If you ask most artists to talk about themselves, you’ll either get a rehearsed spiel that sounds like a gallery bio, or you’ll be forced to suffer through a long-winded monologue about how they fell in love with art as a child and how it changed the way they view the world. Drew Merritt is not that kind of artist, and by his definition, he is not really an artist at all (more on that later). The Los Angeles-based painter is not big on singing his own praises and would rather let his art speak for itself. To find out more about his life, his work, and his new partnership with Supra for the #AlwaysOnTheRun campaign, we spoke with Drew about putting the art first and what it means to be a rebel.
So who is Drew Merritt?
Overrated. [Laughs.] I don’t know man, that’s the hardest question. Yeah, overrated is a really good one.
I guess tell me a little about your background.
When I was a kid I always painted by myself. Then when I turned 12 or 13, I got really into graffiti and s**t. Everybody I talk to, they always say that graffiti got them into art, but for me it was the other way around.
You do all the stupid stuff kids do…. I was arrested and got in trouble for years worth of work. I was never that good at graff anyway, I have the worst hand style in the world, but I really liked doing it. So when I got in trouble, I tried to pay my attorney fees, but he was like, “Oh don’t worry about it, my wife wants to put murals in our kid’s room.” So that evolved into this thing…like I can make money off of this.
I started painting windows for people, script, whatever. When I went to college, my mom and my aunt said, “We have all these paintings stacked up in the garage from years ago, since you were little…. What do you want us to do with them?” I said throw them away, but they said, “No, we’re going to try to sell them. We’re going to have a show.” So they had me a show at my aunt’s house. I was working a s***ty job at a department store trying to do the college thing…and all the paintings sold! I had to quit my job.
And where was this?
I was living in Dallas, but the show was in my hometown, in New Mexico. It was really weird, but it was a really cool feeling. So I was going to college less and less and painting more and more, so I just kind of quit. And I never took it that serious. I never thought about my style, it was just whatever I painted to get it done in time. It was really fluid, and I kind of miss that a little bit, but there was no real style…. Some of it had meaning or whatever, but you would look at it and not know that one person painted it. Just a cluster of s**t.
So I didn’t take it serious for about four years, and after that I think I came out to L.A. from New Mexico to try to get into galleries, because I had been painting for so long, for a living. I wanted to do galleries instead of just painting rich people’s poodles. So I talked to a few galleries, but nobody knew my name, nobody knew who I was. I had been doing it for a living for 10 years and had to start all over…. And that’s when I decided to get serious about it instead of just being like, “Yeah I paint, whatever. Here’s a s**t ton of work, none of it’s cohesive.” I never had my heart and soul in it, I never spent more than three days on a painting. I would bust one out in a day and throw a price tag on it.
Now it’s so different. I’m actually thinking about my work, thinking about what I want to say, and people take it serious, too. I’m from a rural community of farmers, ranchers…people there don’t really care that hard. Out here people care, and you’re important to people, and that really blew my mind. Like it’s not cheesy to them. It’s culture and it’s driving things here. You go to an art show and there’s a line out the door. Back home you say you’re going to do a painting and people ask, “Why?”
So did you actually study art in college?
Being from somewhere where there was basically no art, I didn’t really know what art was. I didn’t have the Internet growing up on the farming ranch. There were no graffiti mags, no art books…it was a really small town. There was a recruit who came to our school from the Art Institute in Dallas, which is like animation, graphic design…computer stuff. I didn’t know any better, but it had art in the name, so I wanted to do that. I went there for about a year and a half and switched majors like 10 times, but it wasn’t like painting or drawing. Something that should take 30 minutes to do on a computer would take me five hours. I was doing the painting thing on the side and making more money, so I quit. So I guess I kind of went to school for art, but not really.
When I dropped out of that school, I went to Eastern New Mexico University for a week and a half to study fine art. They had me drawing 3D boxes, and I didn’t do my homework one time and the teacher told me to get my s**t together…. I gave him the bird, walked out, and never went back to school. I wish I had known where to go and what to do so I would have a decent art background. Everything is still a learning process…. I ask my friends, “If I mix this with oil paint, what happens?”
