Matchstick's collection of 8 Bit Birdie golf ball markers have been a smash success, with very few still left in our stock as of today. I sat down with the man behind the pixelated vision to discuss his golf history, pixel art, the golf industry, and whether he'd rather have a hole-in-one or his best round ever.
I loved having this conversation with 8 Bit Birdie and I hope you enjoy getting to know him as an artist a little bit better.
What’s your golf history? When did you start?
It’s been on and off in my life. When I was a kid my dad played, and I was involved in a lot of sports, but I wasn’t into golf… but I wanted to try it! I feel like there was a big hockey craze in the early ‘90s, probably because of The Mighty Ducks, and so when I was younger we played floor hockey and I thought I was pretty good. I thought golf looked fun, we had a couple golf video games for Sega Genesis and NES when I was younger.
(Laughing) My dad always played golf, though. I remember going to the driving range with him and being terrible at it. My grandpa was a golfer as well and I would go to visit him and he would often have my cousin and I go take lessons. I was always terrible at it, because I’m not athletic but I am coordinated. So I remember liking golf and wanting to ‘get it’ but I didn’t. In high school I was playing tennis and so I took a class that was a tennis/golf combo and they drove one day to the closest driving range and that was the first time I hit a ball 100+ yards in the air. That was definitely a ‘click’ moment right there.
Then it kind of faded away for whatever reason and I really didn’t have the money or time to play in college when I was going to design school. Then there was this brief period when I was living back in Western Colorado and I had no money, and this buddy and I were messing around with his clubs so I went and bought a thrift store set for maybe $20. In 2011 I randomly decided to not drive a car anymore, and so I didn’t drive for eight years so I didn’t golf again for eight years.
When I got my license again during quarantine, getting clubs was the first thing I did. I was like, ‘I’m playing golf again.’ It was fun to get back into it — I was really bad, so I decided to actually try to figure things out. I wanted to figure out why I hit a slice my whole life, so I started watching YouTube videos and getting into more of the technical aspect.
It’s just clicked a lot more and it was just good timing.
What got you into making art?
It’s just been a part of my life since I was a little kid. I don’t think I was ever really super great at it when I was young. Just being a kid of the ‘90s, I remember drawing Ninja Turtles and then drawing X-Men and then anime or video games. My various interests, I just liked to draw them. I’m really not an illustrator or an artist by definition, I’m a designer, so I’m more on the graphic design side. Digital design is my actual job, I’m an art director, which is cool but it’s not as ‘fun’ and it’s not as freeform.
That’s why I’m doing pixel art and having a little side project because sometimes I’m so stuck in web grids and vector art. It’s fun, but that stuff gets old after a while. A couple years ago I was painting a lot with acrylics and I liked it but I just can’t do it. It’s too time-consuming and I’m not fast, in fact I’m pretty slow. That was just a huge obstacle for me, I would sometimes take weeks or months on these canvases and then it’s not like I’m good enough to be selling them for a living.
I just want to do something art-wise on the side of my job just so I don’t get bored with my day job.
Why did you start 8 Bit Birdie?
It coincides with the pandemic, and it goes back to my history with golf. When I was first starting to play golf and take that class my freshman year of high school I bought Mario Golf for the Game Boy Color. I’m always super specific about that because there’s a lot of different versions of that game and the 1999 one is very special.
When I was solidifying my interest in golf I played Mario Golf a lot and I thought it was very good just as a game, especially a Game Boy Color title. They made an updated version of it for Game Boy Advance in 2004 and I played that one a lot too. I think the Game Boy Color version is the best golf game ever made.
During quarantine I got a little Game Boy emulator and so I started playing Mario Golf again I probably put, like, 200 hours into that game.(Laughing) I’m not even kidding. It’s super deep and it has a really good physics engine — a lot of it is judging wind and stuff, so it’s complex and realistic. It’s an excellent representation of amateur golf. Like in other games, you pretty much can just dial in your shot but in Mario Golf you have to use feel and do a little bit of math based on how the hitting system works and that’s more to the ability of an amateur golfer.
