Tristan Eaton was just a teenager in the ’90s when he was talking with the former CPOP Gallery about showing his artwork at the hip gallery. That was back when CPOP was in a little basement in Royal Oak, before it relocated to Detroit.
“I arrogantly brought my artwork there to show them when I was like 18, like, ‘Hey, man, I love what you guys do and what you show. I would die to show here,’” Eaton tells Metro Times.
Eaton, now 43, was born in Los Angeles, and spent a few years living in London, England, before his family moved to Michigan, where his father was born and raised. Eaton was in the Great Lakes State for just a few years, from 1993 to ’98 — just long enough to make connections that would prove to be lifelong. The CPOP connection led to an introduction to Jerry Vile, the then-publisher of the former humor magazine Orbit and founder of the Dirty Show, the annual erotic art exhibition set to return in 2022 following a pandemic-caused hiatus.
This year, Eaton will serve as the Dirty Show’s featured artist — and is quite possibly the biggest featured artist the show has ever seen. As usual, the show will also include more than 200 pieces of art from dozens of other artists, as well as burlesque and drag performances. As with past Dirty Show featured artists, Eaton’s work will be displayed front and center at the erotic art show.
But back then, Eaton was just a kid trying to break into the art scene, inspired by skateboarding art, anime, graffiti, and underground comic books.
“Let me tell you how nervous I was,” Eaton says. “I brought my whole portfolio to the Orbit offices, and I laid out all my art on the main conference room table.” As it happened, Orbit collaborators Glenn Barr and Mark Dancey had stopped by. “Both were legends in my eyes already,” Eaton recalls. “I was mortified to have my whole portfolio out on display when they showed up.”
He adds, “I think Jerry kind of took pity on me, and maybe appreciated my balls for showing up, so he gave me my first assignment.”
Eaton started contributing spot illustrations for offbeat articles like “How to Be a Better Stalker” and “The Orbit Guide to Suicide.” Not exactly stuff you would want to show your mother, but Eaton was proud nonetheless.
“It was great,” he says. “It was my first ever real job as an artist.”
The next year, he started attending what is now Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, all while continuing to contribute to Orbit, eventually illustrating a regular strip called Sonic Comics.
Soon he had his first show at a gallery in Eastern Market, but that night, someone broke in and stole all of Eaton’s art. Somehow, he got in touch with the thief, and arranged to meet him near where Eaton was living in the Cass Corridor, where he planned to ambush him along with the help of some friends to rescue the art.
“It was all my final art for my printmaking class at CCS, and the teacher hated me,” Eaton says. “So I knew even if I told him the story, he was just going to flunk me. So I had to get this work back at all costs.”
The thief pulled up and opened his trunk. “There were like, tumbleweeds blowing by,” Eaton says. “There were no witnesses.” Eaton started rifling through the trunk, but when his brother approached, he startled the thief, who Eaton says pulled out a gun wrapped in a garbage bag and pointed it at him. A tussle ensued, but eventually Eaton got the pieces he needed for his class. Somehow, the situation diffused without the thief pulling the trigger.
“I got like a C- in that class, for God’s sake,” Eaton says with a laugh.
After the ordeal, Eaton returned to the Orbit office to tell Vile what had happened. “He said, ‘What? No way. Hold on,’ and he starts typing,” Eaton recalls. “His first instinct was to write a story about it, and I love him for that. … So in one of those issues of Orbit is this story about me finding myself at the business end of an AK-47 after my first-ever art show.”
In 1998, CPOP let Eaton present a goodbye show (dubbed Good Riddance) before he left for New York City, where he went to complete his studies at the School of Visual Art. He wound up staying in New York for more than a decade, where his career took more twists and turns.
Eaton has since gone on to become a huge name in contemporary art, helping launch the vinyl toy sensation KidRobot in the early 2000s and lending his illustration and design skills to huge clients like Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, BET’s Soul Train Music Awards in 2009, and the 2020 Super Bowl, among others. He has also found a voice as a muralist, and his work can be found in cities across the globe. He also has work in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection, and last year, he held a retrospective of 25 years of his work at L.A.’s Long Beach Museum of Art.
