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Tumblr isn't dead: The artists at the forefront of Tumblr's aesthetic rebirth

Tumblr was once a staple for 2010s teenagers. Today, the creatives who grew up with it are allowing its spirit to live on in their work


Tumblr isn't dead: The artists at the forefront of Tumblr's aesthetic rebirth

Tumblr was once a staple for 2010s teenagers. Today, the creatives who grew up with it are allowing its spirit to live on in their work

Frilly scraps of lace embroidered with the words "Heaven Sent." Esoteric photos shot with a digital camera. Side-by-side comparisons of a ballerina’s beautiful pink slippers and their battered feet. Little excerpts of songs like "My Kimono" by Polvo. All these tokens are scattered throughout the Tumblr accounts of photographer Maya Spangler, known to her followers as "Stolenbesos."

Spangler, who rose to fame for snapping photos of the internet’s it girls — from Addison Rae to influencer Devon Lee Carlson — grew up spending her summers in Arizona, finding resonance with the desert and the winding drives she’d take through the dust. 

"I'm inspired by the person in front of me and their energy and the way they occupy space," Spangler said. "I hate moodboards. Hardly any of my own work is premeditated. I like to just play and see what we — the model and I — can make together."

The 24-year-old’s artistic vocabulary, which is littered with words like "moodboard" and "aesthetic," reflects the time she spent surfing the internet at a young age, which still shines through in her use of social media to promote her craft. 

Even though Spangler has cultivated a large following on major social media platforms like Instagram, TikTok and X, the early 2010s staple Tumblr has been her go-to place to showcase her work since she created an account at 12 years old. 

During the early to mid-2010s, she first found artistic inspiration from Tumblr as a place for her to "dump (her) thoughts online in a stream of consciousness." Now, Tumblr has become a place where she posts "chronically." 

Tumblr, founded in 2007, experienced a meteoric rise, hitting 100 million blogs just six years later. By the early 2010s, the so-called "Tumblr aesthetic" had users in a chokehold. During its heyday, it served as a place for teenagers and young adults to make blog posts about the interesting, the mundane and everything in between. 

Although a range of aesthetics and subcultures flourished on the website, grainy, grungy photos depicting young girls in ripped jeans captioned with Nirvana lyrics seemed to dominate the platform. If users wanted to romanticize their "#beautiful sadness," alternative pop queen Lana Del Rey was often their muse. If a girl had a feeling, Tumblr had an aesthetic for it. 

Although Tumblr peaked over a decade ago and many of its former users now consider it dead, its aesthetics and spirit are experiencing a renaissance in modern photography and art. 

Making a comeback 

Growing up, Justin Lavilla, a fall 2023 architecture graduate, photographer and co-founder of ENVY Magazine — a Phoenix-based publication focused on telling the stories of up-and-coming queer artists of color — turned to Tumblr as his safe haven as he began to figure out his sexuality. Like Spangler, he would also spend hours as a child perusing the platform’s spellbinding pages. 

"Tumblr was kind of like a friend because there were these images of gay magazines and queer people, and it was uninhibited because there wasn’t really a lot of censorship on Tumblr at that time," Lavilla said. 

Lavilla noticed that today, Tumblr is "making a comeback," but not exactly as a social media platform. 

"I don’t necessarily think that Tumblr ... is coming back, but I think the aesthetics that existed on the platform are coming back," Lavilla said. “(So) it's not coming back to the platform. It's in other social media platforms that we use."

Today, his work as a photographer still resembles many of the posts users would see on Tumblr — while his pieces fit the Tumblr archetype of vulnerable and sensitive, they still showcase the bold and empowering style that was popular among many Tumblr users. 

"My photos sort of operate on sort of a sense of desire," Lavilla said. "A lot of my photographs are sort of bare in terms of the style and the subject that is being photographed. ... I shoot a lot of nudity in my work, focusing on the body and how queer desires translate into the photos that I’m taking."

