Finding Your Creative Inspiration with Tristan Irving, Street Artist


By Assemble

November 23, 2022

Tristan Irving is a Portland based street artist made famous by his striking paintings of historical figures such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo and George Floyd. The latter was featured prominently during the protests and led to him being honored by the Portland Mayor's Office.

In this interview we talk about his struggle with alcoholism, the impact Dan Wieden had on his life, and how one of his mentors inspired him to believe in himself as an artist.

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Nate Watkin: Tristan Irvin is a Portland based street artist who taught himself how to paint as an outlet for recovery. Inspired by Basquiat, Warhol, and Banksy, he is most well known for his striking murals of historical figures, painting colorful renditions of everyone from Frederick Douglass to George Floyd, the latter of which was featured prominently during the protests and led to Tristan being publicly honored by the Portland Mayor's Office. Welcome to our show, Tristan.

Tristan Irving: Hey, thanks for having me. How you doing? Hey,

Nate Watkin: Doing good. Doing good. Excited to have you. Um, so tell me about, like, a little bit how you grew up. Were you always this artistic growing up? Did you always have a passion for art?

Tristan Irving: Um, see, growing up I did not so always have a passion for art. I couldn't even tell you who some of the, um, you know, famous artists were besides Picasso, you know, the, the big names and stuff like that. Uh, um, yeah, but I couldn't tell you like what their work looked like or anything like that. I could just probably name a few. Um, but no, I, I never, I never had any interest in, in museums or, or anything like that. Uh, but growing up I was definitely always creative though in some kind of form or fashion. Uh, it's just how I problem solve, you know? Um, growing up in, uh, camp Calera, we were always taught to, uh, to, to do things differently, you know, so it, it always made me, um, made me question, uh, or made me try to think outside of the box.

Uh, just being a city kid in the, in the, in the woods, you know, it always kind of brought me to think of different things, you know? So, yeah, as a kid, I guess I always, I always thought about, uh, um, yeah, just, just weird and fun things, I guess. Not, not necessarily art, art, I guess I was, I was a drummer when I was a kid, so I did have some creative, uh, and I, I played the buckets as well too. Um, you know, so I did have some creative, um, creative, uh, aspects to me, to my life, but not, not art influence.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. And I know you mentioned Camp Calera there, which I, I want to talk about, cuz it sounds like that had a big impact on your life. But I'm curious to know, what was the period in your life like before that, and how did you find Camp Calder? Or how did you get connected with

Tristan Irving: That? Yeah. Um, before Camp Calera, uh, I was just, um, just a regular kid doing regular things. I, I don't know, my, my life isn't, uh, it wasn't too, um, it, it wasn't too much to be, uh, you know, excited about, I guess. Uh, um, I came from a, from a struggle, single parent, uh, household. Um, a lot of, uh, you know, my dad was a, a drug addict. Um, it was a lot of like, domestic violence going on in my house. Uh, there was a lot of like, um, yeah, a lot of stuff that I tried not to remember, I guess. Uh, not a lot of fun stuff. Um, but so that, that all that in itself kind of made me, uh, made me kind of get creative with the things that I had, you know? Um, or the kind of, of how me and my sister entertained ourself.

Um, uh, that, I guess it kind of, the creativity started there, you know? Um, uh, yeah. And I feel like, um, just being around, uh, um, different opportunities in Portland, like, um, self enhancement, which was where we found, where I found, uh, camp Calera, just like different outlets, you know, different outlets other kids were going to. That's kind of where, um, what led me to, I never, I was never interested in, uh, like for a while. I never, never interested in art or anything like that. What led me to Camp Calera was they had this spiel at, um, at se and they were talking about, uh, horses. And I'm a kid in the city. I don't know anything, like the most that I see, I love TV and stuff, so I see kids on like, TV camping and stuff like that. They don't have a lot of those like camp shows now, uh, on tv, reality TV shows.

But back when I was a kid, they had like a bunch of like, camp reality TV shows and stuff, so I would see those. Um, and when they had this spiel coming to se, they was talking about horses and stuff. I wasn't influenced by the art. I didn't care about the art. Um, but what I was interested in is getting out there and going to ride some horses. I was able to go out into the forest, in the woods, whatever, for 10 days and, and be with some horses from a city, kid from the city. That sounds like amazing to me, you know? Um, that is what drew me to Camp Calder. It didn't have anything to do with art. It wasn't any, it was just getting away from my, I think a big part of it was too, uh, like it was during the summer too, like 10 days.

I didn't have to be like, worrying about like, whatever was going on in the city during the summer and stuff. Um, you know, that, that's, that's what drew me there. Uh, just trying to get away. I think, I think it was just an outlet. There was a lot of stuff in my childhood that I just wanted to escape, you know? Um, that was just, wasn't, like, wasn't really pleasant. Uh, so I, I feel like what drove me to, um, to find these outlets was just trying to escape, you know? Just trying to, just trying to, just a new reality, you know? Like, um, uh, yeah, just, just, just, just, just the pursuit of happiness, you know? Just trying to, just trying to, um, there, there, there's more out there, you know, I can see it, you know, just coming of age, seeing that there's more out there and, and, you know, um, uh, good or bad, like materialistic and thinking all those things.

