Erik Foss

Erik Foss

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

New York City: Erik Foss, remarkable in artistic expression and in stature, has been an enduring pillar of New York Citys cultural landscape for decades. Having been raised by his mother and grandmother in the confines of a trailer park, Foss’ artistic exploration spans a fusion of influences that include feminism, skateboarding, drug culture, and the enchanting world of pop culture movies and Saturday morning cartoons.

As of late, Erik’s gigantic grape-and-lime cobra paintings, which harken back to ‘70s van culture, caught the attention of streetwear icon Supreme, who utilised the design to much fanfare. Erik’s work has also enticed Takashi Murakami, the iconic artist behind  Tokyo’s Kaikai Kiki Gallery, where Erik held his first solo show in Japan last spring, featuring his trademark airbrushed snakes with smiley faces.

Eriks legacy is deeply rooted in his keep of the legendary New York City night club Lit Lounge and its adjoining gallery, Fuse. Erik co-owned the space with David Schwartz, and with art legend, culture critic, and curator Carlo McCormick as its resident host, the place shot into infamy. (Fuse Gallery closed in 2013, with Lit Lounge following a couple years later.) Everyone from H. R. Giger, Jacaeber Kastor, Bill Murray, Mick Rock, Leo Fitzpatrick, Fred Schinder, Chloë Sevigny, Natasha Lyonne, and Dash Snow either had art hanging on the walls or were hanging out in the club. These days, whenever a Millennial uses the term ‘lit’ to convey extreme approval, I remember the raw and delightful decadence I regularly experienced at Lit Lounge. Eriks apartment is on the second floor of a classic, old-school Chinatown tenement. However, its the art inside his simple but functional space that truly steals the show.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

Dang! You have a lot of art!

This is only 5 percent of it.

Where is the rest of it?

I’m like a squirrel. I have so much of it, I have to hide it. So, it’s in portfolios and in tubes. A lot of it’s in my studio, as well, but yeah—it’s everywhere.

Is that squirrel painting a portrait someone did of you? 

That’s supposed to be a bear, but it does look sort of squirrel-ish, for sure. My friend Szabolcs Bozó did that. Hes become a massive star. It was a trade.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

How do you select which pieces get to grace the walls of your apartment?

It rotates. For instance, that trade were about to do—

The Richard Hambleton cat for your abstract. I cant wait!

I will have to move stuff around to make room. I’ve been waiting to get something from him for 25 years. I’ve known about him since I moved to New York. I always knew he was one of the most important people doing art in the streets. Before the term ‘street art’ existed.

When did you decide to move to NYC?

I told my mom when I was 12 that I wanted to be an artist living in New York.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

Really? For me, I knew at 13. What was the first image that connected you to New York?

Its hard to say. I’m sure it was something I saw on TV. I see now that a big part of what I do is based on how I learnt about art, which was through pop culture, television, books, magazines, everything. I grew up with humble means raised by my mom and grandmother in a trailer park. I never went to a museum as a kid. I felt that kids with privilege got to go to museums and that 90 percent of the world would never see a museum or a gallery until they were an adult. I thought I would come to New York and have a huge loft with a freight elevator, a dramatic space to make giant paintings. Well, I moved here in the mid ’90s and realised you’d have to be pretty loaded to have something like that. Or you would have to work very, very hard your entire life before you even got a studio in Manhattan. Which is what happened with me, in a way. I worked for 26 years to get the big studio in TriBeCa, and 21 of those were doing things for a living I did not want to do. Took a lot to finally get the studio in fancy TriBeCa.

Every time I’ve had a lengthy conversation with you, your mother comes up. I admire that about you. 

I was born in Illinois and started out in a new suburb named Streamwood. My father was a mechanical engineer. After finding his dream job in Arizona, he put us in this huge house where he built an in-ground swimming pool. That was major and meant we were living the American Dream. Until he started drinking himself to death, that is. My father threw his whole life away with alcohol. Met this woman at a local restaurant, then proceeded to leave my mom and leave us for dead. His actions tore the whole family apart, which threw us into the trailer park where my mom’s parents had retired to in south Phoenix.

 Wow. Alcohol is a bitch. When was this? 

1985. I was 12. The park was bleak. For example, there was literally a bar on the edge of town called Last Chance Saloon.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

I’m curious, how did you connect with the community in south Phoenix?

Art. They knew I was gifted, so they let me be after a while. But I took my lumps first. My brother and I immediately became latchkey kids. I learnt how to fight the first day of school. It was rough.

What were you making?

