Ever heard of Michelangelo Merisi, Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, Dominikos Theotokòpulos, Moishe Shagal, or Marcus Rothkowitz?
These names may not mean a lot to you, but they might if we told you the names these men are more commonly known by: Caravaggio, Donatello, El Greco, Marc Chagall, and Mark Rothko.
Working under a pseudonym is a big decision for an artist, and one that shouldn’t be made lightly. Once you make your decision, you need to stick with it. Changing your name multiple times across your career can greatly hurt your marketability as an artist. Long-time fans might not know who you are anymore, older collectors won’t be able to find you, and you will lose the carefully created reputation you have earned. Make sure you have considered all factors before making your decision.
Why should you work under a pseudonym?
Common and Confusing Birth Names
One of the most common reasons to work under a pseudonym is if your name is either too common or too confusing. For example, Pablo Picasso might not have had such a memorable name if he went by Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso.
How to find out if your name is too common
Do an internet search of your name. Look on Google, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Search for your name and close spellings of your name. Search for your name + “artist.”
- Are there more than 10 other people with your name?
- Is there another professional artist with your name?
- Is there somebody with your name who is famous in another way?
If the answer to any of these questions is “yes” then you should strongly consider using an alias. Even if they aren’t artists, everyone else with your name is your competition: they’ll all make it harder for people to find you online.
For example, let’s look at the common “John Smith.” When you type in “John Smith art” into Google, you get over 288,000,000 results. Needless to say, that’s quite a few John Smiths that potential customers are going to have to feed through in order to find the correct artist – you!
How to decide if your name is “confusing”
This can’t be learned through a Google search, but you should already have a good idea of it. How often do people ask you to spell your name? How often do people mispronounce your name? How long is your name? Six syllables should likely be the maximum.
Also consider the market you are in. If you are planning on marketing your work in a new country, consider the language restraints of the native speakers. Some languages don’t use the same pronunciations of certain letters, so try to get in contact with somebody from that country and ask them whether your name will be understandable to the general public.
Don’t feel like you have to hide your heritage. You don’t need to white-wash your name to appease your audience: just see if there are some simplifications you can do to make your name more accessible. See what you can do to make your name less confusing without losing your identity.
Personal Life Conflicts
Privacy: Some artists are very open about their personal life. They’ll share every last detail of their personal biography to anyone who asks. However, other artists prefer to remain a little more anonymous. A pseudonym will allow you to create a level of separation between your personal life and your professional life as an artist.
Legality: Many street artists or artists who create very controversial pieces will work under a pseudonym. The art world isn’t all white wine and fancy parties; some artists are arrested for the work they do.
Multiple Professions: If you have a professional career other than your art, then you may want to consider using two separate names. For example, if you are a doctor, you may want to keep your given name for your medical practice and use a new name for your artwork. Otherwise, your two businesses may conflict with each other: when people are looking for your medical practice they may not find it if all of the internet results are about your artwork, and vice versa.
Create a new identity: A pseudonym can be a good opportunity to reinvent yourself. Building a captivating new persona requires communicating a clear sense of your identity as an artist. A new or altered name can be powerful in redefining your narrative and establishing what you stand for.
Alexandre Ouiary took this to a new level when he pretended to be Chinese for over a decade, creating artwork with an “oriental” theme under the name Tao Hongjing. His thought process made sense, in a way: he knew he wanted to break into the Asian art market and that collectors would not buy Chinese artwork from a French artist. However, the publicity that resulted when his hoax was exposed was very negative, and he likely will not be able to continue working under that name.
Remove any identity: Sometimes, however, an identity can interfere with some artists’ messages. Ethnicity, national background, and even gender can sometimes create preconceptions that alter how your viewers see your work. If you would prefer for your name to be androgynous, take a cue from famed authors J.K. Rowling or Harper Lee (real names Joanne Rowling and Nelle Harper Lee), who used slightly altered versions of their true names to keep from being gender-identifiable and keep their work from being influenced by gender stereotypes.