Nate Watkin: And so, so tell me a little bit more about Camp Caldera. This was a, I believe, a nonprofit organization founded by Dan Wyden of Wyden Kennedy to help children discover their, their artistic side. Or tell me more about that and what that experience was like.

Tristan Irving: Yeah. Um, it was, uh, it was though then what we call him Papa Bear. Um, Papa Bear. Just, he, so when I say Papa Bear, I'm referring to Dan, uh, the Papa Bear. Um, he, he provided just like an, an entrepreneur environment for us all. Like, we were able to, um, to build our classes. We were able to pick what we wanted to be creatively, like we, so what, what it looked like when we signed up. So the horses is what got me there, but I had to do the paperwork and stuff like that. Part of the paperwork is I had to pick, um, like a, uh, a, um, a class, like a, um, a discipline. I had to pick a discipline. Uh, my discipline, since I was already a drummer, I picked African drumming. Um, uh, that was the worst decision for me to pick African drumming because once they found out that I was a drummer, every year since then, they put me in drumming class.

Whether I signed up for photography, whatever. It was, like, just cuz I, and I was a pretty good drummer. Like I played at the Blazer games and stuff like that, like during the halftime shows and stuff. So, uh, once they found out I was a drummer, they kind of like, uh, I kind of became like an assistant, you know? Um, so in that I had to go and, and, and find, it just made me like seek other, um, other disciplines even more, you know? So I had to like, go in and, um, on my free time be with like, the photography class and, and the video production class and this kind of stuff. It just made me more inquisitive, you know? Um, um, uh, so what camp called Derrick did it, it allowed students to, um, to pick a discipline and you got to like kind of focus on that discipline for, for a year and in, for a year to four years.

Any anywhere you get to pick, you know? Um, and, uh, and, and it just taught you the ends, ins and outs of that. It put it, we were able to have like, professional, um, equipment, like standard professional standard equipment that they're, they're, uh, that they're using like in the industry, you know, um, in our hands, you know, that's not something common, like kids that are, that are, uh, underserved, um, from small communities, having these, these thousand dollars equipment, video equipment, cameras in their hand like that just, and people telling you like, to here, go do whatever with it, you know, like, go, you know, have fun with it. Like, that doesn't happen often, you know, like that in itself was empowerment. You know, we felt empowered to, to, um, to just be more than what we were, what we thought in, in, in the city.

You know, mind you, this was before cell phones and stuff like that. Um, when, when I was growing up. Uh, so this was like the technology, this was, this was something that was huge for, for not just me, but for, for all, all of us, you know? Um, and it still is huge for them, uh, for the kids there. Um, but putting this technology in their hands, um, it was just something that being trusted with that, that, for one, it, it's, it, having that in my hands and then two, being trusted with that, um, uh, was just like, uh, um, yeah, it just made me feel like an entrepreneur, you know? It made me feel like, like I was, I was somebody, you know, I had, I had, I was able to, somebody was able to sit down with me, um, uh, like go from, from eight to b what a creative process looks like, like building a, a board and stuff like that.

Um, uh, I was just able to, to do all that kind of stuff as a kid, you know, produce, like camp videos. Um, like I won one video that I really loved that was a hit when I was a kid, was like, we did like a MTV Cribs version, but it was like, uh, mtv, tps. So you got to like, go around to different TPSs and stuff like that, and people were, you got to view different TPSs and stuff like that, you know, just like an MTV Cribs version. But, but the TP edition, you know, so we got to do things like that, you know, as kids, we got to see what we were doing out in the, see what was going on out in the world, you know, and we got to, got to do that. We got to copy that, you know, we were able to, to, hey, like, this is what's going on.

This is what we think is tied out in the world. You know, like, we tell people this, like, people who are, are, um, like from W and Kennedy, people who have this knowledge and stuff. We have these ideas, you know, like, this is what we see going on in the world. This is what we wanna make happen, you know? And we made it happen, you know, and we got to go back to the city with these DVDs and show our friends and all this kind of stuff. Like what we did. Like, we became producers, you know, we became like, we became like, like the, the, the, the, we just became, um, uh, yeah, we, we became, we became producers, like copywriters. We became, um, like the whole nine. It was, it is, it is, it's easier to, to think about it now and to kind of like, um, like give titles to it, uh, what we were doing now back.

But back then we, it wasn't like that. We were just like, just having fun. That that's kind of what, that's kind of what the mission was for Camp Calera was to, um, what Papa Bear was trying to show us, uh, and show continue. What Camp Cordera continues to show children is that, um, like what we see, what, like, what, like, um, what's on tv? Like, and what, like what is is happening in the world, like artistically, like the Coles we wear. Um, like everything comes from a creative process essentially. You know, like everything starts from an idea, you know, and, and, and gets some planning and then, and it happens, you know? So that's what we, we, we were able to see our ideas come from, from point A to point Z. Um, and it just, uh, it showed us how, how the world works, you know, we were able to go back to the city and see these commercials and see stuff and say like, Hey, we, we can do that.