Is that a part of the reason why you reject using the word “artist” to describe yourself?
I struggle with that because everybody is an artist…especially in L.A. It really got to me. I would go out with my friends to restaurants and bars and everybody I talked to would be like, “I’m an artist.” I see it more like being a doctor or something…to get those letters in front of your name, you have to earn that. You have to be successful. You can’t be like, “I’m Dr. So-and-so, but right now I’m a barista.” Nah dude, if you’re practicing medicine, you’re practicing medicine…. And that’s kind of where I’m at right now. I just feel like I’m not at the level of success to call myself an artist, and I don’t know if I’ll ever get there. It’s one of those uncomfortable things…my own insecurities.
So do you just tell people that you make art?
Most of the time I say I’m a painter, but I look like a house painter. So they’re like, “Oh cool, like residential?” Yeah, kind of. [Laughs.] But usually they’re friends of friends so they already know.
On your website, the links to your social media accounts are under the heading “Stalk,” and the about page features a photo of you with a six-word quote about not wanting to talk about you…. Do you consciously avoid sharing your personal life on social media?
People always ask me for a biography, but there are so many interesting people in the world that I felt like my story wasn’t really anything. I think it goes back to my background and not really having any formal education…. Like most artist bios say, “I went here, and I studied here, and now I just paint a big red dot on a canvas for $100,000.”
That’s cool for them, but I feel like it should be more about the art and less about the artist. For a lot of artists, their personality is the art and their paintings are s**t. I get that it comes through in the painting and it’s minimal or academic, and that’s their thing or whatever so no disrespect—but I just want people to see me through my work and not give a s**t about where I’m from or what I’ve done. I want them to focus on what I’m trying to say and express through whatever I’m working on at the time.
It’s like a game of “One, Two, Three Judge.” It shouldn’t matter what celebrity just bought my work, or who commissioned me to do what. Do you like it? No? Then don’t buy it, I don’t care. It’s a really personal thing. I want the art to speak for itself.
Would you consider yourself a rebel?
I’ve calmed down a lot. This is the first time in my life that I’ve really had peers, like friends, where this is what they do. As for rebels, I remember when I was little I would see people who had that James Dean, go-against-the-grain thing, but as I got older that image changed. Everybody is James Dean now. Everybody’s a rebel….everybody is trying to be different just like everybody else. As soon as you’re comfortable being yourself, it’s almost more rebellious than it would be to have that badass mentality…. I don’t really consider myself a rebel; I think I’m just being true to myself.
Everything now is so tongue-in-cheek, or shock art, or has that illegal street thing thrown into it. There’s so much of it, and it’s almost getting watered down. Not to say it’s bad, because that’s where it comes from…. It makes a good point and you can get a good laugh from it, but it kind of gets lost. In my mind I see salmon swimming upstream, and then there’s one that just goes with the flow.
When I think of your work, the pieces I remember most are the ones that feature our mutual friends. Do you have one painting or mural that you are most proud of?
It goes back to putting more time into my work. I’d finish a piece in a couple days and a week later I would look at it and absolutely hate it. You’d come into my place and every painting would be facing the wall. Now I’m like, “This is going to be around for a while. This is going to pop up on the Internet five years from now, so I’d better be proud of it.” So I’m spending more time, thinking about what I want to say and the imagery I want to use…. Three days has become weeks or months of painting while I work on other stuff, just so I won’t hate it.
So a favorite piece right now? I kind of hate them all. [Laughs.] I love them for a few months then hope that I never see them again. There’s one from 2014 that I did for Known Gallery called How the Cookie Crumbles, a big nude of a girl with a kind of claw hand thing going on. Sometimes I look at that and have no idea what color palette or brush I used, but it has a lot of depth and it’s almost like I don’t remember painting it. There are still some parts that I could have cleaned up, but that one’s still OK.
