In 2012, Tristan Eaton found himself at the center of a controversy. He was set to paint a mural in New York City’s Little Italy—a child’s figure interwoven with animals: monkeys, a peacock, a tiger—when it was labeled “pagan” by a priest at the church adjacent to the wall in question.
After the New York Post published an article about the flap, Eaton had to switch gears. The head of the Little Italy Merchants Association, which he’d originally approached with the idea for the mural, gave him a smaller wall instead.
“I got this other wall, this little wall,” Eaton remembers being told. “Paint the little wall. If we can get everyone excited about it, then maybe the big wall is on the table again.”
The plan worked. People loved the piece, and Eaton painted the bigger wall. In a way, he’s just painted bigger and bigger walls ever since.
This month, an exhibit that celebrates 25 years of Eaton’s work debuted at Long Beach Museum of Art. Originally slated for 2020, All at Once: 25 Years of Art & Design fills two entire floors, a big canvas, so to speak, for an artist and native Angeleno who’s accustomed to them.
Born in 1978 in a birthing center over the old Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset, Eaton grew up surrounded by artists and actors he lovingly describes as wild, crazy, and eclectic. When he was eight, his family moved to London, where his older brother, Matthew, got into graffiti. On the train to school, rushing by the spray painted walls, Eaton remembers seeing pieces by his brothers crew splashed on the city walls. Too young to join them, Eaton busied himself drawing what he called “hip-hop style” superheroes and characters.
Eight years later, when his family moved to Detroit, he grabbed his spray cans joined the fun. He and his friends would climb into the abandoned Michigan Central Station, a hub for graffiti artists and urban explorers, and he eventually fell in with artists like Glenn Barr, Niagara, Mark Dancey, and others with connections to the city’s punk scene. When he was still a teenager, he got a job at the Highway Press, a silk screen shop that printed rock posters, and became connected with Jerry Vile at Orbit Magazine, where he began working.
“I was a teenager around these art giants,” he recalls. “And it’s worth noting—their tolerance of annoying young Tris made me a generous artist.” He didn’t realize it at the time, but it was the start of a long career in art.
At 20, Eaton left Detroit for New York, where he knew no one, had no money, and struggled both financially and emotionally. It was tough, but eventually, in his words, the love affair began. While in New York, Eaton painted motorcycles, made art toys, and started a design company. He was making a living off his craft, trying to broaden his skillset and learn as much about himself as an artist as he could.
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When he wasn’t working his legit day job, Eaton developed a “secret identity as an illegal artist.” Going by the handle TrustoCorp, he started hijacking street signs, food labels, and billboards, and injecting them with political messages he thought were important amid a rise in racist rhetoric following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. “I was stealing public space for messages,” he says. “That was my goal, to usurp the landscape to put messages that might be absurd and critical and cynical, but at least get them there to speak to the other people that feel this way.”
Perhaps unpredictably, a corporate gig working for Disney is what brought him back to L.A. But before he left, he left his mark on NYC in the form of the Little Italy murals, which marked a return to spray paint that was a revelation for the artist.
“After all the things that I tried and failed at, to my surprise, spray paint was there waiting for me the whole time,” he recalls. “It opened up this portal in me that allowed me to make the most honest and best work I’ve ever made in my life.”
His return to the medium happened to coincide with what he describes as a “giant explosion of public art.” In cities around the world, the kids who once slapped up wheat-pastes and tags had grown up. It was no longer necessary to steal space because artists were being offered walls.
Eaton was no exception. The TV show he moved to L.A. to work on didn’t last, but he looked at it as a fresh start. He began traveling the world—Australia, Mexico, Paris, Germany, Guam—painting murals. Being granted space comes with more responsibility than usurping it. For one, the works created are meant to be permanent. When Eaton leaves a community, his murals stay up, often becoming beloved landmarks. It’s a responsibility Eaton is acutely aware of, and it’s why he takes place into account. Could a pop of color in an otherwise gray cityscape change people’s behavior? He describes the “watching eyes effect,” a phenomenon where the presence of images of eyes causes individuals to change their behavior.
“If that’s the case, what does a 15-story mural that’s fully illustrated of tons of iconography and figurative metaphor, how’s that going to affect a community?” he wonders. “It’s going to have some effect!”
He brings up a mural he painted in a Brazilian favela. The locals who commissioned it thought watching Eaton paint could have a positive influence on kids in the neighborhood, inspiring them to rise beyond their circumstances.
“Art can touch a part of people’s soul that is still pure,” he says, subconsciously touching his heart.
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Because it was put off a year, Eaton’s career retrospective at LBMA aligns almost precisely with a big anniversary. “It lands on this marker of exactly 25 years since I started making money with my art in Detroit as an artist,” Eaton says. “Twenty-five years since I began this whole path. And waiting that one year made it that nice bookmark.”
At first, he was intimidated by the prospect of filling two entire floors with art, but once he started laying out the exhibit in Photoshop he had a revelation: he could’ve used more space. Ultimately, the exhibit of highlights from his career became a roadmap of his life.
“I’m able to take the highlights of everything I’ve ever done, and this big quest as an artist to figure out who I am, what I can do, and what makes me happy, and how close I can get to making great art,” he says. “That whole process is laid out for everyone to see—the good the bad and the ugly.”
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