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Tristan Eaton’s art has travelled many places. It’s gone into space. It’s gone to the Super Bowl, emblazoning the game’s tickets in 2020. It’s found a home at Universal Studios, where the artist painted murals of classic Universal monsters in 2019. And his large-scale murals have covered walls in cities around the world, from New York, Los Angeles and Honolulu to Paris, Cozumel and Berlin.
Now a two-floor, 25-year retrospective of the artist and toy designer’s colorful pop-influenced work, titled “Tristan Eaton: All at Once,” has just opened at the Long Beach Museum of Art, running through Oct. 3. (Advance tickets recommended.)
The exhibition showcases everything from the works that went to the International Space Station and the Super Bowl to his limited-edition fine art prints of Marvel superheroes and the toys he’s created, including Kidrobot’s famous Dunny and Munny characters.
The L.A.-born artist and founder of creative agency Thunderdog Studios — who lives in the city’s Highland Park neighborhood — spoke with THR about the exhibit, which includes a special section called the Unfair Fun Fair, which pokes holes in the idea of American exceptionalism; why he’s not rushing to produce NFTs; and who his favorite Marvel characters are.
How does it feel getting such a big retrospective?
It’s the most significant exhibition I’ve ever done in my whole life. I started really young as an artist exactly 25 years ago at 18 in 1996. I started designing toys for Fisher-Price, I started working at a rock poster print shop, I started exhibiting with a big gallery called C-Pop gallery and I started working at a magazine called Orbit magazine, a cult humor magazine out of Detroit. All of that was 25 years ago. Since then, you know, I’ve been on this lifelong pursuit to find myself as an artist and pursue what I’m meant to be doing. I feel lucky to be honest. I’ve done so many different things and I’m very happy to have this chance to lay out this whole story.
How did the Unfair Fun Fair come about and what’s its take on the U.S.?
In my street art I’ve had a secret identity under the name Trusto where I got a lot off my chest and used my freedom of speech to shout from the rooftops how I feel about this country. Working on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign for president, seeing the racists come out of the woodwork at that time in this country, radicalized me at that time to call out the hypocrisy and stupidity in American behavior. I did that quite aggressively with a lot of sarcasm and humor, mostly through hoaxes and pranks, fake street signs and fake products. This time I want to take that same sentiment that’s part of my spirit and mix it with my painting. The outcome is an entire room that’s called the Unfair Fun Fair. It’s about 88 feet of interactive carnival game murals.
How do you interact with the art?
There’s one part where you can literally throw money at your problems and there’s an immigration office where you can throw rings on the fingers of an agent to get citizenship. There’s a 911 roulette game where you spin the wheel to see what happens when the cops show up, but the wheel is a pie chart of actual outcomes of excessive force. It’s a room full of paintings you can actually play with and touch. There’s even a rat race Plinko game where you can race to the bottom. You can also stir the melting pot, this whole installation where the portrait changes, and then if you see behind me the statue of liberty that’s where you can throw money at your problems. A lot of this exhibition is my previous work; this is the biggest new addition.
What’s the oldest piece in the show?
A sketchbook from 1996 that has stickers on it from the factory I worked at in Detroit. As an 18-year-old I was making so much art and I knew exactly what I wanted to do because I had heroes around me as a young teenager, artists like Mark Dancey, Tom Thewes and Glenn Barr who were part of Detroit’s underground art culture.
What are some of the other highlights?
There’s a whole room here where you can see the actual art that went to space with Space X. I have some toy releases that will happen at the museum that are kind of my return to toy-making. I haven’t released an art toy in over 10 years. And one of the projects that really moves me personally is the series of murals I did during the Black Lives Matter movement. I created a bunch of public murals and they were defaced by local racists. I painted Martin Luther King and they painted him out the next day. I painted Malcolm X and they painted out his teeth and painted out some of the Black Lives Matter [content]. I painted Angela Davis. We had this rapid back and forth. They kind of messed with the wrong person. I was up for the challenge. I enjoyed standing up for a good cause and people who I support and love. Those actual murals are here because they were painted on plywood on a boarded-up storefront so we took them down.
What was it like doing those Marvel prints?
This is my dream. I grew up on comic books and to me one of the great things I could do is work directly with Marvel and do an officially licensed art print project. There’s a whole installation showing the behind the scenes making of the project, a recreation of my art studio. There are the actual ink drawings and metal plates [used] for the Marvel project. These copper plates are really rare to see in real life. They weigh about 40 pounds each.
Do you have a favorite Marvel character?
Silver Surfer, Wolverine, Black Panther. Those three. I loved Silver Surfer because he was [having this] deep existential crisis happening in the middle of space. I loved it.
Are you planning to do NFT works?
I have a bunch of NFT projects planned, but Beeple, the god of art NFTs, is a friend of mine and one bit of advice he gave me was to not rush it. I’m not in a rush for the money. I’m not in a rush for the medium. I think the NFT technology is a gift to digital artists and regular artists alike. I have some stuff planned, but nothing too immediate.
I’ve seen some of your murals around Los Angeles. Do you have a favorite here in L.A.?
Universal Studios for sure. I painted a bunch of the famous monsters in the back lot and it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done.
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