Lil Nas X illustrator Aaron Fahy: Creating collages for pop stars in a Waterford boxroom

Dungarvan artist started creating low-fi fan art for albums he loved. Now he is getting commissions from his idols

Aaron Fahy was always interested in art. “My mam was almost like a printer,” he says. “You could put something in front of her and she could draw it out.” Now Fahy’s fascination with creating collage, crayon and mixed-media fan art and posting it to Instagram has led to him creating artwork for one of the biggest names in pop music, Lil Nas X.

Fahy grew up in Dungarvan, Co Waterford, where he has spent most of his life. He began reimagining album-cover art through his own lo-fi aesthetic when his aunt returned from the United States with a hard drive full of music. “None of it had any album artwork, so I tried to make my own on free [computer] programs. Throughout the years I kind of learned Photoshop and stuff, but I wanted to go back to a traditional approach and just use my hands more to make collages.”

This approach has culminated not only in Fahy’s now recognisable crayon-illustration style but also in his mixed-media work, where he creates collage-style art and animated videos that have an almost flipbook or stop-motion effect. “I like it because you can make a little mistake – a piece of paper can tear – and it can make it,” he says.

‘It was one of the crayon posts that went viral and showed up on different Instagram pages. I think it was a compilation of different album covers I did’

He took a multimedia course in Cork after leaving school; he was working in a cafe when he started posting some of his drawings on Instagram, including fan-art album covers. “I wouldn’t consider myself fully trained up in the graphic-design world. I thought my course was going to be more graphic-design based, but it really wasn’t,” Fahy says. “So in terms of typography and the rules of design, I don’t know them that well.”

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It turns out that this absence of slickness works to his advantage. Fahy’s animations of The Weeknd or Frank Ocean have a warmth and homespun quality that calls to mind 1990s collages, bedroom posters or emulsion manipulation in alternative-photography Polaroid art.

Fahy began using crayon more during lockdown. “I was doing nothing and set myself a challenge to make something with the simplest tools possible. I had crayons and paper. It almost started out jokingly, giving them captions like ‘This piece took me longer than all my usual work’ even though it took me a small amount of time. I started to notice it becoming a thing when I saw the album fan art I did posted on other websites. Credit was being lost, because everyone posts stuff.” But when people started tagging him in messages, comments and posts, it became clear that “people started recognising my name attached to the crayon style”.

Everything “got really more serious” when he began working full time on his art. Initially he was just illustrating on the side while earning a living as a barista. “When I decided to go full time doing design, I took a more serious approach and really started marketing and promoting myself. It was one of the crayon posts that went viral and showed up on different Instagram pages. I think it was a compilation of different [album] covers I did. Complex [the media outlet with a focus on hip hop and youth culture] in America shared it, and then people started reaching out to me for commissions.”

Now Fahy has gone from making fan art of the Grammy-winner Lil Nas X, who turned rap and pop culture on its head with his track Old Town Road, to being commissioned by the musician to make the official artwork for his latest single, Where Do We Go Now?

Fahy had drawn a fan-art poster for Old Town Road. Lil Nas X shared the image on social media and followed Fahy’s account. Two years later, Fahy remade one of Lil Nas X’s single covers in crayon. Lil Nas X asked if he could use it in the background of a music video. Then, in January, the rapper’s creative director asked Fahy if he’d like to create the artwork for Lil Nas X’s latest single. “He said that Lil Nas X thought it would fit well with the song. It was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down. I got the email on a Monday, they needed it by Thursday, and I had a few different versions done by Wednesday. I wasn’t asked for any revisions, which I was delighted with. It came together in a flash.”

‘One thing I noticed was you don’t really know what kind of day someone is having. The least you can do is try to make it better in some way’

Fahy’s work now includes commissions for Def Jam in collaboration with Guinness, through Universal Music Ireland. He has also worked with BBC Radio 6 Music and is exploring the possibility of doing workshops in Ireland. “I love the idea of going into a room with a few people and giving them the tools to create stuff,” he says. “There’s no real right way of doing something. You just rip paper up and get a bit creative.” He also wants to explore art therapy. “From working in the cafe, I just got joy from helping people out. One thing I noticed was that you don’t really know what kind of day someone is having. The least you can do is try to make it better in some way… I fully believe anyone is capable of making art. Anyone can be artistic. Everyone has it in them.”

Fahy says it’s his dream to collaborate with the Irish artist Kojaque. “I’d love to work with him. I’ve been a fan for years. Seeing what he did independently with his newest album, the whole art direction was mad. I’d love to do a video with him or something. I’d be so happy if that happened.” He also cites Tyler, the Creator – “his creativity is on another level” – and Childish Gambino as inspirations and people he’d love to work with.

Of his trajectory from making fan art for artists to actually making their artwork, Fahy says, “It’s still a bit weird. I’m in a small boxroom in Waterford, and all these people are messaging me.”