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STGCC 2012: Interview with Tristan Eaton

At the recent Singapore Toy, Game and Comic Convention, graphic artist, illustrator and toy designer Tristan Eaton was one of the stars of the show. Best known for for his toy work with Thunderdog Studios and Kidrobot, he’s also an established artist who’s done work for Red Bull, and is now working on a huge project with Google. While us here at HereBeGeeks aren’t the most fervent about designer toys, the quick round table interview we had with him was illuminating as he discussed his comic book roots, his plans to one day do comics, his love for James Jean and Ashely Wood and the crazy anecdote about his artistic family (on his mother’s) side – I also decided to bring in a little discussion on graffiti in the light of the recent “Sticker Lady” situation. There’s a video of this out there somewhere (since a crew was filming it), but I can’t seem to find it, and at any rate I thought this was definitely interesting enough to transcribe – my chat with Tristan Eaton was extremely illuminating and he’s obviously a very intelligent man. Take a go under the break.

Where does grafitti stand for you in terms of mainstream adoption?

I think for me I have to find a way to make a living always, and there’s definitely a conflict sometimes with the choices artists make when they work with their brands. Normally it’s a problem when an artist compromises his soul or does something that’s against what he stands for. I’ve never done that. Whenever I collaborate with a bigger brand it’s always me expressing my art the way I want to. Otherwise I won’t make that choice. I won’t work with them. I’m lucky that when I do work with big brands I get to do it my way and I get to have my name front and centre and say “this is my fine art”, and “this is how I want to express myself” and the brand, what they get from that is the respect of the public saying “this brand is cool enough to let this artist be himself and do what he wants to do”. So to me I see it as a way for them to work with artists like a “patron of the arts” the way the Catholic Church did with Michelangelo. Every artist needs a way to make a living, and there are more ways to do that than ever in this day and age, so for me, being able to have my bills paid means I’m a more independent and free thinking artist, and not battling for survival. And that’s always been a very valuable and sacred thing for me, to have my independence as an artist, and that’s one good way to do that.

Image courtesy STGCC
We’ve had a recent incident where a graffiti artist was arrested, and now you – a graffiti artist – are our guest of honour at a convention. How do you feel about freedom of expression, even in a country like Singapore?

I think that for a lot kids they grow up in urban environments that don’t have access to good public schools with arts programmes, graffiti art is sometimes their only way to express themselves artistically. In the case of Keith Haring, Futura, all these famous artists, they didn’t know they were artists until they started doing graffiti. That’s how they found out they were artists. So for kids who don’t have a lot of options to foster that creative ability it tends to be university for bringing out talent and kids who don’t have access to much. That being said, I never said that graffiti should be legal. Graffiti is vandalism. And that’s the sport of it. That’s what fun about it – you know you’re breaking the law, and you try to get away with it. And those who get away with it the most and the best get the kudos and the respect and the notoriety and the fame. So it is what it is. I’ve never considered myself a graffiti artist because graffiti to me is a little more of a strict definition of artists that use their name and words and paint their name over and over and over on trains or whatever to gain fame from that. Even in my younger days I never did that. It was always characters and always more illustrative so I had a different motive. And I think that when it comes to creating artwork within the laws of a community it comes down to motive. Are you doing it to be famous or are you doing it to make something beautiful? The motive behind it puts it into context. So for me I’ve always just tried to make things more beautiful. So while I’ve played the game of evading the police and things like that, it’s not just for fame, it’s for the act of putting something beautiful where something is boring or something is ugly.

So did you start off painting your own bedroom wall?

Yeah you’re right actually! (Laughs.) That was the first wall I painted. I’d never thought about that. Well you know my older brother got into graffiti first. When I was a little kid in London from when I was eight till I was 16, and my older brother got into it. And he painted on his bedroom walls, and all his friends would be hanging out and they would paint and that kind of got me into it. So I was always looking up to my older brother and all his friends and I wanted to be cool with them and that’s kind of how I got into it but I was painting like comic book characters on walls.

Which ones?

Judge Dredd was a huge one for me … Wolverine, Silver Surfer, those were my first ones.

Why Judge Dredd? Because there was something you wanted justice for?

Haha! No, it’s because I liked the style of the British illustrators, 2000 AD was all like (full of) great British illustrators and it was a nitty gritty kind of illustration style that wasn’t as mainstream as the American comics. Even though Jack Kirby had a big influence on me, a lot of the Marvel illustration work in the 80s and 90s were a little more boring to me – British illustrators from 2000 AD seemed a little more exciting. I really enjoyed copying their styles and drawing on the walls.

Was the moment you joined Kidrobot when you discovered your own sense of style of illustration?

