Rafael Mantesso’s Muse, Jimmy, Helped Him Draw A New Path
The Insta-famous Brazilian illustrator on making art, living with autism, and loving a Bull Terrier.
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Rafael Mantesso knows a thing or two about heartbreak. On his 30th birthday, his wife left him, taking all their furniture with her. Mantesso found himself in an empty apartment accompanied only by his Bull Terrier, Jimmy. But he didn’t let the devastating experience define him. Instead, he channeled it into art. “I had a white dog in a completely white apartment...that all-white picture invited me to grow around it,” he says.
Mantesso looked at that blank canvas and began filling it with pictures of his pet that he’d illustrate cartoonish features around — Jimmy as a rock star, crooning into a microphone; Jimmy as a superhero, flying over a cityscape; Jimmy as Jaws, stealing towards an unsuspecting swimmer. The minimalist concept proved a massive creative outlet and his Instagram exploded in popularity, culminating with the release of A Dog Named Jimmy: The Social Media Sensation, a print collection of his work. The Wildest spoke with Mantesso about making art, living with autism, and loving a Bull Terrier.
When did you begin to put this art on Instagram and what was the inspiration behind it?
I believe the first inspiration I had to do it was to create a kind of photo album of my dog — one that I would be proud of it, no matter how many times I looked back at it. I had a white dog in a completely white apartment so visually it was a difficult thing to solve. But I wanted to create something that represented Jimmy’s soul, humor, and joy of life. That all-white picture invited me to grow around it.
You were also at a very transformative moment in your life, correct?
I was in a very specific moment of my life — one that I believe a lot of people can relate to. The feeling of having a job that you don’t like so much and having other passions that you never put in front. Then, I lost everything — everything I had. Things that were these great pillars of society, like marriage, a house, and a job. But I was not happy with these things. I always loved to draw and take pictures but it was just for my pleasure. I never had the courage to make these things public. And suddenly, Jimmy was the most amazing thing in front of me.
I am so passionate about him. He’s so funny and he has a very interesting design. The Bull Terrier is not a common dog. Often, when I’m walking with Jimmy here in Brazil, there are people who have never seen that breed before. They get so excited and they’ll ask, ‘is this a rabbit, what is this?’ because they don’t know what it is. So it was easy for me to catch these moments and make them funny.
Jimmy’s personality can very much be felt throughout your work. He’s energetic, intelligent, a little goofy. Are there any traits of his that aren’t always expressed in the art that only you see at home?
He is very needy; he needs attention 100% of the time. Right now, as I’m talking to you, I had to go to another place because if I was home he’d be trying to get in the front of the conversation. He’s so needy for my attention. Like most Bull Terriers, he’s very passionate. He always wants to be around me. They’re also very passionate dogs. But I have a theory that Jimmy’s personality is 50 percent Bull Terrier traits and 50 percent made by my personality.
I’m a very antisocial person. For me, it’s difficult to go to a dog park because I hate to interact with people that I don’t know. I don’t want to talk with them. So Jimmy’s very antisocial with other dogs. We have a very deep connection.
Were Bull Terriers always a breed that you gravitated toward?
Yeah, my first dog was a Pit Bull — a similar dog. It was a Pit Bull in a tiny city in a time when Pit Bulls were hated. It’s not much different right now; they still paint these dogs as killers. Everyone was afraid of this dog, but with me and my family he was amazing. Bull Terriers have a similar public image because they’re associated with Pit Bulls and all these behaviors. There is no problem with any breed; the problem is with how you breed and treat them.
Do you think portraying a dog like Jimmy in this artistic and playful fashion helps curb any of these misconceptions that surround Bull Terriers or similar breeds?
Yeah, totally. I think I’ve helped make Bull Terriers cooler than they were before. But there’s a downside to that too. A lot of people are fascinated with them; they want that dog from Instagram but don’t do any research into the breed. Bull Terriers are not very smart. You need to be very emphatic when you are teaching them things. They have a lot of energy. They will destroy your house. They’re not the easiest dogs. But if you’re just getting a dog to make an Instagram, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. There’s a rescue here in Brazil that has 12 Bull Terriers and it breaks my heart because when I see them, I see Jimmy.
You’ve spoken openly about having autism and discovering that later in life. How has Jimmy helped you change how you approach the condition?
I discovered that I was autistic around the same time all those other things were happening. But it was an amazing opportunity for me to do whatever I wanted to do because that was the easiest way to my happiness. Before all that sh*t happened in my life, I needed to find something pleasurable, something that would make me happy. And Jimmy was that. I connected with him in a way to understand what it means to be a Bull Terrier, what I had to do to make that little thing happy. I was very happy with him by my side and everything started from there, to find my happiness.
I don’t have kids. I’m not married, and I don’t want to marry. I don’t want to have kids. I live with my dog and for a lot of people it’s a life that doesn’t make sense. But for me, it’s the life I want to leave. I am doing this for me, not for anyone’s expectations. Jimmy was what made me find that way of thinking. It’s difficult for me to connect with people. With my dog, I connected very quickly.
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Sean Zucker is a writer whose work has been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He has an adopted Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and whose behavioral issues rival his own.