Artist Finds Fame in Feminism, 90s Culture and Punk Rock

Artist Sara Lyons pushes on after major retailer rips off her designs

Best Buds by Sara M. Lyons


Story by Adam Ernesto Fuentes and Sabrina Hernandez

Southern California illustrator Sara M. Lyons, 29, has found much success online with her stylish brand of nail decals, posters, and postcards reminiscent of the punk rock, vice, pop culture and femininity of the 90s. Her work has gained much traction in the UK where Urban Outfitters widely distributes and sells her merchandise across Europe. Lyons is a regularly featured artist in Nylon Magazine and Emerging Thoughts. Her iconic illustration Whatever Forever became her breakthrough image selling out quickly in limited edition t-shirts.

Whatever Forever print by Sara Lyons (top) Brandy Melville T Shirt (Bottom)

When Whatever Forever began to circulate on Tumblr, Lyons could not keep track and the image was stolen, reproduced, and used in merchandise without her legal consent. The image began to appear on doll clothes, t-shirts, and blog posts without credit to Lyons and in some cases, her signature removed. “I deal with that image being lifted almost everyday on something — on someone’s T-shirt line, or someone’s iPhone case, or someone trying to sell it on something on the Internet all the time,” Lyons said.

Contemporary artists braving the web as a platform for their work are pioneers in the obscure medium of digital art. The prevalence of art in major social media outlets like Tumblr, Reddit, and Twitter have reduced the work of graphic artists to nothing more than a copy, of a copy, of a copy. The ideas of an individual are tagged, shared, tweeted and retweeted until the original artist has been discredited and the original meaning of their work is lost to the masses. Modern artists now face a dilemma: get their work out to the world and risk intellectual theft, or guard it so closely that no exposure or income is gained.

Eventually the design appeared on a t-shirt sold by Brandy Melville in 2013. The wildly popular Italian clothing brand markets itself through social media and word of mouth with over two million followers on Instagram alone. Recently, Brandy Melville has been steeped in controversy for selling clothes exclusively for thin girls.

“They make as much money as Forever 21 and have millions of rabid fangirls. They have enough money to pay an artist and instead of paying an artist, they chose to actively steal mine and other artists’ works. When this was happening to me, I talked to people who work for other clothing companies and everyone knows that’s what they do —they steal artwork.” — Sara Lyons

Lyons quickly contacted the Brandy Melville representatives but after a month of empty promises, the clothing tycoon stopped responding to her phone calls and emails. The issue was never resolved because Lyons was not able to financially afford to take legal action. According to Lyons, all the shirts were pulled from the online stores; an action she believes was meant to hide the wrongdoing.

“Dude, I live in Southern California, I can walk into your store and buy it,” she said.

A series of other reproductions of that image by other lesser-known clothing brands ensued.

“Honestly, its funny how that became a popular drawing because it’s something I drew in half an hour to kill time. It was never intended to be anything.”

Despite the seemingly light-hearted and stoic message of Whatever Forever, the image came from a troubled time in Lyons’ life. When she first began to work as an artist she suffered from serious depression and anxiety. Drawing was something she was able to use as a distraction.

“I did a lot of stuff at that time coming from an angry place that translated as really light-hearted because that is my style, my aesthetic, I use a lot of pink and everything is kinda cute but a lot of that stuff came from dealing with anger, sadness, and depression.”

My thighs Touch by Sara M. Lyons

It is ironic that a brand that prides itself in selling exclusively to tall, blond, thin girls would appropriate the design of a quirky, off-beat, feminist who prides herself on body positivity —a message she often incorporates into her art. A staple measurement of beauty in the fashion industry has always been the empty space between a model’s thighs. The thigh gap trend is not new, but it has become a mainstream ideal of beauty among youth; some going as far as creating a Twitter page for supermodel Cara Delevingne’s thigh gap with over 5 thousand followers and how-to videos for achieving the coveted gap. The craze is considered to be a step into anorexia and other eating disorders. In response, Lyons created a decal in which a girl’s thighs come together under her high-waisted shorts with the caption “My Thighs Touch BC They Love Each Other.”

“I’m about body positivity. Now, I see in the Internet that thigh gaps are a thing that people strive for. It is so crazy to me because that is not how bodies work. I’m not a big person but I can’t remember a time when my thighs didn’t touch. That is not an appropriate measurement of being a fit person,” Lyons said.

Sara M. Lyons works on her designs.

