Chris Costa

Chris is a freelance illustrator and creator whose bold, colourful style has appeared on everything from band merch to gin bottles
December 3, 2020

My name is Chris Costa. I'm 26. I live in Melbourne and I'm a freelance creator.

What's your background, what were you doing before being self-employed?

So I've never technically had a job outside of freelance graphic design and illustration. From about 13 to 18, I was in a lot of bands. I was touring with bands. I was doing gig artwork for shows that I was putting on myself. And I started graphic design out of more of a necessity to put out artwork for these shows and to advertise these shows. It was only until about year 12, so I think I was 17, when my mom was like, "You have to go to university for something, either you're going to go to Victorian College of the Arts to be a drummer, or you got to figure something else out."

I was still playing in hardcore bands and stuff, and I didn't really think of anything else, that's just all I wanted to do. But, I was having so much fun with these gig posters and artwork and stuff, and it was something new and exciting. So I really wanted to dip my feet into that, but I don't just dip my feet into anything. I go head first into it and put all my energy into it. So once I started studying graphic design, it was only a year and a half course, but drums and music took a back seat and this was my new reality. So yeah, I've never actually had a "normal job". Design's all I've really known.


Do you still play these days?

I still play. And it's funny, some of the bands that I was touring with, or playing shows with super early on in my bands career, are bands that I'm doing merch and tour artwork for now. Bands like Thy Art Is Murder and Deez Nuts and Northlane, I remember them back when they were playing a tohundred people in my shitty little country town. I remember them and it's just really cool to have that... To be able to look back and go, I remember you from all that way back then, and we're still working together today.

What was the 'jump point' like for you, when you first went full-time self-employed?

So when I was studying in our second year, there was a work experience program where we had to present ourselves to any job that we wanted to get, and do a week or two's worth of free work for them basically. And I really took that opportunity and wanted to make it into something that could turn into a job. So I hit up a company called Destroy All Lines. They're one of Australia's biggest touring agencies. They do a lot of bookings. They do a lot of venues, that kind of stuff. But at the time what really caught my eye was they were running a lot of alternative nightclubs. And although I wasn't into that club scene or anything like that, my bands had played at those shows and I always really loved the poster artwork.

So when it came to work experience, I kind of took that opportunity. I was like, okay, I'm there for two weeks. I'm just going to work my ass off. I'm going to try and really impress them. So once I do graduate, I can become a freelancer for them, because that's the first time I ever learned what a freelancer was. That two weeks that I spent there, I was asking so many questions and they were like, "Funnily enough, all of our work is outsourced. There's only a handful of us actually in the offices, but like stuff for design, it's all freelance." And they kind of taught me what freelancing was.

So once I finished my degree, I sent them an email and said, hey, I've graduated. I'd love to work with you and let's try and make this happen. And they were my first client and I worked with them for about three years, and that's working with them every single week. One ad a week turned into like five ads a week, turned into I was doing every single poster artwork for all of their clubs nationwide, for like that last two year gap. So yeah.

So university kind of allowed me to dip my feet into the real world and find out what freelancing really was. But on the other hand, at the same time that I was graduating, I was doing an internship for a startup clothing label. It was unpaid. It was just kind of... I just wanted to try something new. I've always loved apparel. I've always loved band merch so being able to work for a startup was a really fun experience for me. I didn't know this until I got there, but it was literally me and the owner and that was it. We were the whole company. So for six months I was doing shipping, I was doing packing, I was steaming and folding the clothes as well as doing the graphic design for them, all for free. And it was that internship that kind of taught me a lot, not in the way you'd think so I learned all the things of what not to do. How not to treat people, how not to do business and kind of not be dodgy with business as well.

During that six month period, there was a lot of verbal abuse, a little bit of physical abuse, a lot of psychological abuse from that person and that was what led me to go insular and start working from home. For the longest time I thought all bosses were going to be like that, just because my first one was so traumatic to me, and it was at that point that I went, I don't want to work with anybody else. I don't want to put myself in that situation again. So I have to hustle for myself. I have to make things happen for myself and I have to do this on my own because at that point I really wasn't trusting of anybody else. And I really wasn't trusting in my own skills. Whatever confidence I had as a designer when I left university, was completely depleted. And I had to build myself up back from scratch. It was that one client that stuck with me for those three years, that helped me build that confidence back up, build my skills back up and allowed me to pursue other forms of design.


