4 million followers across YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram is a fact but it is tricky to define what Danny Casale’s is. Would you describe him as a social media star? With his YouTuber origins and 2.5 million Instagram followers that seems reasonable. He describes himself as an artist, and if recognition counts then featuring in last year’s Art Basel certainly attests to that. 2021 also saw him publish his first book Ur Special, so you could call him an author as well. A polymath then? An incredibly successful brand? From his Los Angeles apartment, Casale reflects on his own practice:
“I’m a full-time artist, both on the physical front and the digital front. Obviously with, my videos on my social media, TikTok, Instagram, that sort of animated universe that I’ve been building up the past few years. To, in the past year and a half, diving into fine art with physical canvases and IRL pop-ups. To the digital front, with my recent NFT launch called Coolman’s Universe, which to date has done over $30 million in secondary trading on OpenSea… So, my hands’ in different baskets over here and there but it all falls under the umbrella of my art and my characters, whether it’s physical or digital.”
It is Casale’s stable of characters, espousing his own brand of quaint positivity, which anchors his works. Describing himself as a ‘bad animator’ due to his simplistic style, Casale had been putting out content on YouTube since 2008 when he went viral with his video Snakes Have Legs in 2017. The video commented on the issue of fake news and proved to capture a moment. A backlash against false narratives, the animation also sought to highlight the good side of the internet, something Casale continues to do through his championing of uplifting messages on digital platforms. It was later that same year, though, that he began to view this as a responsibility.
“…this is when the Las Vegas shootings happened. Where the gunman shot from his hotel room into a concert below him and killed a bunch of people. And it was a horrible, horrible, feeling that the country always gets into when something like that happens. And I was like, ‘I have to do something! I have to! I have this audience.’ It was all comedy videos and like meme-able type stuff up until that day, but I feel like I finally could maybe do something here, and maybe have a little bit of a positive effect.
And so, I went home, and I made up this character named Blue Dude. I just made a video about how bad things happen in the world, and there are bad people, and that’ll always be the case. There’s no denying that that’s a very real thing. But you have to remember how much good there is in the world. And then Blue Dude goes about to remind you of all those simple pleasures that people often overlook: like the smell of bakeries, like that feeling when your crush says your name, smiling babies, the taste of watermelon in the summertime All those things it’s so easy to forget about that.”
This is all so earnest it is hard to believe that anyone could possibly be so positive. But it has chimed with a generation riddled with millennial anxiety – honed through having lived through crisis upon crisis, that can find even simple things like making a phone call daunting beyond words. Providing a voice of positivity, often measured with humour, has helped Casale build a close relationship with his audience. In doing this, he has carved out a niche for himself amongst a market saturated with social media creators seeking to make it big, and now the offers are pouring in. As adept at the commercial side of his practice as the creative, he has sought to establish himself as a collectible, physical artist to be seen in galleries. Most notably, he was featured at 2021’s Art Basel. Casale brought his distinctive style, and his knack for grabbing headlines, to the art fair scene with a collaboration with SuperLost Coffee and The Art Plug. In a ‘good vibes’ environment decorated in Casales work’, they sold a $1,000 cup of coffee. On one level he seems amazed that anyone bought one, but also keen to justify the integrity of the piece. Highlighting that while the headlines may have raised eyebrows, these were collectible pieces of art.
“Miami and Art Basel, everything’s done in excess and everyone’s trying to make the headline and we were trying to think of like, what’s that wow moment? What’s that zinger sort of sentence that turns heads?… As much as the narrative of the coffee shop was that this is for everybody, you can come in and look at the colourful paintings… We wanted to have that also $1,000 cup of coffee and just be like… wait, what? And a lot of people were very intrigued. It did exactly that, it turned a lot of heads, news stations were coming by to cover it and we set up this very elite-looking podium with a cup of coffee in it. And I wrote the story; this is a very rare, mutated bean discovered in the rainforest in Colombia, so it is a rare coffee itself. And then you marry that with a one of one piece of art that I draw on the cup right there in front of you as I talk to you and get your story, and have it influence the actual art on the cup. And just the whole experience. Art Basel 2021, my first Art Basel. It’s a very personal moment in my story. I feel like all those elements coming into that one, sort of stunt we did, justify the price and a bunch of people actually got that $1,000 cup of coffee, which was super wild.”
