Home News Calendar Instagram Home News Calendar Instagram Home News Calendar Instagram Home News Calendar Instagram


Home FEATURES Studio Visits Erik Otto Studio Visit

Erik Otto Studio Visit

Written by Scott Cooper   
Wednesday, 22 June 2011 12:30
I visited Erik Otto at his studio mid-April, right before he had a group show at the Mallick Williams Gallery (Robin Williams’ Daughter). I was stoked to have the opportunity to check out his studio, learn about his process, and maybe get inspired to paint more myself.

Words: Scott Cooper
Photography: Gary Sexton

I first met Erik when I was covering a show of his at White Walls for FF and he seemed like a cool dude. Indeed he is cool, and was open to share his artistic practice, thoughts, and philosophies with me. It turns out he went to San Jose State and was involved with the animation department (which my brother is in). He was taught and influenced by Barron Story, and from fellow classmates who went on to have successful careers in the animation industry. Erik deviated away from illustration, choosing to focus on paintings and installations with reclaimed paint and wood as his medium. In our conversation we talked about working with companies, how not to get girls, tree hugging, Barron Story, and why school is cool. I hope you enjoy!

So what’s up with this NY thing, have you shown there before?

I haven't. They’re new, they've only been open since this last fall. It's Robin Williams' first-born daughter I think, along with her husband. The Williams family, little known fact, owns 6 pieces of mine. Since the divorce of his wife he's slowed down buying art and his kids are kinda steppin' in. Hopefully I get to meet him out of this.

Like Miss Doubt Fire, hey!?

Yea! But more like Toys. I used to have Toys and then pause it and sketch everything. It's kinda cool how it has come full circle, someone that influences you, probably more than you know it, and then he likes your work.

Do you do that a lot, stop and sketch from movies? Movies have great compositions.

When I was young, yea. Certain movies it's good compositions all the way through, just pause it anywhere.

Are you pretty busy these days?

After this show I hit the ground running as soon as I return, I'm doing this big commission for RedBull, on top of this piece (the house project installation) which will go live, that’s going to the dump basically (Recology), there's a sculpture garden down there. They do private tours, it's the dump over by Bayshore. I was there almost everyday.

And there is one more, a grant through the SF Arts Commission. Which is cool, all this outdoor alternative exposure stuff right after a super traditional style show. Me being the SF street artist, sort of lowbrow comin' in, who knows how it's gunna be responded to. They were like go easy on the reclaimed wood material, and I'm like that's my whole thing, I don't know how to go easy. You tell that to me and it makes me want to do it even more.

You've done some other projects, I don't wanna say corporate, but I saw you did something for Urban Outfitters. How does that work out, is that just financial stability for you?

Yea that was years ago. Most of those things are more financial decisions. Fortunately, I've had to do less of those. I mean, don't get me wrong, some of those are really cool and challenging. I didn't get paid for Urban, I just sorta knew the merchandising manager over there and he thought it would be cool to install my work. Then they started doing it as an ongoing thing, but I had my work in the store. But I've done products and other commercial collaborations where whatever company is doing this new product release or campaign and they see my art fitting in somehow. I always have to find out what they really want, you know? People always come to you and they promise the world and really all it means is dollars to them and I get my little check and they take off. I don't like working with companies like that anymore so I avoid it if I can.

I'm sure it's cool to see people buying your stuff. People buying your thing without even knowing it's you...

Yea, sometimes they don't know. It presents a challenge translating your work to a different format. There has been some good things I've done, there's been some things that didn't work out so well. By the time it gets into their production hands they fuck it up. Then once it hits the stores your like I don't even wanna know that existed. From what I hear it happens all the time with artists. You can't sleep with people on the first date, you gotta really question their intent and how they have supported artists in the past. Because you get a lot of fast talking sales people that will promise you exposure and this and that, royalties in our non profiting company.

I've run the gamut man, it's like go ahead and do those things to pay the bills cause that's important too.

Make money so you can afford a studio, create work but never lose sight of the original vision.

People can get really caught up and excited because they rather just make products for a living, but for me it's just a little side project. Every now and then you get an opportunity where a company really wants to stand behind you and those are cool. Where my name is behind it, I stand behind it, they stand behind it. Just like a gallery would, both sticking our necks out together. Maybe even come and have face to face time not all just email type shit.

More personal, they can take you for who you are instead of how are you going to fit into my thing.

Yea, how are you going to make me money, you know? You're popular, we're not, we are trying to appeal to a younger attention deficit audience and your work seems to appeal to them, so come on board. So that either happened less and less or I've gotten smarter. I think companies have gotten smarter too, how they need to be more intelligent about how they approach these things. Otherwise it's a waist of time for them, it's a disservice to everybody: to the community, to the product, to the company viewers. If you're going to do it, do it right. When It first started happening artists were like oh my God, collab this and that, but it's gotten out of hand. But I mean, who really cares it's just making more shit. I don't know I'm on this whole do what matters make it count otherwise don't do it at all. I don't know if that answered your question, I just went on a rant. But I've definitely done things I'm proud of too. I might of just bashed.