No no no. That started way earlier. From a very early age I was very prolific, I made a lot of art all the time, since I was eight years old. Like a lot, a lot, a lot, alot. And besides, I started off copying comic books and things like that but when I was 11, I remember consciously thinking that I’m copying these drawings, but if I stop doing that, and force myself to draw it out of my head, eventually it will look like my style. And that helped me develop my voice and my style, the way I naturally like to draw, and when I draw, even when I’m doing something digital, or a mural, or a toy, there’s things that are signature to my nature.

Since you were inspired at an early age by comics, at which point did you go from thinking about comics to doing murals and graffiti?

I have always wanted to do comics. And I feel like I will someday – but I think when I do it will be more like a big personal project where I can spend a few years on something’s that’s fully painted and illustrated, when I look at comic art, the stuff that inspires me is like James Jean, Ashley Wood, even Chris Ware, where panels and pages are labours of love. That kind of stuff is really inspiring to me. When I was 20 years old I moved to New York and I knew an editor at DC, and had an open door to submit work and maybe get in there somehow. But I was broke! I had to make a living! And the price that they paid per page – it was like nothing. It was hard to consider making a living that way because the volume of work versus how much money you could make at it compared to working in advertising or something is completely different. If you did a comic-book style advertising campaign you might make like US$20,000, where that same piece of art in the comic book world might be US$200. When I first had the opportunity it was like “I can’t do that, because I got to pay my bills”. Now I feel like I will return to it later in my life when I’m ready to do something special.

You mentioned James Jean, who’s gone from comic covers to designing for Prada …

I know! It’s amazing! Yeah I love James. Jeams is a friend of mine – he’s in my book that I’m selling at (STGCC) as well. He and I went to the School of Visual Arts (SVA) at the same time. Ever since he was at the SVA he was naturally gifted beyond everybody else – even the teachers they were like “yeah we can’t really teach you anything … Do, do your thing” you know. He’s a big inspiration to me, I love his work so much. He doesn’t do a lot of sequential art, he’s mostly just covers, but someone like Ashley Wood – oh my God – would you look at the work, it flows from page to page, it’s just abstract and loose and beautiful. And then Chris Ware – he does the ACME Novelty Company – his work is very tight, very graphic and very cerebral, and I feel like sometimes I want to be halfway between those extremes. If there’s a halfway point between Chris Ware and Ashley Wood I’d love to be in the middle somewhere. Someday.

The painting you’re doing for STGCC is inspired by beauty and death. What’s the reason behind that?

I think I’m just obsessed with both of them. I spend a lot of time thinking about them. In my everyday life I kind of zone out on details in the world. If you look at someone’s hand, if you look at how you draw it, or if you look at a tree, and the beautiful aspects of the world around us, and I also spend a lot of time imagining how I’m going to die, and thinking about people I know who have died, and the reality of that is something that is at the very core of human existence. Human beings being the the only animal on the planet that actually knows we’re going to die – it makes for a lot of interesting thought. So death and beauty are very big parts of the world and things I think about a lot.

So is it something you just show to your mom? “Hey mom, I just painted death”?

(Laughs) You know, it’s funny. My mother, she understands art very well. Sometimes when she critiques my work and doesn’t like it I’ll be like “argh! Qhen an artist does artwork his mother likes it’s like doing something wrong!” And she’ll be like, “what are you talking about! I’m a cool mom!” So if she doesn’t like my work I make fun of her, and if she likes it I’ll go, “well, yeah, of course”. (Rolls eyes.) Any drawing ability I have comes from my mother’s side, and my grandmother was an artist. And she was a psychic artist, and she has a very crazy story. She was from Wales and lived in Spain the last 20 years of her life, and she would sit with you and start drawing. She’ll show you the drawing and it’d be your wife who died 25 years ago. And they made a book comparing the drawings to the photographs of the dead people, and she was very well known for it. She was like a psychic artist celebrity in Spain. So weird right? That’s where I get it from – she had a very cool history as an artist. She drew or helped paint the original King Kong I think in the ’40s, you know the big cutout one for the movie theatre, and she drew anatomy sketchbooks and things like that. She’s very talented.

How important was going to school for an artist like you?

School was important for me because of the relationships I had with teachers. Those teachers helped me get a lot of work in the real world. Eric Doescher from DC Comics, Dame Darcy, these people were very helpful to me and helped me get work in the real world. But the American art school institutions are failing in a lot of ways because they put you into a lot of debt but don’t give you the tools you need to survive in the business side of art. I went to the School of Visual Arts, and I also went to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit. While I was in school I was doing commercial work at the same time. So I was learning how to invoice, learning the laws and the legalities around doing commercial art, which made me more prepared that a lot of my peers who graduated when I did. Later on I was lucky enough to be a guest teacher at Parson’s in New York, and the first assignment that I gave was to design an invoice, and in order for them to get a grade they had to give me an invoice and I’ll give them the A or the B or the C or the D, and I felt that that was a great exercise that wasn’t being taught.

(For some reason I can’t find the photo I took of the final paintings by Tristan Eaton, but you can check them out here, and here)


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