You know, not only can we do that, but we, we have experience in that, and we see how, how, um, you know, like they, like people nowadays, like, they're like, or what it is, is kind of like they, uh, um, they're taking culture or the meat or the, these big agencies, they, they take what's happening in in the youth, you know, what's going on in, in the, in people in that a in those ages, you know, and they kind of just sell it back to 'em, you know? We were able to see that kind of stuff. Uh, it just opened our eyes to a lot of things, you know, we did, we weren't able to see, like, it wasn't, it was 10 days of this, you know, it's night and day of this. It wasn't like basketball camp, you know, it wasn't stuff that we see every day like that that's filled in the inner cities, you know, like sports dreams and, you know, like music dreams and stuff like that.

Granted, you can go there and, and if you wanted to and, and do that kind of stuff, but, um, it just opened our eyes. So there's a lot more going on in the world that's interesting. You know, that that, that we can do, you know? Um, so that, that's kind of essentially, essentially what it was. Um, uh, in that still. I never, I never took up art or anything like that. It was more, more what camp called Dare was instilling in me. It was instill in the ch in the in children was that we could solve things creatively, you know, like when we, and it also taught us to live in a community, which was, which was important because you can't just be a creative and, and, and not know how to like, be in community. There's a lot of artists, um, who, who, um, who are alone, you know, and who, um, uh, and, and just this, who, who, who, yeah, it, it's, it's, it's, it's being a full-time artist is, is not, um, is, is is not just like, uh, it is not as easy just as, as sitting in the studio, um, like, just painting and, uh, and just posting stuff and selling, you know, there's a lot of business aspect to it, you know, there's a lot of community to it, you know, there's a lot of, uh, social aspect to it, you know?

Um, uh, what also Camp Cardera taught us was, was living in a community. We were able to, to, to, to learn, um, taking what we need and, um, and leaving, uh, you know, the extra and stuff like that. Um, like as far as like, food and, and, uh, it is a lot of stuff. And, and learning how to, um, there was always an abundance of stuff. So it, it taught us just how to, uh, um, just how to live in a community, how to take care of our community, you know, make sure everybody was fed and, and all this kind of stuff. It taught us like family, you know, we, we were, it, it, we, we, we got to experience a lot of different things. Uh, um, yeah, community, family, like entrepreneurial, um, entrepreneurship. Um, yeah, it, it, it just, it, it, it taught us a lot. And, and what was, uh, um, yeah, it, it, it, it taught us a lot.

Nate Watkin: And so, so let me, let me jump in there. Uh, you know, obviously, sadly, uh, Dan Weden recently passed away. What would you say, and I know that you worked with him for many years, not just in Camp Calera. Tell me your favorite story of Dan that had the most impact on you.

Tristan Irving: My favorite story of Dan that had the most impact on me. Uh, he had multiple conversations. Uh, uh, so I used to work for, um, work at White and Candy for, um, off and on for around like seven years. Um, uh, and I had a struggle working there because it was, uh, I'm, I was, I didn't have a college education or anything like that. I'm only there because, because of, uh, Papa Beer, because of Dan. Um, so in, in a, in a sense, it kind of, it was, uh, it felt kind of like, um, man, I don't know. It kind of felt like a, almost like a, like a burden kind of. Almost like, like, I'm, I'm, there's a, I didn't know. I, I never knew who Dan was, you know, until, um, until I, I was working at White and Kennedy, so it was kind of overwhelming.

Um, uh, I just, I was, he was just always this, this older random white dude who, who loved me, and I loved him, who, who wanted to make sure that I did good, you know, who always had like, just dope conversations for me and, and stuff like that. Um, like when I was out at camp and stuff, like, it was like, mind you, when I saw this dude, it was always at camp. You know, I never, I, I don't know, I never got to, I never grew up knowing who Dan White was, you know? Um, for me, it's just this random white dude who, who's just a papa bear, you know? Um, I, I'm from this inner city kid. I don't have a lot of experiences with, with older white men like this, you know? Uh, especially somebody that, that, that verbally says they love me, you know?

Um, that doesn't happen, you know? Um, uh, so I get to Yya and Kennedy, um, uh, I'm like fresh outta high school. Um, I don't know anything about advertising. Uh, I, I, I know a lot about like, um, uh, like the video production and, and photography and stuff like that, what I've learned at Calera, but I don't know how any of this, any of this plays into what I'm, what I'm going into, you know? Um, um, and so, uh, uh, there was a lot of me like feeling inadequate. There was a lot of me feeling like this is a burden. Like, I have to be here because like, uh, you know, I don't wanna let him down. Like, I love this dude, you know? Like, I, like, um, uh, you know, he's like, kind of like a father figure in a sense, you know? Like in, um, uh, like, I don't know what I'm doing with my life, you know?

Like I, I, this, I'm, I'm walking into this. Like, I, I don't know what I'm doing, you know? I'm fresh outta high school. Like, I don't, I don't know. Um, uh, um, and I'm walking into this entrepreneur, or into this internship with, with people from all over the world. Uh, different accents, stuff like that. Uh, it really played on me. It really, it really hurt me. Um, like I, I, I ended up turning into an alcoholic, uh, an alcoholic work in there. Um, so there was this one time where I was, uh, the first time that I ended up going to treatment, I, uh, um, I didn't end up staying. I, uh, I left, um, Dan had this conversation with me, um, uh, and I was telling him like, man, like, I don't know why you would have me there. You know, like this. There's nothing, there's, I, there's nothing I can offer to these people.