Eaton credits much of his success to the connections he forged in Detroit.
“I was just a teenager living in Detroit,” he says. “But I had this universe of support from CPOP Gallery and Orbit magazine. ... I was very, very lucky, man.”
A CCS instructor helped him sell a toy design to Fisher-Price when he was still a student. (“I didn’t even have a computer,” he says. “I had to use the fax machine at the Kinko’s in the Renaissance Center.”) That led to working with KidRobot, where Eaton served as founding creative director. KidRobot became a huge name in the world of collectible vinyl art toys with the rabbit-shaped Dunny and monkey-shaped Munny designed by Eaton, blank plastic dolls that could be customized with the work of hot artists. The brand quickly caught on, opening retail locations in cities across the world, where dedicated KidRobot fans would line up to buy the latest collectibles.
“When the Dunny came out, it had such an awesome ripple effect that it changed my life,” Eaton says. “Swizz Beatz was a part of it, and all of a sudden Lindsay Lohan is walking out with bags and bags of them. It really blew the hell up.”
He adds, “And I was so grateful to be a part of it. Like, just the fact that so many people had my art in their home was huge, and the fact that so many artists had this big lift in their career from working with my design. … It’s like, how could you wish for anything more?”
“I was just a teenager living in Detroit. But I had this universe of support from CPOP Gallery and Orbit magazine. ... I was very, very lucky, man.”
For Obama, Eaton designed a series of illustrated posters for the campaign’s “Vote for Change” theme, bringing an edgy, modern twist to an old-school political poster feel. After Obama’s victory, Eaton was invited to the inauguration, which he calls “a huge honor.” But the swift, racist backlash against the nation’s first Black president caused Eaton to want to find ways to get even more involved.
“It got me paying a lot more attention to the nature of American politics, and the outpouring of horrible racism really, really angered me,” he says. “I felt like I needed to get it off my chest.”
That led to the creation of an alter ego, TrustoCorp, which Eaton says was made to look like a collective but was really just himself and some volunteers. As TrustoCorp, he pulled off various culture-jamming pranks, creating signs that looked like official city street signs printed with subversive messages, as well as fake products that he “reverse-shoplifted” into stores.
“I realized that when you go through a city, most people dismiss graffiti and street art to, like, a relegated part of their brain, where it’s just noise in the landscape, right?” he says. “But if you look out at the landscape, there’s typography and design all around you in ways that are legitimate.” TrustoCorp messages ranged from the inspiring (“NO STANDING AROUND: Do some good in the world”) to the absurd (“Drive-Thru Liposuction: Go from Chunky to Hunky in 60 seconds!”).
“There was no voice in the world of street art that was aggressive and humorous, and that was where I was coming from,” he says. “And there was so much hypocrisy and ridiculous behavior in America that it felt great just to skewer it and roast it, you know?”
In an era before social media’s heyday, the TrustoCorp pranks went viral, getting picked up by major media outlets. “It was a really awesome time in my life where the parts of me that were a writer, a designer, and a prankster were able to flourish,” he says. “People that never gave me the time of day fell in love with that identity, not knowing it was me. And it was great to see the work kind of live or die on the vine, without my help.”
Eventually, it was time to move again. A veritable renaissance man, Eaton had sold an idea for a TV show called Ninja Boombox to Disney, and moved back to Los Angeles to develop it.
The show didn’t make it very far, however, and after two years of development, the project was killed. Eaton surmises that was around the time Disney began shifting its focus to huge franchises like Marvel and Star Wars, and there just wasn’t much of an appetite for new ideas.
“It was a million-to-one for me to get it as far as it got,” he says, calling it “a childhood dream.”
Still, it hurt, he says. At the same time, another project Eaton had been working on, which would have seen him paint murals on abandoned World War II-era sea forts off the coast of England, also had the plug pulled on it in the 11th hour. Suddenly, Eaton was without work, and he shut down his design studio and left L.A.