And the pixel art in it is incredible! It’s kind of ugly compared to some of the newer revivalist pixel art games, and the Game Boy Color is a really weak system, but it’s really perfect as what it does. But when I was playing it I thought, ‘Man it would be really fun to do straight up old school pixel art of golf stuff.’
I thought it would just be fun to start an Instagram account that I could do quick pieces I could do in a couple hours or a couple nights that’s golf. It would be my secret little art project. When I got back from a vacation this last Christmas and I was stuck inside in the snow, it felt like the perfect time to do it. It seemed to click with people faster than I expected.
Why pixel art?
Pixel art has definitely gotten a lot more popular than it was. I think there’s some nostalgia there. I like every era of video games — I don’t play them as much as I used to, I don’t have time. But I like the simplicity of it and I like the challenge of it.
I try to work relatively low resolution because there’s a lot of talented pixel artists on Instagram, but once you hit a certain resolution it doesn't really feel like pixel art anymore. I like doing those retro clubhead illustrations and it’s fun trying to express something that’s complex with a very limited grid. I try to keep them 200 x 200 at the most, which is pretty tiny by today’s standards. A straight line isn’t always a straight line on a golf club, there could be a subtle curve or whatever and it’s fun to try to capture the essence of something like that. There’s a little bit of a puzzle aspect to it. But there’s also something really charming and simple and pure about pixel art that people relate to.
It could be because of growing up in the digital age or growing up with video games, but I think there’s something about that aesthetic and that digital ‘look’ that has survived even if younger kids didn’t grow up with those classic pixelated Mario games. There’s something innately cool about it.
What about these three characters made them stand out to you?
I didn’t really know what I was going to make when I started the account and you can sort of see that, and I just kind of fell into certain trends. There’s still stuff I want to do — one of my first ideas was making fake title screens and if I had time, animating sequences from games. If I made a Mario-type game for a video game system, thematically what would I think was fun? My first idea was a somewhat heavy metal-inspired game. I wanted to do a whole thing like that where it was ‘Dungeon Golf’ where it was all in darkly-lit spaces with lanterns and stuff.
But I’ve always liked dinosaurs, even before Jurassic Park and stuff as a kid I was always sort of a dinosaur nerd. That was another idea that came to me, I thought it would be another great theme for a golf video game. They’re almost like games I would want to play in real life but I don’t have the ability or time to make something like that from beginning to end. Sometimes I wish I could steal the Mario Golf engine and just re-skin it and design courses with unique themes, that would be really fun. That’s the art part of it that I can do.
These markers are a simple way of scratching that itch and I think with Dino Golf it’s just that I love dinosaurs, I would love to play a game like that, so it’s my only chance to pretend I’m working on something that fun.
Do you see a parallel between the niche of pixel art and the niche of ball markers?
It’s probably that ball markers remind me of collectibles that people acquire. Artistically they have certain limitations since it’s enamel paint that has to be divided by metal, so you have to figure out how it’s going to work at a certain size. So there’s parallels on a technical levels. But also, people collect old video games, people collect ball markers — you can see it on Instagram, there are people with thousands of them. They’re relatively inexpensive, they’re fun, and they mean something to people.
It also goes along with golf changing. There’s a unique customization culture thing in golf these days and people are more interested in doing things their way… dressing how they want to dress and expressing themselves. My art is expression of what I think about golf to some degree and I think that’s what ball markers are for people. It’s a fun expression for them and a personal touch on a golf course.
What’s your relationship with golf these days?
