How an Artist Named Mr. Doodle Became a Multimillion-Dollar Auction Sensation With a Bunch of Squiggles and ‘Like’-able Branding
Powered by towering sales results in Asia and millions of social followers, Mr. Doodle has quietly taken the auction market by storm.
Ask a close observer of the art market to name 2020’s biggest auction successes under 40, and the odds are good that they’ll nail one or both of the top two sellers: the late Matthew Wong ($24.7 million in total fine-art sales) and the fast-rising Amoako Boafo ($8.2 million).
But precious few people in the industry are likely to identify the fifth-place artist, even though his works amassed nearly $4.7 million in salesrooms across three continents in just over nine months.
That artist? Mr. Doodle.
His name has never graced the wall of a New York gallery, blue-chip art-fair booth, or major Western museum program. In fact, Mr. Doodle didn’t even register his first public auction result until March 25, 2020, when an edition of his resin figurine, The Doodler (2019), sold for an above-estimate $2,006 in an auction held by the east Asia-based Ravenel International Art Group. (All prices include premiums unless otherwise noted, and come courtesy of the Artnet Price Database.)
Yet before the summer was over, a bidder agreed to pay just shy of $1 million ($994,238, to be exact) for a monumental green-and-black Mr. Doodle canvas titled Spring (2019) at Tokyo Chuo Auction Company. While that sale remains the artist’s auction record, it is not an anomaly. Between September 2020 and February 2021, five more of the artist’s works changed hands at prices above $100,000, including the large-scale painting Summer (2019) for more than $320,000 last December.
There is a strong chance you’re now asking yourself some variation of a question we have all asked too many times since early 2020: What the hell?
All the more reason, then, to explore who exactly Mr. Doodle is, and how he managed to quickly become such an art-market force while bypassing nearly every rung on the time-tested ladder to success.
A Man Named Doodle
In his private moments, Mr. Doodle (AKA the Doodle Man) is a British-born 26-year-old named Sam Cox. In his professional mode, however, the character is more than just a pen (or brush) name; it is a lifestyle.
For starters, any public appearance by Mr. Doodle finds Cox draped in clothing covered in his own signature imagery—the intricately interwoven pandemonium of cartoon creatures the artist sometimes refers to as “graffiti spaghetti.” (Imagine if Keith Haring adapted the Where’s Waldo? books, and you’ll start to get the picture.)
The wardrobe is central to the image. In an email, Cox told Artnet News that he created his alter ego in December 2014, when he was still an ambitious but somewhat unassuming student in the illustration program at the University of West England in Bristol. One fateful day, he waltzed into class “fully dressed up in my hand-doodled attire,” at which point the instructor gave him the nickname that now gets auction paddles waving around the world.
Although Cox has contended that, on a personal level, he feels more himself in his Doodle gear than he would in typical clothes, his custom outfits play a more important role, literally merging the character with the rest of his artwork.
The artist established the template in his first commercial solo exhibition, “Attention Seeker,” at London’s Hoxton Gallery in 2016. There, he drew a continuous mural across adjoining walls, up and down columns, onto adjacent flooring, and over a grand dining set complete with plates and a floral centerpiece. When he returned to the finished show in his matching attire, Cox blended easily into his doodled environment, making for a perfect Instagram moment.
All this plays into an ongoing world-building exercise. Cox has developed a whimsical origin story that would fit snugly into an illustrated children’s book or animated Netflix series: Born with a compulsion to draw, Mr. Doodle ran afoul of the fun-hating Anti-Doodle Squad by literally covering the entire planet in his imagery. The two sides made a truce contingent on the artist blasting off to Doodle Land, part of a galaxy made of blank paper, where he could draw to his heart’s content.
All was well until Mr. Doodle’s evil twin brother, Dr. Scribble, exiled the artist back to Earth, where all of his creations had been wiped out by the Anti-Doodle Squad’s Eraser Laser. This left Mr. Doodle no choice but to relentlessly make new work to trade for cash and supplies that would eventually allow him to build a new spaceship and reassert his rightful claim on the slice of the Paper Galaxy he’d transformed into Doodle Land.
You can hear Cox narrate the whole tale in a short film, in which he adds that many people were more “interested in the weirdness” of his role-playing than in his actual work. So he amped up Mr. Doodle’s performative antics accordingly.
It paid off in spring 2017, when Mr. Doodle became a social media sensation thanks to an enthusiastically shared Facebook video of the 60-plus hours he spent doodling the full interior of a vacant shop next to London’s Old Street Underground station. Cox said the performance “brought me a whole new audience for my work and led to big new opportunities.”
It also served as proof of concept for how to attract engagement online. By early March 2021, Mr. Doodle’s steady stream of videos and lighthearted meme fodder (such as a walk in the park with his paper mâché pet, Doodle Dog) has won him a jaw-dropping 2.7 million followers on Instagram, more than 736,000 Facebook friends, and about 82,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel.
For context, Damien Hirst currently has 739,000 followers on Instagram; Jeff Koons has even fewer. The Guggenheim Museum’s following there is only 2.5 million, meaning Mr. Doodle currently outperforms one of high culture’s most prestigious institutions on the planet’s most popular photo-sharing platform by about 10 percent.
