Through wind, rain and long dawn-to-dusk days, L.A. mural artist Tristan Eaton persevered to put his artistic tag on downtown West Palm’s skyline.
by Carlos Frias, via Palm Beach Post
To understand the scope of the mural, you have to squint your eyes to realize the ant atop that six-story building is actually a man raising his arms in victory.
Tristan Eaton set out to leave his mark on the West Palm Beach cityscape. And in 15 days, the Los Angeles artist did just that, turning the side of the historic 1926 Meridian building at 326 Fern St. into a six-story canvas for one of his larger-than-life urban murals.
“The Spirit of Communication” is a surrealist portrait of Alexander Graham Bell, a tribute to Southern Bell’s former regional headquarters here. But it will soon be christened the Alexander Lofts, 89 New York-style urban apartments set to open this year.
It is by far the largest, most ambitious mural Eaton, 35, has ever done, his bold and colorful artistry covering most of the 7,000 square feet of formerly neglected red-brick wall facing east. And it was done entirely by hand with 600 cans of acrylic spray paint.
“If people enjoy it and cherish it, it’s an amazing feeling,” Eaton said. “What I’m doing now feels like the most important work I’ve done in the body of my fine art.”
This piece, like all of Eaton’s ambitious murals, had its challenges.
He baked. In the mornings, the sun blasted him until noon. His arms are a mural in themselves, a patchwork of sunburn and farmer’s tan, and flecked and splashed with a rainbow of colors he shared with the wall.
It rained. He and three artists who assisted him were washed out for most of two days that forced Eaton to reschedule his return flight to Los Angeles. Other times, they were slipping and sliding nearly 50 feet above the ground on metal scaffolding. Fortunately, the paint dries quickly.
It swayed. The pair of scaffolding he and his team were using for the first time undulated as much as five feet from the wall as winds off the Intracoastal picked up. It’s a precarious way to earn $35,000.
“We’re up there riding the rails, surfin’ it. It’s crazy, man!” Eaton said.
And he improvised. Because of delays, two of the artists who were assisting Eaton had to leave early for other projects, leaving only him and good friend Shane Jessup to paint the last two days.
The result is Eaton’s unique signature on the downtown skyline, a style he has been perfecting since he was a teenager illustrating ads with his father at one of his grandfather’s weekly Michigan newspapers.
Eaton’s life, like his murals, looks grand and complex from a distance. But viewing the details up close makes the whole look that much more impressive.
An artistic childhood
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Eaton learned early on that living a creative life is not a pastime, but a calling.
His mother, Gillian, was a Welsh-born member of the Royal Shakespearean Company when the theater group came through Los Angeles and she met Randy Eaton.
Although Randy Eaton’s father and grandfather were both buttoned-up newspaper men who had served in the Michigan state legislature, Randy was a dogged creative spirit. His résumé reads like a typical Los Angeles type: photographer, B-movie director, producer, television commercial actor, model and Montana horse wrangler.
They raised their two boys, Matt and Tristan (Randy had a son from a previous marriage, Rob) in Los Angeles, with Gillian taking Tristan with her to the La Jolla Playhouse for rehearsals. He haunted the wings for hours while his mother acted with Hollywood stars like Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline just after he had done “Silverado.”
“Whatever they didn’t have in money, they made up for in enthusiasm and support,” Eaton said. “I feel really lucky for the upbringing I had.”
When he was just 3, Gillian witnessed him drawing just a portion of a foot going off his sketch pad. When she asked him what it was, he said it was a giant stepping off the page.
“It always astonished me the way he looked at the world,” she said.
The family moved to London so Gillian could act on the stage, and his father opened a blues club. But when Tristan was 16, his father had a stroke.
Gillian was left to support the family on her income from acting alone. So Randy reached out to his old contacts at the Michigan Press Association, who gave him a job as a newspaper freelance artist, and the family moved to Detroit.
Tristan began working with his father at the newspaper drawing copy for ads but also doing graphic design work for a host of companies. And by the time he enrolled at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, he was already paying the bills with money from his art.
His professors were so impressed by his talent, they recommended Eaton for a job designing action figures for Fisher-Price. For the next two years, he designed whole lines of fantasy toys — wizards, centaurs — and one called Rescue Heroes based on first responders after 9-11.
“Detroit opened my eyes to what the art world can be,” he said.
Meanwhile, he was unwittingly preparing to paint atop tall buildings. He and his friends would set out “urban exploring,” climbing water towers and billboards where they hung their feet off the edge talking into the night.He was never daunted by heights.
“Those survival instincts are very deep inside you and they come out. But I don’t think I ever had them,” he said.
He moved to New York with a five-year plan: If he couldn’t make it as an artist in five years, he would move back to Detroit.
In year four, he co-founded ToyRobot. He designed a series of collectible art toys that became all the rage, especially among collectors of pop culture such as Jay-Z and rapper Pharrell Williams. Its Dunny and Munny lines are among the most collectible and the Museum of Modern Art has several of Tristan’s art toys in its permanent collection.
He spun that into his own toy and art project, Thunderdog Studios, which he ran with the help of his dad and brother Matt, a New York painter and art gallery owner. The work kept coming as he designed ads for a host of huge companies, including Nike’s Jordan brand, depicting surrealist black-and-white images of the likes of NBA superstars LeBron James, Blake Griffin and Chris Paul.
