A series on online stereotypes and tagging must open with an Instagram account. The platform has been arguably the most influential in terms of aesthetics, engendering its own range of visual formats, memes, and role models. @catonacci_official is by no means the most famous of Instagram artists, but for this reason he’s a great example to discuss how starting an art project from scratch can muster up a following on what is probably the most competitive platform around. Jacopo Calonaci is an illustrator with a prankster’s DNA, who started an Instagram persona as a side project. Initially described in his bio as a former Marlboro model turned cat sitter in order to pay a massive (art) student debt, @catonacci_official started posting pictures with cats, making more and more intrusive digital manipulations as he went on. The trolling evolved into a full-blown South Park-esque aesthetic, which combines the appropriation of the cat as the ultimate click-bait icon with a relentless tagging game that managed to garner a discrete following. Now a micro-celebrity in his own right, the villainous cat sitter represents a vector of critique to the most zeitgeist-y of social media: at once embracing and refusing the logic of celebrity and superficiality dictated by Instagram’s aesthetic regime, Calonaci is the perfect example of a tactical approach stemming from the bottom up. We talked about the motivations behind his character, his opinions on Instagram culture, and his tagging techniques.
Nicola Bozzi: I’m interested in your project because there is a character, there is an identity, and there is a tactical use of labels. Why did you choose Instagram?
Jacopo Calonaci: I’m quite new to this, I’ve only had my iPhone for a year and a half… I refused to get it for many years, so now this is also a way to have fun with this new tool. I know Snow, the South Korean Snapchat, because my girlfriend is from Hong Kong. When I met her she had 4000 followers, but she knows people who have 100,000. They might be completely miserable in real life though, because this image doesn’t match with their persona. It’s a fictional collage of a person’s state… you have filters specifically for food pictures, to highlight the crust, the glimmer… They spend half an hour between that and the croissant selfie, and maybe they haven’t been good company at all, maybe they treated the waiter badly… There is this narcissism that brings this fake joie de vivre. It’s a way to compete. Maybe there are also people who are sick and use Instagram like Prozac. Which is what I’m also doing, with the caps lock WHY IS LIFE SO GENIUS, COULD THE LORD PLEASE… I noticed it makes me feel good, a little. Seriously, why is life so genius? Because life actually is genius. It does help a bit.
Nicola Bozzi: I really liked this image of the Marlboro model, which you changed by now. I liked this idea of the declining male…
Jacopo Calonaci: Exactly, now I’m testing this sort of caps lock therapy: WHY OH WHY IS LIFE SO FUCKING GENIUS. So there is this crazy guy who is completely elated by existence. Like you say, a declining former Marlboro model. He used to be on a horse smoking like John Wayne and now he has to dish out cat food on the streets of Amsterdam.
Nicola Bozzi: I liked it because of the contrast, this other character is also interesting because at the end of the day the message these people are giving you is “oh why is my life so great.” But you started from another Instagram account, the one where you posted drawings, right?
Jacopo Calonaci: In that account I posted my drawings and I was much less open with posting and liking content. I also did not use any hashtags because I hated them. Now I just go to #catsofinstagram and like everything, so I get a lot of followers coming and liking my photos. It’s an exchange, often people don’t even look at the picture. And of course, some are buying them, there’s lot of bots around.
So that’s interesting because actually I wanted to put some emphasis on the student debt issue, for personal reasons – my dream is having someone come and help me pay this fucking debt, which I accumulated between age 18 and 21, when I was arrogant enough to think I was already some fancy painter.
Nicola Bozzi: What kind of feedback did you get with your persona?
Jacopo Calonaci: There was this woman from Pakistan who interviewed me, she took me seriously and at the time I told her “I look forward to working with Pakistan”. Most of my friends thought I created the article myself with some kind of automated generator and unfortunately nothing came out of it, but I hoped I would get invited to Pakistan as a cat ambassador, or something, maybe even get in trouble. Also I told some people on Tinder I was studying at vet school – it’s all fake, but a couple times I got to split the bill with the excuse I was broke and saving to pay for my studies. But the lie doesn’t last long, as it happens with these fashion bloggers as well… their bio is “I love travelling, coffee”, with a cup emoji. Like, “I’m a coffee addict”. And she’s on the beach, looking at the horizon, holding an African baby… Tinder can be quite depressing too.
Nicola Bozzi: You were saying your goal is getting a sponsorship, but are you also interested in attracting the attention of art institutions working with performers and stuff? You’ve done some Internet works in the past, right?
Jacopo Calonaci: Yes, on Cosmos Carl, an online art platform run by former Rietfeld students. The point is: how do you become successful with a fictional story? Because I have no cats.
Nicola Bozzi: So, you’ve never been a cat sitter?
Jacopo Calonaci: But that’s the best part. Probably it’s also similar to the story of the average fashion blogger, taking pictures in front of the iAmsterdam sculpture, the Tour Eiffel… but maybe she’s been arguing with her boyfriend the whole day because the picture didn’t look good enough.
Nicola Bozzi: Have you considered other characters, like the call center worker? I mean, the cat sitter is pretty much a precarious, student job…Is that an aspect you wanted to highlight or is it just click-bait?
Jacopo Calonaci: A bit of both, because there’s tons of these shitty cat accounts, people captioning photos like “give me food, human”, and so on. There’s that, and there’s actually living as a precarious worker. I even created an account on Pawshake, a cat sitting platform, but they blocked me because there were too many pictures where I had sunglasses and I was smoking a cigarette. I tried to open another one, but they blocked me again. There’s other sites as well, and to be honest I would have tried cat sitting, if anything to get access to more cats. You do need a photographer though, because cats rarely sit still. I’ve been gaining some following, however, I’m at 10k and running. Most are shitty cat accounts, those with five pictures of an angry cat who didn’t want to be there in the first place – you just like all five and they follow you. It’s a lot easier as a system, the cat works. Maybe the same goes with other things as well, like fashion… Another strategy is bulk following and unfollowing, but it becomes draining. By now I’ve ruined my Instagram feed, it’s all cats. Even if I have those 200 friends who post interesting content, I clicked on so many cats that’s the only thing the algorithm shows me anymore.