I was drawing fucked up shit. The art teacher in seventh grade, Miss Brady, told the principal I was most likely a Satanist. My mom was called into a meeting with the principal, the teacher, and me. She was so pissed. She totally stood up for me. My mom having my back was a real learning moment for me. 

Had you started skateboarding at that point?

Just started. I picked up Thrasher magazine, most likely, and that’s kind of how it started. I still have this Thrasher that Robert Williams did the cover art for, so art was a big part of skateboarding for a lot of us.

Did you ever skate pro?

No. Most pros come from relatively privileged positions, kind of like with art, right? For me to still live in New York—all the elements have fallen into place. Its crazy.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

Once your folks split up, did you have to visit your dad?

Yes. He moved to California and was able to hold down a job at Mattel. I thought he was a total tool, but I was 13 and wanted to skate around California. One summer I was out there and got to go to his office. I met all the old fat white men with white hair who looked just like him. I could see all the designs for all the toys, from Barbie to Cabbage Patch Kids to G.I. Joe. Everything we grew up on. I got to see the hive, the brain of all of it. That same week, we went to a party at a beach house owned by the main designer of Hot Wheels. He saw my drawings and was like, ‘You’re pretty advanced for your age. You should come and work with us and do a summer residency. Eventually you could work for Mattel’. But on that same trip, my dad got fucking busted for drinking and driving. And that was it. It all fell apart while I was there. He was fired shortly after that trip.

Too bad, but I cant imagine you as a company man. 

It was a blessing in disguise. I wouldn’t have been involved in the art world I’m involved with now. And I probably wouldn’t have come to New York.

How have those childhood experiences influenced you?

After many years of making thousands of dog shit pieces of art, it finally hit me: All of this became a very broad reflection of a youth growing up in working class America wanting to be an artist. Not having the wherewithal to look into higher education. There were no museums, no galleries. There was no art school. It was raw talent reflecting what I saw every day: toys, music videos, sci-fi movies, skateboarding. Everything I was attracted to. 

It came to me right after making the first snake painting: These snakes represent how 99 percent of Americans grow up learning about culture, and thats through commercial design. Makes sense why the snakes are so popular amongst the armada of concepts I have—most people can relate.

Do you have a motto for survival after such a tremulous childhood?

Sort of. My father always said, ‘You need to do something for a living that you can live off of. Art is a hobby’. His concept was: Always have something to fall back on. My numbskull thinking was that, if I never had anything to fall back on, then I couldn’t fall. I was inches away from having to leave New York more than once, but somehow, I always figured it out. I was mad lucky.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

I dont know about you, but on occasion, I have had to sell some of my art collection to save my ass. I just sold a Richard Hambleton to cover some renovation costs.

I get it. Right now, I have an extensive art collection. Spans back to the late ‘90s. If I was fucked, I could pick one out, sell it, and be financially stable for a minute. I am so attached to all of it, though, as most are from friends I traded with, and the rest have sentimental value as I discovered a lot of these artists before they became ‘successful’. The plan is to have a foundation where anyone who wanted to could come see everything. The art, the ephemera, the photos, etc. This collection is not to be sold or split up, ever!

That would be incredible! What would have happened if you didn’t skateboard?

My life would have been completely different. Skateboarding teaches many things, but the most important is community. Its a pretty inclusive circle. No matter where you are in the world, people will look out for you. There’s a couch for you. There’s a bar stool for you. There’s a meal for you. There’s even a girl or boy for you. Also, I would have never met Tony.

Tony Cox, who owns Club Rhubarb? I love him!

Yeah. I met Tony through another skater-artist, Andre Razo, when Andre and I were sharing a studio in 2008, I believe. Tonys a legend!

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

I heard you had a clothing company back in the day. What was that about?

It was called Dope Clothes. I was about 19, living in Arizona and started it with my boy Stuart Dana, my skateboard-party friend. He was more the business guy, and I was the creative guy. We were reappropriating corporate logos pretty early, and I loved every second of it.

Which labels?

Like the Chanel CCs. I made it say ‘DC’ for Dope Clothes. We also turned the Stüssy logo into the word ‘stupid’. Im quite proud of that because we always thought Stüssy was whack.

What stores were they sold in?

Mainly local Arizona shops. Vans was our biggest account. That had many stores around the West Coast. And the claim to fame was getting shirts into Xlarge in NYC.

When did you finally move to NYC?

My friend and musician Brant Monger and I decided to move to NYC together. I sold my car and some drawings and moved here with $900 to my name.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

Where did you live with only $900 in your pocket?

