be honest, I’ve done more of that this past year – and I’m also experiencing that thing of struggling to find time to make the actual art. The reading and research combined with the admin of running a small business has made that challenging but I’m learning as I go. I also have a Pinterest obsession, where I explore aesthetics that inspire me – I’m loving the sad-girl vibe and Wes Anderson aesthetic. It’s part of the work now. I use all that to fuel the ideas and want to churn out more, although I have more ideas than I have time to create them!
RP: What about when things don’t go well, or an idea falls flat in reality?
AM: I remember my first ever product, which was a run of postcards during lockdown in Paris, and that went brilliantly. They were popular and I was shifting them. So then I made posters and it was a disaster! I didn’t really know what I was doing production-wise and essentially ordered flyers. It was bad. So flimsy! But I had to try and flog them because I didn’t have much money. I sold a few but realised that I would have been fuming if I’d paid £10 for a flyer! So I had to just take the hit – I felt bad asking for money for them more than worrying about brand reputation at that stage, because the brand was so green. But either way, it wasn’t a vibe!
RP: Tell us about your hopes for 2023 – HEYGIRL is all about creative collaboration – who inspires you and who’s on your dream collab list?
AM: I love The Awkward Frogs Instagram account, I remember seeing that quite early on and then watching it explode in popularity after a post went viral. It’s funny and explores similar stuff to my work on the dating front. I look at that and find it inspiring and, on the one hand, think – okay! Maybe that’ll happen to me one day! But then it comes back to that classic combination of sort of low self esteem combined with a blind belief that a lot of creatives have – I wonder if I’m delusional and desire validation, but I do believe in myself. It’s a relentless cycle. I want to be working with magazines and brands more. But in terms of brand collabs? Gucci is the dream, naturally!
Returning to the notion of the ‘knack’ of making well judged, entertaining and resonant satirical illustrations – having spent time with the artist and explored her work in more depth – it seems that the knack is far less about the mechanics of deft line drawing and much more about listening (or the art of it). And, saccharine as it may seem, the Japanese symbol for listening springs to mind – made up of symbols for the eyes and heart as well as the ears – reflected in Bruce-Smith’s openness, warmth and sincerity, mixed with a low-key screwball heroine vibe. Perhaps it’s that wholesome and considered approach, combined with creative flair and a wry sense of humour, that turns the Aliomalley ‘knack’ into artistic magic.
See her feature in our issue 6, to download or buy in beautiful print click here