Like, there's nothing creative that I'm doing. These people are making Nike acts, you know, like, what, what do you want me to do fresh outta high school? Like, I'm an inner city kid. Like, seriously, what the hell do you want me to do? Like, like, I'm around these people. Like, I'm not, like, I'm, I'm, I'm sitting here, like, my job is like getting coffee and running errands, doing this, that, and a third, just like being an assistant to a lot of people, you know? Um, I'm seeing a lot of different things and stuff like that. Like, I'm, um, I'm picking up on a lot of stuff. I'm really inquisitive, you know, like in, um, and I'm still that way, that way to this day, you know? Uh, um, and I, I, I didn't know this about myself back then, but Dan knew this about me, you know?

Um, uh, which is, uh, a big reason why he kept me around, you know? Um, but I, I, I was always like just picking up on energy, picking up on what people were doing, you know, asking questions and stuff, like wanting to help out and stuff. But at the end of the day, I'm going back home and knowing that I'm not contributing to anything, you know, like I'm, I'm looking at, I'm seeing commercials being produced, you know, and I, and I, and, and the what I know that I, and I'm, I, I've seen the whole process and, and the, I I know that my part of it was going to go get people like food and stuff like that. Like, at the end of the day that, that hurt me, you know, that like, it made me feel like the, the smallest person in the world, you know?

Like, it didn't feel good at all. So that it, that kind of drove me to, to drinking and stuff like that, Dan, understand. I did notice at the time about Dan, about Papa's beer, but Dan was also an, uh, an alcoholic. He also had this issue, uh, with drinking, you know? Um, it, it played a part in, uh, in this, in his career and his creative career, stuff like that, to a point where he had to, he had to cut it out, you know? Um, uh, I didn't know that about them. He, I didn't know that about him. He told that about, he told that to me, uh, and he explained to me, he was like, Tristan, like, I don't want you to be a fake me. You know? Like, I'm not keeping you around this white and Kennedy to, to be, to be me, to be a fake me to be, uh, you know, I want you.

I just want you to be a, to answers to somebody problem. You know? It's not about, you know, being the next creative director or whatever it was. It's just about finding who you are. Um, and I just want you to be an answer to somebody's problem, you know? Uh, and he was like, once you, once you, uh, he was like, figure out what you, what it is. You're good at life. What it is you're, you're good at doing in life. Do that. Keep doing it. Max out at it. And when you find yourself maxing out at it, remember that what you do is not who you are. Um, just, and he kept repeating that. Like, what you do is not who you are. And he was like, so, even remember right now, even what you're doing, when I was assistant, he was telling me that even if you're feeling like you're running to get 20 burgers, a thousand burgers, you're maxing out, like going to get burgers.

That's not who you are. You know, whatever. Like, what you do is not who you are. Just keep remembering that, you know? Um, he was like, so no matter what it is, it does, you don't need to be a fake me. Just, I remember at the end of the day, just being answer to somebody's problem. That's it. That's all you need to do in this world, is being answer to somebody's problem. When you find yourself maxing out at that, um, remember what you do is not who you are. Um, that's the biggest thing that, that Dan, uh, that Dan taught me. Cause I didn't understand at the time. Um, and I didn't like it at the time when he told me that. I, uh, that conversation, it didn't stick with me like he was trying to convince me to stay in, in treatment, but what he was telling me, like, he didn't care if I stayed there or I didn't stay there, you know, I'm gonna figure it out one way or another.

Um, but he was trying to suggest that I stay there at the end of the conversation. This is a powerful man with the most powerful words, you know? His words did not hit home right then and there, you know, I didn't stay at treatment. I left, you know, I went back to work at White and Kennedy. The alcohol took care of itself. I ended up back at treatment, um, and, uh, and, and ended up working that time around. But that's kind of the biggest, the biggest lesson that I kind of took from Dan. Uh, it's just that, you know, um, just be an answer to somebody's problem. Like, you don't like, and, and when you find yourself like, maxing out, you just, it's, yeah. What you do is not who you are, you know? Um, so it just, it, it, it, it reminds me, it keeps me, uh, it keeps the work at the forefront, you know?

It keeps me, uh, um, hopeful. Um, I'm, I'm a painter. Yes, I'm an artist, but that's, that's not who I am. I didn't get sober so I could do, so I could do, um, so I could be a painter, you know? I didn't get sober so I could, uh, so I could be an artist, you know? That was never anything that, that I, I wanted, you know, I got sober so I could be an answer to somebody's problem. I was like, fuck this. I don't wanna work in advertising anymore. I don't wanna do any of this kind of stuff anymore. Um, uh, um, Marni Marni was, was a big part of this. She was a huge part of my story. She, she was. So when Dan brought me to White and Kennedy, he, I, he didn't obviously have the time to keep me, um, under his wing.

He brought me there and introduced me to Marni my first day, and was like, here you go, Marni. And left. And I didn't have anything to do with Dan for rest of like, the time that I was there, but I was like, under Marty's wing, you know? She, she had a lot of, uh, um, she had a lot of, uh, um, oversight and, and everything that I was doing, you know, um, uh, in, in this, she, so she kind of saw how, how, um, just how kind of my life kind of just evolved, you know? Um, once I got sober, uh, I got sober to be a, uh, to, to do youth work, you know? Um, uh, um, there was a lot of things going on in my life that, uh, there was this one thing going on in my life. I was dealing with, uh, my grand, my grandmother, uh, uh, having dementia.

