My introduction to Erik Foss started when one of his King Cobras popped up in my suggestion feed. So simple, but yet full of mystique and expression, as well as a color-palette that demanded my attention – made me curious as to who the person responsible for this absolute explosion of freshness was.
When I reached out to him he was cool as hell and welcoming throughout out our conversation, while being honest and passionate when describing various topics. Even the hard ones. He didn’t give a shit what anybody thinks.
Erik’s mind is complex with strong opinions and a good sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. He’s in his 40s, but on the inside he’s closer to a 140. Meaning he is wise beyond his years. A rough upbringing and traumatic experiences will do that to you. Nevertheless, his years on the bottom of society has provided him with a set of life long valuable lessons and values you wouldn’t be able to understand, unless you come from a certain place and have experienced certain shit.
The more I talked to him, the more in depth, raw and unfiltered our conversation became. I mentioned the fact that at some point his life should be made into a documentary or a book or something, but he didn’t reply. That was the only thing he never replied to..
“An intrepid scavenger of visual artifacts in which memory, melancholia and madness invoke a visionary topography where the mortality of dreams engender germinal quotients of relativist understanding, Erik Foss locates the fearful symmetries lurking within the miasma of pop culture at the nexus where representation and witness converge. With the raw vernacular of the streets, Foss makes fine art fodder of the smug complacency and delusional democracy by which our failing empire lulls itself to terminal sleep. How else might we read his bold re-imagining of our national emblem, the American flag, as a composite of needy pleas and desperate amusements culled from the signs of begging homeless? His is the itinerant semiotics of national shame reeking behind spectacle of patriotic glory.”– Carlo McCormick, Art critic and Paper Magazine editor
Hi Erik, thank you for sitting down with me. First mandatory question. How does a regular day look like for you in New York?
You’re welcome, and thanks for having me. An average day could be many experiences. there is no such thing as a “regular” day really. Besides waking up, making my bed, making some chai tea and eating something, anything can and usually does happen directly after. If it’s between Monday-Friday I will wind up at the studio at some point, rain or shine. I am either making something, preparing to make something, or preparing to get that something out the door to its new home. If it’s the weekend it’s me usually wandering the streets finding adventures. One really never knows what each day will bring in this town. It’s simply that kind of town.
What’s your earliest memory of you drawing something?
First grade I believe, drawing my family on these plates our teachers gave us for Christmas presents.
I’m going to go all the way back to the beginning now Erik , I hope that’s cool! Growing up in Arizona. Talk to me a little bit about your upbringing and life in general.
First off I was born in northern Illinois (Elgend). My father was a mechanical engineer and scored a job in Phoenix when I was about 7 (1980). It was a riches to rags story. It was a large house with a swimming pool, this didn’t last long and his addiction escalated where he drank it all away and eventually left us. That’s when my rebirth started. From upper middle class suburbia to a trailer park in the south side of pheonix (Chandler). It was where my moms parents retired to. The schools were public style trade schools . The community was majority Mexican American and American Indian. In a way, I was almost a minority in a way . This all took place between the age of 12 and 18. Now that I look back, that period of my life was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. I learned first hand, and in the most brutal way, what it was like to be out numbered and hated for being the way I looked . Crash course in survival, and how to fight and avoid the fight if possible. Very applicable tools for navigating NYC. After having my teeth knocked out in my first week of highschool, I then found my tribe. They were older and mostly skateboarders. I was already skating but not like this. These were the bad ass’s . Back yard pools and skating with style. They also were the partiers, the cats that did everything in secrecy, no one at that school knew what we were up to. I learned a lot from them and some are my close friends to this day, the ones that are still alive or not in jail that is. Being a white male minority was a real trip and not common , but it was a major lesson I learned about life, it’s just how it was. empathy and respect for those that were outnumbered was the most valuable lesson from that time I think . It was a beautiful and painful gift I cherish every day. This is also how I learned how community works. These lessons may be the secret to my “success”.
I’ve talked to several artists who were heavily into the skate scene when they were kids. What do you think it is about skater kids in particular that turn into amazing artists?