He designed a line of namesake laptop covers for Dell computers and unique logos for Toyota’s Scion line of cars.
He even was chosen to model for famed photographer Annie Leibovitz in her series of Gap ads.
Commercial success let Tristan explore. And in 2009, while walking through the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn — “a tough, rough, goddam neighborhood,” Gillian Eaton called it — he saw a blank canvas: the wall of a oppressive-looking apartment building that longed for color. So Eaton called the property owner and asked if he could paint the building.
Eaton broke form, from lines and graphic art to the modernistic portraiture that would become his signature. What emerged was the first in Eaton’s style of modern surrealism in “4 Horse Women of the Apocalypse.”
“It gave me the confidence to move forward and explore my talent,” he said. “You have to put a flag in the ground for what you want to do, who you want to be.”
The mural was that calling card.
It led to his iconic mural of the Statue of Liberty on the corner of Mulberry and Canal streets which he painted in 2012 for the Little Italy Street Art Project. From there, it was Art Basel, and praise from the international community.
His work is still displayed in the Wynwood art district in Miami, and he will return to South Florida to paint Miami’s well-known Marine Stadium in September as part of a revitalization project.
And, of course, he caught the attention of Peter Cummings, chairman of RAM Realty, which owns several projects around the country including the drab Meridian in West Palm Beach, which they bought for $5.25 million.
“That wall sort of begged for some kind of artistic treatment,” Cummings said. “When I saw the work Tristan had done, I said, ‘He’s the guy.’ ”
A monstrous job
To make the Bell mural come to light, they waited for a darkness that never came.
Eaton had hoped to project the image — which he sketched by hand and modified digitally — onto the building at nighttime. But the surrounding city lights were too bright. So they scaled the light poles surreptitiously and taped over lights with cardboard to plunge the Meridian into temporary darkness.
Beginning on March 10, they outlined the entire image in gray spray paint, creating a sort of paint-by-numbers sketch they would spend nearly two weeks filling in.
It’s a monstrous job so Eaton enlisted help. He brought in his friend Jessup, who paints trains on the West Coast; New York’s Jason Pulgarin, whose art class Eaton addressed years ago; and Scott Johnson, a Miami native living in New York who happened to be down helping his girlfriend move.
The four switched from an all-night schedule to all-day, painting until it was too dark to see, usually 8 p.m. They stood for most of the 12-hour days, stopping only occasionally to rest their arms and legs after “surfing” the rigs which swayed from the wall. Some days, they got soaked, waited out the rain on the rigs, and continued on.
“I still have sea legs,” Jessup said.
Sure, they thought about falling.
“But we were tethered to the building. If we fell off, we’d just dangle there, chillin’ until someone came to get us down,” Eaton said.
Sometimes, they just sat on the scaffolding to rest, listening to music, watching the ocean, feeling the breeze scented in acrylic paint.
“There are these really perfect moments,” Eaton said.
Dance hall reggae, rapper Big Daddy Kane and surf rock flowed from the rigs along with the chaca-chaca-chaca of spray-paint cans. (“It’s the big, funky beats that energize me for painting,” Eaton said.)
Neighbors stopped by to watch the image emerge. RoseAnn Maiorano, who lives in the nearby St. James Residence, an independent living apartment with the clearest view of the mural, stopped by daily to take pictures and to watch the men work through her binoculars.
“Look at the lines, the shapes the … everything! This is awesome,” she said. “The guy is a genius.”
Marilyn Hetherton, who also lives in the building, grew up five houses from the president of BellSouth in South Orange, N.J., and likes that the painting captures art and history.
“I had mixed emotions at first because I thought it was going to be like those ‘EM@’ paintings. But I’m liking it more and more as it goes up,” she said. “If your choice is this or a red brick wall, it seems like a pretty good idea.”
By noon on March 25, Eaton knew they would finally finish. Just after 7 p.m. with the sky still bright, Eaton rode the rig to the top for the last time, climbed off and raised his hands in celebration.
Back on the ground, his clothes, iPhone and watch spattered in paint — “All my stuff gets sacrificed to the paint,” Eaton said — his arms and neck glowing red with sunburn, he stood back to appreciate the finished work.
“Feels really damn good,” Eaton said, looking at the work with his hands on his waist, a cigarette hanging from his lip. (He’s trying to quit.)
He notices a few areas he might have done differently, never completely satisfied, like any artist. “I could be forever noodling with it.”
There is even one misstep that became part of the piece. Look closely and you can see a mouse pointer just below the collar of the woman in blue. It was on the laptop screen when they projected it and Shane and Eaton decided to leave it in as a joke.
It’s a tip of the hat to the art gods, like flubbing a line at rehearsal before a big show. It’s a reminder of the work that went into creating what will become an icon in downtown West Palm Beach.
“The camaraderie of that, the ups and downs. We shared a lot of laughs, overcame some obstacles and that’s cool,” Eaton said, “Because we did it all together.”
‘THE SPIRIT OF COMMUNICATION’
Artist:Tristan Eaton, of Los Angeles
Where: The eastern facing side of the Meridian building, 326 Fern St., downtown West Palm Beach.
HOW BIG IS IT?
7,000 — the square feet the mural covers
4 — the number of artists it took to complete the work
15 — days it took to complete the project on March 25
600 — cans of acrylic spray paint used to create the mural
35,000 — dollars RAM Realty paid Eaton to create the work.