Frankie Rowles: He’s just drawn that way

Frankie Rowles

This is the time of year to get out and have some fun. You can shake your groove thing at one of the many dance floors in town, mix and mingle at one of the many fundraisers happening across the city or head to one of the many light shows in the area, but if you’re looking for something fun that’s a little off the beaten path, you can tap into your inner Picasso and head to Tabu for a “Drink & Draw” session with none other than Santa Claus himself. Spoiler alert: it’s not the real Santa. He’s a little busy this time of year, but instead, the big guy will be played by model Jake Smith, a sexy secret Santa.

Drink & Draw is an ongoing event started by graphic designer and illustrator, Frankie Rowles, but he promises an extra little jingle for the holiday-themed session on Dec. 21. Rowles has worked as a graphic designer in and outside of the greater Philadelphia area for more than 10 years and you’ve probably seen his work without knowing it. Rowles is responsible for everything, from the illustrations in drag queen extraordinaire Eric Jaffe’s coloring book, to the Ray the Unicorn character for the Spectrum LGBTQ & Ally Employee Resource Group, to the colorful mural outside of one of our favorite watering holes, Cockatoo. And oh, if you’re looking for a gift that’s one of a kind, he also does beautiful custom illustrations.  

Well, let’s start with the basics, tell me a little about the family.
Sure, I’m the oldest of three. I have a younger brother and an even younger sister. My sister is in Chicago and my brother lives here near Temple. My mom works in sales and pretty much that whole side of the family lives in Florida. My stepfather is from Uruguay.  

Do you think you get your artistic bent from anyone?
My mom is pretty crafty and creative. She’s very much a Pinterest kind of gal. I don’t really know my dad or that side of the family, so who knows? Maybe? [Laughing] I’d have to do 23andMe to find out.  

Ha, they just had that huge data breach, probably best to stay away from that for a minute!
That’s true, now is not the time. 

What were you like as a kid?
I was very eclectic. My mom kind of just let me roam, explore and do my own thing. Theater was a big passion of mine — dancing, singing, acting. It’s what eventually led me to New York. 

What was a favorite role and what was your most disastrous moment on stage?
My top role, my favorite of them all was when I played Tarzan in — well in “Tarzan,” obviously. I had the title role. The worst? OK, I’ve been doing theater for a long time so this was a while back. We were doing “West Side Story” and I, an Italian man, was playing Bernardo, so that shouldn’t have happened, but anyway, there was a point where we were fake fighting. We were teenagers, or at least young adults, and during the fight scene, I fell off stage and accidentally kicked an audience member in the face during the show! I didn’t know how to come back from that. They don’t teach that in improv. So between everything, that whole production was pretty problematic!

I forgot to ask, are you a Philly guy?
I consider myself one. I’ve lived here for 16 years, but I’m originally from Delaware. From there, we moved to Cecil County, Maryland for high school. During middle school, I had a moment where I kind of got into a bad rut, hung out with the wrong people, got myself into some trouble, and my mom was worried that I was going down the wrong path, so it prompted us to move to Maryland. Fortunately, I had a teacher there who pulled me back into the theater by getting me to audition for “Grease.” I got cast as one of the Greasers and from there, I was in “Footloose,” then “Seussical: The Musical.” After that, I did regional theater for a while, which led me to NY. I studied at the American Musical Dramatic Academy and lived in NY for about four years, but big city life was not for me. I love visiting, but it’s not for me. I found solace in Philadelphia and I’ve been here ever since. 

That’s great.
Yeah, I love it. When I moved here, I started working at the Garden State Discovery Museum in Cherry Hill. They gave me a chance and I did graphic design for their monthly postcards and events. It grew from there and I decided to study graphic design at Community College of Philadelphia while still working. I also did musical theater and through that, I met a woman named Barb whose father owned a company that just happened to be looking for a new graphic designer to help them with marketing. I submitted my resume, did a few interviews and got the job! I worked there for seven years until the pandemic hit. It was great because I learned a lot about the business side of graphic design through that job. I’ve always been very creative and artistic, but I’d never learned the other side. After I was furloughed because of the shutdown, I decided to start my own freelance graphic design business. I hit the ground running when Ram Krishnan and Akshay Kamath, the owners of Cockatoo, hired me to do a mural on the building. It’s the big rainbow bird on the side of the building. 

I’ve seen it. It’s beautiful. How do you describe your artistic practice? It seems like you do so many things.
Gosh, I’m a pretty multimedia artist. I still work with the signage company that I was with for seven years. They make signs for grocery stores and big high-end companies, and whatnot. So graphic design is a large part of what I do. And of course I do the personal illustrations, which I love doing for myself or on commission. 

What was the first thing that made you think, “Oh, wow. That’s me! I did that!”
I think that happened early on because even in high school when we did Grease, I did all the artwork for the Playbill, so I’ve alway intertwined theater with this drawing thing. But I guess I’d say it was when I was working at the museum in NJ. A magazine that was distributed all over NJ did a big story on the museum focusing on a mural I did. It was all over the place, so everyone read it. That was cool. 

