December 12th, 2011
05:14 PM ET

From dumpster murals to designer toys

By Tristan Eaton, Special to CNN

Editor's Note: Tristan Eaton, former street-tagging juvenile delinquent, is now one of the leading contemporary artists in the country.  He designs toys, has a permanent collection at the MOMA in New York and is developing art for the masses. Tristan is currently president and creative director of THUNDERDOG STUDIOS, INC, based in Brooklyn, New York.

Eaton was profiled on CNN's new show, "The Next List," which airs Sundays at 2 p.m. ET. He sat down with us for this chat:

What are your current projects??

Currently, I'm working on a new book of my art. I'm hoping to put all my worlds of toys, digital design and painting into one big book. Outside of that, I have a new series of paintings planned and an animated project with Disney in the works. Very exciting stuff!

Do you still consider yourself a "street" or graffiti artist?

I've never considered myself either. I've always felt like an outsider to both those categories. At the same time, I work with many street and graffiti artists, but I don't feel defined by it. I've always felt like I'm an artist who occasionally paints in the street. I don't think that will ever stop for me. Painting in the street gives me more satisfaction than anything else.

How did you come up with the idea for the Dunny??

Paul Budnitz and I were shooting off tons of ideas for figures at the beginning of Kidrobot. I was designing tons of ideas for a platform figure, while designing some big 10" vinyl at the same time. Dunny was originally supposed to be a big 10" detailed vinyl character…but Paul loved the shape, so he asked me to simplify it and PRESTO! The Dunny was born.

What's your favorite of all the Dunnys?
The blank ones. ;)

How has your work evolved over the years?

I think I've gotten to know myself better through the years, and that's helped me narrow down what I want to do with my art. I've figured out what I'm best at and what I really enjoy. Along the way, I've experimented with many styles and materials which end up going into a mental toolbox for later use. But overall, I feel like my work has gotten deeper and more complex over the years. At least it has for me personally – I'm not sure if other people see it that way!

Did you go to art or design school?  Was school instrumental in shaping you
as an artist?

Yes. I went to the College for Creative Studies in Detroit for 2 years then transferred to the School of Visual Arts in New York. I studied graphic design, then fine art and ended up in illustration. It made for a nice variety of study. The most influential school for me however, wasn't a college. It was a school I went to when I was about 7 years old. It was called Kids Art in Los Angeles and the teacher there, Ed Warren, really brought out the artist in me. I did still-life drawings there as a kid that were awesome. I still have them.

Who (or what) are some of your influences?

Glenn Barr, Chris Ware, "Akira" the movie, Takashi Murikami,  Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt, Powell Peralta, old school graffiti (ZEPHYR, REVOLT, FUTURA, DONDI, MODE 2, SEEN), J.C. Leyendecker, Shepard Fairey, Roy Lichtenstein, 2000AD magazine, Vaughn Bode, Ralph Bashki, Tex Avery, The Yes Men, George Petty … and of course,  old school American comics and cartoons ('40s through the '70s). I could go on forever.

What's been your most rewarding project??

It depends how you're measuring the reward. I've been paid well for jobs I've hated and done awesome jobs for free. The right way to measure a project is what you get out of it artistically. You have to ask yourself: Did it push you forward stylistically? Did you test yourself and succeed? By that measurement, my most rewarding project had to be the 2008 Obama campaign for president. To be involved at all was an honor, but to have my work incorporated into the campaign was truly amazing. On top of that, I got to go to Washington D.C. and attend the inauguration as well as a Presidential ball. Truly something I'm proud of and will tell my grandkids about.

What art project of yours failed miserably?

Ha! There have been many. Most recently, I traveled to Paris to paint in the catacombs underneath the city. My wall in the tunnel was poorly lit and I had planned to recreate a piece of Michaelangelo's Final Judgment painting from the Sistine Chapel –bad idea. I was trying to experiment stylistically and the colors I chose were all dark reds. I was literally painting in the dark and I couldn't see what I was doing.