Nicola Bozzi: How do you create your images, technically? Is it an app, filters?
Jacopo Calonaci: It’s all Photoshop. I started with selfies, but it was difficult. Then I started getting help from my girlfriend. Amsterdam is perfect for cats also, they are very approachable, especially in the Jordaan area, unlike in cities like Florence or Barcelona. They have gunky eyes, they get pissed. I don’t know what the deal is, but here they purr as soon as they see you.
Nicola Bozzi: So you have the pictures on your computer and you copy them to your phone.
Jacopo Calonaci: That’s the only way. They’re often collages where the original picture was different. Sometimes I use those shitty Instagram filters, because the picture is bad. Then you can use those tag-generating apps. I don’t, but I know people who do.
Nicola Bozzi: How does that work?
Jacopo Calonaci: I think if you take a picture of your lunch, you write “pizza” or “happymoments” and it generates all related hashtags, depending on what you want to push, where you want to plug yourself into. Some people use #likeforlike, which is not necessarily true but gives you free likes.
Nicola Bozzi: Which tags do you use? #followforfollow?
Jacopo Calonaci: Not those ones, I only use cat ones. Even just the #cat tag, there’s a new picture every two seconds. You click like like like and then they come to you to like like like, and maybe even follow you. If you use #esotericdrawing maybe you find thousands of pics, but they’ve been posted three hours ago, three days ago… They disappear quickly. With cats you don’t need to follow back, like with #followforfollow, so it’s better to keep the “following” counter low.
Nicola Bozzi: Have you tried coining your own tags? Or you just use them for promotional purposes?
Jacopo Calonaci: Usually I don’t, but it would be nice to have a tag like #lifeisgenius.
Nicola Bozzi: So, let’s say the creative element for you is mostly in the picture, not the tags.
Jacopo Calonaci: Yes, they’re just an extra feature I find necessary to have people coming and seeing me, and also to access that content directly myself, to have that type of followers. I tried to use other tags to reach different audiences, beyond the housewife and the cat lady. Maybe get some quality followers. I started uploading photos with cigarettes to see if I lost any followers, maybe even pushing the cat’s head down a little harder, writing “I’m giving my client a scalp massage…” they still click, they don’t pay attention.
Nicola Bozzi: So, you tried shocking your audience a bit…
Jacopo Calonaci: Yeah, I tried going a bit kamikaze, thinking maybe I’d get banned…. But many people get the tongue-in-cheekness of the whole thing, you can tell by the comments.
Nicola Bozzi: What about the feedback you got outside of the cat lady scene?
Jacopo Calonaci: Very positive, I’d say. I meet people I haven’t seen in a while and they think I’m a cat sitter now. Others just leave comments. I did get my first death threat though, from a Turkish-German guy. He wrote: “animal abuser you bastard, just wait i will kill you.” He’s serious, he’s a real person. He lives in Cologne, or something like that. My first official hater! He said wait, so I’ll wait. Of course, having my throat cut over this would be disappointing, because I would not be able to be alive anymore, but imagine the follower boost…
Nicola Bozzi: And in terms of negative feedback, beyond the death threats?
Jacopo Calonaci: The most negative feedback is when people unfollow you. There’s an external app to know who unfollows you and sometimes it surprises you. Even friends… But then you see the list and you just click “unfollow everybody”. Because of course, if you lower my count, I have to lower yours, even if I like your photos. You stabbed me in the back.
Nicola Bozzi: Any other platforms you’re interested in exploring?
Jacopo Calonaci: Instagram is the right platform for this type of media hijacking. It’s like an online museum that just stays there and is accessible anytime. I did some stuff on Facebook, rental ads, appeals to Mark Zuckerberg… That’s the only thing to do, use my account in a sort of kamikaze attack against Mark Zuckerberg. Because I want to leave Facebook, we only use it for events anymore… They bought all the cool things, but they threw away their only original thing. Everyone can try anything on Instagram… You can use comment generators as well, so many people are just posting “wow beautiful”. We got to the point of minimalist idiocy. It’s like the new TV, you can go dumb as well. When I was clicking like, like, like… I spent two hours there, just like when I was zapping channels.
Nicola Bozzi: Is your project purely satirical or are you looking for a sponsorship as well?
Jacopo Calonaci: On one hand it’s real, I want to understand how many followers I can get. In less than two years I got to over 10k, it’s slowly growing. I wonder what it would be had I started four years ago. Let’s say my goal it getting to at least 100k. Maybe in the future, if the economy gets better, I may even buy some. Also, the more you have the easier it becomes, people follow you more, it becomes exponential. Sometimes I work in a hotel and we get these emails from fashion bloggers who are like “I have 25.000 Instagram followers in Ukraine and Russia, can I stay a couple days free in exchange for exposure?” That’s also the idea, getting sponsored by either Whiskas or Marlboro. Of course, at some point I’ll attempt some kind of kamikaze gesture, treating the cats bad, grabbing their tail, choking them, stop feeding them, throwing them in the water… Just to see if these followers are even paying attention or they just click because there are cats.
Nicola Bozzi: Any other projects?
Jacopo Calonaci: I wish to open a lifestyle account where I eat bananas and do push-ups and include Alan Watts quotes in combination with my sweaty post-workout selfies.