Damn, man. That is quite an origin story. On the one hand your dream client was your first client, which is so cool, with the posters. But on the other hand, I'm so sorry to hear that happened. That's a terrible first boss. What an experience.


Yeah. And it just makes you overthink everything as well. Because although they're not there anymore, their voice is in the back of your head. And it's kind of cool to be in a position where I am now, where I'm past that. And it's kind of good to look back and go, you know what? I was worth it. I am good at my job and I should be confident about it. Although it was a very traumatic event, I wouldn't have it any other way because it's led me to so many amazing things. At the end of the day, I can turn the lights off in my office and kind of walk home and be like, I've made this for myself. Like everything, I've created, I've created for myself. There was no agencies. There was no managers, there was no bosses, it was 100% my own doing.

Not many people can say that as well. And it's such a good feeling to know that you've created something for yourself. My biggest thing and I've said this to younger designers as well, because they all talk about money. They all talk about oh money, once I have this amount of money, I'll be happy and it's like...I am successful and I've been successful for years, because I'm doing what I love and it makes me happy. The money is a secondary thing. The fact that I'm happy doing something is such a privilege. I have so many friends and relatives stuck in dead-end jobs just because they need the money to pay the bills or they don't really have any other outlet to make money. And it's like, I'm so lucky to be in this position. I mean, don't get me wrong. I've worked my fucking ass off, but not a lot of people can say that they're genuinely happy doing what they're doing. I just don't take that for granted either.

So, one of my most regular clients is a band called Thy Art Is Murder, and they've been with me since, probably one year into me going full-time freelance. And the thing is, they just didn't want me to do what all the other most designers were doing. When people think of death metal merch, they think of very detailed, very grinding pre-textual kind of stuff. And they came to me and they're like, "No, no, we don't want that. We want you to do you. So just create what you think will look good for us in your own style." And they were probably the first clients that let me have that creative freedom, and went, "You just do you, and if we like it, we'll buy it and if we don't, that's fine." It's really cool for clients to give you that creative freedom, because it shows you that you don't have to put yourself into these categories to make it in this business. You can do whatever your style is, whatever that may be and the clients will come.

How did you learn the practicalities and business side of freelance work? Finances, finding and managing clients, and so on.

It all came really naturally to me. So as I said before, I was booking bands from 13 to 18, so I was sending emails, I was working out budgets, I was paying the invoices. So I'd been doing that for five years. So when it came to starting a business and creating those relationships with my clients and having a good solid financial base for my business, I'd been doing that years and years before. It was kind of like a karate kid moment. Like I was learning to wax on and off, not knowing that it was setting myself up for my future career.

Don't me wrong. I've made mistakes, but it leads to you making sure you're paying your taxes on time. I think taxes are something that a lot of freelance creators don't necessarily think about until it's too late and until they made that mistake. And funnily enough, when I was working at that internship, I was put in charge of all the finances. I was calling the accountant, I was setting up a Xero account. So I kind of learned from having to figure that out for that client, for that business. Such a big part of being a freelancer is creating relationships with your clients. So the relationships I was making back in the day with those bands, it just kind of came naturally to do the exact same thing with these clients. I don't want to just work with the client once, I want them to be working with me for years and years and years on.

I really cherish those clients that I do have those long relationships with. It just makes for better artwork. It makes for better projects because we have that rapport already. We know what each other likes. We know how to talk to each other. We know their language, and once you look at a client as just a client, that's all they'll be to you. But I don't want that. I want to create relationships with these people. I want to know about their personal life. I want to know how their weekend was because I genuinely care. Because if I was at my desk, the amount that I am right now, and I was just talking to all these strangers who wanted my services, it wouldn't be as enjoyable. I get so much enjoyment out of my work because I'm doing it with people that I get along with. Because I'm doing it with people that I'm friends with.

What's the best thing about being self-employed?