What's your biggest challenge?

The biggest challenge is keeping ideas fresh and not repeating yourself. Once you're doing that, you might as well pack it in. People expect to see an evolution out of an artist, so you have to re-invent yourself every so often. I see that as a good thing because it's healthy to break free and try new things. It's hard to do, but you just have to cross your fingers and go with your gut.

Do you have a dream project??

Parade balloons! One day...

Are you still involved with KidRobot?

Yes. Mostly on and off. I'm currently working with them on something for their 10-year anniversary. Very excited about it.

Are urban toys still popular?

Yes. I think they've carved out a niche in the world that won't ever go away. The same way artist prints and silkscreens are standard, I think limited-edition sculpture in toy form will be around for a long time.

What do you do for fun??

Lately I've been reading a lot of zombie books. It's a weird obsession of mine. I'm also a huge film buff. I love cinema of all ages, but it's hard to find a theater in New York where people don't talk through the movie. It drives me crazy. I also dream of scuba diving as a hobby. I went once a few years ago and loved it. Since then, I've desperately tried to get back into it.

Do you watch TV?  What's your favorite show?

I do. I love HBO and AMC original programs. "Boardwalk Empire" and "Breaking Bad" are the best things on television. Also, "Adventure Time, the cartoon, is amazingly genius on so many levels. I love it.

Who is your favorite musician or band?

Wow. If I had to commit to one musician forever, I'd have to say Barrington Levy.

What do you love about living in New York City?

Everything is 24 hours. Most of my work takes place between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. - I need a city that can keep up with me.

What do you hate about it?

There's no hate involved. I love New York unconditionally.

What's the worst experience you've had in New York? 

Well, I've been arrested a few times here, had guns pulled on me and been robbed, but all of that isn't that bad. The worst thing that happened to me in New York took place in 2000.

I bought a 1988 Bronco in Detroit and was driving a truckload of my recent art, and art from my childhood, back to New York. Halfway through Pennsylvania, my engine exploded. It was a lemon. I had to get it towed all the way to Brooklyn. Even worse, I was staying at my friend Scott Chester's motorcycle shop in Brooklyn - I was broke and between places - and I could only tow the truck into an open parking lot. I didn't have a key for the elevator, so I had to leave most of my art in the truck overnight. I slept by the window with a BB gun so I could ward off any car thieves. In that area there were MANY car thieves. Unfortunately, when I woke up the windows (of the truck) were broken out and almost all of my art was stolen. Heartbreaking. It still makes me cringe to think about it.

What would "The Next List" audience find fascinating about you that they
don't already know?


Maybe that I'm colorblind? I'm about 60% colorblind and I've had to adjust how I make art to compensate for it. It's a strange handicap to have as an artist, but luckily I have 20/20 vision. I'd rather see funky colors and not need glasses than the other way around.

Fill in the blank: You know it's been a bad week when…

You're hiding spray cans in the toilet of the Happy Days diner in downtown Brooklyn so you can go to court, come out and keep painting. That was a long time ago, but true.

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Filed under: Art • Innovation • The Next List • Video
soundoff (7 Responses)
  1. James Graham

    SHRINKING AARP IS LOSING Plenty OF SENIORS-very important read!
    If only I could articulate my feelings like this lady.

    AARP's Fall from Grace
    It only takes a few days on the Internet and this will have reached 75% of the public in the USA.
    This letter was sent to Mr. Rand who is the Executive Director of AARP.
    THIS LADY NOT ONLY HAS A GRASP OF 'THE SITUATION' BUT AN INCREDIBLE COMMAND OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE!

    Dear Mr. Rand,
    Recently you sent us a letter encouraging us to renew our lapsed membership in AARP by the requested date. This isn't what you were looking for, but it's is the most honest response I can give you. Our coverage gap is a microscopic symptom of the real problem, a deepening lack of faith. While we have proudly maintained our membership for years and long admired the AARP goals and principles, regrettably, we can no longer endorse its abdication of our values. Your letter stated that we can count on AARP to speak up for our rights, yet the voice we hear is not ours.