Continuing with the theme of female empowerment, and just in time for Halloween, Lyons designed the immensely popular and “creepy cute” Babewolf sticker. Inspired by The Cramps’ song “I Was A Teenage Werewolf,” Babewolf is a “backwoods badass” wearing high boots, cutoff shorts and a red strap shirt striking a pinup pose with the head of a wolf and the armpit hair of a full moon’s night. Lyons drew inspiration for Babewolf from her uneasy teenage experiences. She wanted to parallel the transformation of a girl into a werewolf with the transformation of a girl into adolescence. The message was loud and clear but for some, the armpit hair on the girl’s body was controversial. She later explained, “…To an extent, in all women I draw, I try to keep in mind imperfections and stuff that might not necessarily be the status quo or the social norm as far as image.”

Babewolf by Sara M. Lyons

Lyons was born in Northern California before she was transplanted as a young girl to the quiet, forest town of Flagstaff, Arizona just an hour from the Grand Canyon. At the age of 12 she left behind small town living for suburban Newport Beach, Calif. in 1997. She wore dresses while the other girls wore board shorts and tank tops. “I was trying really hard to find a place where I fit in. That definitely contributed to being an outsider throughout my teen years and being attracted to outsider subculture like punk and Goth as a teen. That kind of stuff informs my work to an extent. I was always trying to fit in a little bit and fake it kind of.”

Now, Lyons lives and works out of an apartment in Anaheim, Calif. near Disneyland. Both her art and her boyfriend’s art hang on the walls, and an expansive movie collection wraps around the living room on various shelves. In the corner, a tiny white wooden desk serves as her workstation where she processes orders for her customers through her online store. Without the help of employees or staff, Lyons diligently makes, packages, and ships 50–100 orders of her merchandise per week. “…which is probably why I’ll have arthritis in a couple of years,” she jokingly explains. Lyons’ work ritual usually involves trashy reality shows like The Real House Wives of Orange County or Flavor of Love playing in the background as she creates her designs, “I work from home, and that’s who I hang out with during the day -the housewives- I’d listen to it in the background and be like ‘hmm those bitches are really getting into it.’”

“I feel like a lot of what I draw, I’m pulling from my experiences in high school and as a teen. For whatever reasons, it seems like my work resonates a lot with teens. A lot of my followers are teenagers and I think that’s cool ‘cus I wasn’t necessarily well liked as a teen,” recalled Lyons, “So its nice to be like ‘well now teenagers like me.’” A pause was followed by a hint of a smile as Lyons jokingly said, “That’s embarrassing.”

Behind every artist is a muse. For Lyons, her muse is actress Lindsay Lohan. From zines, posters and stickers, Lyons has gathered inspiration from some of Lohan’s iconic photos ranging from her drunk driving mugshot to candid photos of Lohan walking out of LAX.

Lindsay Lohan has a Posse by Sara M. Lyons

“I know I probably might be super wrong about this, but I feel like she’s a likable person if you were around her, which is probably not true. For whatever reason, she’s just someone I stuck with, I like to draw her, she’s fun to draw,” said Lyons.

Both the artist and the muse are the same age.

“I love that girl, she’s just so cute and I really liked her, then she just went totally off the rails and it was crazy. I can tell, this was a person who had a crazy family life and was struggling a lot with mental illness and addiction problems and I felt bad for her. I am the same age as she and by the grace of god I could see how someone would go crazy and be off the rails.”

One of Lyons illustrations Fast Cars, Cheap Thrills feature six “eras” of Lohan, all showing different sides of the star in different stages of her fame with a glow in the dark finish to it.

Fast Cars, Cheap Thrills by Sara M. Lyons

Hardship has always been a faithful companion to art. A year ago, Lyons would have never imagined herself as a full time artist and entrepreneur. Like Lohan, she is not a stranger to vice. Lyons lost her job of five years at the age of 25 during the recession, coupled with depression and anxiety, a couple of years of destructive decisions followed –the kind of destructive decisions that come with living across the street from a bar bring. Lyons called upon her artistic ability to escape from the downward spiral. She swapped drinking all the time with working all the time.

“I had to do something to get myself out of that funk, and I couldn’t be at the bar all the time. I needed to get myself in control,” she said.

Her snowballing success has led her to quit the part-time job she had about a month ago and become a full time independent artist —a decision Lyons says is not as lucrative as it sounds.

“It’s so weird hearing people’s impressions of me. I feel they have the impression that I have all this money and my life is really glamorous -not really. Maybe one day I look forward to being super rich, but that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.”

Until Lyons is rolling in the new fame, she will continue to brave the Internet for exposure, risking intellectual theft on sites like Tumblr. The trade off, she says, will always be there as long as people can be considered artists for the simple act of sharing someone else’s work.

Sara M. Lyons in front of a wall with art drawn by Lyons.

All photos and artwork courtesy of Sara M. Lyons

Substance is a publication of the Mt. San Antonio College Journalism Program. The program recently moved its newsroom over to Medium as part of a one-year experiment. Read about it here.