Fun! Speaking of fun, how long have you been doing the “Drink & Draw” events?
We started it in 2019, right before the pandemic. Then everything got shut down for a bit. In January of 2021, Tabu agreed to let us start doing it again and we’ve been doing it once a month ever since. I’m really excited about our Christmas one. It’s going to be on Dec. 21 from 7-9 p.m. and we’re featuring Jake Smith as the live model. He’s our not-so-secret secret Santa! We’ve been lucky in that we always have great models and we have a lot of fun. The artists that come out are awesome. 

If you’re not an artist, is this still something for you?
All skill levels are welcome. I bring extra supplies for those who want to try different things, whether it be charcoals or pastels, pencils or other mediums. I’ll circle around and offer advice if needed or just talk or maybe just buy someone a random drink. We’ve built a nice little community of folks who come out regularly. We talk and sometimes hang out afterwards or in-between poses. It’s more than just the drawing. 

Do you have fun choosing the models?
Yes! Though sometimes it’s hard, people find out that they’re intimidated or uncomfortable having a room full of people watching them, but for the most part, the models really enjoy it too. 

Speaking of hard, your models are really buff. What do they wear, or not?
The criteria I was given by the management at Tabu was that we can do anything but full frontal. So we get a little cheeky, but that’s it. You have to leave ‘em wanting more. 

I used to model for Moore College of Art a long time ago, but I did costumes and fashion.
Oh cool, yeah, I like to create a theme for each of the Drink & Draws just to make it a little more festive and creative. Make it a little extra, more of an event. I invite the artists to also come out and have fun with it. 

Speaking of coming out — you’re giving me perfect segues — tell me about yours.
My coming out was fantastic. I love telling it because it demonstrates my mom’s spirit. As I mentioned before, she always let me explore and do my own thing. I think she probably knew. Mothers always do, but anyway, I didn’t come out until I was 22. I’m 35 now. I was on a three-month tour with the show “Pippi Longstocking” and when we were in South Carolina, I’d been talking to this boy and decided that I didn’t feel like walking around the subject any more. So I called her and said, “Mom, I think I’m gay…”  She paused a moment and said, “OK honey, I love you but ‘Dancing with the Stars’ is coming back on, so if there’s anything else you need to tell me, let me know. Oh, Kirstie Alley is about to dance!” I said, “Nope, that was it.” And she said, “OK, I’ll call you later.” And that was it, like nothing had happened. I’ll never forget it! And with my siblings, we just became closer than ever. I’m very lucky. [Laughing] My sister loves me even more than she did! 


I understand that you’re now a married man!
Yes, his name is Chris Balbi. We met at a bookstore, Barnes & Noble, when he saw me looking at his favorite book. It was “The Giver” by Lois Lowry. We started talking and hit it off. We realized that we knew some of the same people in our similar circles, and it grew from there. We’ve been together for over 10 years now and last year, we got married. We just celebrated our anniversary in October. We just get each other. 

What does Chris do?
His mom owns and he is the co-owner of Meesha Aesthetics, a company that does Botox treatments and a whole lot more, but he’s very artsy too. He went to school for scenic design or something in that area. He especially uses his creative talent in our house.

I saw the article in the Inquirer about your house. It’s beautiful. And apparently he — like my nephew — loves dinosaurs.
[Laughing] Oh yeah, we have a whole guest room dedicated to dinosaurs! It’s a fun house to walk through. 

What’s the best Christmas present you’ve received?
The gift that I’ll always remember, and I say that partly because I have a picture of the moment, was a Motorola flip phone that I got when I was 13 years old. I’m in my blue robe, sitting in front of the Christmas tree, so excited, looking at the free screen with the flat numbers on it. It’s hilarious! To look back and see that I was THAT excited for that thing! It’s just pure child joy in that picture. One of my favorite toys that I had for several years was an Ariel “Little Mermaid” doll. I had it from when I was about 4-7. [Laughs] That’s how my mom really knew! 

Back to your trade. In addition to the commercial graphic work you do, you also do custom work, correct?
Yes, I’m always taking commissions. I really love doing it. 

I saw a Christmas card that you did drawing someone’s dog that had recently passed away. Is there one project that touched you in particular?
Anything with the animals, and oh, my gosh, I don’t know what’s happening this year but I’ve been doing a lot of the memory illustrations this year. The one you saw was sad because their dog had just passed away and my dog, Maggie, is not doing so well. She’s very old, and going through the process of drawing someone’s beloved animal that has passed gets me a little verklempt. But I’m very emotional. What can I tell you? I’m Italian. 

If there was a sitcom about you, it would be called _____ish.
Frank-ish! If you know me that makes sense!

I would love to be stuck in an elevator with _____.
Zac Efron! 

He is a cutie. It seemed like a good idea, but I really regret .…
Eating sushi! I have these spurts about once every quarter where I think, “Yeah, I’ll try it again. I’ll like it this time.” Nope. It never happens. I still don’t like it. 

When my dog Maggie looks at me, I imagine she’s thinking _____.
What the hell are you doing?” She’s alway looking at me with these brows that are cartoon brows, one of them up in the air. 

Something I find sexy that other people don’t?
OK. OK. Hmmm…Getting foot massages or even better, giving them! Like, I’m in control now.

What’s a favorite motto or saying?
I have a quote from Albert Einstein, which is so weird because I’m not a numerical, science type of guy but he said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” I really love that. It means that creativity is better than smarts. [Laughing] That’s what I take from that!

Ha! I’ll second that emotion!

For more information on Frankie Rowles and Drink & Draw, visit

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