I had a friend in Arizona whose grandmother had a massive apartment in Manhattan. Turns out, her grandmother had married a man named Corliss Lamont. He was a patron of the arts, and he ultimately had a massive hand in humanism. If you go to the Met, you will see his name above the entrance of one of the wings. When Corliss passed, he left the apartment to my friend’s grandma. It was mainly inhabited by family from Arizona or friends of her grandkids. So, we rented a room together for seven months for $250 a month. Eventually, we found the loft on Eldridge Street where I lived till I moved above Lit Lounge.

Thats fortunate! What were you doing for the first seven months?

Figuring out how to live in NYC, basically. Getting hired and fired from jobs. I went through 10 jobs, I think. It was gnarly.

What was your introduction to New York’s art scene?

I showed at this ‘pay to play’ gallery called Subculture in Chinatown that my eventual partner, David Schwartz, owned. I had walked into his gallery blindly one afternoon. He thought I was this painter, Eric White, and he offered me a show. I eventually became close friends with Eric White—funny how that stuff happens.

David and I later opened Lit Lounge and Fuse Gallery together. While at Subculture, I met so many old school New York weirdos. The kind of people who, until our gallery Fuse opened, didnt have a place to show. None of this underground work was celebrated by the mainstream art world. In fact, the art world wanted nothing to do with us at all. But they were legends in the street.

How did you guys decide to open Lit? It was so iconic.

David’s gallery’s lease was ending. He asked me if I wanted to open a gallery together, and I said, ‘Sure. Lets do it’. He found this amazing space on Second Ave. that was too big for a gallery, so I suggested we build a club and put the gallery back in the kitchen. There had been a fire in the space, so it was gutted. We started from scratch. Everyone thought the landlord started the fire, and in this town, that’s probably true. He was a real piece of work. 

In the months before we finished construction, we were drinking at Mars Bar, and sitting there, we decided to call the gallery Fuse and the bar Lit, after the fire.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

The appeal of a gallery in a club was what drew me to Lit. It was the most fun I’d had in a club since 1988. Every night, it was filled with art stars, rock stars, local hipsters.

We used the gallery as sort of a VIP room. James Gandolfini even hung out there one night—Razo had brought him to meet Carlo. The Melvins played there, Florence from Florence and the Machine hung out there one night after a gig at the Garden, the singer from Coldplay. The list is fucking long. We had the honour of doing a solo show for H. R. Giger—it was our first show at Fuse, one month after Lit opened, and Giger’s first solo show in NYC in a decade. It happened to fall on my 30th birthday! That night was a blur. 

See that urn over there? I bought that from my amigo Alexis’s gallery last year. Thats where my ashes go. Thats the plan, anyways.

My favourite show was the one that had the paintings that Salvador Dalí and Axel did together. I was bummed when Lit closed.

That show was so amazing! I think there was one piece Axel and Salvador did together. That show included paintings made with Axel’s own blood. Pretty dark stuff. Fun fact: Axel never drank water, he only drank AriZona iced tea. Kind of a bonding point for both of us. I eventually moved a block away from him and would see him all the time.

I loved him, such a sweet soul. As far as Fuse and Lit eventually closing, I was ready to concentrate fully on my art.

I can only imagine it was a relief to channel all your energy into your art. I have been in the club biz, and it can be a soul sucker.

Yup. After the space closed, I did what I had to do to make ends meet until the paintings started selling. I hosted parties, did construction, DJ’d a lot, and even held some weed for a homie when it was still illegal. While I was doing all this, I was making work in my living room nonstop. After Lit closed, I had no savings, and I didnt get a dime from the sale of the club. I was living off of dollar pizza and Punjabi food. At the time, I lived in a six-floor walk-up with a roommate and a 90-pound black Lab. It was a complicated situation. I would schedule studio visits when my roommate wasn’t around, and I would use my bed to show the bigger canvases. I had rolled up canvases everywhere.

Most of the bigger paintings and older drawings were in an outdoor storage in Jersey—it was so fucked. Thank God for social media. My paintings started moving more than usual via Instagram, and eventually, I was getting shows through the same platform. I had finally struck a vein.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

What was the turning point in your career? Was it Supreme or before Supreme?