Bashing is fun

People understand though, I think even companies understand. Like this artist needs money, we're all here for the money. That's why I brought on this third person (his manager friend), because I talk art, like oh yea you want an orange I can make that happen. I bust some idea and say what do you think. Ok well, talk to my manager now because we can't start till we get paid. Don't talk to me, talk to her and until she says it's a go, I don’t start.

So let's get into some more fun stuff.

(laughs) I know jeesh, phew... Lets smoke a cigarette after that.

Do you ever go out nature tree hugging?

Definitely a tree hugger, I grew up camping and road trips with the family. There is a part of me that longs for that. When I had a rental car service I would go up to Mt. Tam and illegally camp up there. They are so cool about it, I'm coming off the moutain at 8 in the morning all rugged looking like I just woke up, and they're like "oh, hey sir", and I thought I was getting busted. "We left that sign on your car, the gates close and we don't wanna make you feel like you're stuck or anything". I used to do that do that in Santa Cruz, pull off the side of the highway and sleep and you come back to a 100 dollar ticket on your car.

What are the essentials up on the mountain?

Bread, cheese, and peanut butter. I pack light, maybe some weed it's all you need. Mt. Tam at night- it's so scary, but it's so surreal in the morning.

It's like Lord of the Rings. You think some elves are gunna come out of a tree. Like, where am I?

Even though you're like 20 yards off the trail.

I do a lot of get away trips. I love snowboarding but it's a rich mans sport. I've been wanting to man up and get out in the water and surf but it's dangerous and cold. I have too many friends that say, C'mon lets do it! And I'm like ok, let's start doing pushups, cause like I'll probably just flop around.

What's the best way to not meet girls?

Ahh, work all day. Best way to lose girlfriends too apparently. I finally got one that understands the life, for the most part. It's not the type of profession where you leave the office and you're not thinking about work. I'm thinking about work all the time, all I talk about, I come home and I'm excited about what I just did. I'm talking about what I'm gunna do, asking her what do you think red or blue? And sometimes I can understand, dude, can you shutup?! Ask me about my day or something. So yea, I'm really all about it and that pushes people away naturally. Girls at first will be like, oh yea this guy is passionate, then start dating and be like fuck this guy he's never around. It's like you knew that from the start! So I've had a long past of one month relationships. I've gotten to the point where it's Friday night and just go to the studio, be productive. As long as girls understand that art comes before them, which is really hard for a girl to accept, then it could work. Girls wanna be number one, they wanna feel loved and I understand that, us guys have our seasons.

So best way to not get girls is being an artist?

No, cause they say rock stars, musicians, all those people they get tons of those groupy girls. I think that's mans biggest weakness, girls.

That’s why dudes are always doing crazy things!

Yea! thats why dudes are always starting wars, it all comes down to women problems maybe.

So I can't tell if your work is more inspired by nature or urban...?

I try to sit the fine line on everything, as far as chaos and control. Marjory influenced by seeing the connections in nature and how we should be more in touch with nature. People who are all out wack, it's like dude, go out in the woods and sit by yourself come back and you'll be ok.

I definitely dig the textures going on...

Yea I think i'm learning how to use bucket paint and spray paint better with every body of work. You pretty much gotta stick true with what’s on the can, cause it's already mixed. And usually these are miss tints, paint that didn't work out.

Top travel destination?

Recently I got back from Peru for a month, I did the whole nature and the nitty-gritty, deep off the main path. I was basically there for exploration, to dive into a culture I know nothing about. My girlfriend was already out there subletting the apartment and I became voluntarily displaced, started couch surfing at friends places. With the intension of learning how to let go everything and live in the moment, home is where ever you are. That box you pay rent for is just that. I think it was really good for the both of us and we grew closer as a partnership.

Where you creating while you were out there?

In Peru, no, it's so overwhelming. Walking around parts that are so dirt poor, just taking it all in. I don't even wanna pull out my camera, so...it was purely research in a way. It was either pay 700 for rent or 700 for a flight, so it worked out like that. There were some good times and bad times. Some days were like “if they could only see us now”, and others days we would be on a bus and haven't eaten in 18 hours, stuck in traffic...like “if they could only see us now.” That was part of the experience though, we didn't want an air conditioned bus, or a tour guide saying “ok now, single file.” Everyone knows you don't wanna be a tourist, you wanna be a traveler.

What would make you leave SF?

