Three years ago, Jody Steel was just another student at Emerson College in Boston. Like many other products of the American educational system, Steel spent time in class drawing while half listening to professors and taking notes.
Unlike most of those collegiate doodlers, the Florida native's drawings went viral.
A classroom sketch of Breaking Bad's Walter White on her thigh gained international attention on the Internet, and before long, reporters were knocking on Steel's door. Even before she became a local celebrity, plenty of people around her already knew how special her artwork was.
“When I was doing it, my parents and my professors were very supportive of it,” Steel says. “I think it was really unique because it was on myself instead of on paper or anything.”
Some of Steel's pieces took off when she began putting posting them on Reddit, Imgur and in a few other spots. While getting recognized around campus and on the streets of Boston might have been a little strange at first, Steel jokes that at least her college tuition went toward something useful.
Even when they're working on paper, few artists can match the level of detail and precision Steel puts into each drawing. There's really no one out there doing what she's doing on the human body. With just a simple pen and/or marker, Steel's able to create photo-real art on people's skin, a thing some tattooers spend decades trying to master. For the young artist, it's become second nature to use flesh as a canvas for her designs.
“Drawing on skin is actually easier for me than drawing on paper or canvas,” Steel says. “I really like to incorporate the body, like having things tearing through the skin. People always think it's so sad that I wash it off after, but it lives in the video. So many more people see it in the videos than the sketches I do or the paintings I do.”
Now 22, Steel lives in L.A. and works as a freelance artist. In her ongoing series of YouTube videos, she records herself drawing on various bodies in time-lapse. Ultimately, she wants to work in a different kind of film. Steel's talents have been put to use on a variety of projects (from entirely digital graphic design work for companies to custom drawings for individual clients), but her first goal has always been to work on the production side of Hollywood. Though at this point she's been there and done that to some extent, she'd still like to do more of it on her own terms.
“It's kind of the dream to be able to make my own schedule and do my own art,” Steel says. “I've worked in studios and in special effects, but it's still creating art for other people. Getting to do my own original work and being able to do it when it comes to me has been really cool.”
In the immediate future she's planning to do live demonstrations, as well as collaborate with celebrities and brands. Her dog, Harley, can be found in some of her most popular art, including on a T-shirt she designed. Steel also designed a shirt for the Red Cross after the attacks in Paris.
But body art has always been Steel's favorite medium. Even in high school, she would draw on her friends and classmates whenever they wanted her to.
“It was that time when everyone wants to look like they have tattoos, so I would take a Sharpie and draw on them,” Steel says. “It is a challenge to find the right perspective to make it look right from every angle. Even finding the right kind of marker was a lot of trial and error, but it was never something I thought of as a plausible career for me.”
But that was all before Steel realized she'd found a niche that lots of people were into but that no one had done on such a high level before. Now that she's gone from a casual sketcher to a sought-after professional artist, she's happy to inspire the next generation of artists. When tattoos aren't cool anymore, temporary body art might be the next big thing; Steel would certainly be a pioneer in the medium.
“I've had parents email me and tell me that they let their kids draw on themselves because of me,” Steel says. “I think that's great. I mean, it can't hurt.”