Um, and I had to, uh, I was like her in, in-home caregiver. It was just, it was super stressful for me. Um, I'm, I'm like, newly sober, didn't know how to like, handle my emotions, stuff like that. Like, um, how I usually handle my emotions, just drinking and stuff like that, you know? So it was just a lot of stuff going on. Uh, somebody suggested I pick up art as therapy. Um, and so I'm thinking like, Hey, like, you know, I'm used to solving things creatively, you know, so somebody suggested that I do. Like, I, I couldn't go to as many AA meetings I was going to. Um, I was stuck in like this basement stuck, like, at home, didn't, like, uh, trying to take care of my grandparents and stuff. Like, somebody suggested I pick up artist therapy, and I was like, man, you know what?

Like, that's, I'm, I'm good with taking suggestions, you know? Um, so, so I did that. Uh, um, and that's, uh, kind of where, um, where I, I found where I found, like, art, I started, uh, like, um, paint, or I started putting words down on canvases, um, and, uh, like the words that I was feeling of emotion, and then I would cover it up and, uh, in color. And that would feel, that would be like a therapy session to me. Like once my, once all the words were covered up in, in paint, then I would feel like, uh, I got everything out and I made it pretty, you know, I made all this, these ugly words that I was feeling, whatever it was, whatever thoughts that I was feeling on the cameras. And I covered, covered it up with pretty colors. Like, you know, I felt like for me, that was a process of taking, um, um, something ugly to me, like my, my emotions and, and sitting there and trying to make it pretty with just this abstract colors and this throwing paint on the canvas.

You know, for me, that was, that was solving my problem creatively. Um, uh, I, I was loving that. Um, I wanted to know more about, more about arts. I wanted to know more about painting. Um, and this is where things kind of, kind of took, um, like took off. I, I, so mind you, I'm getting sober to, to, I wanted to get sober to work with kids. Um, that's, that's, that was my whole reason was to, to, um, I still wanted to be, just be an answer to somebody's problem. I love youth work. I was always working with Camp Calera, um, when, even when I was adult. So it, nonprofit work has been something that's just been instilled in me, you know? Um, I've always wanted to give back since I know, cause I just know how much Camp Calera works, you know? Um, so, uh, as an adult, I've always wanted to, to do more of that, more of that work.

Um, so that's what I got sober for. Uh, um, so I couldn't, uh, so that, that's initially what I, that's what, what I got sober for. That's what I canceled everything for. That's what I gave up my whole life for, that's what I got sober for, um, uh, uh, to be of service to people. Um, so I'm, I'm doing this, um, and I, uh, I, uh, I'm painting this, I'm trying to figure out what, um, what, what I, uh, like, I'm trying to figure out, um, like what it is I love about painting, um, that I find out. There's, there's like a lot of artists that are whites, um, and I, I can't really resonate with, with them, me being a black artist. So I just try to dig deep more and more Google searches. I find a black artist by the name of Basquiat.

Um, and then, uh, I find out, uh, about this other artist named Warhol. And then, um, like, I finally just like learning about Bosco just opened up my world to a whole bunch of other different things. Like, uh, and what's cool about Bosco was that he was a, um, he, he was a drug addict, you know? He, his story, I could relate to his story, you know, my dad was a drug addict, you know, I felt his story, you know, I felt, you know, I felt his pain, you know, in a different level, because I know how it, it breaks up a home, you know, like when I like, heard about Boscos story, it just brought me back to my childhood, like everything that I was going through, you know, like, I could see, you know, I could feel the emotions, you know, in his work, you know?

Um, it was just powerful to me, you know? And then him being a, uh, uh, him, him being an addict and dying and, um, and, uh, from his addiction and stuff like that, that was just something that was like, uh, that, that was super hit home to me as well, because I, I, uh, I got sober, um, and then I started painting, and that's, that's how I found painting, you know? So it's like, um, it, it, it felt, it felt like I had a personal connection to him, you know, because of, I felt like, uh, you know, um, you know, it was kind of like, man, I wish, I wish he had the strength to do like, what? I just kind of like what I, what I'm doing now, you know? And it was like, man, this dude was so powerful. Like, how can I continue his legacy?

You know, like, I'm sober now. Like, how can I continue boss guy's legacy? And I was like, the best way I can do that now is, is by continue painting and stay sober. You know? This is what I, this is how I can, this is how I can honor him. Um, uh, and so that's how I kind of, I kind of do. It was doing like a, a bunch of work, like him Marni, um, knew my whole story, uh, just how close she is to me. I call her my mom now. Um, and she, she, um, commits. She, she was, she was telling me, she was like, uh, t this is something that, like, she was watching me. I've been very vocal about everything that I do, you know? I believe in the power of storytelling. Um, so I always post like, social media, what I'm doing and stuff like that, you know?