I don't think I'll ever leave. I'd keep this studio as long as I can, as long as the landlords don't sell the building. I doubt I'll find something bigger for cheaper. This building isn't an art studio building, it's just a building. So it's low key. If I could afford a studio in New York I would still keep this place and couch surf when I come back to SF, and live out there. But I don't ever wanna let go of my SF roots.

What about San Jose, do you have your allegiance to SJ at all?

I got a lot of support but there's just not a lot of art buying support. I felt like I found myself out here, and SJ I grew up and went to school and did a bunch of stupid shit and have a record out there. But I came up SF and moved into an apartment with a lawn chair and some paint brushes and had to make it work. A year and a half I went homeless cause of stupid decisions, but I didn't give up. Going through that gives you your roots in a certain area. So I'll claim SJ, Milpitas, but this is the town that made me in all reality.

Out there I call it the sleeping giant. I've got so many friends out there that are uber talented but there's just not enough opportunity. It's been like that for awhile, but it used to be thriving like 20 years ago. Everything out there seems so cookie cutter plain jane to me. Every motherfucker drives a BMW with a Blackberry on there hip, top 40 club night, drunk dudes getting in fights...it's so lame to me. I wanted to go somewhere that I was forced to blend with cultures that I may not have been exposed to. But SJ is where I was first introduced to graffiti and Hip-hop.

Does that play a lot into your work, like the hip-hop culture?

I used to break dance big time and I'm still kinda part of the dance scene and I think that’s where a lot of my circles and motion come to play in my work. Played drums for 8 years, I used to play drums at all the clubs down there. I sold them when I came up here cause there’s no room. But it's just like riding a bike; I can jump on a drum set anytime. I feel like all that music and dance was my culture and influence, just the way I see and hear and work.

Fingerbangers, thats the group that's really getting out there from SJ. A ton of music producers and DJ's. A ton of talent out there, even David Choe was out there for a minute. Actually when he was in town, that kinda rocked SJ, you could just tell.

He was taught by Barren Story too, right?

He had a personal relationship with Barren Story some how, maybe dropped in some classes or something.

Have you said whatup recently?

I would but I don't know how to get in contact with him. I bumped into him a few years ago at a hardware store and had a really awkward conversation. But he's an interesting guy, you don't know whether to interrupt his world or not. But he remembered me.

I'm sure he was digging on what you were doing, seeing how your stuff is way different from the Disney/Dreamworks direction a lot of the kids are striving for.

A lot of the students have gone on to do more digital, commercial style stuff. Drawing on a Wacom, more grunt, less creative, and I keep up with a lot of them too. Some of them were able to break through that glass ceiling and they're on to some big important jobs. Sometimes I bump into them and they appreciate what I'm doing. I'm like I don't even know what I'm doing, if there's any security in this. I envy you guys cause you can afford to buy a house.

But yea, Barren, I think I was one of the students he was trying to foster in a different way. He knew that I wasn't trying to get a job. I'm here to learn and lets just leave it at that. They would definitely try to mold you into something so that you would get a job. Come in all raw, untalented, then just mold you, I couldn't do that. I was always out there doing extracurricular activities.

Barren was a trip. I have multiple sketchbooks with notes just from his class. He's the type of guy that just spills emotion and you just try to write it all down, then months later it makes sense. He was the most influential though, even with my layer making and how I approach art making in general, without getting super heavy. Process, like some days I come to the studio and don't feel like lifting a pencil so he would take us through art making games to trick your mind into creativity. My biggest trick is to clean. Some people come to the studio and are impressed with how organized it is, it’s because I clean a lot. The act of cleaning, three hours go by and then you're working. I don't wait for inspiration, that's like such a young artists mentality. You have to show up and you have to work. Find your romanticism within that but in reality we all have a job. My friends go to their Disney jobs and I come to my studio. It's all the same.

You had a really talented graduating class at SJ State (2005), could you name some of your peers that were uber talented?

Dela Longfish, Anthony Ermio, Tim Heights, all those guys, if you google them. I think story telling was a big part of illustration. Like don't just make a pretty picture, say something. How to you give life to something as ordinary as a pencil. Just seeing personalities and characters and telling a story. I know Della, he was plucked right out of college. He is mad talented, he can come up with some crazy concept about some old woman who collects driftwood from the ocean and builds things for a perished indigenous tribe and just draw it off the top of his head. No sketching, just go. That was the kinda stuff I was learning from too, cause these guys really think about what they are doing. I came from graffiti where it was just like throw shit up.

So does that illustration mentality play a lot into your fine art?