I only know 2 “amazing” artist that skated, Mark Gonzales and Neil Blender. The rest of us are just stumbling along wishing we had those cats style. Skateboarding, again, was how a lot of us learned about art, so for those of us that weren’t being walked through museums by our parents hand, this community was one way we learned. Skateboarding shaped a lot of us, and the word community always comes to mind first. There is also a freedom of expression in skateboarding, creating your own style, never stealing ideas from people . Skateboarding is also not exactly legal n public places , witch equals non stop adventure, we always had each others backs. These things could be what separates us from the basic pack. For instance, If you’re in a foreign country and you see a skater, you can simply walk up and start a conversation, once each person knows they are both skaters, that’s enough. It’s a tribe, it’s a brother / sisterhood. Community.
Going back to the story of you being jumped and left for dead. Can you share that story with us?
If my memory serves correct, I went to a dessert party after a school event. Keep in mind that these could be very violent gatherings and I quickly learned this was a fact. I was still very green and this night in particular would change my life forever. It was a turning point for me. I drove out deep into the dessert with some friends from an acting class I was taking. To put things in perspective, I was already 6’4 and 135 soaking wet. I was pretty nerdy and very venerable. My mom had warned me not to go, it’s almost like she new what would happen. Nothing like a parents intuition. In hindsight, this mindless act of violence was something that most definitely needed to happen, now that I reflect. At this point my friends split off and I was circling the giant bon fire by my self. I soon after had the strangest feeling I was being stalked, now mind you there were probably 500 people at this party (from what I remember), it was giant. then I felt a soft push on my shoulder from behind, I new something bad was about to happen. I kept walking in my circle and like a flash of lightning, boom, it happened. The storm. I was spun around by a very strong hand and immediately smashed in the face with a punch that might have knocked out a grown man. Luckily I didn’t get knocked out and just fell to the ground and rolled up in a ball. I was kicked and punched by what felt like a heard of cattle. All I could see was blackness and it was a muffled echo like sound. Then the worst part happened, I was thrown into the giant bonfire. That part was what could have killled me, and somehow I had the sense to roll out of it. It was a miracle, there were almost no burns to my body. Then I felt some even stronger hands grab me and pull me out of the chaos. It turned out these people that saved me would become my close friends till the end of my schooling. It was my soon to be friends from the local crips, they took mercy on me and got those creeps off of me. Turns out the pussies that jumped me were football players and attended my school. I was shocked when I found out they were from my hood. This was my first year of highschool, first couple weeks actually, I was 14 or 15 I believe. Imagine, this happens in your first part of the most exciting part of school? realizing I had to finish out my 4 years with these assholes lurking around any and every corner was such a bummer . It was a really scary feeling. The beating wound up breaking my jaw I think, definitely knocking my 2 front teeth up into my skull and a couple broken ribs maybe. My jaw was wired shut after the surgery to save my teeth, I had to eat out of a straw for weeks. Eventually I finished school and I never had to see these creeps again. About a year after I graduated I had heard the first asshole that started the fight and cold cocked me was imprisoned and shanked in jail, he died there on the spot rumor had it. Then the second fool that pushed me into the fire was at a house party some time after graduation and messed with the wrong dude, he got the front of his face blown off with a sawed off shot gun. Both dead. I learned then, that if I let the universe take care of those that wronged me, I would save myself a lot of pain and stress. There’s nothing I could have done besides keep moving forward and keep hacking away at my dreams. I guess you can say I could take a punch.
Damn, that’s a crazy story! Thank you for sharing that.. This takes us into your days of going to school. How would you describe a young Erik Foss in school? Any education dreams etc?
If you mean college, that wasn’t a reality for me at that time. I had a world to conquer. I was all “piss and vinegar” sort to speak, school was for squares in my eyes . I was in a real hurry that’s for sure, and school wasn’t going to slow me down. It was probably the most short sided decision I have ever made. I was excepted to a couple of art schools via my highschool art teacher. This teacher helped me through this process. Coming from where I came from college wasn’t really an option, or at least that’s what I thought. This instructor had told me if I wasn’t going to school then move to NYC regardless, it was where I had to be. I worked for a few years after high school, saved some dough ($500), then moved to NYC with no job and only knowing the friends from Arizona that lived there already. Navigating NYC was my education. Very exciting time, also a massive gamble. This would not be my last gamble that’s for certain.