In the midst of all this, Eaton had committed to design a mural in Manhattan’s Little Italy. That project also hit friction after a priest at church near his wall called his proposed design “pagan,” and Eaton was relegated to a smaller wall. But that also proved to be a pivotal moment for Eaton: In 2013, he painted a mural of Audrey Hepburn on the smaller wall, done in a sort of collage-inspired style. A realistic, black-and-white rendering of the icon was broken up with torn-paper fields of vivid, eye-popping designs, calling to mind the textures of graffiti art. The mural wound up being a hit, and Eaton stumbled into a new body of work.
Eaton says with the new style, he was able to take everything he learned from commercial art and design and filter it through the tool of spray paint. It was like “rocket fuel” for his work, he says.
“Graffiti gave birth to a generation of muralists, right,” he says. “With spray paint, we could paint 10 times faster than any generation before us. And with spray paint, I can paint both vector-style graphics and realism with the same tool, no tape, no steps. There’s nothing slowing me down. And I figured out what I’ve been searching for, for so long, which was something that would turn on a faucet in me and allow the work to just pour out of me without any speed bumps. And the spray paint did that. … It just all poured out of me.”
“I guess I always focused on doing 10 things at the same time. Once I took those 10 styles and put them into one painting, I really found myself,” Eaton says.
Eaton says he’s drawn to the style because of the possibilities for storytelling, similar to his work with TrustoCorp. “I can basically tell a story within these giant collages, and use a variety of imagery to tell those stories,” he says. “And a lot of the time, it’s contained within the silhouette of a figure or an animal or some other kind of imagery.”
Often, that image is of a beautiful woman. “As I’ve grown up and matured, I’ve found that I can use beauty to bait and switch people into coming in deeper into the concept within the work,” he explains. “So sometimes the use of a beautiful image and a beautiful face might just be the bait on the hook to bring people into a darker story, or a deeper meaning inside the painting. It felt like a natural way to hold people’s attention and bring them in deeper, I guess. You know, it’s easy to paint pretty women. It’s harder to paint ugly women, of course. But why would you paint pretty women? I don’t want to make decorative paintings. I want to make meaningful paintings. A lot of the time, they’re there to trick people into coming in deeper.”
He adds, “You know, it was the best thing I ever did. I guess I always focused on doing 10 things at the same time. Once I took those 10 styles and put them into one painting, I really found myself.”
Eaton has since painted more than 120 murals in that vein in cities around the globe. (You can find one locally in downtown Detroit’s Belt Alley.) Much of his work in the Dirty Show expands on that style, drawing heavily from the feel of old pulp novel covers.
Eaton says his Dirty Show work includes original paintings, prints, and sculptures — a summation of the skills and styles he’s learned along the way.
“I’ve been making a living off my art for 25 years now, and it’s not all a graph that goes straight up,” he says. “The chart goes up and down, up and down. There’s peaks and valleys. … For some people, it’s a very straight line from their inspiration and their craft to a final product. But for me, it was a very windy road.”
For Eaton, that road took him back to the Motor City. And now Vile says he’s the one who’s anxious to be working with the guy who used to be a kid nervously approaching him all those years ago.
“Tristan is so fucking big,” Vile tells Metro Times. “He’s the first artist that’s made it out of Detroit, really big, in a long time.” Vile says he drove to L.A. to see Eaton’s retrospective last year. “To be part of that was fucking amazing,” he says. “It just blew me away.”
He adds, “I’ve been trying to think of a Detroit artist that has been more successful, and I cannot think of one. … Tris just has it all. He’s acceptable underground, and the fuckin’ corporate world fucking loves him, too.”
“Jerry has just been such a great influence in my life,” Eaton says. “I’m so happy to be coming back to this project.”
The Dirty Show is from 7 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday, Feb. 11-Saturday, Feb. 12, and Friday, Feb. 18-Saturday, Feb. 19 at the Russell Industrial Center; 1600 Clay St., Detroit; dirtydetroit.com. Tickets start at $42. Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test is required.