Creating something for yourself. Knowing that you didn't necessarily have someone else there to be your net. Everything that I've created and the other creators have created, we've done it by ourselves for ourselves with our own money. Half of it's just putting our money where our mouth is and believing in ourselves and creating all of this stuff for, not necessarily our own legacy, but... Yeah. I don't know how to explain it. It's that sense of accomplishment. I run a clothing label as well as my day-to-day stuff, and even just every time I release a new bit of clothing, it's that thing where it's tangible, I can hold it. I can hold this thing that I've created, that came out of my brain and now it's on the t-shirt and people want to buy it for some unknown reason to me.

What's the hardest thing about being self-employed?

Self-doubt, your own thoughts. Your own thoughts about yourself, your own thoughts about your work. I think that's the hardest thing about being not only just an artist, but self-employed. You don't have a boss telling you what to do. You just have yourself to tell you what to do. Sometimes you're a bit too hard on yourself, but I think at the same time, it's that stress that you put on yourself and it's that anxiety that you put on yourself that can really create diamonds. You know, it's that pressure that we get put under, from ourselves wanting to succeed, wanting to achieve, that makes us create better work every single time.

And it's not healthy. Mind you that you have a... There's like a very thin line of the amount of stress that your body can take and how much pressure you can be under. But being self-employed you kind of have to look at the positives of everything. That's why I say, I'd make all the same mistakes again, because I learned something from it. And it's the same with self-doubt. You learn from your own mistakes and you learn from the work that you've created a month ago, a year ago, five years ago.

What's been the high point, or a favourite moment, of your self-employed career so far?

I think... So about two years ago, my girlfriend and I were able to go to the United States for about, I think it was a month. And it was at that point that I kind of realised that design has been able to lead me to other places outside of work. The amount of work I put in my work has made me able to travel the world. It's been able to take me to other places in the world that I probably wouldn't have gone to if I just had a normal nine to five job. Not many people can take a month or two months off of work at any specific time or necessarily have the money to do it. So that realisation two years ago, was kind of realising what I have created for myself and what that can lead me to do outside of work. And just allowing design and this career that I've made for myself to lead my life in other directions as well, but then at the same time, bring it back into the world of design.

At the start of this year, I spent one and a half to two months in South America with my girlfriend. The entire time we were having fun. We were going to wineries, we were exploring cities, but I was taking photos the entire time. And the amount of times over just this year that I've looked back on those photos and looked at colour palettes or looked at imagery, and then I've just brought that into my work is absolutely countless. I think the highlight for my career is being able to do more with... Being able to explore the world, being able to explore the world of my own clothing label and just kind of build on the artwork that I've done for clients and just improve every single time. So it's not necessarily one specific moment. It's more the amalgamation of what it's all been and what it's created for me.

And I really think that's what makes great art. You don't take all your inspiration from one place. You take it from a hundred different places and it allows you to bring it all together and create something new.

There's a great book that I read really early on when I was at university, it's called Steal Like an Artist. The name's just a click bait, but it really talks about, when you're creating, again, you don't take inspiration from just one place. You take it from a hundred different places and you don't take from like let's just say I'm working on an illustration. You don't necessarily take inspiration from other illustrators. You can look at photography, you can look at embroidery. Take from all of these different art forms because at the end of the day what's going to make your work different. That's what's going to make you stand out.

What does a typical work day look like for you? What's your average daily schedule?

I wake up very, very early. So six o'clock I'm in my kitchen having my first coffee of the day. I travel on the train to my office. I get to the office around 6:37 ish, depending on how long it takes me to have that coffee. From about seven o'clock till nine, it's looking over emails that came in from the day before, or from that morning. I work with a lot of people from overseas. So a lot of our timeframes don't necessarily match up. So getting in super early kind of allows me to still have a conversation with them and start work for them. That morning ritual was kind of making any amendments that needs to be made, re-looking over artwork before it gets sent off. And then about 10:00 it's time for my second coffee of the day.

