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How Artist Grace Miceli’s Dog, Tony, Helps Her Deal

“I was like, ‘How can I draw myself without drawing my actual self?’ We have this sort of symbiotic relationship — he’s become this character that I’m able to explore things through...”

by Rachel Davies
April 17, 2022
grace miceli and tony
Grace Miceli / The Wildest Creative

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From doodles for Lil Yachty music videos and SZA tour announcement art to murals across New York City and a book of illustrations about dealing (or not dealing) with mental health, Grace Miceli’s evocative, approachable art has appeared just about everywhere. Known as @artbabygirl on Instagram, where her drawings spread like wildfire on story reshares and explore pages, Miceli’s work is for anyone who has found themselves totally unable to succumb to the magnetic pull of the doomscroll.

Whether it’s a drawing of a Frosted Flakes cereal box that finds Tony the Tiger maniacally laughing under the phrase “I don’t know who I am anymore” or a bottle of laundry detergent that reads “New! Trust Issues,” her bright colors and familiar references make the darker parts of life feel a lot less lonely. 

A few years ago Miceli adopted Tony, a Chihuahua who brings a similar kind of warm comfort to day-to-day life. Since then, Miceli’s been representing the black-and-white pup in her art, whether it’s a multi-panel comic for The New Yorker or a drawing of Tony chasing his tail — as a symbol of her own complicated but oh-so-relatable feelings. Ahead, we talk to Miceli about how Tony helps her get outside of her head. 

Grace Miceli and her small dog
Grace Miceli drawing on paper
Courtesy of Grace Miceli
https://www.instagram.com/artbabygirl/

What was the process of adopting Tony from Muddy Paws Rescue like?

Definitely. I think adopting a dog was something I knew I wanted to do for a while and I had kind of been putting the feelers out there to friends, asking for advice on where people had gotten their dogs. I actually don’t think I knew anyone else that had gotten a dog from Muddy Paws, but I think I reached out to a few New York-based rescues. I just saw this little guy on their website and I don’t know — something was calling me to him.

Did you name him?

Yes, I did. His name was Nico and someone else had actually returned him, like they adopted him for a week and said he was lazy and boring. They were just lying because I love him but he’s just the opposite; he’s not lazy and boring. He has so much energy, so I think he was maybe too much to handle. So I wanted to give him a fresh start and a new name.

Grace Miceli illustration, a black and white dog on a cloud
Grace Miceli illustration, a black and white dog barking

How does he figure into your daily work routine?

So he has all this energy but that being said, he also is an eight-pound Chihuahua, so he also is very happy to just sit on my lap for most of the day or kind of like watch me work. It’s great because he’s so little, just taking him on a 20-minute walk a few times a day, he gets it out of him. I recently moved to a fifth-floor walk-up so those stairs and I make him do those stairs, which is a lot with his legs. His legs are probably like four inches tall. I think it’s perfect because I am someone who — before I had him I would just not leave my apartment and work really unhealthy hours, like stay up late working.

I think having Tony in my life, I’ve been forced to have that routine. I get up early because he’s so funny, he’s not like most dogs, he doesn’t want to walk early in the morning, he wakes me up to be fed breakfast, and then he goes back to sleep for like four hours. He literally comes out of bed at 11 am and looks at me and I’m like “Alright, let’s go for a walk, dude.” But it’s great because it gets me outside, gets me moving, and it gives me those breaks. If I’m drawing all day my posture totally sucks so to have to go walk to the park is really great for me to have him help me do that.

Grace Miceli illustration
Grace Miceli illustration

What a lot of people love about your art is your frankness about mental health. Do you think that Tony’s helped you with your mental health?

1000%, like, no question. I think I got him when I was beginning to come out of a major depressive episode — which like, I’m glad things worked out, but looking back I do think I kind of got him as a reason to do stuff, and like I said, get out of the house more. I think having this other creature to care for really helped me kind of — for lack of a better word — get my shit together. I had someone else to take care of, and you know when you’re having a hard day or you’re crying and this adorable dog starts licking your tears away?

He’s such a comfort and he really helps kind of put things in perspective for me and he’s hilarious. He makes me laugh and he’s so entertaining and just shows me so much love — even if I’ve, like, got rejected from a job. He doesn’t care, I can do anything and he’s still going to be obsessed with me. I even tell my partner, when my partner is having a hard time, I’m like, “Think of yourself the way Tony thinks of you! Tony’s obsessed with us — let’s let Tony guide us towards that self-love, self-esteem, self-confidence stuff.”

Grace Miceli illustration
Grace Miceli illustration

I feel like so much of your career is online, so it’s probably good having a dog to be present with and pull you out of that.

Exactly, no, totally. You’re like in your body even when you’re just petting the dog, right? It’s such a physical sensation that you have to get out of your head a little bit.

I love how much he appears in your artwork. Can you talk about why you draw him?

Yes, honestly, I think at first I started drawing him because I just have this fear and aversion to drawing people and I was like, “How can I draw myself without drawing my actual self?” So I think it started with that. He’s this symbol of me and then it’s kind of evolved since then to be this mirror. We mirror each other in so many ways, like when I’m anxious he gets anxious, but in good ways too. If I’m anxious, and then he’s really chill, I can mirror him in a good way. He’ll kind of calm me down.

Just think about what dog trainers say, like, that your dog is going to pick up on you being tense. He used to be really reactive with other dogs walking because I was stressed out and that that travels through the leash. We have this sort of symbiotic relationship — he’s become this character that I’m able to explore things through because there’s more distance than if I were to be drawing a straight-up self-portrait.

Grace Miceli illustration
Grace Miceli illustration

By the looks of his Instagram, Tony travels with you quite a bit. What has your experience been traveling with him?

Yeah! My partner and I took Tony on a two-month road trip this summer and Tony loves the car, I will say that, but it was funny to watch him react. Some hotels he loved and was so happy at, and then other hotels, he would run in and immediately pee on a chair. It’s really cool to witness the world through his eyes.

He’s definitely a city dog. I tried so many times to get him to be in nature and run through fields with me when we were camping, but one time he legitimately forced his body through a zipped-up tent to get inside. He just wants to be comfortable, on a pillow or under a blanket. If he’s on a lap, he’s good to go.

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rachel davies

Rachel Davies

Rachel Davies is a writer who has written for numerous publications including VoxWall Street Journal, and Architectural Digest and the parent of a beautiful Cocker Spaniel mix named Thea.