Uh, she was telling me, she was like, t like this is like what you're doing now. Like painting is, is like, she was like, it's it, you know, like, it's, it's, um, like, I believe you can do it. You know? There's something there that you, that you can do. Uh, she was like, I want to commission you to, to do a piece that pays how much to Basquiat. Um, so she did that. Uh, she, she, uh, gave me the money. Uh, at the time, I didn't know what a commission was or anything like that, you know? Um, uh, I just thought, uh, um, so she, she was like, I'm gonna give you the money to go buy the supply. I thought that that was it. That was like, that's the end of the commission. You know? At that time, I was super grateful. You know, I, I wasn't, I didn't want anything more, you know, I was like, somebody is paying for me to, somebody bought my supplies for me to sit here and throw whatever the hell that I feel like on the canvas, like me being emotional and like, all that kind of stuff.

Like, they're okay with that, you know, like, and, and they're buying supplies for me to do that. I was like, okay, for sure. Like, and, and you say, I can do whatever I want to, you know, like, so like, um, so I was like, whatever. So I did that. She loved it. And then at the end of it, she gave me $500. Uh, I was like, what the, I was like, Martin, are you fucking serious? Like, uh, um, at the time I'm doing youth work. I'm volunteering, like I'm working with kids. Like, I'm, I'm, I'm, uh, like, I got like two different volunteer jobs. Like, I'm, I'm in like, outpatient, like, trying to like, get, like, work on my life. Like, I don't have any money. Like I'm, I'm don't need plasma to get money, you know, like to pay my phone bill and stuff like that, like to get bus fare, like, I'm broke, you know?

And like, morning, you, are you serious? You're giving me $500. Like, I know what money is. Like, mind you, I used to work at White and Kennedy, you know, like, I used to get checks from there, you know, so I know what money is. Um, and, and so, and I know what not having money is, you know? Um, I'm telling her like, money, like, are you, like, you really went to work for this money? You're giving me this money for what I just put on this canvas, you know? Like, are you serious? You know, like, are you, you, you really doing this? You know, like, um, and that in that moment, it just, it something just like it. I, I'll never forget that it, what it made me feel like it, it was like, you know, for, for to, I felt super validated, you know?

Like, I felt like everything that I had worked, like at White and Kennedy, like, I felt like, um, like all the, all the, all, all the pain and all the, like, the, everything, all the lessons that I had learned there, like in that moment, I felt like that $500 was payments for that. Like, for everything that I had finally went through all the struggle and all the kind of like, all the hurt and all the, like, the pain and all that, that, that, that, and it wasn't even the $500, but it was just the, the, somebody acknowledging that, that my story was worthy. You know? It wasn't, it wasn't about, she could have gave me $200. She could've gave me a hundred. I, I don't, she gave me, she could have gave me any amount of money. Um, and it was just about her transferring that I know how valuable money is, you know?

It was just about her feeling that, that I, that my story was valid, you know, that she wanted to, to pay for that. You know, like that in that moment, you know, it felt like, I felt like, you know, a creative, you know, I felt like finding, like, mind you, I'm, I was drinking. I felt like there's plenty of nights that I'm going home and feeling like, fuck, I'm not a creative, like, this shit sucks. You know? Like, I'm not, like, they're getting paid for this, you know? I'm around people who are in the industry, people who are going to school to work at this place that I'm working at, you know, and they're like, they're, they're getting paid for this. You know? Like, it, it, you know, I only felt like I was like, I was worthy, you know? I felt like, like I was valid, you know?

Like, it felt like, you know, like, it, it, it was life changing, you know? It was, that moment was life changing. It was, it wasn't so it wasn't, it wasn't, um, yeah, it was, and it was, it wasn't, it wasn't about me like trying to be an artist or anything like that, but it, it was more so just me. Like, like the door was open. Like, it, it, it like, like, I don't know, something just opened, like, like life was kind of unlocked for me. It was kind of like, like, like, I kind of like, at that moment, like I was finding like outta the Matrix, you know? Like, it kind of felt like I don't, okay, well, like now, like now, like, like I, I'm, I'm, you know, it was, it was insane, you know? Like, I never, I never imagined like having a full-time career off of something that I can create.

Like, and having that door open one day, like, not like knowing, like being broke, living in a basement and, and like filling out, like, or not even filling applications, but knowing once I get done with treatment and then I can go back to work and I'm volunteering and stuff like that. Like, and then the next day feeling like, whoa. Like, I'm like, I can actually like work from like, I have something here. You know? Like, and then not, not to feel like, like it was, it was, it was, it was, I don't know how to explain it, but it, it was that feeling there that, that, that made me feel like, you know, that I could, that, that gave me the power to keep doing it. You know? Marni like, so Dan, Dan was a, was a huge part of, of this, um, you know, and I appreciate papa beer and everything, uh, but it is just a part of, it's just a part of my story.

Marni plays a huge part of my story as well, too. Um, without Marni, I, I wouldn't have, without her believing in me, without somebody just, just having somebody just believing it. This, the power of believing in people, you know, just what it could change, you know, just, it, it doesn't, it, it's not about me. You know? My story is not about like, how Tristan overcame this or, or, you know, that's such a small part of my story, because it is not something that, it's not essentially, it's not something that I focus on today. Like, I'm, I, I, I got sober, but I keep, I'm trying to remind, I got sober to work with youth. I didn't get sober to be an artist. I didn't get sober to, to, to have a career as a creative. That was never, I went 26 years of my life, um, never thinking that I was a creative, uh, uh, especially like the, from like 19 to 26, like those seven years, like really knowing that I was not a creative. Um, and then just having these doors open. Like, it, it was like, I, I don't know. It was like a new lease on life, you know? Um,

Nate Watkin: It sounds like you were validated as an artist in that moment, and you felt like, you know, your, your, uh, your identity as an artist became true.

