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Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

Dennis Eriksson

Dennis has a way of putting extraordinary attention into the details that most illustrators overlook, resulting in images that are irresistibly vivid and inviting. Like shots in a movie, removing all that is unnecessary, every image tells us the story by focusing on the little things that help it unfold. A hand that’s about to drop a glass, a vintage car hastily parked in a driveway, a woman purposefully putting on lipstick, a waiter hurrying in the background, wrapping paper crumpled on the floor, or, as it were, a curled-up post-coital male reproductive organ. The same goes for the sets where the action plays out. Just by drawing a table, a ceiling lamp, and a huge potted plant, Dennis, with seeming effortlessness, can create a complete restaurant interior in our minds. He’s obsessively interested in design and fashion history, and his work is effectively ‘styled’ through the use of design objects—whether existing or adapted from reality, as carefully selected as they are drawn—in order to set the mood, or place, or era, with the razor-sharp accuracy of a master set designer.

I met Dennis at art school, have published two of his books, and have never ever grown tired of seeing his work, as I’m sure you won’t either. For the benefit of Apartamento’s readers, I swung by Dennis’s studio to talk about Mad magazine, older brothers, 007, and falling into, out of, and then into graffiti again.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

I’m sitting here with Dennis Eriksson. Let’s dwell some more on your background and your upbringing. Did you have artistic talent running in your family? Did you have an upbringing filled with art?

My upbringing was in an area of workers, steel plants, but my parents were, how would you say—

White-collar workers.

Yeah, they worked in an office building and had some kind of cultural focus. My dad had jazz records.

He had a second-hand bookshop later on.

Yeah, but a little later on. My dad used to paint, and my mother worked in a profession that doesn’t exist anymore; she drew maps for the government, like a geological thing. She switched to become an illustrator when I was in my teens, but art was always present at home, which was probably quite unique for my classmates.

You have a brother. Is he in the creative industries?

He was my idol because he was the drawer. He was so good at drawing, and my goal was to be as good as him. And then somewhere along the line, maybe I levelled with him, and then he kind of stopped, and he hasn’t drawn since he was around 14 years old.

I have a brother who’s six years older than me, and one of my early life goals, when I was five or six years old, was to be able to draw hot rod cars as well as my big brother. I think I can do that now. Was that the first thing that spurred you to develop your art?

I remember when I was in kindergarten I understood that I could draw better than the other kids, but then again, my brother was the man, and he’d made this fly fisherman painting, or a drawing, that my mother and father framed and put in the living room.

Recognition.

Yeah, and I did hundreds of fly fisherman guys. I don’t really remember, but I was always the drawing kid. Me and my brother had the Fantastic Four, X-Men, and Spider-Man comics, and that was the way of drawing, kind of late ’70s style.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

The first influence that was like ‘state of the art’ for you, that was drawing.

Then I found Mad magazine, and it opened up. Like, ‘This is even better’—some of the comic illustrators, I mean.

That was a heavy influence for me as well, because my older brother got it. Mad was a bit more adult. Later I grew into it. But the fun with the Mad illustrators is that there was such a wide variety of styles and lines. It’s like a crash course.

The good thing about Mad is that, growing up with superhero comics, they were all drawn in the same way and it was like, ‘This is the way to draw’. Then when you found Mad you understood that you could draw in various styles; it didn’t depend on how naturalistic you were.

Was it when you turned to graffiti that you started looking for things in more of an instrumental way? Because at some point you actively start looking for stuff, because you want to be inspired. You want to be able to have a creative output for yourself.

I think I turned to graffiti because, when I was 12 or something, I started to be really into finding or discovering popular culture. I understood that there was another level than just the popular culture you were seeing at school. I understood you could dig deep. And then I kind of understood that there’s a thing from overseas. It’s so cool. I couldn’t really handle it.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
First graffiti try-outs from 1986/87.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
First graffiti try-outs from 1986/87.

You grew up in a smaller town than Stockholm, in Luleå, northern Sweden. I guess you really had to go out of your way to find new stuff.

It was the ultimate escapade in just finding something that no one else was doing.

Do you remember how you first started with graffiti, like how you actively started to be a drawer yourself?