Yeah, so at some point in your 20’s you decided to pack up your bags and move to New York. What brought you to that decision and how was that transition once you arrived?
My mom tells me that i told her I was going to live in NYC and be an artists when I was 12 years old. When I arrived I was 23 years old, this would be Halloween of 1996. I couldn’t find a job, and when I finally did it was horrible, I was a bike delivery boy for a deli, in the winter, that job lasted 3 weeks, next one was at a super busy restaurant in the west village bussing tables. I was fired after 3 weeks as well, I went through a few terrible service jobs until I hustled my way into a bartending job. That’s when I started making real money. Within 6 years of moving to NYC I had a liquor license and opened my first night club (Lit Lounge), this was February 22, 2002, I was the youngest liquor license holder in the history of NYC (for 3 months). This was also right after 911, and boy was that a trip.
I have prepared this question, which you already answered, but I’m going to fire it off anyway. Something new might come up. It must have been a pretty nerve wrecking experience, landing in the Big Apple with nothing but a dream. Talk to me a little bit about that time in your life. What kind of jobs did you have before becoming an artist.
As I just said it was all service related work. Not much work for some one like my self (no education nor connections). My first 2 years were hard. But I soon found my way and my people. It was relatively smooth sailing from there. I just persevered.
Thank you. Staying on that subject. So at some point you end up becoming a partner at Lit Lounge (bar in Manhattan) and actually owning your own gallery in downtown Manhattan. How did that come about?
I was roommates with the one of the partners. We built that bar together along with a couple other people. Once I was shown the space I immediately had an idea to build a bar to support the gallery, the money guy agreed and we took on the challenge. I had a heavy hand in conceptualizing it, helped name it and was an operator from the day we opened to the day we closed. When I walked into the raw space for the first time I could see it finished, it’s like I had already been there, or it already happened. I had my claws into the local community already so I was the one to staff the club handle promotions, and programmed the DJs. I eventually became the director of the gallery and curated the artists / shows, the first couple of years I was just partying, when I got my act together everything changed. Our goal eventually became to show artists that had never had a solo show in NYC. We also tried to focus on minorities. We showed hundreds of artists over the years, created some careers and introduced the underground from ground level into the mainstream art world. When we opened the gallery the word street art really didn’t exist yet. Figurative abstraction and cartoons were not even a part of the narrative. And anything sexual and or controversial was more or less scoffed at. We figured we could show the type of work we were making and loved in hopes that eventually the art world might follow and eventually evolve. For example our first show was H.R. Giger, and it continued on that trajectory for about the next decade.
Did you have any kind of knowledge of the art scene or any curating experience before opening that gallery?
A bit, locally I did (downtown NYC), and like I said earlier I learned as I went. Carlo McCormick was a massive help in this department, google him if you all don’t know his writing / curating. He is my mentor in this department and a very close amigo. He laid it all out for me, and has for so many. I just paid attention, listened and applied. My First curatorial experience was a show at Cbgb gallery (313 gallery). It was a group show of all my friends. The show consisted of primarily dark art, illustration and a little graffiti. Now that I think about it, the painting I submitted was almost edited out as I had painted a man with his cock exposed. The owner, Hilly, was bummed and didn’t want that sort of thing on his walls. Funny to think the man that help usher in punk rock in America would be turned off by a painting of a cock. I eventually convinced him to let me hang the painting and the show went on.
You’re now able to live off your art. What was that experience like.. realizing that you had made it as an artist?
I will tell you what I tell everyone else that asks this question. It feels like winning the lottery, but realizing that at any point what I make could be obsolete. It’s exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. Ive been working since the age of 16 doing jobs I didn’t want to do, to eventually make a living off of what I was meant to do. I don’t take one second of it for granted. I might be the most greatfull human you will ever meet. Every day is a miracle. When a dream becomes a reality it’s a miracle, I’m so so lucky!
I would have tried till the day I died!
Back to NYC. So you’ve lived there for about 25 years now, I’m sure you’ve got stories for days. For example the terror attacks on 9/11. Walk us through that day, how you experienced it.