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Rebranding: If you are about to start an entirely new style of artwork, if you’ve recently come into bad press, or if you’re about to begin a collaboration, you may want to use a pseudonym to “rebrand” yourself as an artist. Many huge companies have undergone a name change: Google used to be called BackRub, Pepsi used to be called Brad’s Drink, and the TV station ABC Family will soon be changing their name to Freeform to attract an older audience.
Be careful when you are rebranding. Pick a name that “goes” with your new style of artwork. For example, the musician Snoop Dogg uses the pseudonym Snoop Lion when releasing reggae albums, and David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust” persona was intended to appear otherworldly.
What are the possible disadvantages of using a pseudonym for your art?
If you are already established as an artist, it can be a bad idea to begin working under a new name. You will confuse your followers and possibly lose your audience’s loyalty.
Creating an artist name can also be addictive. Once people realize they can “change” their name, they tend to go overboard, switching up regularly and several times. You cannot build a consistent following if you keep changing your name, as you will lose out on the power of referrals and name recognition. If you do create a new artist name, commit.
Having an artist name can cause some confusion in your personal life. Close friends and family may not consistently remember or respect your “new” name. Be clear with them that you are using your new name to promote your artwork, and ask for them to remember to refer to you by your pseudonym whenever speaking to new people about your artwork.
Sometimes, creating a new name can lead to some embarrassing mix-ups. For example, the Nokia Lumia translates in Spanish to “prostitute.” Just be careful when getting creative about what your new name could mean, and do some research before you publish it anywhere!
How to Create an Artist Name/Pseudonym
If you’ve decided that you need to promote your artwork under a pseudonym, deciding on your new name will be a difficult and scary task. Here are some simple strategies to create your art alias:
1. Add an initial. If your name is John Smith and you’re looking to start off your career as an artist you can differentiate yourself from the hundreds of other John Smiths out there with a simple extra initial or two: “John P. K. Smith” or “G. John Smith” can make a world of difference and won’t actually change your name too much.
2. Combine your names. Many of our artists, like painter DAVO, have opted for this route to make their names shorter or easier to remember. Shortening your name can create a distinct, memorable aura around yourself and your art. It becomes an easy and quick to disseminate moniker, something catchy, indelible and straightforward. “John Smith” can become “Jomith” or “Smithon.”
3. Use a different part of your name. Maybe your middle name or maiden name are more ‘interesting’ than your current first and last name. Some of our artists just use variations of their first or last name to promote their works, like Mando and Goodash.
4. Play with words and translations. Agora artist Tony Svensson publishes his photography under the name “Artura Photo Art” with “Artura” being a combination of the words “art” and “nature” – the perfect name for his botanical-centric pieces.
5. Remove some syllables. When Mark Rothko changed his name out of fear of antisemitism, he simply dropped the “us” and “witz” from Markus Rothkowitz. Whether you’re changing your name to remove cultural associations, or if you think it’s simply too long for your audience, see what interesting things can happen when you drop a few syllables and change nothing else!
6. Think about what style of work you are creating and who your audience is. Although something like “Plumpy Pumpernickel” is definitely memorable and eye-catching, it doesn’t look serious or legitimate on an exhibition poster. “Plumpy” might be an appropriate name for a satirical artist or children’s illustrator, it won’t work so well for a professional portraiture artist.
Once you’ve come up with a name you’re happy with, “test drive” it for a few weeks. Say it out loud, tell some trusted close friends. Practice a signature. If you like it after a few weeks, make it official. Start signing your artworks, publish your website with your new artist name, create social media pages, and tell your friends and family.
Do you have any questions for the art experts? Comment below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
With over 30 years of experience, Agora Gallery offers artists the opportunity to present their work to a broad range of national and international art collectors and buyers. Looking for an opportunity to enhance your career? Visit our Gallery Representation And Artist Promotion page for more information.
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This post is also available in: Spanish