Q&A: Tristan Eaton On Street Art, The L.A. Underground, Music And More

This weekend (September 29 and 30 and October 1), L.A. street artist/muralist Tristan Eaton will showcase his art at L.A.’s Sized Studio. The acclaimed artist, who also spent years in New York, as well as Detroit, tells me this particular pop-up has been at least seven years in the making.

The exhibition/shop will celebrate his prints and sculptures based on paintings debuted in Paris years ago. As is the case with everything Eaton does, there is a subversive underground element influenced by his L.A. roots and love of music.

I spoke with Eaton about how Everlast changed his life, the major differences between the L.A. and New York street art scenes, fatherhood and much more.

Steve Baltin: Where are you today?

Tristan Eaton: I’m in Los Angeles at my studio.Yeah, it’s home base for the last 10 years. I was in New York City for 15 years before that, and Detroit for a while before that, England before that, and then born in LA, so full circle.

Baltin: Which do you prefer?

Eaton: New York for my 20s and 30s, but L.A. for my 40s. I miss New York every day, man. There’s the part of me that’s still a troublemaker. I miss getting out of a taxi, smashing a beer bottle, catching a tag and just rampaging, I’m a dad now. I got paintings to make, so L.A. is nice.

Baltin: Do you feel like you can’t still be a troublemaker in LA?

Eaton: Yeah, it’s different, man. Something that’s freeing about New York City is not being in a car. In L.A., I feel like at any second, I can get pulled over and searched, where New York City, as a vandal, you’re just on your feet, running, hiding on a bike. It’s a different animal. I just feel more vulnerable to the police at any given time in Los Angeles. New York City, it’s not like that. And, when we used to do big street art or graffiti projects, we would have someone at the end of the block on the phone with us, I have my earpiece in, and we’d know if the police were coming before they could ever even see us. So I miss that chaos, for sure.

Baltin: Yeah, but like you say, you’re a dad now. How old is your kid and boy or girl?

Eaton: I have a boy who’s 19 months.

Baltin: So you have to be reasonable with the trouble. And you can still get in too much trouble in L.A.

Eaton: It’s true, you can find it, man. And I think, a lot of the New Yorkers I know only know the surface L.A., and they don’t know like underground Los Angeles. And L.A. is f**king dope, man. I love L.A. culture. I don’t know if you got to see the mural I did recently at Hollywood and Vine. It was about underground L.A. It was about skating and punk rock and underground art movements of Los Angeles, and it’s underrepresented.

Baltin: It’s very interesting to get your perspective as someone who grew up here, moved away and then returned. How has the underground L.A. for you changed over the years?

Eaton: Seeing how L.A. graffiti and street art defined itself in the last couple of decades has been really interesting. When you have all these amazing graffiti writers from Los Angeles making a global impact, and then you have, Chaz Bojorquez as a pioneer and his style becoming iconic. Seeing that identity of Los Angeles really come into being is awesome. It’s a source of pride for everyone, but you can’t think about L.A. culture without skateboarding and surfing culture, and a lot of that art defined me. So it’s funny how influential that part of L.A. culture is still to this day. Skating and surfing isn’t something old. It’s still relevant, still new, still fresh out here.

Baltin: I was at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival last night, Bill Murray was the emcee, and they brought out Los Lobos. When I think about L.A. as a music guy, you have Los Lobos, Jane’s Addiction, Van Halen, Guns N’ Roses, The Eagles, The Byrds, Dre, Snoop, you have so many different styles of music. Do you see that in the art world as well? That you could have the Spanish, you could have the rap, you could have the metal, you could have the alternative. You have everything, and it all fits together.

Eaton: Absolutely, man, and when I started to like create a life again in Los Angeles, the person who was instrumental in making me feel welcome here was Everlast from House of Pain. Everlast was an early collector of mine, and he went on to be like a big brother to me, I’ve done his last four album covers, and his history in L.A. goes back to him doing graffiti before he was with Ice-T and the Rhyme Syndicate, before he was House of Pain, before he was Everlast. So, he’s been a part of L.A. culture that’s overlapped in the art world forever, and he was one of the first big musicians to collect street art. He was ahead of everybody. And seeing L.A. music culture and art culture through his eyes was really cool for me, man, because someone like him, you get to walk into spaces that aren’t open to me [laughter]. So I got to see the world of L.A. music and art through his eyes, which was a real privilege. And I feel like art and music have a beautiful symbiosis. And I got my start in my career doing art for music. That’s how I got my start. So I’ve always had this affinity for music, not just because it’s like the gas in my tank when I’m making art, but also because I’ve been able to see eye to eye with musicians and talk with them about this life and art in a way. I sometimes can’t with other visual artists. When I talk with rappers or DJs, I know, and we talk about the challenges of being creative, the challenges of managing success, we can trust each other ’cause we’re not competing with each other. But we have so much in common between music and art that it’s like a safe space to talk about this life and being creative. So I value my relationships with musicians so heavily..

Baltin From your conversations with musicians, what do you feel are like sort of the most similar traits that you have found?

Eaton: I think sustaining creative quality is a big challenge. You had a success, now you have to follow it up and you have to maintain relevance and you have to maintain quality across all your creative output. And when you’ve had success, there’s now a demand for you to maintain that and rise to the challenge. And that’s intimidating and difficult for musicians and visual artists. And that challenge is something I can talk about with my musician friends. And we’re doing the same thing and we have the same challenges and we’re solving the same problem, but the output of the art is different. And not a lot of of people can have that conversation with you because for friends of mine who aren’t artists, it’s like “Oh, poor baby, you’re successful and what are you gonna do? I feel so sorry for you. What’s your next painting gonna be like?” {Laughter] But inside the struggle of creating it’s nice to talk to someone who gets it and understands how difficult it can be to reach down deep inside and pull out something that’s beautiful and worthwhile. And the torture of it. I think [with] musicians and visual artists how I know someone is really good is if they know how bad they are or they know how much better they could be. And that’s something I love talking about with other artists. “I suck, man, I wish I was 10 times better.” And that torture is universal amongst great artists. You know what your faults are and they torture you. There are things I wish I was better at and I struggle not being able to live up to my own expectations of myself knowing your own limitations is a burden. So that’s a conversation that I have or prefer sometimes with musicians versus other painters.

Baltin: Let’s talk about this weekend. Tell me what it is and what are you most excited about.

Eaton: This weekend is the launch of a few products that are inspired by my art. I’m only showing two paintings. The rest are art prints and sculptures that I have been working on for years. This collection of paintings I first debuted in 2016, and the idea was to document the history of protest and revolution in order to remind people that this is the way we’ve always been. This is how people get s**t done. You sometimes got to rise up and throw people out of office or throw them out of power if they don’t deserve it. So from Tiananmen Square to Black Panthers to the October march, which led to Marie Antoinette’s beheading, this is like a part of human history and a human trait, and that was my goal in making that collection of works. But it was all original paintings exhibited in Paris. We sold the paintings, but I really wanted to follow that up with more affordable print collection and try to be a little more egalitarian with this collection because it was very in demand. People love this work and it speaks to people. I created this print portfolio where this big box has a hardcover book with the whole collection, and it has 10 smaller size art prints with gold foil stamping, and they’re beautiful and big display box. But then in addition to that, we have this sculpture that was created of my fist design with the history of protests sculpted into the whole thing. And that’s taken years of development. So this weekend is actually seven years in the making, and I’m just so proud of it, man. I feel like it’s the best of everything I have to offer from painting to sculpture to my printmaking business to the message I feel like it’s the best I could do.

Oh hi there 👋
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