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Next List: Artist Tristan Eaton

Aired December 11, 2011 - 14:00   ET



DR. SANJAY GUPTA, HOST: Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

From dumpster murals to designer toys, artist Tristan Eaton has emerged from the back alleys into the brand-driven pop art market, where creativity is king and his creations, well, they're wearing the crown.

Eaton's on THE NEXT LIST because he's an agent of change; seeing opportunity where others often don't; breaking down barriers between hip-hop and high art, with vinyl masterpieces for the masses; all the while managing collaborations with some of the world's biggest brands.

Over the next half hour, you'll learn how one man's creative mind has more than likely crossed your path. And now, he is changing the way that we see the world around us.

TRISTAN EATON, ARTIST: Hi. I'm Tristan Eaton. I'm an artist, and I live in Brooklyn, New York.

This is one of my paintings, right behind me. The two sides of my work are: one, my personal work, which is painting and mostly figurative paintings that are exploring the notion of beauty, and I end up doing those mostly as street murals and canvas work. And then, the other side of me is Thunderdog, my design studio, where we do a lot of mixed media, experimental digital work.

The last few years has been like a - a huge influx of art meeting commerce, where artists are working with brands to make, you know, every kind of product you can name. You know, artists can't solely survive just off of selling paintings.

In the last 10 years, there's been a lot of brands that do collaborations with artists, and that finances them. They're not selling a painting, they're licensing their art for an ad campaign. That brand is working like a patron of the arts, the way the Church used to for Michelangelo.

There's a few projects that Thunderdog has done that are a perfect example of what I loved about doing commercial art and - and collaborating with brands. We worked with Puma last year on their Faas Lab campaign, which is for Usain Bolt, the runner.

Dell computers two years ago asked me to design some laptop covers for them.

I ended up creating three posters for the Vote for Change campaign.

We've done a lot of crazy work, all based around art, but anything from, you know, exhibitions to toys to giant street art projects to clothing, to advertising campaigns. You know, it's all been fair game.

The majority of the - the products that Thunderdog does support my art and the art projects that I want to make and I believed in, and things that I want to do and put out into the world. And the Thunderdog team there is to support it and make it happen.

You look at the contributions artists have made to society, and you realize how important it is. When I say art, I'm talking about film, music, literature. That's how we form our perception of the world, is - is mostly through the arts.

The viewer will see that work and see that soul in the final product. That can be important for society on a whole. That kind of communication that happens through art, with emotions that aren't easily described, I think is imperative.

Every artist in history has had to find a way to make art that sells; and, at the same time, is something they're good at; and, at the same time, is something they love doing. And, if you're really lucky, you'll have all those three things happen at the same time.

It's really tough to find that equation that clicks for you, you know? When you're talking about if it sells and if it's popular, but on a personal level for an artist, you're trying to find that combination of what you want to say, how you want to express yourself, and what materials you're going to use to do that. Eventually you find that, and it can turn on like a faucet.




EATON: As a kid, I was always doodling and drawing. The most significant memory of, you know, being really immersed in art was my - my father dragging me kicking and screaming to a weekend art class.

That weekend art class ended up really opening me up. It made me realize as a, you know, seven or eight-year-old, that I could do something that other kids couldn't. Not only that, but I - I loved it, and I could create my own landscape of characters and people that just, you know, flew out of my imagination.

I was born on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, California. I think I was a pretty well-behaved kid, up until I was eight. At eight, I moved to Britain.

I started getting into trouble first around when we started skateboarding. We skated everywhere, did whatever we wanted, and no respect for anything. And it was all about parties and drugs and girls and drinking and everything that comes with growing up in London.

The first time I ever got arrested was a glorious one. It was on my 13th birthday, and my father gave me a little bit of birthday money to go buy some stuff, and I think I was going out to buy lead figures to paint, but I wanted to steal some music.

So I went to the Tower Records at Piccadilly Circus, and I got caught stealing cassettes tapes of De La Soul "3 Feet High and Rising" and Public Enemy "Fear of A Black Planet." So I was keeping it real, even though I was 13. You know, in a lot of ways I felt like I - I just wanted to test the boundaries of trouble.

I think that it was a good thing that we moved out of London pretty soon after that, because I don't know if I would have ended up getting into college. I might have just screwed it all up.

Luckily, every time I got in front of a judge, got in trouble in school and got in front of a principal, my saving grace was my art. It was easy to prove how dedicated I was and how much I loved doing it, because even the other kids in school who were also talented at art, none of them were as prolific as I was. I mean, I was just burning rubber and making art all the time.

The benefit of having lived in a few different cities as a kid is that I got a - a range of influence. Los Angeles gave me (INAUDIBLE) and skateboard culture and surf culture. In London, that's when I - I really recognized graffiti for the first time, and the graffiti seen in London was really strong by that point. Every day I'd take a train and a bus to school, and along the way I would just see lay-ups and lay-ups of beautiful pieces.