Oh boy, well first let me stress to those reading this, that day obviously changed the world, and it happened ten blocks from where I was sleeping that September morning. It was one of the most horrible days I have experienced to date. I was in bed with my girlfriend at the time, she was working at a club the night before and I went to pick her up from work. We were both night owls due to our schedules so we had slept in. I woke up around noon to use the bathroom. Im living in Chinatown (Eldridge and Grand) at this time, living amongst 3 other people. We all worked at night and for everyone to be up that early watching tv in the common area at noon, was quite odd.
I walked by them on my way to the bathroom, they were glued to the tv set. On my way back to my room I looked directly at the tv and there it was, jets hitting the towers and then the towers crashing down. This was being played on repeat as I had missed the entire event. Then my future partner looks up at me and says “terrorists just flew passenger jets into the twin towers and now they’re gone”.
I stood there in shock for a second, went into the bedroom and woke up my lady, told her the horrific news and she was off to deal with her own family shit. Before she left we went up to the roof to asses the scene, we watched the people walking up eldridge covered in white powder, as above the Chinatown apartment rooftops it was a wall of white smoke from the demolished towers. I then tried calling my mom on my cell but there was no reception, the city’s phone lines were so over loaded no one could call out for hours. I then grabbed my board, went to a pay phone to try and call my mom and then decided to skate up to Houston Street (ten blocks north), cut over west to Broadway and down hilled till I hit Canal Street, that’s where the cops started blocking Manhatten off. I never imagined skating all the way down Broadway non stop and unobstructed without traffic, especially on a Tuesday afternoon in September. That night, my other roomate Brant and I dressed in all black and walked down the east river park to battery park city, it’s dark out now and no one stopped us because the cops thought we were also cops. It had accoured to me that this was an important time in history and I needed proof, i grabbed a deli bag and filled it with paper I found on the ground thinking it might be something from the towers, and I’m glad I did, because it was. We got as close to the smoldering wreckage as we could but at some point it was too hot to withstand. We walked back in utter disbelief knowing that this shit was about to change everything. I was in shock, denial and eventually grew pretty fucking pissed! I wasn’t really scared once I returned home as the adrenalin kicked in and then I switched into survival mode. Anyone reading this that has experienced a near death experience or suffered extreme trauma, will understand what I was going through. Don’t get me wrong, I did think I was going to die, we all did. We thought more was coming. I just decided to stay put and not retreat. I wasn’t going to let this stop me.
My partners and my self had just started construction on our club (Lit), so the towers came down right in middle of building the club. It’s a miracle we finished and opened. It was really close to not happening but we somehow pulled it off. I hope nothing will ever be harder than that time.
That’s an insane story from a first eye-witness to one of the most tragic and historic events in our lifetime. Appreciate you sharing that. Looking from the outside in, that experience was devastating, with major consequences. Not only for NYC, but for the world in general. In terms of lockdowns and restrictions, how would you compare Covid to 9/11?
There’s no comparison. Covid is the most awful thing that we will ever see in our life time (hopefully). 911 scared us New Yorkers and killed thousands, Covid scared the world and killed hundreds of thousands. It will be the gift that will keep on giving for generations, sorta speak. 911 took a fraction compared to what Covid took as far as lives and lively hoods. This is all my humble opinion and some experienced both of these in NYC like I did, and those people are the true hero’s and survivors. Double wammy of sorts.
You’ve always been honest about your past addiction. Walk me through that time in your life. What brought you there and how you became sober.
We’ll just say I experienced a bottom where I hurt myself way more then I hurt others, it was physical mostly and the breaking point altered my body in permanent ways. I was 33 years old when I finally threw in the towel. I was raised around addicts, so it was double trouble. Irish Catholic artist skateboarder raised around booze, the perfect storm, and I never had a chance. Sobriety was the second best decision of my life. Now I am vegan, sober and exercise regularly. When one is from the economic background I am, one needs to make certain sacrifices if they want to achieve greatness. Sobriety was that key for me .
Your tough upbringing as well as various let downs from people you trust. Have those experiences changed the way you view art or look at life in general?