I think it was the Breakin’ movie. Breakdance was kind of happening with cool music; at the same time there were chewing gum packages circulating with graffiti, and collector cards. It was unbelievably cool. I was like, ‘I want to do this’.

Untouchable.

Untouchable. There was this documentary, Style Wars, on TV, and small things like that. I was building up my graffiti, or the need for it, and then I think I just stole some spray cans from my father and went to a far-off wall.

But did you do that alone?

I was totally alone.

Were you nervous?

Kind of, but not really. I knew it was illegal, but I was like, ‘I’m going to do a nice thing here’. I’m surprised that I did it, that I had the courage, because I was no wild child.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

No bad boy.

No. I did two small pieces and then the older guys at school that had done a little bit of graffiti were like, ‘What’s this? Who are you?’ So then I was accepted.

You realised that your artistic output was getting some kind of recognition from other painters.

Yeah, because I knew there were three or four guys that had done some pieces, and I wanted to impress them. I wanted to show them that I exist.

Alright, cool. That’s sort of the backbone of graffiti, I guess.

I still have photos of those two pieces.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

That must’ve been an experience that propelled you to think about your future. Did you feel that you’d started to long for something away from your hometown? Did you feel that graffiti was your ticket out of there?

I wasn’t really thinking in those terms. It was more like, ‘I want to do something else’. I just remember that I wanted to do something that I was good at, what I was interested in.

You moved to Stockholm just because you got admitted to Konstfack, the art school you went to. You didn’t think, ‘Let’s go to Stockholm and see what happens’.

It was one of the options. I knew I was going to move, like, ‘No way I’m staying here’. Then I had maybe Stockholm, maybe Gothenburg. I wasn’t settling for one place. I remember applying to different art schools, all over Sweden. And then I got the interview at Konstfack.

We started in 1993, but I guess the application period was in 1992, and we’ve talked before about how you had a feeling that your background in graffiti was one of the major factors that got you an interview. And that you have mixed feelings about that. Why?

I think when I applied, I’d done so much graffiti and legal murals, or commissioned work. I thought I had to write something about it, because it was such a big part of my life up till then. I was working summer jobs, painting for the city. So I remember writing about it briefly and being like, ‘No, I shouldn’t have done that’.

But why?

At the time it was not a good thing. I think it had a bad reputation.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

Oh, is it because some people see it, or saw it, as a form of destruction, a menace to society?

In the beginning, it was a good thing. I remember it was only posted in the late ’80s, like kids are doing something creative, blah, blah. But then in the early ’90s it turned into a bad thing. My classmates—when people talked about it, it was because they considered it shit. I kind of didn’t say anything.

So you were afraid that it might be seen as some low-brow thing.

I think I’d got to the point where I was tired of it, and I felt that I couldn’t go any further with it. When I moved to Stockholm it was at the same time as I was starting to slow down on the graffiti thing, and when you’re new in town—it just felt like a big thing to sneak around in the night.

I remember we did some pieces, but it was like, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’.

That’s part of the culture of having your backpack, jumping over fences, and stuff like that.

People I know who’ve turned into artists are actually quite happy to stand in the studio and concentrate on the actual piece, or the material. It’s fascinating with graffiti, because it turned out to be the reason a lot of people started creating or expressing themselves.

Another thing is that it was getting more and more mainstream. That was also a big reason why my urge faded. I remember when we started school I’d never used a computer before, so then graphic design and desktop publishing were the thing. That was the train to catch.

But now, 20 years down the line, I can see how your drawing is still very much alive, but it has also added this extreme routine. It’s like watching somebody at the circus throw knives. Whereas when I’ve watched you paint, it feels like you’re submitting yourself to something you’re not as secure about.

Yeah, I’m out of my depth. That’s a good thing.

But do you feel there’s something you’re looking for there? Or is it just the act of doing it that’s enjoyable?