Tristan Irving: Yeah, most definitely.

Nate Watkin: So tell me about your art a bit. Let's talk about your art. You depict prominent historical figures, a lot of them black historical figures as kings and queens. Why is that important to you?

Tristan Irving: It's important to me because, so this is, this is a theory behind my art. It's important to me because, uh, um, it, it, I'm, I'm, I just want people to, um, I just want people to see me and, and not see my color, uh, or not think that that's, um, that that's a key component to, to who I am. Um, you know, that, that that's something that, that, that a lot of people, um, a lot of people take into consideration, you know, and, and me, myself, you know, I struggle with it as well. I'm not, I'm not, um, immune from it at all. Um, uh, well, what it's, it's not just about, uh, black people, um, but the, I, so I tend to paint black people because more so because I am black. Um, and, uh, uh, that's, that's just who, who I am. You know?

It's who I see, you know? It's, it's part of my culture that's, that's just who I am. Um, uh, I feel like if I was a, um, a white artist, it, it would definitely, it would probably be the, it, it'd be the same thing that, um, I'd probably, yeah. I mean, I, I'd paint, you know, white people. I, I, I, it write people more, I guess, or whatever, whatever the case is. But, um, the thing is that that has nothing to do with, with my art, the, the, or I guess it does in a way. Um, so my theory behind it is that I want to people to see me without seeing color. Um, and so I want people to see, uh, I just want people to see people without seeing color. I've been, there's so been so much of my life where I felt like I haven't been afforded opportunities because of what I look like, um, or I felt like, uh, just, there's been a lot of that, you know?

And it just, a lot of like, it, it, it, it's hard to get away from it when it, it's something I have to feel on a day to day basis, you know? Um, and it is hard. It's something that I, I can't, like, not think about, you know? Uh, um, so it's, uh, I want people to see me and see people, um, that look like me and not see color. I just want you to see, um, and, and more. So I want you to see humans. I want you to see people. It, so it is not necessarily just about me being black. I want you or my rep just about necessarily specifically black people. I, I think it's important for people to view people just as they are, you know? And it, um, I want, so with me, I feel like if I can show people, um, somebody's face without their, their skin tone, without their color, um, if I can just show you what they look like, uh, if, if I can just show you the shapes and the colors that I want them to be, um, and, and, and that's their, you know, then, then you won't think of them, or you won't, you won't have that when you first see it.

If I can introduce you to somebody with just these nine colors and shapes, um, then you won't have any of that. You, you will view them, um, genuinely as, as a person first, you know, uh, you will say they're beautiful, you know, you, you will, you will, or you will say that they're, they're not beautiful, you know, but, but in whatever the case is, you will see them in just their facial features, you know, and, and the colors. We can do gray. We can do gray skill if you like, or if you don't like color, you know, but whatever it is, you just get to see this person, um, without, uh, without their, their skin tone. Um, so that is what's most important to me, is, um, is being able to, uh, depict people, um, just as people, um, and not have to worry about, uh, um, you know, me when I look at people or, or, or when people look at me, having them, uh, take into consideration, you know, my, my, uh, my background.

It, it is some, it's something nice to take into consideration, you know, like it is, um, granted that is something nice, and people like, um, take into consideration, you know, different cultural differences, you know, that's appreciated. Um, you know, but it, it, I don't want any, like, it, it shouldn't, it shouldn't be any like judgment though, or shouldn't, it shouldn't go to a negative extent, you know? Um, so that, that's just what it is about, about my art, you know? I, I just want people to see, to see people and just the shapes and colors that, that make them, you know, like, that's, that's really what it is, you know? So if I can show you a picture of, um, of, uh, of George Floyd or, or, um, or kind, or maybe not kine, unless it's maybe not a good one right now, or, uh, I don't know, um, Farrell Williams, whoever it is, you know, if I can show you a picture of, of these people or, or whatever.

Just some random, you know, per a random, you know, maybe, uh, some houseless person, you know, some or some, some youth. I work with a lot of youth now who are who on the streets. If I can show you a picture of somebody that just has a story, whatever it is, if I can just show you an image of, of this person, you know, and then we talk about their story. If I could just introduce you to this person without you, with, with, with a blank slate. If you can meet this person with a blank slate, honestly, just look at this person. If you can meet them with a blank slate, what does that look like for us? You know, as human beings, what does that look like for us? That's, that's what the question I want, you know, to, to, to pose with my, it's not, it's not about, you know, um, introducing people or, or, or, or showing people or are specifically showing black people as kings and queens.

It's not about that. But let me introduce you to this person, honestly. You know, now, and if maybe they have a story, no, let's talk about this story. Maybe they don't have a story, maybe it's just, but whatever. Hopefully they do have a story, you know? Um, well, let's just, let's just say they do for just person A, let's just say for, for example, we have person A here. You don't get to know anything. It's like a blind date, essentially, you know? Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. That's essentially what it is with art, you know, or with, that's essentially what my art is. It's a blind date with people, you know? That's what it is.

