When I was a kid we had school lunches. The varieties I remember were mac-n-cheese that reeked of burnt plastic and hairspray; Sloppy Joes that were the taste and temperature of a cup of ice cream left in the back seat of a car; and tacos that I only remember ’cause I threw them up once. Summer camp was a different story. I had a metal Super Powers lunchbox — with Thermos! — that my mother would fill with chocolate milk, my Velveeta and Wonder Bread sandwiches, and little plastic bags of cookies. Oh and sometimes fruit, to make me what she referred to as “regular.” At the time I thought that meant blond and quiet.
Those lunches were awesome, as was the lunchbox. (Years later, I would masturbate thinking about that image of cartoon Wonder Woman, and I would wonder if hell was as warm as Long Island in August.) I took pride in it, as did the other kids who had lunchboxes, for you were looked down upon by the other runts if you took a bagged lunch. In the kiddie class system of school eats, the bagged lunch crew were on the lower end of the totem pole, the kind of kids that would rob you of your vending machine money if you stared at their wrinkled, soggy brown paper sacks for too long.
I don’t know if Derek, the creator of Lunchbag Art, went to a summer camp like mine, but he obviously knew how to elevate his kids’ midday noshing to a popularity-grabbing gourmet juncture. After seeing his work all over Tumblr, and doubting it was just one person, that it was “for real,” that someone would actually do something so awesome for their kids every day (sorry, I’m not a parent), I finally wrote to him to get the lowdown of his blog for this one. One thing is for sure, his kids most likely rule the school as a direct result of his skill with a sack.
Do you remember when you started doing lunch bag art?
September 2006, when my oldest kid started kindergarten.
Why did you start blogging?
The kids and teachers liked the art on the bags, and I decided to take pictures of them. I’d started fooling around with blogging because it was so easy, and everyone was doing it. I didn’t have much to say, though, that everyone else wasn’t saying at the same time. But I had all this art. I posted it for fun, for the kids and the relatives to check out.
What do you do for a living?
I make art for video games.
I saw that you have kids, as in plural. Do you do more than one bag a day?
Yes, I do more than one. Lately the kids have started making them with me, so my workload has decreased.
And on your lunch hour…really? Does your boss get pissed?
No problem doing this on my lunch hour. The art isn’t that complicated to make; think of it as just another form of speed painting. And as I’ve practiced, I’ve gotten faster. My bosses haven’t gotten upset; on the contrary, they themselves are artists and appreciate the effort it takes to keep the skills up. Many game studios have sketch sessions on-site to help their artists. This ain’t nothin.
Do your kids ever get teased at school for their lunch bags? Or are you, like, the god of their grade school?
They don’t get teased, but the other kids don’t always understand what the drawing is. The Herculoids haven’t been on TV for a while, for example.
And as for the “God of the School?” That’s something else. I would have given some modest, shrugging answer here a while ago. But recently my daughter’s teacher asked me to come in and show the class some art stuff.
My daughter introduced me as an artist. The kids in the class said, “Ooooooh.” As if it were a cool thing. I showed them how I drew on my kid’s lunch bags; I made one in front of them on the overhead projector. It was a portrait of Wall-E rolling on grassy hills beneath a blue sky. When it was done, the kids burst into applause. The teacher and I were amazed.
She asked, “So being an artist is your work? What do you do with art as a job?” When I answered video games, the kids really went nuts. I hooked the laptop into the overhead and showed some stuff I had: goblins, elves, robots.
They really got into it. I built a monkey. I made the knight brandish his sword. I changed the elf’s facial expression, making him pout. “Give him a zit!” one of the kids shouted, so I gave him a huge elven zit. I did a pompous voice for the elf, complaining about ghastly children who wanted a zit on his handsome elf face.
The teacher told me later that her colleagues were poking their heads into the room to see what had the kids laughing so hard. “Most parents come here and make the kids sit through a presentation kind of thing,” she said later. “But you showed them how to do it. This was great. You’re a natural teacher.”
Other kids came to me and told me they really liked the whole thing. They asked me for lunch bags; I gave them some extras I had as well as the Wall-E one. “You! You’re a great artist!” one little boy told me. He looked stunned as he said it.
And my little girl gave me a big hug. I’ve never seen her so proud of anything. She’d been having a hard time in school, and it turns out she’s been struggling with dyslexia. She’d tell me the kids didn’t like her, telling her she was stupid.
Now, when I ask, she tells me she had a great day at school, that her friends did this and that. Since my visit, the teacher says, she plays with more kids than she did before, that she has more fun than she used to.
I don’t want to make this about me. But if it turns out that showing up here and making the rest of the class laugh at robots and stuff makes my daughter like school a little more, gets her a little more notice, then I’ll do this whenever I can. I’ll tour the whole school like a rock star if they let me. My daughter is starting therapy for the dyslexia, and if I can help her out with this lunch bag nonsense I will. Anything, anything. Before I become standard-issue Embarrassing Dad.
Do they appreciate what you do?
A lot more than I’d realized.
Do you feel the need to make them lunches that are as awesome as their sacks?
My wife is a fancy-pants gourmet, so I’d have to say the lunches are always better than the drawings.
What do you usually send them off to school with?
Lots of stuff, trying to mix it up. You can get inexpensive, cool stuff for kids these days. Cha siu bao or tacquitos are a little more like it. And fruit to ignore, of course, gotta have that.
What do they want to be when they grow up?
My daughter wants to train dolphins. My son wants to be a Jedi. My other son is two.
What was the most boring job you’ve ever had?
I had a lot of retail jobs in college. They were the worst. If you’re in retail right now, and you worry that you complain too much, you’re probably doing it just the right amount.
Making games can be a lot of fun. There’s nothing like being on a team of smart, creative types hammering day and night on one thing, struggling to make it good. Seeing people play your game and like it is heady stuff.
But they want a lot of hours from you. I loved games work when I was in my twenties. It’s good for people without families; later on it gets trickier. I’m thinking about what to do next; I think seventeen years of one career might be enough. Maybe dolphin trainer or Jedi is next.
Do people try to pay you to do lunch bag art for wedding favors or anything?
No, but I did the t-shirts for the school PTA last year. I’ve done some clothing customization. I suppose I could set up a t-shirt store on my page. I’m thinking about selling a bag each month on Ebay and donating the proceeds to a charity.
It’s inevitable that I ask if you ever suffer from so-called blogger burnout?
Not really. I haven’t been as productive lately simply because I don’t have a day job at the moment. The lunch hour structure made it easier to draw. I’ll be starting a new gig in two weeks, so I’ll have more drawings up.
Thanks to Derek, my Tumblr dashboard never goes hungry.
Drop me a line if there’s someone toiling away in the awesome sauce that you’d like me to write about: AinsleyDrew at gmail dot calm. And thank you to all of you who donate (and comment, and write.) Really, I can’t thank you enough for it.
Hire us so that we can eat some lunch of our own.