Before. So, this amazing human named DB Burkeman comes along. I knew about DB from his DJing career and his store, Breakbeat Science. The first move was DB putting me in a book he published called Stickers Vol. 2: More Stuck-Up Crap. At one point, he started curating these cool shows in the massive lobby of this creative agency called Paradigm. I was in one of those shows. It was a lot of my older works on paper, installed across this 70-foot-wide wall. It was a hoot, and I believe DB placed around 10 originals in various collections throughout the agency. This was the break I needed—got my ass out of debt and paid my bills for half a year.

DB is the best. He published your book, TWENTY TWENTY: A Year in Pictures.

He did. After Paradigm, I got my second LA solo show with the homie Tim Biskup.

He gave me a solo show at his space called Face Guts. Luckily, I sold a few paintings, and that was right before the world closed down. I got Covid at that show and almost died. After being in bed for a week in LA, I came back to New York for my show at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I sold the largest painting in the show.

This was the painting that paid off all my back taxes and allowed me to finally send my mom some cash after years of being broke. Her health has been diminishing rapidly in the last four years, since my career has started ramping up. My twin brother in Phoenix is able look after her, whereas I can be financially supportive. I need to be here doing what I’m doing. Just wish I could be there with her to make her laugh and smile. That part fucks me up. 

I can remember cashing this check the day before NYC was locked down. The vibe was intense. But I was like, ‘Fuck it, what’s next?’

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

What was next?

The gold rush that happened at the peak of Covid shutdown. For us artists who were utilising social media for our businesses, all the collectors around the world were stuck at home. They couldn’t travel. There were no art fairs, no art consultants whispering in their ears. There were no art openings. It just went ape shit for some of us. I was waking up to, like, 10 to 15 requests for availability of works and commissions. Like everything I do, I started making the snakes for fun, but people couldn’t get enough of them. It has never stopped.

Any other shows during lockdown?

Yes. Curtis Santiago asked to do a live stream event for The Drawing Center. Since everything was still shut down, I did an artist talk and airbrushed a cobra. The whole art world was watching, by the way, because it’s The Drawing Center, and Curtis was blowing up. When I posted the painting, it immediately sold. I got, like, 50 DMs, all asking for availability. It was really crazy. Not too long after, Leo Fitzpatrick, who was working with Supreme, hit me up and asked me if I was down to put a snake on a t-shirt.

When did the Japan thing happen?

I got a DM from a cat named Gaston Dominguez-Letelier one day. Gaston is a partner at this groovy retail platform in LA called NTWRK. He works with a lot of artists, and one of those is Takashi Murakami. Gaston was in Japan with Takashi shortly after we started planning a project for NTWRK, and he showed Takashi my snakes. Gaston then hits me up and says, ‘Takashi wants to give you a show’. It was just like that—my life changes once again. A dream come true. We did the show at Takashis gallery, Kaikai Kiki, and now he is bringing my work to Frieze. I am so honoured and humbled.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss

You have always been driven, especially lately, showing your work all over the world.

Its a damn miracle. I just got back from Trento, Italy, preparing for a two-person show at Cellar Contemporary in October.

How many pieces did you make?

Two snake panels and 10 paper works, so 12 originals. I painted for about 14 days straight. Then the gallery owner had a huge dinner with all these collectors, and they wound up getting a few pieces I made from the show. So now I have to fly back before the opening to make more work. But yeah, Italy was sick, and man they have class! I’ve never been treated like that, ever—like we were equals.

It seems you work with a lot of galleries these days. 

I work with very few, actually, and I’m very particular about who I work with. I have clients that have been supporting me long before galleries started paying attention to me. No one person or gallery built my career. It wasn’t like in the movies where you do one show and youre discovered. It took 25 years and a village of homies. Its a long list of people who helped me, and I remember all of them. Im sure something much bigger than I can even imagine will happen eventually—its inevitable. But for now, I like to keep it mellow. Im still growing, Im still having fun. I spent almost 30 years doing shit I hated for a living. Most people would be retiring by now. So, Im in no rush for things to get big. As long as I have a place to sleep, a place to make stuff, and a way to look after mom, Im good.

You once told me you had a vision about your path. 

Yeah. It was literally like watching my life happening now. I never gave up.

What advice would you offer to some kid with no substantial resources who wants to break into the art world?

Its not easy. The art world wasn’t set up for us, so dont expect anyone to help you because youre special. Youre not. Theres a million just like you. So shut your mouth, pull up your sleeves, and focus on the work. Find a way to support yourself, dont put a needle in your arm, and dont expect anyone to do it for you. I know every path is different, and I know social media is fucking up humanity. But at the end of the day, the truth is in the work. And as my mama always says, ‘The truth comes out in the wash’.

Apartamento Magazine - Erik Foss
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