Tony was special, he wasn't like the rest of us. He saw beauty and wonder in ordinary things including a spark in myself that I didn't even know was there. He was a believer in the arts and making sure artists knew their worth financially, emotionally and spiritually. His involvement in First Friday is a testament to that. For me personally, he was one of the first people to take me seriously as an artist and made me believe in my own creativity.
In the early days of First Friday, I had a company called 80s Kids in which a friend and I sold 80s-inspired art. We quickly became a staple of the arts scene in Vegas throwing parties at Insert Coin(s), doing collabs with high profile artists, opening a gallery at Emergency Arts/The Beat and selling a lot of art; but I was unhappy. My personal life was in shambles and it came to a halt when my grandfather passed and I realized I suffered from depression and anxiety pretty severely. I was lucky to survive this moment of time and in large part that was due to self portraits I was doing (which became the staple of my brand now, Yerman was born from this period.) Around that time, I decided to stop doing 80s art and focus on my own IP, something that was completely vulnerable and tough for me since I never really considered myself an artist, but more of a marketer since that's what my career was centered around. Part of getting out there was deciding to get a booth at First Friday under my own name. I felt completely out of my element since I wasn't relying on others intellectual property and this was strictly just my artistic expression which is a terrifying thing to do. I remember being completely overwhelmed at this event, not feeling my feet on the ground and feeling like I was an imposter, not good enough to be showing my art there. I was really anxious when suddenly I looked up and there was Tony taking a selfie with Yerman.
I struck up a conversation with him and he texted me the photo. This brief interaction gave me confidence to want to continue since a man of this stature obviously saw something in my art. I had no idea this would be the start of a friendship, one that would teach me the fundamentals of entrepreneurship, creativity and the power of "yes, and."
I started working at Zappos soon after in the marketing department. My career there had a variable path which is consistent with Tony's vision, being comfortable with the uncomfortable and ok with rapid change. I spent 7 years at the coolest job I've ever had building marketing plans for display marketing then moving to head the social media team for Zappos Couture and then finally managing small teams for influencer marketing initiatives. During this time, I got to see Tony a lot. My favorite aspect of our friendship was that even though I worked for him, whenever we were out and about and he introduced me to someone, he introduced me as, "This is Ryan, he's an amazing artist." He never told people I worked for him, but instead, introduced me as an artist. This meant the world to me because he believed in what I was creating and wanted others to know about it too. For a creative type, this kind of positive affirmation is life altering. Society tells artists that their creations are "less than" or not worthy, yet here was a man of significant stature in the business world telling me to introduce myself to the world as an artist first because that's worthy and rare and should be heralded, not hidden.
Over the years Tony created amazing journeys for me. He brought his famous friends around and always made it a point to show them my art, telling Joseph Gordon Levitt about my murals across the street from where he was staying or posing with Paula Abdul with my pretzel statue.
I am fortunate to have my art on buildings surrounding his home at airstream, he liked having Yerman on his walk to work; he also had me paint Yerman and a llama at Airstream where everyone hung out. He saw the power of the character before I even realized the power. In fact, because of Tony's blessing, Depressed Monsters was the first brand sold on Zappos.com that was owned by an employee of Zappos.com which opened up doors to my art being at Hot Topic and elsewhere. Tony allowed me to be taken seriously not only in the local art scene but nationally. Depressed Monsters is now sold at Threadless, Zappos, Hot Topic and elsewhere and we donate a portion of proceeds to mental health agencies across the country.
I have so many amazing memories with Tony over the years that I could go into detail here like the time I was on a bus with him and Sarah Jessica Parker and not knowing how my life got to this point or when we had an event with Andre Leon Talley and his version of dressing up was a disco ball shirt and red cape because it made him feel fancy and he thought fashion was up to the wearer which is absolutely on brand for Tony and correct! (Andre loved it.) However, the memories that stick out the most are his selflessness and want to connect people to a higher self. I wrote him a letter in October and told him he was the Willy Wonka of guidance, often laying out golden tickets of direction and that's what I'm gonna miss the most. Leaving our conversations feeling inspired and full of hope and slightly confused making me want to dig deeper into the books he suggested or movies he loved.
I just kind of always thought Tony would be there. It never struck me that he wouldn't. I always envisioned more one-on-ones, moreadvice, more mentorship, more of his trademark hugs. But I guess that's the point of life, we are never promised more, just now. And right now, I am sad and empty grieving the loss of an incredibly impactful person that changed the course of my life forever.
I have a Tony Hsieh-shaped hole in my heart.