Tristan Eaton's Playground

I Was a Botox Junkie, photo by Lord Jim
 "I Was a Botox Junkie," | Photo: Lord Jim

The comic and toy fueled childhood of Tristan Eaton has materialized and matured into an impressive series of public murals. The southern Californian, who had stints in Detroit, New York, and London is most well known as a toy designer but since the artist has returned home to Los Angeles, his recent activity is notable and hopefully a continued sign of his evolution as an artist.

Designing a toy for Fisher Price as a teenager gave him an early start and these experiences led him to enroll in the School of Visual Art, New York where he honed his skills as an illustrator. Dropping out before graduation, he founded his own design company, Thunderdog Studios where he was involved in a variety of projects from filmmaking to corporate gigs.

Despite some early successes, Eaton is perhaps most well known for creating the designer toy called the Dunny with Kidrobot founder Paul Budnitz in 2004. The rabbit like character with elongated ears is in many ways the anti-thesis for Jeff Koons' "Rabbit" (1986). Koons sought to appropriate and reimagine the everyday item through the medium of stainless steal and his sculpture acts as a Trojan horse within the museum. The elevated status and context of Koons' inflatable toy is now an example of luxury and wealth despite its humble origins. Eaton's Devil Bunny (the origins of the name Dunny) in comparison is an original design and instead makes sculpture accessible for the masses. As a blank canvas, dozens of artists like Gary Baseman or Shepard Fairey have taken the basic shape and reimagined it in limited quantities for fans.

"Liberty" | Photo: Lord Jim
"Liberty" | Photo: Lord Jim

In recent years, Eaton has dedicated himself to creating large-scale murals and emphasizes this passion: "At the end of the day, I love painting walls outdoors more than anything, but I value all of the other paths I've walked on." Several pieces dot the southern California landscape, but there are examples around the world including works in Europe and Asia. The common aesthetic features a strong outline or a black and white image to ground the mural. Within this foundation, there is often simulated tears or layered sections within the piece that reveal additional imagery. These new insights expose blasts of color and pattern and have provided the artist a distinctive aesthetic.

Eaton acknowledges he lacks a trademark style like many other muralists. However, the majority of his recent work is layered with playful imagery and a call back to his early interest in toy culture. If a vintage diner, comic book illustrator and Hanna Barbera decided to collaborate and make well-designed murals they might look like Eaton's work. From Donald Duck to writhing snakes, Eaton's sampling of visuals seems almost addictive. The slick combinations are mature and add layers of interesting juxtapositions that wrestle with one another for attention. The tension is overwhelming yet pleasurable, so much that the visuals have an audible effect and are loud in the mind's eye.

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The disruptive and beautiful effect is a combination of Eaton's sensibility to color and line. It's an experience that is reminiscent of the Sirens of Greek Mythology. The enchanting and dynamic arrangement of forms in Eaton's murals are extremely pleasing, yet like the rocky and dangerous locations the Sirens lured sailors into are comparable to Eaton's formulaic strategy.

Eaton's strong background in design and experience with corporate clients both helps and hinders the artist. Eaton explains how he walks this line: "Whenever I collaborate with a bigger brand it's always me expressing my art the way I want to. Otherwise I won't make that choice. I won't work with them. I'm lucky that when I do work with big brands I get to do it my way and I get to have my name front and center and say 'this is my fine art...'" Style can and does prevail when his large mural of medusa also stands in for a Versace logo. We unfortunately see this in Eaton's impressive work for the Pow Wow festival in Hawaii. The extraordinary graphics and scale may be his most complicated piece to date but it also may be one of the most disappointing because it can be reduced to a colorful billboard masking as art. Versace can be seen as a patron of the arts in this situation but it's exactly the type of public work that the city of Los Angeles banned when corporations found new ways to advertise their products through the work of artists.

In contrast, Eaton's most successful murals capitalize on his experience and interest in lowbrow culture. Located in the heart of the Arts District, "I Was a Botox Junkie" features a glamorous woman clutching her cheek. The vintage black and white beauty references another era, an old Hollywood. However, streaks of color tear into the woman's face to reveal garish colors, text, and even a monster that peaks out from her forehead. A needle is conspicuously hidden that represents a new type of addiction for vanity. Eaton's critique on beauty in Los Angeles is a perfect fit and although it's not as technically refined as the Hawaii piece, it's much more genuine.

The strides made by Eaton from designer to artist are impressive and the flurry of mural activity is a sign of significant growth for the illustrator. One hopes that he can continue to develop meaning and substance with the work that will match his keen eye and technical abilities. Accessibility is an obvious goal but the sensuous and gorgeous layers in Eaton's work are amazing tools for creating an aesthetic playground worth looking and thinking about.


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