Casale shows he understands the benefits of harnessing publicity to enhance the profile of his work. He clearly has a business-savvy approach to his practice, no doubt honed in the world of social media where the creator is often also a commodity. Casale consistently builds upon this with the expansion of his fan base. His venture into the NFT marketplace recognises the developing interests of his initial YouTube audience, and then further builds upon that with those who have been swept up in the NFT hype that has exploded following Beeple’s $69 million sale at Christie’s in March 2021. Of course, not everyone believes NFT’s are the future of art. Along with the winners, there have been losers. The gallerist and collector Todd Kramer went viral after tweeting a plea for help after $2 million worth of NFT’s were stolen through a phishing scam. Others have experienced similar fates and a lot of Twitter discourse dismisses them as part of a crypto bubble. Casale does not seem interested in the negativity coming from these sectors, although does laugh off accidentally transferring Ethereum from his first sales incorrectly resulting in its loss. He is, however, resolute in their transformative power for artists.
“It’s a wild Renaissance sort of movement that’s happening right now. For the first time in history, everything is in the artist’s favour. And you have weirdos like me who doodle something… and thousands of people are investing real money into it. And it brings them joy, and they’re head over heels for the story in this universe to be built out. And maybe they see me as the next Walt Disney or Jim Henson with what I want to do with these characters over the course of my life. I’ve never felt the enthusiasm to this degree before. I’ve had millions of followers over the years and millions of views and whatever, but it’s never felt like this. And it’s still a small enough space where everybody who is a creator with a collection knows each other. And that’s what YouTube was in the early 2010s. There were a few creators, they all knew each other, very enthusiastic, small, but enthusiastic community. And of course, what happened afterward… the rest is history with how social media changed the world… I’ve never been more sure of anything. I’ve seen this movie before with social media and what’s happened with that over the course of my life, it’s very, very similar.”
Claiming his fans ‘maybe’ see you as the next Walt Disney or Jim Henson lifts a shade on how Casale sees both himself and his work. He truly believes in the potential for his characters to cross over into all forms of media – straddle fine art and entertainment, and potentially build an empire for himself. Casale is confident yet genuinely funny and friendly. But snippets like this give a hint at a creator who is committed to his brand and ambitious as to what he wants to achieve. Each move he makes, whether that be publishing a book or selling NFT’s, is calculated to consolidate and expand his audience. This is evident in the lack of evolution in his style. For most artists this is the hallmark of growth as a creator, but for Danny (much like Disney and Henson) the conquering of new mediums is proof of success.
“Those characters have stayed true to themselves, and they haven’t undergone any massive redesigns or whatever. But what has changed is the times, the medium they find themselves telling their stories through. I was developing these characters before anyone knew what NFT’s were. So now that NFT’s are in the public eye and everyone’s talking about them and now these characters live on the Ethereum blockchain and… what it does in a very cool way, is it opens these characters up and this community, this ‘Cool Man’ community, to a whole new subset of people that maybe wouldn’t have been into my work otherwise. Hundreds of book sales recently have been from these ‘crypto bro’s’, maybe they wouldn’t have been into my work two years ago but now they’re invested in it… they’re in there for the journey.”
Ultimately though, everything comes back to Casale’s core message of positivity, and to him expanding his universe is a further way to espouse this. “The Instagram, TikTok pages, the YouTube, the book, the NFT collection. To eventually a TV show, a movie! It’s all under the umbrella of these characters preaching love and I think as long as that’s all piecing together in that way that it’s teed up for success. Because they’re not human, they don’t age, people don’t get tired of them. They are these cute cuddly creatures to the likes of Mickey Mouse, or SpongeBob, or Hello Kitty and then it plays into your emotions.”
“So I’m excited as to where all this goes, but I really do think that it all works because it is all under one genuine authentic umbrella to positively make your day a little better. And that’s timeless, that doesn’t really disappear depending on the tech.”
Casale’s story is a reflection of our times. The social media fame, the NFT’s, the razor-sharp branding, but also the desire to make something positive. His work is not escapist, it directly addresses the anxieties and problems the viewer may be facing and seeks to reassure them. Is it corny? Yes. Equally, it speaks to people and maybe in an increasingly bleak landscape that is worth something, even if it is not the most nuanced of takes.
Ruth O’Sullivan is a London-based artist and writer. Her work explores subjects from artificial intelligence to challenging traditional relationships between the artist and model. Professionally, she has worked on projects for some of the leading art institutions in the UK, as well as having her own visual art practice.