And then I kind of set myself up with a list of things I need to do that day. And the rest of the day is literally just going over that list. Going, okay, let's start a project. Let's get this much design started and finished within like a four hour bracket. And then I just kind of go from project to project, stop, finish, up until about four in the afternoon. And then it's at that time I have my third coffee of the day. I kind of look over everything I've created for that day. Kind of go over things with a fine tooth comb, come back to it with fresh eyes, make any changes that need to be changed before I finish up for the day. And that's when I'll usually send any artwork proposals that need to go out. I send them at the very end of the day, just so my clients can get them either that night or the coming morning. And it just allows me time to kind of stop for the day, stop thinking about that project and then come back in the next day, hopefully with an email about that project.

It sounds kind of boring, but I really liked that time in the morning that I get to myself. Everyone else is still asleep or if they're in America or European, they're just winding down for the day. I kind of have the world to myself and I'm able to think and that's usually when I do some concept sketching. That's usually when I do my idea generation before I sit down for my normal nine to five and just get stuff done.

I don't know, I've been doing this for years and years and it's just how I've found I work best. Just finding that routine that works for you best. This routine isn't obviously for everyone. It relies on a lot of coffee and a lot of self-reliance to not get distracted. But yeah, I think one of the things of working for yourself and working from home, like I have for so many years prior to this year, it kind of gives you that obedience to not get distracted during work. You know, when you're at work, you're at work and you know, I love the train trip home because it allows me to kind of stop thinking about work for the day, kind of go into like chill house modes. When I am at home, I'm present. I'm present there with my girlfriend. I'm present with my pets. You know, when I'm with them, I'm 110% with them. But when I'm at work, I'm 100% there for work.

What advice would you give your past self to help them get to where you are today?

So I got given this piece of advice about a year and a half ago by a friend of mine. It's the best piece of advice I've ever given. I've given it to other people as well. And it's, work like a greyhound. So, when greyhounds are on the track, they've got their blinders on and their sole purpose is to run. So equating that to being a creative, when you have work, when work does come your way, that is your focus. You put your blinders on, you don't think about anything else. You focus on the project at hand.

But then when it's not time to race, you don't have any work. Not much as on for the week, you don't focus on work, you focus on clearing your mind, taking that time to have a break. I usually take that time to expand my knowledge. I read a lot of books. I read a lot of art books so that when, things are quiet because lows do happen throughout the year, especially when you're a freelancer, it kind of allows you that downtime to not be so stressed. To think about yourself and not think about the job at hand.

For me relaxing doesn't necessarily mean laying on a couch or watching a movie. It usually means reading books, listening to music. I listened to a lot of albums that my clients put out. It helps me a lot more. It helps me understand their lyrics a lot more and you know, what they're trying to portray. And I'm very fortunate that, when a new album cycle does come through, I do get these incredible albums a month or so before the rest of the world does. So I kind of used that time to really figure out what they're trying to say. So even if I'm not necessarily working for them at that time, I'm still working with them. If that makes sense.

Do you have any specific resources that helped you that you could recommend?

For me, it's just exposing myself to as much different art and as many artists as I possibly can. My work is big lines, bold colours, it's very straightforward, but as you can see behind me, like the artwork that I purchase and that I like to surround myself is extremely different to anything that I would create for myself. I would love nothing more than to every Friday night go to one of my friend's galleries and see a new batch of whatever artists they have on at the moment. Experiencing other art forms and experiencing other artists is just such a big inspiration for me.

And it allows me to bring some of those elements that I see in their work and bring it into my art. So, my girlfriend is an installation artist. She does a lot of big installations, very conceptual work. And just being with her for the last three years, it's kind of allowed me to put more emotion into my work. With installations, it's all about making you feel something and I've loved taking that inspiration and trying to bring it more into my work. Creating work that not only looks beautiful, but makes you feel a certain way. It makes you feel joy. It makes you feel happiness. Or in terms of my band outwork, makes you feel the way that music makes you feel.

Where's the best place people can keep follow along with your work online?

The best place you can find me is on Instagram. It's @chrisxcosta. I put up all my work there. I usually post a couple of times a week. It's kind of the best place just to see an evolving portfolio of my work. I also run an independent clothing label called Badlands. You can find us on Instagram or at That's just a fun passion project for myself, but we put out new clothing every single month and yeah.

Chris Costa

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