All those worlds started layering on top of themselves for me in terms of influence.

The piece behind me is based off the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. I painted it with spray paint and acrylic. The horses were all spray paint, and then stencils in the patterns, and then I used some brush work for the hair and detail work.

Before we painted this wall, this building just had tags scrawled all over it, just looked messy. And we had some artists in town, so we just called the building owner out of the blue and asked him if we could paint his building. He said, sure, so we did. We painted both sides of it, all the way down and around.

I think that we deserve more from our landscape than gray buildings and billboards. We deserve art for the sake of art, and you don't really get that anywhere else. A lot of building owners aren't commissioning art for the sake of it.

Where else do you get your dose of art on a daily basis, especially in a concrete city like New York? You know, the only place you really engage with art on a street level is illegal art. The purpose of it is to beautify that part of the neighborhood or that building and, you know, a lot of times, as street artists, we see something ugly or decaying, you know, but we see beauty in it.

There are a few other artists in my family, mostly on my mother's side. My mother, she was in theater her whole life, so. But I think I get my work ethic from her. Her and I are alike in a lot of ways.

My father wasn't a visual artist, but he was extremely creative. He was a photographer for "Playboy." He was a cigarette model back in the '50s and '60s. He was a film producer. He really did a lot with his life.

My father passed away four years ago, kidney cancer. Renal cell carcinoma. It came at a crazy time because he was actually working with me at Thunderdog. He was managing a lot of my toy production projects. So we were working really closely together, and he and I were extremely tight.

When he died, it was just the hardest thing I've ever gone through in my life, and I was at a point where my company was busier than we'd ever been. I had one giant client that was paying us like $30,000 a month to do all this design work. I had like seven people full time, my own fine art toy production design work, exhibition work, all at the same time. And I found myself just swimming and, you know, barely able to keep my head above water.

Somehow I was supposed to keep my company together, and I just barely did. After all of that, you know, it made me realize what direction I need to take things in.




GUPTA (voice-over): Forging a path from street art into the commercial world, Eaton's big break came at an unexpected time. When he and KidRobot founder Paul Budnitz decided to work on a short film, the project was soon eclipsed by the overwhelming success of the KidRobot online store.

Harnessing that sudden spike, the two decided to focus their energy solely on urban toys, and in that process was born an iconic creature.

EATON: Dunny is a toy made by KidRobot that I designed about six or seven years ago. It's the combination of devil and bunny.

It's designed to be what's called a platform figure, which is basically a - a blank surface for artists to collaborate on. So every Dunny that comes out is designed by a different artist. And mostly they're made in limited editions; three different sizes, three inch, eight inch and 20 inch.

LISA LYONS, STORE MANAGER, KIDROBOT: KidRobot was founded in 2002 by Paul Budnitz.

A lot of what we do is based on collaboration. We take the art of fine artist, graffiti artist, comic artists, and we take their already existing art form and we put it onto a limited edition vinyl toy.

The customizing toy community has grown immensely. Tristan's pretty much been a part of it from the beginning. He and Paul worked really closely to create all of our basic platform characters that we worked with all the time - Munny, Dunny.

EATON: The difference between the Dunny and the Munny is that a Dunny is always designed by an artist with their graphics printed on it, where a Munny always comes blank. It is made for everyone to customize. So it's the DIY figure. It comes with markers, and people paint them and sculpt them.

LYONS: People can just transform it by cutting it and melting it, and people have done just the most amazing things.

EATON: Dunny had a - a big impact on the art toy world especially, because it brought it to the masses. Art toys were a subculture and subgenre beforehand, and now you can find them in Urban Outfitters, they're in the Museum of Modern Art's permanent collection. So, you know, they're on the radar.

LOUISA ST. PIERRE, PARTNER, BERNSTEIN & ANDRIULLI: My name is Louisa St. Pierre, and I'm a partner at Bernstein & Andriulli, which is the New York-based agency and Shanghai-based agency that represents Tristan Eaton.

I came to New York, and Tristan had told me about this show that was upcoming with Visionaire, to do this whole kind of crazy designer vinyl toys. You know, I was pretty aware that this was a popular genre at the time.

Literally, the whole street from side to side, end to end, around Visionaire was packed with people. You know, it was young people, it was old people, it was art collectors - all manner of sort of the New York spectrum or even the global spectrum before you, and really sort of engaged and clamoring to look at all of this creativity in this whole new platform or medium.

So - so all of these artists, who were generally pretty well known, were asked to customize a Dunny, just a whole spectacle of glitz and glamour and, you know, and some serious art in some places. But generally, a real celebration.

EATON: It brought urban art to a more mass market accessibility, which is great for a lot of the young, independent artists that do them because it gives them a huge audience.

So this is the Thunderdog Design office in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The company's been around for almost eight years. There's a few projects that - that Thunderdog has done that are my highlights.