I think it’s both. When I draw, it’s just a pen, it’s just the lines, and then I do things in Photoshop, I retouch. But when you paint, it’s so much more; there are so many layers and levels and it becomes something else. I’ve been painting more and more in the past few years, and I feel that I have a different approach now that I have this illustration life, compared to when I was younger. I didn’t know what to do back then. I just started with painting and it ended up being whatever it became. But now I have a clear plan.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Box-Lacrosse, acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Back from the Hiatus, acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Leonor Fini Biography, acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Man of the Future (ass), acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
The Dreams of the Everyday Houseman, acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
The Big Takeover, acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Portfolio-meet, acrylic on canvas, 2019.
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Tidey’s Place, acrylic on canvas, 2019.

In the mid ’90s, there were a few years when everything was analogue and done by hand. It wasn’t really looked down upon, but it was placed on hold for a while, because there was so much to discover and everything became digitally produced, or looked digital, and all the light was on that for a while.

I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to be a graphic designer’, and I was only drawing for myself. But as a profession I thought graphic design was the thing, doing typefaces, and I did what all the cool guys and girls in the studio were doing. But then, after a couple of years, I was like, ‘Nah. I think I will go with paper, just do illustration’, because I realised that it was so clearly my place.

Maybe the end of the ’90s was also the peak of printed media in human culture.

Yeah. I was doing a lot of commissions for Dagens Nyheter, the big Swedish morning paper, and it had this huge format. I also remember having a studio at home, and painting. But then when we’d finished school and I was starting to do commissions, I totally stopped with the art thing. I was just focusing on doing editorials and commercially strong work. I tried to be focused and to work with clients and not to need my commissioned work to be like art, as a lot of others did, I think. And I remember they had a lot of problems, getting into arguments with clients and just making a mess.

Yeah. It’s about coming to terms with who you are.

Yeah. They were making themselves not wanted as illustrators.

Looking at graffiti, it’s very much in the middle of drawing and painting. You use a lot of line in order to create the pieces, but there’s also colour and volume and shape and the contrast between colours, which is in the domain of painting. Have you been thinking about fusing?

Yeah. When I was at the height of my graffiti career, I think we were into a branch of graffiti where you wanted it not to be too perfect. We wanted to have this sketchy, kind of fast fuel to it. I think some of that thinking has a layer of having my illustrations and also trying to, when I do normal canvases with brush and paint.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

Making it spontaneous or informal.

Also, that’s a funny thing: when I was doing graffiti in my 20s, I never had any sketches. I just improvised. That was kind of the coolest thing to do. But when I do graffiti today, I totally have to have a sketch. There’s no way I can do it otherwise. I don’t know. It’s hard to find a middle way, because it’s got to feel sketchy.

Well, that’s talking about your background, but I also wanted to talk about how you build worlds with your illustrations and how you have a love of objects and clothes and accessories. You have this eye for architecture and product design and you populate your images with a lot of very on-point things that set a mood or a place in time. Do you remember did that came about?

I think somewhere, a long time ago, I realised that it was really nice to see details in a movie that really set the mood, and if I could add one small thing to a drawing then I could say that this is a ’70s environment, or this is that kind of person with this design element. It’s my take on a particular design or interior or whatever. I’ve always had that thing.

I know you have an interest in objects and furniture design. Do you research that?

A little bit, yeah. Sometimes I freestyle, but then it’s like, ‘Hm, it doesn’t really look like what I want it to look like’, so then I have to check it out.

I could easily see you leaving the drawings and actually working in a Wes Anderson film, although he’s maybe a bit oversaturated. But he has the same skill for nailing looks and styles.

When I do drawings, commissions, and also when I do things for myself, the main thing is that it’s driven by joy. If it’s not joyful, I don’t care. Then I won’t do it. I tend to draw things that I enjoy. Design details are one of those things and it fuels what I raw. If I do a commission, maybe it’s about one topic but then I add this lamp; it has nothing to do with the story, but it’s joyful. I’m happy when I do it. But then sometimes I do it and it takes too much focus; it just has to be a story.

A story, yeah. I think that’s something you recognise and that’s maybe similar to newspapers from the 19th century and early 20th century, where illustrators were making observational illustrations, depicting coal workers or bankers. You describe reality, but it kind of hides the reality when you work with, not a caricature, but a sharpened eye on reality. I think you’re doing the same thing, but on the stuff that surrounds us now. It’s almost like seeing a caricature, but of a lifestyle, not a person. And it’s a very enjoyable moment for some reason.

