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Street artist and designer Tristan Eaton's global canvas


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Hari Sreenivasan: Next month in southern California, the Long Beach Museum of Art will open "All at Once," a 25-year retrospective of artist Tristan Eaton.

Described as an urban pop artist, Eaton's work moves between guerrilla street art, commercial design, civic installation and fine art. And as the NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker recently learned, Eaton has long lived outside of convention.

Christopher Booker: For this mural on NYC's 5th Avenue to work for the artist Tristan Eaton, he says it must successfully cater to two audiences.

Tristan Eaton: I want to paint a work of art that has an impact when you drive by at 40 miles an hour and you just get a quick glimpse. It has to work that way, but I'd like there to be more for the person that will spend more time with it and engage with it and learn about it.

Christopher Booker: There many places across the globe where this can happen. In NYC. In Berlin. Los Angeles, Paris even Guam.

Tristan Eaton: And when you drive through a city of cinder blocks and brick and concrete and drab grays and browns and you see a giant pop of color, it's a reminder that anything's possible.

Christopher Booker: For Eaton, this possibility was born of a childhood spent relocating. Moving from Los Angeles to London and then Detroit.

Tristan Eaton: Being a new kid all the time it does a powerful job on your brain, that's for sure. I feel like the greatest thing I learned is the hustle, you know finding a way to adapt and overcome and reinvent yourself and adapt to changes.

Christopher Booker: But at 16, Eaton's reinventions started to coalesce. His family's move to Detroit was a fortuitous stop for a kid falling in love with graffiti. The city's abandoned buildings provided an open canvas, while the breakdown of a once-mighty industrial city a narrative for his developing aesthetic.

Tristan Eaton: And the abandoned buildings were a canvas for me to go off and that's been a big storyline in my life is. Giving myself as many tools as possible so I can get the ideas out of me in a way that does them justice.

Christopher Booker: After high school, Eaton moved to NY to study at the School of Visual Arts where slowly, his career began to take shape.

Tristan Eaton: You know, I worked in a factory. I worked in a restaurant. I worked as an art mover. I did everything I had to do to get by man, and there was a comfort knowing like it doesn't matter, because the thing that means the most to me is my my art and that will continue no matter what else is happening.

Christopher Booker: In the early days his career took shape not with murals, rather toys. In 2002 he cofounded KidRobot, a designer toy company where Eaton would design what's known as the Dunny and the Munny, both of which now sit in Museum of Modern Art's Permanent collection, but it is the mural work that has caught the rest of the world's attention.

Christopher Booker: What does public art at the scale that you work in? What does that offer a city and a community?

Tristan Eaton: Well to be honest with you, it's extremely hard to quantify and so subjective. When I go to paint in a city like Detroit or cities that don't get as much public art funding or much attention, people can feel heard, they can feel valuable, they can feel unforgotten and that alone is extremely important. Every so often will paint a mural and then that mural becomes an intrinsic part of that community and a landmark and no one will ever let it get painted over. And that's how I know we've done a good job.

Christopher Booker: Do you find that as you've gained success and notoriety, does that anxiety, for lack of a better word, anxiety to understand and to fit in with the space you're in, has that remained?

Tristan Eaton: No, because I had to grapple with that early. I had a lot of years with no success and no money and what helped me through all that still helps me to this day, which is that all the external accolades and where you fit in, in the world and how successful you are has nothing to do with the quality of the art you're making, and I found that it was easier for me to focus if I just realized that all I had to do was put my head down and do good work and eventually the world will come if the work is good enough.

Christopher Booker: From the commercial to the inspirational, the world did come for Eaton, and in May of last year Space X wanted to know if Eaton had an interest in leaving the world.

Tristan Eaton: There was some empty cargo space in the shuttle, in the capsule, and they didn't know what to do with it and they were thinking about sending some art into space and didn't have any ideas. What did I think?

Christopher Booker: Eaton had one week to deliver. His past once again informing his present.

Tristan Eaton: Well I used to have a secret identity called Trusto, and we used to fabricate fake street signs by the hundreds and put them up through cities and they would just say ludicrous, absurd stuff, just a mess with people. And laser-etching street signs applies no paint and no extra material that could be flammable in any way. So I thought that was the method of production and that could be turned around really fast.

Christopher Booker: So in addition to adorning the world's cities, Eaton's work has now been to space.

Tristan Eaton: There's no rules, man, you know what I mean? Like, whoever tells you there's rules, you should yell at them. I came from a place where I didn't think I was going to have any success. I didn't think life in art was possible. So if I met the 20-year-old version of me, I probably wouldn't believe anything I had to say. But I hope that it's inspiring to younger artists out there who probably have a hard deck of cards dealt to them right now. A lot of people are struggling. And, you know, being an artist is an independent venture. You don't have a union. You don't have health insurance most of the time. So I'm hoping that it's a beacon to artists out there that you just do the good work and it'll come eventually.

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