We worked with Puma last year on their Faas Lab campaign, which is for Usain Bolt, the runner. The job was to go down to Kingston, Jamaica, paint a giant bodega and huge street murals to basically be where these shoes are made and where they come from and design it all in the hand painted sign style of local Kingston, Jamaica.

It was awesome. It was a huge honor. We did the entire thing in four days, and it kicked our butts, but it was amazing.

It was about 100 degrees and, while we're painting, little kids are all around me and they're counting my sweat drops as they're hitting the ground, that's how hot it was. I mean, I was completely drenched.

We had to think up what to paint and how to paint it on the spot everyday, and that kind of problem solving is, you know, what I live for.

I was contacted by the Obama campaign. I ended up creating three posters for the Vote for Change campaign, which was the largest voter registration campaign in history.

Being tapped to do something like that is a once in a life time experience, to be able to be involved formally, not just, you know, contributing or volunteering, which I was happy to do. But to be, you know, brought in to do something official was so cool because you - it feels like you're making a piece of history.

We did the poster, and it came out. They did web videos, they did wild postings all over walls in all these different cities. And we were invited to the Presidential Ball. We danced about 30 feet from Obama.

That whole campaign is a great example of how art can actually change the world somehow.

We're going to do a few things in Miami this year, coinciding with Art Basel Miami, which is one of the biggest art fairs in the world. Galleries from almost every country in the world travel there just to exhibit their best art.

I'm launching an exhibition for the book that I made "Labor of Love," about 3D art as in old-school 3D glasses. And I put together a book featuring 100 of my favorite artists and turned all their work into 3D, like retro style.

The London Police I - I know mostly from traveling city to city painting. This week, we're going head to head in an art battle down in Miami, so it will be pretty interesting. There's some friendly rivalry going on. Team USA of course, man.




EATON: We've actually been talking smack for like three weeks now. It's getting ugly. The London Police exposed all their insecurities in - in one night's conversation. I know exactly what to do to piss them all off.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'm going to make my decision right now.


ST. PIERRE: Some of Tristan's upcoming projects. Well, as ever, he always embraces emerging technology. You have his B-BOT application, which actually came about because so many people asked him to make designer vinyl toys, usually of themselves.

EATON: The idea was to make an iPhone app for all the people that are art toy collectors and give them a chance to make a kind of art toy style cartoon of themselves, in - in my cartoon style.

I designed I think 700 elements, so you can like switch the hair, the clothes, the eyes, the mouth, the shoes, the pants, everything and, you know, either make a cartoon of yourself or your friends, your mom or whatever, make fun of your friends by making them look stupid, and save it to your contacts or share it. However you want.

ST. PIERRE: The first night that I tried it, stupidly, just before I was just about to go to sleep. I addictively made these avatars for about three hours straight. And - and that's, you know, that's also one thing about Tristan's work, it's very addictive.

There is something in the works with Google, which I can say very little. It involves a - a tribe of global people who share Tristan's vision.

He has an amazing project with Disney.

EATON: As I've gotten older, I - I look at what I want to do next, and on the fine arts side of things, I - I want to keep painting. I want to get better. I want to paint bigger murals and more of them. But when it comes to the commercial side of things, I want to animate more.

This project with Disney is hopefully the first step towards that. I have a good friend who works over there. He's really talented and he asked me to write something for Disney TV, something that was for kids eight to 14. We're, you know, finishing scripts and art and everything right now.

To create a TV show has been a dream of mine since I was a kid and, you know, I felt like I was bringing characters to life by drawing them. And then making toys took it to the next level, where they're in the real world. But actually making them move is the ultimate.

A dream project for me, the ideal, most ultimate, amazing dream project would have to be designing a parade balloon, either legally or illegally. I'll do whatever I have to do. I've had dreams of making my own a parade balloon and showing up outside Macy's with it, with rope to a pick-up truck. The thing about making art is that it's going to live on after you. In some ways I put my art before myself, and a lot of ways the art is more important than me. The work kind of has its own life after you and you want to make sure that its legacy and its life span is the way you want it, you know? And you only have a limited time to control that before you're gone.

If I had to give an artist one piece of advice, the thing that helped me, what I would say is that you have to commit to it for life. Once you make that commitment, a lot of things become easier. You don't worry about short-term accolades, you don't worry about climbing a ladder.

When you commit so much that you know you're going to be doing it the rest of your life no matter what, it doesn't really matter so much what happens this month or this year because you know you're going to spend your whole life doing it.

GUPTA (on camera): Putting his vision on everything from laptops and toys to the president, Tristan Eaton's unique talent is leaving an indelible mark on pop culture. Eaton is prolific, which is why he's on THE NEXT LIST, in his case blurring the lines between rebellious expression and commercial vision, and in the process creating a whole new world of creative possibility.

For more on Eaton and other agents of change, you can visit our website, You can also visit my live stream at

Thanks so much for watching. Hope to see you back here next Sunday.