Mike Coppola/Getty Images, Tristan Herbert
Rapper Nicki Minaj visits the Z100 Studio on Nov. 21, 2012, in New York City. She’s holding a phone with a case design made for her by Tristan Herbert.
A Baltimore artist has designs on becoming the cellphone case stylist to the stars.
And thanks to social media, Tristan Herbert has gotten his cartoonish creations into the hands of some powerful personalities, from rapper Nicki Minaj to hoops star LeBron James.
The 24-year-old says he’s thrilled each time celebs are photographed clinging to their phones with his customized cases. Each design is exclusive, and he doesn’t sell the same one twice.
“It’s surreal,” said Herbert, who only conceived his star-studded line of cases last year. “I didn’t think I’d be able to interact with the people I’m used to seeing on TV.”
A custom case featuring Miami Heat forward LeBron James and wife Savannah Brinson.
Herbert, born in Uniondale, L.I., said he sketched in high school, but it was never his intention to make a living out of his art. He never went to college and instead dreamed of becoming a voice-over actor.
But during a visit to Manhattan in August 2012, he had an artistic epiphany: He was struck by the popularity of phone cases featuring cartoon characters and other recognizable brands.
“My brother said, ‘You can change the game by selling your artwork on cases,’” said Herbert, who has a knack for drawing celebrities. “No one was doing that — offering a service to put a face on the case.”
The enterprising artist was already dialed into the power of the Internet.
Baltimore artist Tristan Herbert is making a name for himself by creating customized phone cases. His client list includes rappers, athletes and reality TV stars.
Last year, New York radio star DJ Clue commissioned Herbert to create the cover art for his latest album — all because he saw his work on Instagram.
To sell his custom phone cases, Herbert posted mock-ups on the popular photo-sharing app and set up a PayPal account. Soon, orders started filtering in from people wanting their favorite celebrity — or themselves — on a case.
“Everybody wants to have what other people have: the latest Jordans, Guccis, red-bottom shoes,” Herbert said. “I wanted to be different in a way by making each case special.”
Tristan Herbert, 24, of Baltimore, creates custom cellphone cases, a business he was inspired to start last year.
Such a service sounds like an untapped niche, said Ben Arnold, a consumer tech analyst with market research company The NPD Group.
Phone cases are currently the most popular mobile accessory, ahead of headphones, according to the firm’s 2012 study.
“There’s a real opportunity for a carrier or an up-and-coming manufacturer to get into the market,” Arnold said. “I mean, I would love to have a picture of my kids on my phone.”
That idea is what prompted Herbert to focus on cases.
Skylar Diggins, who plays for the WNBA team the Tulsa Shock, shows off her new phone case on Instagram on Saturday: ‘Shout out to @tristanyv for the new case! Love it!’
He lucked out when someone in Nicki Minaj’s entourage saw his Instagram account and showed the former “American Idol” judge his work, he said.
An unexpected email from her associate said she was interested in something special for herself.
“I thought it was a prank, so it took me a few days before I got back to them,” Herbert said.
The special ‘Pink Friday’ case designed for rapper Nicki Minaj.
He colored the case pink and included a picture of a blond and busty Minaj wearing a pink blazer and flashing a smile. He added the name of her album “Pink Friday.”
Herbert never actually spoke with the “Super Bass” rapper, but that didn’t matter. He gained instant credibility when photogs snapped her with the phone while she was out on the town or doing interviews.
He later hooked up with Miami Heat player LeBron James through a random customer whose son happened to be on the same basketball team as James’ son.
James and his wife, Savannah Brinson, saw Herbert’s work and wanted a personalized touch.
Herbert created a case design fit for LeBron James’ Samsung Galaxy Note 2.
Herbert made a case for James’ Samsung Galaxy Note II with the four-time MVP in his Heat uniform. A second case features James off the court with his wife.
Herbert said it takes several hours to complete one of the drawings, which he does by hand on his computer. He says they aren’t simply traced from an existing photograph.
He charges at least $ 58 a pop to customers and has made about 700 phones so far. His followers on Instagram now number more than 28,000.
His latest client: 20-year-old pop singer Ariana Grande, whom he reached through her manager.
“What I like is that these clients give me the chance to decide what would look good — instead of them telling me what they want,” Herbert said.
But, ultimately, Herbert doesn’t want to be known solely as “the case guy” and has started his own fashion line and cartoon Web series.
“I didn’t even own a bank account when I started,” he said. “So it’s hard for me to believe where I’m at now. But I want to keep going. I’m always thinking, ‘What’s next?’”