Anyone who’s played with an Etch A Sketch knows how tough it is to draw anything that’s not a set of stairs. Executing a perfect circle with both knobs on the children’s toy takes countless hours of experience and a craftsman’s dexterity. That’s why Ryan Burton, aka Scuffed, is famous on Reddit: He’s the “Etch A Sketch boobie-drawing master,” known for intricate (and often NSFW) renderings of cartoon characters.
There are plenty of talented Etch A Sketch artists out there—Princess Etch is another Reddit favorite—but Burton stood out to me for his depictions of penises with Trump’s face and irreverent tidbits from 1990s pop culture.
But there’s more to his story than some NSFW Simpsons art going viral. Burton spends hours creating detailed sketches of a busty Marge Simpson for two reasons: 1) It helps him stand out from the crowd; and 2) it’s a product of his drug-addicted past.
“I was addicted to opiates from the time I was 16 until I was 22,” Burton says. Though he’s been opiate-free since 22, he doesn’t “believe in being 100 percent clean” and finds drug culture as a fascinating muse for his art. “Being a drug addict and struggling with depression, plus being a skateboarder for 18 years,” he explains, are influences that “spread out and converge into my Etch A Sketch art.” Plus, he says, “there’s more shock value when you see boobs or drug use on an Etch A Sketch.”
How does one become an Etch A Sketch master? “It’s all muscle memory, learning to use both knobs at once,” Burton says. “Take your time in a well-lit room and try to find the glint of the stylus through the glass. Eventually you’ll master circles, and then get comfortable enough to make lines appear not to be connected, which is a hard technique but one I’m a purist about. I don’t like seeing an amazing piece ruined by a line that doesn’t belong just so the artist could go from the forehead to the eyeballs.”
He also figured out how to make the art permanent. If you drill a hole in the toy, drain the graphite powder and remove the stylus, the art won’t disappear when you shake it. This let him sell the art and ship it. (Today, he has buyers in “almost all 50 states,” he wrote on Instagram.)
How It All Began
Burton had just moved to a new city and found himself lacking a social life, so he took to Reddit “in search of some positive attention.” “Everyone is the best at something,” he wrote. “My thing is the Etch A Sketch.” A few hours and 136,000 upvotes (for Reddit, an astounding number) later, he had friends messaging him that they were seeing his artwork featured on internet aggregate sites, noticed a sudden influx of Instagram followers and found multiple redditors reposting his artwork as their own.
Before he went viral, he used the Etch A Sketch as a way to escape his busy brain. He first picked up the toy when he was 24 to try to impress a woman he was into. She and her child “had an Etch A Sketch sitting on the table and said they’d been trying to draw an eyeball all day but couldn’t come close.” Challenge accepted. After about an hour, he’d done it. His friend let him keep the Etch A Sketch to practice on.
Burton “found zen” in that hour, he tells me, drawing an eyeball on an old, beaten-up toy that would just erase his work with a few shakes. Like quilting, drawing on the Etch A Sketch is “a way to calm myself or get out of my own head for a while,” he says. He even treated it “as sort of a sand mandala” at first: “The whole process of creating something to destroy, it struck me as unique and creative.”
A few months after the eyeball, he found others might be interested in his creations. “I was working at the Chattanooga Market and had a lot of downtime,” he says. “So I spent the day trying to etch. I ended up with a crude drawing of a man smoking a cig, and I posted it on Instagram. A lot of my friends seemed amazed, so I thought, Hey, maybe I should see how good I can get with this.” After that, he didn’t stop until he perfected the art.
Eventually, Burton says, he began to see stronger reception to the NSFW cartoons from his friends and followers, and just embraced it, even if it meant possibly offending those who might come across it.
“If I do accidentally offend or objectify, that’s not my intention — the most positive comments and sales for those pieces usually come from women, and I in no way consider them objects, so I wouldn’t say I objectify women in my art.”
Some big names started to notice and repost his art on Instagram: “legendary skateboarders Ed Templeton, Josh Kalis, Zered Bassett, some of my favorite visual artists, Rick and Morty, Bob’s Burgers and even Bart Simpson herself, Nancy Cartwright.”
But Reddit provided the perfect atmosphere for his type of art to really make an impact. “It’s a good home for anything that’s either out of the ordinary or can lead to debate about the validity of a subject,” he says. Unlike Instagram, where his following is a small set of fans and friends, Reddit’s majority audience is young American men fluent in pop culture. So when something like Burton’s take on Bart Simpson rises to the top, it has the potential to reach r/pics’ 19.5 million subscribers.”
Still, many commenters were vocally skeptical of Burton’s work. “It’s incredible how many people think [my drawings] are fake, and get genuinely mad at me for trying to ‘con karma,’ which is the dumbest thing,” he says. “Karma isn’t real—I just like people to see my work and talk to them about it.”
As of now, the etching is mostly for zen; Burton remains skeptical of the wider art scene and doubts he’ll do it for a living. “I don’t think it’ll ever come to me … being respected in mainstream art circles,” he says. “I tried that, [and] most of them are a bunch of pretentious dicks. I’ve seen a guy literally shoot clay with a gun, dry it and slap a $3,000 price tag on it. To me, that’s not art, that’s trying too hard and makes you come off as unlikable.”
Any advice to the next generation of etchers? “If any young artist saw my work and it influenced them in any way, I’d hope it would help them realize art is anything you enjoy creating and sharing with the world, and to never be ashamed as long as you put yourself out there and try to make other people happier with your work. … That, and it’s not a great way to get rich.”