Rarely can you find artists who travel around the world and cross the doors of the biggest museums and commercial companies while still getting respect from the streets. Tristan Eaton is one of these rarities. After gaining recognition through his poster designs in Detroit, he led the creative direction of Kidrobot, initiating a global movement merging toy designs and legends of the graffiti and hip hop cultures across the world.
He then became a leader of advertising and commercial-art spheres, with clients like Nike, Versace, and even Barack Obama. He quit everything to focus on his fine art and murals which can now be found in cities all around the globe
As part of MURAL Festival 2018, Tristan Eaton payed homage to the golden age of Montreal with a vibrant visual collage of pop imagery. Now, we’re launching a limited-edition t-shirt with his ‘The Revolution Will Be Trivialized’ design. To celebrate this collaboration, our team met with him to discuss his new mural and his career as a successful artist.
Photo by Julien Gagnon
Can you tell us about the artwork you did in Montreal for MURAL Festival?
It’s the first time that I had the chance to come to this city to paint and when MURAL contacted me I told them that I wanted to have a permanent wall. I wanted to make it big. So when they showed me this wall I decided to paint the famous actress Norma Shearer, who’s one of the first Canadian actresses to win an Oscar in the 30’s. She was native to Montreal and was a beautiful subject to paint with her vintage aura from the golden age. I spent 4 days and a half to paint this 4-story mural titled “Norma and the Blue Herons” and I hope Montreal will enjoy it!
Photo by Tasha Prentice
When did your journey as an artist begin?
I was making art a lot as a kid and by the time I was eighteen I was ready to hit the streets immediately. I started designing toys for Fisher Price and cartoons for magazines in Detroit in the mid 90’s. I was also designing and printing rock posters and flyers for raves and hip-hop parties. Fun fact: I also used to make flyers for The Shelter, where the Eminem freestyle battle happened in 8 Mile. Next thing you know, I was eighteen and making a living off of it and I was able to have a really cool mini career in Detroit. Then I moved to New York, when I was 20, and I did a lot to get by in NY. I was painting motorcycles for the DMX’s Ruff Riders which is how I got featured in The Source magazine for the first time. It was the coolest thing back then!
A few years later, Paul Budnitz came around with the idea of collectible toys for adults and I had the perfect background to help him with Kidrobot, where I was the founding creative director. That gave me a fan base and an exposure that I never thought I would ever have in my life. From that point, I was still doing graffiti in the background, and I decided to found my own creative agency, Thunderdog studios, that I’ve ran for 10 years. I also had a secret career under another name that not a lot of people know about. Then maybe 6 or 7 years ago I quit everything in my life to pursue my own fine art and that led me to studio work and the murals I’m doing now.
After this successful commercial career in design, what pushed you to focus on your fine art?
Firstly, the artwork I was doing under this other secret name was doing very well but I felt like I was leaving myself behind. It’s weird because it was my art as well but I felt that my name was being forgotten. On the design side, I stopped caring about the work. I didn’t give a shit about the campaigns nor the brands anymore, I just stopped caring. To a certain degree, I’ve never really gave a shit about that because I always approached commercial and advertising work as a means to an end to game the system, to take the money and use it for my art or for something positive for the community. But I realized at that moment, when I completely stopped caring, the quality changed. And quality is everything, so I knew something had to change. During all these years I’ve had all these different muscles I was able to flex to make a living while my personal fine art was marinating, and at that time I felt in my guts that this was the right moment to make it all work together!
You were also inspired by the skateboarding scene growing up in Los Angeles, can you tell us more about the parallel between skateboarding and graffiti?
Actually, the first time I used spray paint was in a skatepark painting a giant RoboCop. There is always a bunch of graffiti in the skateparks and visuals are also a big part of the skateboarding culture. Brands like Santa Cruz and Powell Peralta all have a strong identity that sparked my love for art. Both are also big underground cultures that emerged in big cities in the past century, and they both carry this feeling of destruction and creation.
How was the experience of designing toys for Kidrobot and other brands early on and how did that influence you?
I was always drawing characters as a kid, I used to completely fill my room with little characters on cardboard and I designed my first toy for Fisher Price at only eighteen so with all of this combined with my graffiti background, it was an amazing experience. I designed the logo for Kidrobot, the Munny toy and Dunny toy, which are both now in the MOMA permanent collection. I was also curating artists so I was able to get old school graffiti artists like Quik, Seen and Revolt making toys. It was a new phenomenon, the only people that made toys before me were Kaws, Stash and Futura. I was able to create a global community through making toys and urban art and that was a real honor for me.
You moved from New York to Los Angeles few years ago now, what is the difference between their art scenes?
What I can say is that both cities have a huge historic, gangster, crazy graffiti scene. But both art scenes as global as they may seem, are not linked together. There is no bridge between both cities. People would be surprised that some really famous artists in these cities are completely unknown on the other coast. When I moved to LA, I also realized that New York has this blue chip scene with contemporary artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst. But in LA, there is this whole new generation of people that are making it in the entertainment industry and they’re actually my age so they’re familiar with graffiti, and all these new artists doing urban art. It is an amazing feeling to be recognized.
What are the next dreams you want to accomplished in the future?
One of my biggest dreams that I’ve kept since designing toys is to work in 3D. I’m really moved by the idea of merging my fine art with life size sculptures. I already have a few projects going on with sculptures but I can’t talk about it on record…
Video by Chopemdown Films