Nate Watkin: Yeah. I love that approach, and I think that's such a, a positive, there's such a positive message in your art, uh, from what I've seen. I really love that. And, you know, you seem like a person that has a very positive outlook on life. Uh, I'm curious to know your philosophy behind paying it forward.

Tristan Irving: It's the only way I got here. Like, it, it's, it's, um, I remember that movie when it came out. It stuck with me. And even more so nowadays, like, it's, it's, um, I'm only here because somebody saw me, you know? Uh, I'm only here because somebody took the opportunity to, to, um, and when I say here, I mean in this, in this capacity, you know, um, um, I'm, I'm only, uh, yeah, I'm, I'm here because somebody paid it for it. It's, it's, it's, uh, for me, it's, it's, so, mind you, I got kicked in, I got sober to work with youth. I, I'm not, nowadays, I don't, when I was, when I was, a lot of questions, when I was meeting with people, they, they would, they would ask me how I, how I would come up with the money to work with youth or to, to do these non-profit things, and to do all these ideas that I had and stuff like that.

Like, I wanted to start, I got sober so I could start a non-profit. That's what I got sober for. I know when working at non-profit, there's not a lot of money there. There's a lot of funding, there's a lot of donations that you need and stuff like that. That was a huge question that people were talking to me about this, you know, uh, when I got sober, uh, is how, how are you finding the money? Nowadays, I look back in those, I, those people, I laugh at those people, um, that, that didn't see me or that didn't gimme the opportunity. Then when I, when I wanted to do something with these non-profits, because it's not about the money or it's not about any of that kind of stuff. It's about just creating these opportunities. The money is gonna come. Um, nowadays, it's, so nowadays that I've been gifted this, this, um, this, my higher power has given me this gift to, to be an artist, to, to be able to have a, a, a life, um, where I can create, um, uh, income through my ideas, through my thoughts and stuff like that.

Um, uh, uh, I can create revenue. Um, I don't have to worry about where the money comes from to work with youth. Now. I don't have to worry about where, where, where I'm gonna get money to work with these non-profits and stuff like that. Or I don't have to worry about that stuff now. Like, that was it that people didn't understand and it hurt me, you know? Cause you didn't understand, like, I was telling, like I got sober that I changed my life. Like, I was a dead, I was a drunk for sure. Like, I was throwing parties at White D Kennedy, like, look like there's like getting in trouble, like this downing fists. Like, there's a lot of stuff. Like I, my alcoholic was showing up a lot of ways, you know? Um, I changed my life to work out. I'm passionate about paying it for, I changed my life to work with youth.

Um, there's nothing that you can tell me that, that there's money or whatever it is. That's not gonna ever be an issue for me. I don't believe that because I can, I, I, this gift that I was given is, is able to, to create money, you know, is able to create revenue, you know? So now I'm able to, so now, uh, to, uh, two days a week, uh, I work with youth. I, I'm, I'm trying to take, uh, um, I'm working with, uh, the commissioner's office, Multnomah County, to, to take meetings into, um, into, uh, the, just into Donald Eon, which is a, um, uh, a juvenile facility. Um, uh, and then another one for adults, which is like Inverness here in Portland, uh, which is another facility, like another jail. Um, so, uh, like, I, I'm, there's, there's a lot about my life now.

My life. Like, uh, I'm four days a week. My life has to do with working with people, working with, with, with paying it for it, you know, like three days out of the week I get to paint, and those are three days out of the week. I just have to make sure, like I, I have a place to live, really, you know, I gotta make sure I can pay my bills, but it's that, that is what my life is about, you know? And that I feel like that's, that's the main reason why I'm able to be, to be a full-time artist, is because, uh, it's because that's what I'm focused on. I'm focused on paying on, on paying it for it, you know, like this is, um, you know, if, if, if I can do what Marnie and what Dan did for me, to somebody else in this world would be a much better place.

You know? Um, somebody saw me, somebody validated me with $500. You know, if that's all it takes to change somebody's life, you know, let's find those people. Let's find them. You know, there's people who, who are who, who are already doing the work, who are already passionate about living the life that they want to live a positive life, you know, who just don't have the means to do so, you know, let's find those people, you know, let's give them that, let's find them. There are many people out there. I'm one of them, you know, I am one of them, you know, so it is, there's no way that I can, I can continue my life and not try to pay it forward. You know? It's, I think if, if, if I don't ever acknowledge that it'll come to everything, will, I believe everything will come to an end, you know?

Um, yeah. That's, that's, that's, that's, it's something I, I definit for sure live. It's why, it's, it's why I'm not here to be a pain. I'm not here to be, be, to be an artist. You know? It's not, I'm, I'm grateful that, that I get to do things like this, that, that being an artist allows me the space to do things like this. But um, um, as you can see from talking with me, it's not, I'm not, uh, uh, it's, it's much more than that. You know, it's much more community based than that. Even, even with my work is much more community based than that. Maybe my work is, is essentially trying to pay it forward in a way, you know?

Nate Watkin: Mm-hmm. <affirmative>. Yeah. Yeah. I love that philosophy and, uh, a big fan of your work now that I've learned more about it. So, uh, thanks so much for joining us. Really appreciate the conversation and uh, it's great to meet you.

Tristan Irving: Yeah, I appreciate you Nate. Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate you.

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