Doodling ‘Round the World
The next turning point in Cox’s career was a July 2018 solo exhibition at the Ara Art Center in Seoul. In the show, titled “Doodle World,” the artist branched into new territory with canvases depicting global tourist landmarks, world leaders, and indelible artworks such as the Mona Lisa and The Scream—all formed from groupings of his signature characters in miniature.
This exhibition was “where my work began to receive interest from collectors,” Cox said. And since then, his art has resonated especially powerfully in east and southeast Asia.
“My intention has always been to create a universal doodle language that can relate to and attract people from all over the world,” he said. “The fact that this has worked particularly well in Asia has just happened unintentionally, but happily.”
No doubt Mr. Doodle’s ascendance in east Asia follows some of the same cultural jetstreams that have propelled KAWS (AKA Brian Donnelly) to deity-like status there. From 2018 through 2020, KAWS artworks collectively generated about $175 million at auction, with several of the artist’s priciest results hammering down in east Asian salesrooms. Most notably, Sotheby’s Hong Kong set his auction record by unloading The KAWS Album (2005) for just under $14.8 million in April 2019.
It doesn’t take a visionary to posit that fans energized by the sharply illustrated characters, street-art spirit, and nü–Pop sensibility of KAWS’s universe would also vibrate to Mr. Doodle’s frequency. Beyond shared aesthetic qualities, the consonance extends to their shared willingness to embrace their power as brands, not just studio-bound artists.
KAWS began building his empire with limited-edition resin figurines created in collaboration with Japanese toy and streetwear tastemaker Bounty Hunter. He has gone on to produce a steady stream of internationally visible intellectual property moments, such as a Kanye West album cover and a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade float, and rabidly sought-after branded merchandise. His $20 Uniqlo t-shirts sparked an actual riot in China.
Mr. Doodle has been deliberately diving into this broader commercial infinity pool for some time now.
“Yes, I am aware of Mr. Doodle as a brand,” he said. “Being aware that each artist is actually a brand too is useful, because then you’re aware of your worth, your audience, your own branding, and how that needs attention when working with others.”
The list of those others has grown steadily in the past few years. To date, Mr. Doodle has minted capsule collections with Fendi (in conjunction with Chinese Valentine’s Day) and sportswear giant Puma. His 2018 exhibition at the Ara Art Center also included a branded activation with Samsung.
He has likewise been game for a variety of corporate commissions and public projects that undoubtedly raised his visibility, including taking over the rooftop of Fendi headquarters in Rome, painting a supersize sculpture for the MTV Europe Music Awards, and completing a major mural for Wembley Park.
Of course, there is no guarantee that an artist working in such commercial avenues will necessarily cross over into the rarefied art market. Yet Mr. Doodle has leapt that chasm nimbly.
Doodle Meets Gavel
The artist’s first brush with the establishment art market arrived about 18 months after “Doodle World” opened. In December 2019, Sotheby’s Hong Kong hosted a selling exhibition called “Mr. Doodle Invades” featuring 52 new paintings largely riffing on canonical masterworks, with winking titles like Starry Doodle, Doodle Gothic, and The Doodle Girls of Avignon. Sotheby’s and the artist also marketed the sale with a “live doodling event” in the city.
Sotheby’s declined to comment for this story, but art-market website the Value reported in 2020 that the exhibition sold out at prices between roughly $6,400 and $25,640 per piece.
The artist’s true public auction run began in June 2020, when Sotheby’s offered 16 Mr. Doodle works in a 31-lot online-only auction called “Contemporary Showcase: Summer Lovin’.” The pieces, which ranged from paintings to resin figures to sculptures, all smashed their estimates; the canvases Pink Kitty (2019) and Blue Kitty (2019) led the way, selling for 25 times the top of their expected range: $22,577 each against identical $903 high estimates.
Immediately after the sale, Mr. Doodle lots began cascading onto auction rostrums across Europe and east Asia. Of the 162 lots offered in 2020, houses found buyers for 158—good for a sterling sell-through rate of 88 percent. Another 68 of 70 works sold through the end of February 2021, making the artist responsible for roughly $1.1 million in total sales in the year’s opening eight weeks.
Asked about his incandescent performance with bidders, Cox was most interested in how his success could pave the way for others.
“It’s felt good to see my work selling for all those prices,” he said. “I’m really pleased to see the interest is very much there for doodles. I think it’s good not just for me, but for all doodle artists around the globe, the fact that doodles can gather such high amounts at auction.”
Although he says there are individuals with art-world cachet who genuinely like his work (or at least recognize its potential), Cox knows “there are plenty of people in the establishment who don’t like my doodles and will always say they aren’t art.” Yet that’s inconsequential to him.
While he thinks auction results will “always at least subconsciously affect how an artist makes work moving forward,” Cox has made only modest amendments to his practice since he became a fixture under the gavel. He is now represented by a manager, and hands off all press inquiries to a single communications pro. He still has not signed with a dealer.
“I’ve not set out with the goal of being represented by a major gallery or doing the exhibitions” at prestigious museums, Cox explained. “Instead, my goals have been to doodle over big spaces like tunnels, buildings, and eventually hopefully whole towns!”
So while Mr. Doodle may not be coming to a high-profile gallery or art fair near you anytime soon, you should still prepare to encounter his work. At this rate, the art world is already well on its way to being eclipsed by Doodle World. Most of us just haven’t swiveled our perspective far enough to notice how rapidly—or how thoroughly—the cosmos has been changing around us.
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