In my recent interview with Meggs, I asked him why every creative person in Los Angeles seems to know each other. How do you think the art scene is different there than any other city?
It’s weird. When I moved here I didn’t get out a lot. When I started doing little shows I hooked up with the CYRCLE homies, and all at once, through galleries and working with The Seventh Letter, I met all of these people I had looked up to [for] forever. So I have all these amazing, talented friends now, and it’s such a weird, small-knit community in this really large city. I can’t even explain it.
And it’s not even just the city, because people will travel here to do work. The other night I met up with Vivianne Lapointe [Live FAST Magazine] to eat, and didn’t know who else would be there, but it was Rabi of CYRCLE, Gosha from DevNgosha, Viv, Apexer from San Francisco showed up, this old graff writer from L.A., Esao was there…. Just sitting at a table with all these people and listening to graff stories, it was the coolest thing ever. I don’t know why L.A. is like that. I was talking to Apexer about it, and he said it’s how San Fran used to be…this community of artists and friendship with everybody. It’s the raddest feeling in the world to have friends that when they talk about art, you want to listen.
Yeah I had a similar experience hanging out with Rabi and Tristan Eaton in New York recently, where everyone was just there…Buff Monster, How & Nosm, Cey Adams, Lamour Supreme…
Hanging out with Tristan and Rabi is always like that. Everybody loves those dudes so you run into everybody. You need to come out here for sure, all the homies are out here…
Before I moved to L.A. I visited New York. Just being completely ignorant and naive, I just went to New York, San Francisco, and L.A., and spent a couple months driving up the coast of California trying to figure out where I was going to go. The thing that I figured out in New York that made me realize that I didn’t want to be there is that, everywhere that I went, the really successful artists were all dead. You go places and they are like, “We have Warhols. We have Basquiats.” The artists were either really old or really dead. In California, everybody was young, the weather was nice…people are killing it and they’re all our age. It’s so weird, I’m still trying to figure it out. People here are so different, but you can meet someone and sit and talk about art for hours. It’s a whole other world.
I watched the “D R E W: The Prequel” video on your Vimeo and the pop culture references were all over the place. Is the music playlist for when you paint just as diverse, or do you go for calmer tunes?
It’s like I have multiple personalities when it comes to that stuff. It goes from Death Grips, to Nirvana, straight into Mozart and classical stuff. Then it will be Queen, back to some rap, a lot of Aesop Rock, and some A$AP Rocky.
I guess when I’m sketching stuff out, it’s more aggressive, fast-paced music, and sometimes I’ll slow it down while I’m painting. A lot of the time I’ll put on a movie while I work, or ten movies, or movies and music, or books on tape. I know it’s a generic answer to say you listen to everything, but I kind of do.
So how did this partnership with Supra come about?
It happened through Viv. She was talking to them about the campaign and showed them my stuff, and they liked what I was doing. So we found a wall and it all worked out. It was in Long Beach, Calif., whenever Pow!Wow! was going on, so that was dope. I did the wall, and then another one popped up and I did the portrait of Viv. If they keep popping up, I’m going to keep doing them until Supra stops me. It’s been great.
Any other projects in the works that you can talk about?
I have something in the works with Soze Gallery. Also, I’ve been working with Chop Em Down Films on this documentary for over a year and a half, maybe two years now. We went to Belize to paint a children’s home, and to bring awareness—we’re making this documentary together to try to get them funding. They’re flat broke, and it’s a private children’s home that’s not funded by the government. The lady basically takes care of 100-plus kids everyday, pretty much on her own with family members. While we were there, they asked if we wanted to paint the prison. So it kind of goes back and forth between us painting the children’s home and painting the only prison in Belize… There’s no county jail, no smaller places, just the big prison. So we got to paint it and go inside and interview people, but we’re going to try and go back and finish. We’re hooked up with Known Gallery and The Seventh Letter on that, but it’s too early to say when we’re going to show it. We want to get them as much money as we can.
I have a lot of little projects, a few things I’m waiting to hear back from, some bigger stuff. I’m amped about it all—it’s good to be busy.