I mean how could it not, and I do try to not drag my dirty laundry into new situations. If folks ask, I tell them the story of those who wronged me and speed bumps. For the most part I try to keep it positive. This took a lot of practice let me tell you. Living in the now and working towards creating my future, this is my mantra, or at least what I strive for. Nice guys tend to get taken advantage of, predators pray on those of us who trust. Moral of this story is, humans will steal and or cheat in bussines if you aren’t paying attention. I simply pay closer attention now.
Your early experiences of adapting to tough and hostile enviroments, is definately something that had helped you through the years. Any specific situations come to mind?
Children aren’t suppose to see and experience the things I lived through, it was a hostile environment. I was raised around chaos, and it provided me with all the ammo I’d ever need to make art, it was just the start of what’s been a wild ride for me.
Your spirit seems to be high when you look back and talk about the rough days, all the way back to when you was a kid. Did you carry yourself like that back then too? Or were there days when you thought fuck it all?
I experienced some heavy shit as a child, the things I saw are things I shouldn’t have seen at that age, especially during the formative years. When one experience’s trauma as a child, it teaches them to be survivors. It’s black and white sometimes, and back then we didn’t have magic happy pills / therapists etc. Especially with limited resources. I learned to be a good actor, I developed a poker face. Only the closest friends would hear the stories.
Through your career, whether it be as an artist or even before that. What has inspired and motivated you?
That’s simple, Life. This planet offers so much. A life lived is all one needs for inspiration. Pain, love, birth, death and nature. Living in NYC must be one of the most inspiring places on earth. Every culture comes through here, it’s where the melting pot most likely started. This is why i have always fought to stay, it’s been my most important teacher.
It’s easy to spot an Erik Foss painting with your unique and recognizable cartoonish painting style, color choices and characters. Talk to me a little bit about how long it has taken you to perfect and how they came to be?
The neon cobra series derived from a concept, and I have my friend Curtis Santiago to thank for this series. He provoked me to go on instagram live during lockdown when he was having a show at Drawing Center in NYC. Drawing Center asked Curtis to do some activities during lockdown while his show was up. So he interviewed his artist friends as he and us artists made art together at our separate homes. I am very nervous in front of a camera and even more so speaking on camera. So I nervously painted a king cobra. It was off the top of my head, no plan at all and no idea where it came from. After the interview I posted the snake painting, and the internet spoke. I painted a more refined version that night and I sold it within seconds of posting it. The rest is history. I’ve been making them since April 2020.
Actually, now that I know that you grew up with Native American’s and Mexican American’s (chicanos), I can see that style “tribe style” in your artworks. Especially the cobras and cats. Just wanted to mention that.
Makes sense, I still have a mom that lives in the town / trailer park I grew up in, and it’s almost all non white inhabitants, there’s no denying how and where I grew up. It’s just how it is, and I wouldn’t change a thing, their culture is so beautiful, and I am so honored and privileged to have lived it.
Staying on the subject. What is it about cartoons that resonates with you?
How can anyone not love cartoons. Cartoons rarely die, they are expendable in a way. They can be shot in the face or put through a meat grinder or have a piano fall on their heads, and they just get up and walk away. I was raised like most kids in America, watching cartoons. They were our escape, our baby sitter, our joy and we learned from them. Cartoons are a major part of our culture and I think I can speak for most humans in this regard. It’s also one way I learned about art. I practiced drawing them sitting in front of the TV. Cartoons, in my eyes, are part of the fabric of our culture. So instead of becoming a cartoon artist, I made art about how cartons inspired a generation.
So what does the various cobras, figures and characters in your paintings represent?
They simply represent everything I grew up loving and fetishizing. Everything that taught me about art. Cartoons, sci-fi movies, comic books, record cover illustrations, black light posters, gang graffiti, van / low rider murals, and all forms of illustration. This is how people from my economic background learned about art initially. And this is 99% of humans. This series is a shout out to those folks.
Besides painting you also make collages, draw and create sculptures. How did you get into sculpting? And which of the mentioned are you most passionate about?