For Lily Moskowitz, a senior studying English and a writer for ENVY Magazine, Tumblr ruled her early high school years. Feeling as if she couldn’t relate to her peers' styles and music tastes, Moskowitz sought refuge in Tumblr's "casual openness."

"Yes, everything was very aesthetic, but it was a little bit grungier and messier, and things could be a little less (about) wellness, clean, 'I have everything together,'" Moskowitz said of the gritty Tumblr mainstream in comparison with the slick "clean girl aesthetic" that rules TikTok today. 

As a teenager, she would use Tumblr to find media that inspired her, like runway fashion designs, film and feminist performance art, like that of Marina Abramović. These materials from her Tumblr era have still served as her muse in her work today. 


It’s impossible not to notice the clear connection between the material Spangler reposts on Tumblr and the photographs she takes. Both her Tumblr pages and her art usually combine innate beauty with a grotesque, gritty component, a style described as the "dissociative pout" aesthetic. 

Actress Chloe Cherry splayed across the laminate counter of a lifeless suburban-home kitchen. Models dressed in the fashion label Sandy Liang standing in a line, as still and lifeless as dolls. 

"I think I myself am rough around the edges, and most of the girls I shoot are too," Spangler said. "I'm not interested in cleanliness or beauty as much as realness."

"Realness" is a core value for Tumblr users. Because the website emphasizes creativity, yet is free for all to use, the photos and styles that have stemmed from it often incorporate elements of amateur photography, doused with grit and painted in shades of pastel. 

Because online trends are cyclical, like history, Boyanton said it makes sense that popular Tumblr trends, like the glamorization of grunge or an infatuation with vaporwave themes, like pastel colors and electronic music, have made a resurgence. 

Along with the cyclical life cycle of online trends, Moskowitz cited Gen Z's cultural obsession with nostalgia as a major reason behind Tumblr's aesthetic comeback. 

"It's kind of like reliving their own adolescence or teenage angst because I think, like, a lot of our stage of Gen Z is coming into real adulthood now, and we're on this weird precipice of entering the job market and having all this economic pressure and chaos." Moskowitz said. "It just gets very comfortable to kind of go back to what feels familiar in a sense."

This angst many young people are harboring, combined with the rise of the internet, has pushed Gen Zers to go online more than other generations ever did, said Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton, an adjunct professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication who teaches about issues in pop culture and media. 

"Gen Z is kind of known for its off-the-wall, sardonic humor." Boyanton said. "And I think that’s because there’s a lot that the younger generations are dealing with right now, kind of like, 'How are we going to address all these problems in our country?'"

The dark side of Tumblr 

For Moskowitz, Tumblr flourished because it reflected the true meaning of creativity: collaboration. It was a melting pot for creatives to give each other ideas and inspiration — one moodboard at a time. But on the flip side, Lavilla and Moskowitz argued the platform's "uninhibited" nature turned it into a cesspool of harmful rhetoric, leading to its demise. 

Until Tumblr implemented a ban on what it called "adult content" in 2018, pornographic material ran rampant on the site alongside blogs and images glorifying abuse and eating disorders — a "4chan for the left," according to Lavilla. 

"Historically, a constant issue with Tumblr is the fact that there’s just been a lot of glorification of like, fitness, eating disorders and mental illness to a degree of promoting self harm." Boyanton said. "There is definitely a dark side to Tumblr."

Because of this, Lavilla is glad the platform itself isn’t experiencing a renaissance. Instead, the aesthetics that proliferated on it, as well as the Tumblr impulse Spangler said, are living on in many artists' work today. 

"Before Tumblr became a place for social commentary and discourse, it was a platform for creatives — everyday amateurs and professionals — to share their artistic endeavors, from photography to poetry," Boyanton said. "It was a testing ground for young amateur artists to evolve and find their footing creatively, and it lives on to the present."

Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen.

This story is part of The Best of ASU, which was released on April 30, 2024. See the entire publication here.

Reach the reporter at and follow @nataliajarrett on X.

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