Breaking Good: Emerson alumna moves from Walter White to Red Cross

Erin Clossey

February 11, 2016

Artist Jody Steel '14 draws Peace on a model's back. It is one of four designs she's selling on T-shirts to raise money for the American Red Cross.

Emerson College alumna Jody Steel ’14 rose to fame drawing on her leg, but now she’s lending a hand to the American Red Cross through her artwork.

The Desert to the Sea Region of the Red Cross, which covers a swath of California from Orange County to the Arizona border, will sell apparel featuring one of four Steel designs, with 80 percent of the proceeds going to fund the agency’s Fire Preparedness Campaign. The items can be purchased through a website the Red Cross set up, ArtistJodySteel.com.

Jody Steel '14 draws her 'biggest hero,' Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson.

Steel, whose ink-on-thigh portrait of Walter White from Breaking Bad went viral in 2013, had made a time-lapse video of her drawing a dove bursting through a heart-shaped, flag-filled hole on someone’s bare back, and put it up on YouTube. The video, “Peace,” was inspired by the attacks on Paris and Beirut last November.

“I guess, in general, when the attacks in Paris happened, it brought me back to the Charlie Hebdo attacks [in January 2015], when they went after artists,” Steel said. “That’s the most important time to make art.”

The video received 70 million views, and Steel sold shirts featuring the drawing on online design marketplace Redbubble, which donated a portion of the proceeds to the American Red Cross.

“Someone from the Red Cross reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, Redbubble was donating money to us from their site, and it turned out that your shirt was making 50% of the [donations],’” Steel said.

The Red Cross is offering a range of shirts featuring four of her designs: Peace; Koi (two koi fish in a yin-yang arrangement); Polar Bear (an environmentally themed drawing of a melting polar bear, an orca, and a steer skull); and Harley (her dog, who has amassed quite an Instagram following).

“I think it’s important to remember we can all still put in this effort to call for peace, and hopefully…I know it’s such a stretch, but to set aside differences,” Steel said.

Steel’s designs will help save lives of families in Southern California through the Red Cross’s Fire Preparedness Program, which installs smoke alarms in the homes of economically disadvantaged families, and teaches them what to do in case of fire, said Brian Daly, director of major gifts for the Desert to the Sea Region.

“The reason that I’m so proud of the campaign with Jody is if you just think about how horrible it would be to be trapped in a [burning] house,” Daly said. “The fact that Jody’s contribution is going to help make a difference so people don’t find themselves in that situation is heart-warming.”

Since graduating from Emerson, Steel has moved out to Los Angeles and become kind of a big deal on social media, where she has accumulated about 2 million followers across different platforms. Steel got 15,000 Instagram followers in one day after she drew a picture of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and he shared it with his followers on Instagram.

“He’s, like, my biggest hero,” she said.

Steel has been using her social media clout to generate ad revenue and work out deals to boost her own brand, as well as others’. She partnered with DC Comics to help plug its YouTube channel for fans.

But no matter how far she gets from Boston, she’s always close to Emerson College.

“It’s crazy, because after I graduated, I’m still so involved in that community, and just having the Emerson mafia. Everywhere I’ve ever applied for a job out here, someone [has an Emerson connection],” Steel said. “It’s a really great community, I think, and that’s why I really wanted to reach out to the community...That’s where I got my start.”