Pepe Bratanov: A portrait of a digital artist

The debate about what constitutes art can probably be traced all the way back to the very first cave paintings, when (and we’re totally guessing here) Ogg failed to see the point of Grok’s crudely rendered versions of his fellow tribe members and the local wildlife.

It has raged for millennia, encompassing everything from Marcel Duchamp’s “readymade” art created from manufactured objects (best exemplified by his controversial 1917 work “Fountain”), to Andres Serrano’s infamous 1987 creation “Piss Christ,” all the way to Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s 2019 Art Basel creation “Comedian,” which consisted solely of a banana affixed to a wall with duct tape (and which led to a series of spoof ads).

The debate has taken on new meaning in the past few months, with questions about the merits and value of digital art arising out of the explosive popularity of non-fungible tokens.

So, can something that exists only in binary form, created through the (admittedly deft) application of widely accessible technology, be truly considered art? Does art come from simply conceiving the idea of a Roman bust of Darth Vader, or from its skilful execution?

Pepe Bratanov isn’t entirely comfortable with the descriptor of “artist,” digital or otherwise, but his work has led to more than 22,000 Instagram followers and an upcoming exhibition featuring his work.

And he admits he’s curious about the current NFT craze. “We’ve seen the lines between the physical and digital worlds blur, so there’s a real place to have ownership of digital art,” he said. And the rise of NFTs is a clear demonstration that people with the financial means are willing to pay a great deal to own pieces considered one of a kind. “It’s definitely something I’ll be pursuing,” he said.

The co-founder and creative director of Toronto agency The Local Collective, Bratanov has spent several years creating digital art that brings together the everyday with the unexpected to create vibrant, often whimsical images.

Bratanov describes it as “pop art exploration that uncovers the extraordinary in the ordinary things that surround us,” and it includes frequent nods to contemporary culture—whether it takes the form of a funny riff on Tiger King‘s Joe Exotic, to the eggplant emoji, to a whole series dedicated to The Mandalorian‘s beloved Baby Yoda character called “A normal childhood.” He largely steers clear of politics, although he was unable to completely resist poking fun at a certain former president.

“It’s taking a familiar object and making it not so familiar, unexpected and unpredictable,” said Bratanov, whose Instagram feed, Peppy Colours, has gathered more than 22,000 followers. A selection of his work will be featured in an exhibition called “All I’s on Me” at the Art Gallery of Mississauga next month.

A graduate of OCAD University’s advertising program, Bratanov spent his early career creating print ads using clever photo manipulation and sight gags. His work in print became one of his chief sources of inspiration for the art he creates today.

Among his favourite ads is a print execution he created for Benadryl’s Itch Relief product several years ago. Copy-free, with only a small product shot at the top of the page, the ad shows a dejected young boy wearing cones reminiscent of those placed around dogs heads to prevent them from licking or scratching a wound.

“In a sense [the digital art] has always been there, but it’s become a little more streamlined over the last couple of years,” he said.

Some of Bratanov’s digital creations have also crossed over into the physical world, most notably “Floral Basketball,” a collaboration with The Local Collective. It consists of a standard basketball covered in a floral pattern, transforming it from something suitable for dunking, to something worthy of displaying. 

The Local Collective’s online store is currently selling the “Floral Basketball” for $90, with its description reading that it “was created for those that dare to dream and realize that just because it hasn’t been done, doesn’t mean it can’t be.”

“It’s really up to the person who buys it how they want to use it, but a lot of people use it as home decor,” said Bratanov. “It’s so beautiful, you almost don’t want to have any scratches or scuffs on it.”

Basketball has emerged as a source of creative inspiration for Bratanov in recent years, leading to art pieces in which he transforms basketballs into everything from luxury jewelry to eyes to a likeness of a famous cartoon mouse.

“It’s a soft spot of mine,” he said. “Soccer is my favourite sport, but for me the inspiration’s not there.”

He’s attracted to basketball, he said, because of its strong link to pop culture—embodied by everything from its sneaker culture to its strong sense of visual style, such as the graffiti-inspired look used by Brooklyn Nets for their court and jerseys.

The “Floral Basketball” is also representative of Bratanov’s penchant for juxtaposition, whether it’s contrasting the old and the new, or the masculine and the feminine. “By combining all those things, I find it evokes different reactions and feelings in people,” he said. “In the end that’s what you want art to do. Every viewer should have a different feeling.”

Bratanov has also worked with collaborators to create physical versions of some of his compelling digital creations. One of those is “Emotional Baggage,” a colourful wheeled suitcase that features various expressions of anger and dismay presented in bold, comic book style fonts. There are also oven mitts that resemble the iconic Everlast boxing glove.

“There’s always something special when you bring a project to life,” said Bratanov. “It just feels more real, more tangible, more present.”  The intent, he said, is to make these products available in only limited quantities. “The goal here is to create art pieces more than products,” he said.

Spoken like a true artist.

Chris Powell