CHEYENNE – Kevin Phillips is still getting used to his mustache.
For the most part, he can barely grow a beard. It comes thick around his jawline, but he points and laughs at how no follicles will appear on his cheeks.
After a year of perseverance, the hair above her lip is sculpted with classic, maniacal handlebars that curl next to her nose. His inspiration was one of his earliest influences, Salvador Dali, who grew his own mustache to where its ends almost reached his eyes.
“Everyone will be a brand in the future,” he said over coffee. “It’s like, ‘How can I differentiate myself from them?’ In the last month and a half, I’ve decided to wear a mustache all the way, and I’m going to Salvador Dali with it.
Phillips is a Front Range artist. He grew up in Nebraska, moved to Cheyenne when he was 16, and now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. It was here that he earned a fine arts degree at Laramie County Community College, and where he learned to really critique his own work, refine it, and, only after mastering the technical details, break all the rules.
Phillips has embarked on an unexpected new venture over the past year, one that’s increasingly becoming a part of a professional artist’s life. He shares his work, critiques others, and creates a community more than he ever imagined.
“It was my brother who convinced me to buy a TikTok a few years ago, and it’s like within the first month, my first viral post went crazy.” Phillips said he was “moderately famous” on the popular video-sharing app. “Two million views…Hanging art in a cafe is great, and people see it, but $300-400 in sales doesn’t pay the bills when a 15-second clip on TikTok reports thousands of dollars.”
His popularity on TikTok grew rapidly. He had spent years marketing his works on other social media platforms, like Instagram, but failed to get a following.
He now has about 55,000 subscribers with whom he constantly interacts. One of his first videos reached over 2 million views, several others number in the hundreds of thousands, while others fail to gain traction.
“It’s like, it’s Cheyenne,” he said, comparing his number of followers to the city’s population. “Minus the military base, it’s Cheyenne. It’s like, holy shit, what if everyone in Cheyenne knew about me? How would I be perceived around here?
Phillips has a unique artistic style. He is influenced by Dali, but there are also famous street artists Banksy and Shepard Fairey, and Alyssa Monks, an American figurative painter who creates abstract and hyper-realistic portraits.
For so long, Phillips has absorbed the work of artists like these, incorporating abstract elements and street art techniques to create colorful multimedia projects of pop art and psychedelic oddities.
Phillips mentions the quote “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” in reference to the most unexpected experience he had online. Recently he has been tagged in videos of people recreating some of his original works like he did in his tutorials.
“It’s sort of come full circle, where I see people recreating pieces that I’ve done. It’s weird,” he said.
But that didn’t come without a lot of changes – like growing out a mustache, for example. It’s a product of the realization that in order to build a fanbase, it must first build a character.
Always an introvert, Phillips now has to work on being a more approachable character. In a way, the person in his videos is different from himself – he needs to smile, crack jokes, and keep his energy high. The growth of his presence on the popular app has forced him to reconsider how people view him.
His image dictates how people interact with him and his content, which makes all the difference in whether his art sells. Already, he has started earning a small amount of money from some viral videos, and the rest from traffic to his website, while continuing to gain traction on the app.
It is a precarious position. On the one hand, it has to appeal to viewers and structure the videos so that the mysterious TikTok algorithm gets them into everyone’s feed. Serve viewers too much, though, and he’ll lose sight of his craft.
“I do it for the job,” he says. “I think a lot more about the stories my works tell now. Before, I wanted the artwork to speak for itself. Now I need to talk a bit more about the artwork.
About a year ago, he leaned into his pop art style a little too much in an effort to attract views on TikTok, mostly sticking to recreating celebrity portraits in colorful portraits. Thanks to this approach, he had a good period of three to four months where he questioned his passion for art.
Then he had a realization. Phillips was letting social media algorithms control him, and there was something about that concept he wanted to explore.
Combining his background in fine art – including a fascination with color theory – and his flair for multimedia street art, he pursued the concept of humanity’s increasing interaction with artificial intelligence.
It is possible that humans and AI programs are not so different in their actions. Phillips came across a growing movement of AI-created artwork, where programmers create algorithms that require the AI to learn a specific aesthetic to create an image, similar to the inner workings of the human brain.
The result is a new art, one that is the accumulation of thousands of codes. This is the subject of his “Glitch” series, as well as much of his work since – finding the parallel between AI and the way humans interact with each other electronically.
“I wanted to tell a story and bring forward the narrative that things are chaotic, but very structured,” he said of his “glitch art.” “It’s kind of an AI type thing. They create these really crazy images, but the AI is extremely structured.
“Line by line, you could tell him what he does and why he does it. I try to replicate that, but in a more human way.
Outside of his catalog, this concept applies strongly to his personal “Last Supper”, entitled “Renaissance”.
The painting conceptualizes time as a cyclical entity, creating a chaotic, multifaceted image of color and abstract symbolism, detailed and eclectic, that comes together in a single image, similar to the thousands of digital coded dots put in place by a computer program.
The big difference is that all of Phillips’ work is painted, not digitally designed.
“I definitely put my own spin on it,” he said of his AI-inspired art. “I’m referring to how AI interacts with humans and how humans interact with AI. Humans are really affected by social media and things like that.
There is still work to be done in the area of AI art, and Phillips’ ability to forge his own style becomes more evident as he continues to paint. He has identified a connection between his presence on TikTok and his artwork, and his most recent series draws a connection between the popular app’s hidden algorithms and the controlled chaos of AI art.
Visit the Reddit online forum and search for the subreddit called “place”. It’s both a forum and an art movement where thousands of people contribute a moving image, one pixel at a time. Somehow intricate images come together at the end, though constantly changing over a five-minute span.
Phillips remembers seeing one of them get together. Then, at the end of the timer, there was a coordinated attack on the final product, with anonymous participants sabotaging the image with white pixels.
“It erased everything,” Phillips said. “But it was really strange for me to see how it felt like an AI was doing it. It made me think that the AI was maybe more like us than we think.
“If you told someone an AI did this, they would believe it with the way it branched out.”
Both on the web and online, Phillips is learning to think with algorithms.
A body of work by Phillips will hang at Freedom’s Edge Brewing Co. beginning April 14 as part of the final installment of the second Thursday Cheyenne Artwalk. His work is also online at https://linktr.ee/KAPGallery.