It sucks because winter is kind of my slow time and three summers in a row now at this job in Minneapolis that’s been my busy time. If I was retired, I would probably play at three times a week if not more. Right now I would play every day if I could. We had kind of a late start to summer weather, so I’ve probably only played 10 rounds this year. I go to the driving range twice per week and during the winter we have a pretty nice indoor golf dome with TrackMan which gets pretty busy — it’s one of those things where I show up and then I have to go sit in my car for 45 minutes until a little buzzer goes off and then I my slot opens up. But that’s kind of how it’s been over the last couple of years especially over COVID.
I’ve been playing and my score is going down, especially now that I’m actually tracking, but I’m still not playing as well on the course as I do at the range. At the beginning of this season when I was playing more regularly I was making progress but as that’s faded so too has my scoring. Once I have this big project I’m working on done, I’ll have a lot more time. I have this intense guilt complex, I’m really bad at sneaking away from work. I’m convinced the second I leave a heart attack or a fire is going to happen and I’m going to have to put it out. I’m just not good at playing hooky or putting something off to have fun now, but I’ll get back to it.
Where do you see 8 Bit Birdie going in the future? You’ve gained a lot of followers this year.
My number one goal right now is to not worry about it too much and let it be fun because that’s why I think it’s had any success whatsoever. I need to avoid doing too much custom commission work. I get a lot of people asking me to do their clubs or to do a custom illustration. Even if they can pay me, I don’t want it to feel like a job. If a project or a collaboration is fun I’ll do it but a couple times I’ve caught myself saying, ‘I don’t want to do this club illustration because I don’t care about it.’ That’s when it officially becomes a job.
I’ve had a couple side projects with friends over the past couple of years and as soon as they’ve started to feel like legit work, that’s when I lose interest. In the case of 8 Bit Birdie I want it to be natural. Obviously if a big company came to me with a big project and I thought it was really cool, I would consider that. But the ball markers, those are just really fun. I already had some of the basic art from my Instagram so it wasn’t starting from scratch, so that’s fun.
(Laughing) I think I literally drew the 'Dino Golf' ball marker while laying in bed. Sometimes when I do 8 Bit Birdie stuff, the setup and trying to figure out how it will work can be boring but once I’m getting to the fun parts of figuring it out then it doesn’t feel like work. Because I know the second I try to take it to the next level it’s going to feel like work, and then I’m not going to want to do it anymore.
What do you wish people knew about golf that doesn’t seem to get talked about enough?
To me the thing that’s changed since I started playing again and looking at it, is that golf is not just a conservative white dude sport anymore. I see a lot more diversity on the course these days, especially compared to Western Colorado in the early 2000s. I see people from all walks of life and financial levels out there. With a lot of the stuff I see out there on Instagram the trends I notice remind me to some degree of skateboarding in the mid-’90s, before the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater days. When skateboarding was still niche.
I see a lot of the counterculture, underground stuff making its way into golf. A lot of that is about fashion and style, but it’s also about attitude. You didn't skateboard back then to get sponsored because there was no money in it unless you were at the absolute highest level. You skated because it was fun and put you around people that you liked and you could go outside and do it all day. That’s what golf is, that’s what it’s all about. Being around people, meeting random partners, hanging out for a couple hours and having a great time even though you’ll probably never see them again.
It’s a cool social experience, and there’s a lot of humanity in it that’s not about money and country club culture and white conservative dipshits.
Hole-in-one or your best round ever?
I have to go with best round ever. I’m one of those people who, if I chip in from 40 yards for eagle, I don’t go crazy because I just know that it’s mostly luck. Anybody can do something lucky once. I’m generally a mid- to low-90s guy and then on a hard course I’m closer to 100. I would much rather feel the satisfaction where I fought and got a good score.
Not everyone will shoot a hole-in-one, and if I ever do I’ll feel really cool and I’ll tell my friends about it, but I won’t feel that huge of a sense of accomplishment. If I ever do it, it’s probably going to be on a par 3 and it’s going to be because I hit a lucky shot, right? But if we go for the overall idea of golf which is consistent performance, I’ll go for that over a serendipitous accident.