    Your offer of being kept up to date on important issues through DIVIDED WE FAIL presents neither an impartial view nor the one we have come to embrace. We do believe that when two parties agree all the time on everything presented to them, one is probably not necessary. But, when the opinions and long term goals are diametrically opposed, the divorce is imminent. This is the philosophy which spawned our 200 years of government.

    Once upon a time, we looked forward to being part of the senior demographic. We also looked to AARP to provide certain benefits and give our voice a power we could not possibly hope to achieve on our own. AARP once gave us a sense of belonging which we no longer enjoy. The Socialist politics practiced by the Obama Regime and empowered by AARP serves only to raise the blood pressure my medical insurance strives to contain. Clearly a conflict of interest there! We do not understand the AARP posture, feel greatly betrayed by the guiding forces that we expected to map out our senior years and leave your ranks with a great sense of regret. We mitigate that disappointment with the relief of knowing that we are not contributing to the problem anymore by renewing our membership. There are numerous other organizations which offer discounts without threatening our way of life or offending our sensibilities and values.

    This Obama Regime scares the living daylights out of us. Not just for ourselves, but for our proud and bloodstained heritage. But more importantly for our children and grandchildren. Washington has rendered Soylent Green a prophetic cautionary tale rather than a nonfiction scare tactic. I have never endorsed any militant or radical groups, yet now I find myself listening to them. I don't have to agree with them to appreciate the fear which birthed their existence. Their borderline insanity presents little more than a balance to the voice of the Socialist Mindset in power. Perhaps I became American by a great stroke of luck in some cosmic uterine lottery, but in my adulthood I CHOOSE to embrace it and nurture the freedoms it represents as well as the responsibilities.

    Your website generously offers us the opportunity to receive all communication in Spanish. ARE YOU KIDDING??? The illegal perpetrators have broken into our 'house', invaded our home without invitation or consent. The President insists we keep these illegal perpetrators in comfort and learn the perpetrator's language so we can communicate our reluctant welcome to them. I DON'T choose to welcome them, to support them, to educate them, to medicate them, or to pay for their food or clothing. American home invaders get arrested. Please explain to me why foreign lawbreakers can enjoy privileges on American soil that Americans do not get? Why do some immigrants have to play the game to be welcomed and others only have to break and enter to be welcomed?

    We travel for a living. Walt hauls horses all over this great country, averaging over 10,000 miles a month when he is out there. He meets more people than a politician on caffeine overdose. Of all the many good folks he enjoyed on this last 10,000 miles, this trip yielded only ONE supporter of the current Regime. One of us is out of touch with mainstream America. Since our poll is conducted without funding, I have more faith in it than ones that are driven by a need to yield AMNESTY (aka-make voters out of the foreign lawbreakers so they can vote to continue the government's free handouts). This addition of 10 to 20 million voters who then will vote to continue Socialism will OVERWHELM our votes to control the government's free handouts. It is a "slippery slope" we must not embark on!

    As Margret Thatcher (former Prime Minister of Great Britain) once said "Socialism is GREAT – UNTIL you run out of other people's money".

    We have decided to forward this to everyone on our mailing list, and will encourage them to do the same. With several hundred in my address book, I have every faith that the eventual exponential factor will make a credible statement to you. I am disappointed as all getout! I am more scared than I have ever been in my entire life! I am ANGRY! I am MAD as hell, and I'm NOT going to take it anymore!

    Walt & Cyndy Miller,
    Miller Farms Equine Transport

    KEEP THIS MOVING FORWARD.
    ....In internet lingo: If enough people pass this on, it will go viral.
    Release Date: 02/20/12 02:34:00

    June 20, 2012 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  2. Futra

    Clay is a lot of fun. Joanne is srttaing to get in to clay these days. Her dad has to help her but it's fun to see her exploring new outlets.

    February 21, 2012 at 9:48 pm | Reply

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