Ok this is a long story. My first celebrity collector was Robin williams. Robin’s son Zac opened a gallery in NYC with his wife Alex, some years after Robin bought a piece from me during my first solo show in San Fransisco. My friend Skullphone told Zac about me when Zac was looking for programming. Shortly after their meeting, Zac put 2 and 2 together. Skullphone then called me and told me to reach out to Zac, I did. Shortly after Zac and Alex gave me my first NYC solo show as a result of all of this. This was in 2011. A short time after the show, I was invited to dinner with Zac and Alex at Robin’s house in NYC. At that dinner Robin had asked me what my next show idea was. I told him about this concept for a sculpture show where I would portray all my favorite American cartoons in compromising positions. These sculptures would be painted all white from head to toe in glazed porcelain. For instance, imagine Goofy as a flasher or Mini Mouse standing on her tippy toes in her heels and her pussy being exposed from behind. The show would have been called “White America”, and would have been about the perversion of capitalism. The show never took place as Robin passed shortly after, and around the same time the gallery dissolved. My next sculptures came about a decade later when I could eventually produce one independently . That series is called “American Sculptures”. This series is about my fetishes growing up and a subtle nod to the American Indian friends I had in the schools I attended (I grew up very close to a reservation). I wanted to let the homies know I see them, when one experiences poverty like that first hand, it made it very clear that the way I grew up was decedent in comparison. You can also see the birth of this idea in my prior collages. I eventually realized that the collages were the first subconscious nod to my old school mates.
Do you remember when you first got introduced to an airbrush? And what makes that your preffered tool?
I was a kid in the 80’s being dragged from bar to bar by my father. This was family time in his eyes. His bartenders were his best friends. One of those bartenders was an artist by the name of Don. Don rode a motor cycle, was a skateboarder, had a big dog and painted using an airbrush. He was an illustrator for pulp fiction novels and various commercial design work. It was the fluffy fuzzy 80’s. So I guess you can say I was inspired by him when I was like 8 years old, he was cool, the complete opposite from my father. And by the way I went on to drive a motor cycle (Honda scooter), have big dogs, skateboard and bartend. Funny how little things can be such massive inspirations as kids. I eventually bought an airbrush for painting subtle drop shadows for my collages in 2014. That escalated and evolved, after I figured out the possibilities, It became a serious part of my practice.
So what do you hope that we the observers take with us, after viewing some of your pieces?
Maybe Look closely, my work tends to be misunderstood. I ask the viewer to read between the lines and Keep in mind I am telling a story with every body of work, even the abstracts.
Where do you get your inspiration and motivation from?
I find inspiration in everything. It’s like air, you can’t see it, taste it, nor smell it. It’s simply everywhere. One of those mysteries of life.
If we remove painting and anything that has to do with creating art. What does a perfect day look like for you?
No such thing as a perfect day without art or creating, I’d say the only days I am not creating, are when I’m in bed sick or exhausted enough I just rest the hole day.
Looking back. If you could change one thing. One decision you’ve ever made what would it be?
If I would have gone to art school I most likely would have never opened up Fuse Gallery / Lit. So that would have not been good. The narrative would have been completely different. if I would have assisted a famous artists when I moved to New York like so many other young artists did, I also would have most likely skipped opening my places. So not sure what I’d change, I definitely should have gotten my teeth fixed, they’re pretty mangled.
What advice would you give to new up-and-coming artists hoping to leave an imprint on this world?
Envy will poison the journey. Make stuff because you want to see what comes out for most. If you’re up and coming, stay there, for a long time. That term up and coming refers to coming up, like climbing up and out of a deep dark hole. What ever you’re making before you’re 40, i’ts probably not ready to be seen nor consumed by the general public. Don’t think about the game and or money. Just know if you are good enough, it could come. Most artists will give up, and the only reason I am here today is that I didn’t give up. Just be happy you’re alive and able to make work. That should be enough.
What’s your all time favorite movie(s) and why?
“Close Encounters of a Third Kind”, because aliens walk amongst us !
Alright Erik. Last question, since I have already taken up too much of your time. Let’s say that the “riches to rags” story never happened and your father never left. What kind of life would you be living now you think? Would you still be an artist or what kind of person would you be?
With how many twists and turns my life has taken, lord knows what kind of complex story that could have been. I really have no idea to be honest.
For more information about Erik, check out his Instagram and website.
Erik will also be having his first solo show in Asia on April 7, 2023, at Takashi Murakami’s gallery “Kaikai Kiki”. So be on the lookout for that!