For instance, I got a commission for Kmart, about people shopping there. And, for me, it’s total joy because I can just go all the way and do these characters that you can imagine going with these big trolleys.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

Do you think you’re flowing in time? Because you’ve done a lot of work. You’ve done your own parallel James Bond stories, which is almost another interview. All the movies have this kind of architectural design and also fashion and product design, and the lifestyle of course. It came out of this Playboy era and this whole idea that you are expressing yourself through your earthly possessions and the way you consume food and drink. You have taken up that love and built your own fan fiction world.

It started a long time ago. I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to do this. I’m going to do a James Bond story and I will be James Bond’.

Haven’t we all?

Then it was so much fun doing it, and I just did it for myself. I don’t know how to use it. It’s James Bond, so I can’t publish this. It was fun; I couldn’t stop. I did a couple of stories.

Now the James Bond franchise is continuing. But where is the pinnacle? Where do you sit aesthetically? What is your James Bond style?

Oh. That’s hard. I think I pick the best pieces from different movies. It’s mixed. It’s perhaps mainly the ‘60s, but a lot of ‘70s stuff also. Suits and environments are like the zenith of 007.

A little bit about Stockholm now. What’s the scene like in Stockholm today for creative workers, illustrators, artists, designers?

I think I don’t really know. Personally, I have a lot of commissions and stuff, but it feels like it’s in some kind of a shadow. Maybe it’s because advertising agencies are having a hard time and people are not really hiring. It feels like it was more joyful and easy-going a couple of years ago, but maybe it’s just the turn of the times. Things will change. Maybe I’m not really paying too much attention to the scene and am just busy doing my stuff. Feeding kids at home and stuff like that. I don’t think Stockholm is in the backwaters, but I think it’s just one of many cities with creative stuff, and there are good things and bad things.

Would you recommend moving to Stockholm from abroad?

No. I hear the stories about new people moving here, trying to get jobs. It’s like… ah. It’s dark, it’s cold. It’s not Barcelona.

To turn it around, have you ever thought about moving yourself? Because you have an international client base now. Or is the world just a big international fiesta?

For me it would be perhaps a career move up if I went to the US, but I have kids, me, and my wife. We talk about it. My biggest clients are international clients, and Stockholm is far from the centre of things. But then you have other problems. And now time is flowing on. I ain’t getting any younger.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson

You said that in your early career you shied away from being artistic and self-propelled. Not doing your own products, but focusing on being needed on the commercial market. Are you re-evaluating that?

I think so. Now I’m going more and more in the opposite direction.

Do you have a vision of 10 years from now?

Yeah, but it’s a double-edged thing because I enjoy doing more of the artistic stuff. But then again, I really enjoy sending a big invoice.

Of course.

I really can’t do the math.

But if you could choose. Your dream?

Then it would be artistic freedom and just doing my own stuff. I think it’s like this: when you’re young, it’s no problem taking revisions from a client. But when you get older, you get more like—I don’t know. They want to change stuff, but I know from the beginning that they’re going to end up not liking their own idea. There’s no point. It’s like, I’m tired. Here we go again. I’m 10 years older than you and it’s like… ah.

The good thing about being an artist is that people leave you alone, or at least they leave your creative decisions alone. But if you could choose between working on self-initiated projects that you felt not a lot of people were interested in and working commercially and getting some kind of recognition or feedback, how do you weigh that?

That’s tricky because I really like the commercial thing. The work gets spread widely. That’s a really big enjoyment. I’m contradicting myself. I want that, but then again, I want the opposite. I’m just in the middle there somewhere. Sometimes maybe when you do this really commercial thing, I enjoy that because it’s so different to how you work because of what the clients are asking you to do. It’s so strict and it’s fun to dance along.

I don’t know. We have—whoa. Now we have one hour and 16 minutes. If you can hear this, I hope you have enough material. It was such a pleasure to speak to you today, Dennis.

The pleasure is mine.

Apartamento Magazine - Dennis Eriksson
Apartamento Cookbook, illustration, interview
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