All that training, definitely. That foundation could apply to anything. I just don't think I'm an illustrator because I'm going abstract, imagination, concepts are driving the work and process. I just wanna make stuff, and never finish, it's just the process and materials. But definitely that foundation, I can still whip out a portrait but there is no interest. That is awesome to have as a skill to have in the back pocket but I'm not into that as a way to express myself. I don't see a lot of expression in general in photo real art. A lot of people are like that’s cool it looks like a photo, why not take a photo then? Leave it a little unfinished, leave room for us to get involved don't just give me a polished portrait. To each his own but I'm really into the loose expressive type work. But even in a circle you draw it in a way to say frustration or peace, there's gesture and personallity in everything you do, if the intent is there. That's why I say that every mark has to have intent behind it. Rather that doing it just to do it, but understanding why it's important. Put your brain in that little moment and that's it. Put down a little mark then be like oh let me fix that? No. The more honest, the more genuine, the better. That's where I'm at, letting go and just keeping it loose. I used to talk so much shit about abstract work when I was in college and now I've become an abstract artist. It's funny how it all kinda works out. Coming from that abstract framework, you can come at abstract work with more soul and structure.

What's the best way to spend 5 bucks?

Two tacos and a Tacate. Then go to the park and eat it. I'm all about having fun and not spending money. http://www.erikotto.com/

Alison Blickle @NYC's Kravets Wehby Gallery

Los Angeles based Alison Blickle who showed here in San Francisco at Eleanor Harwood last year (PHOTOS) recently showed new paintings in New York at Kravets Wehby Gallery. Lovely works.

Interview w/ Kevin Earl Taylor

We haven't been featuring many interviews as of late. Let's change that up as we check in with a few local San Francisco artists like Kevin Earl Taylor here whom we studio visited back in 2009 (PHOTOS & VIDEO). It's been awhile, Kevin...

Peter Gronquist @The Shooting Gallery

If you like guns and boobs, head on over to the Shooting Gallery; just don't expect the work to be all cheap ploys and hot chicks. With Make Stuff by Peter Gronquist (Portland) in the main space and Morgan Slade's Snake in the Eagle's Shadow in the project space, there is plenty spectacle to be had, but if you look just beyond it, you might actually get something out of the shows.

Jay Bo at Hamburg's Circle Culture

Berlin based Jay Bo recently held a solo show at Hamburg's Circle Culture featuring some of his most recent paintings. We lvoe his work.


Fifty24SF opened Street Anatomy, a new solo show by Austrian artist Nychos a week ago last Friday night. He's been steadily filling our city with murals over the last year, with one downtown on Geary St. last summer, and new ones both in the Haight and in Oakland within the last few weeks, but it was really great to see his work up close and in such detail.

Gator Skater +video

Nate Milton emailed over this great short Gator Skater which is a follow-up to his Dog Skateboard he emailed to us back in 2011... Any relation to this Gator Skater?

Ferris Plock Online Show Now Online as of April 25th

5 new wonderful large-scale paintings on wood panel are available. visit: www.ffdg.net

ClipODay II: Needles & Pens 11 Years!!

Congrats on our buddies at Needles and Pens on being open and rad for 11 years now. Mission Local did this little short video featuring Breezy giving a little heads up on what Needles and Pens is all about.


In a filmmaker's thinking, we wish more videos were done in this style. Too much editing and music with a lacking in actual content. Just because you can doesn't mean you should.

AJ Fosik in Tokyo at The Hellion Gallery

Matt Wagner recently emailed over some photos from The Hellion Gallery in Tokyo, who recently put together a show with AJ Fosik (Portland) called Beast From a Foreign Land. The gallery gave twelve of Fosik's sculptures to twelve Japanese artists (including Hiro Kurata who is currently showing in our group show Salt the Skies) to paint, burn, or build upon.

Ferris Plock - Online Show, April 25th

FFDG is pleased to announce an exclusive online show with San Francisco based Ferris Plock opening on Friday, April 25th (12pm Pacific Time) featuring 5 new medium sized acrylic paintings on wood.


Backwoods Gallery in Melbourne played host to a huge group exhibition a couple of weeks back, with "Gold Blood, Magic Weirdos" Curated by Melbourne artist Sean Morris. Gold Blood brought together 25 talented painters, illustrators and comic artists from Australia, the US, Singapore, England, France and Spain - and marked the end of the Magic Weirdos trilogy, following shows in Perth in 2012 and London in 2013.

Jeremy Fish at LA's Mark Moore Gallery

San Francisco based Fecal Pal Jeremy Fish opened his latest solo show Hunting Trophies at LA's Mark Moore Gallery last week to massive crowds and cabin walls lined with imagery pertaining to modern conquest and obsession.

John Felix Arnold III on the Road to NYC

Well, John Felix Arnold III is at it again. This time, he and Carolyn LeBourgios packed an entire show into the back of a Prius and drove across the country to install it at Superchief Gallery in NYC. I met with him last week as he told me about the trip over delicious burritos at Taqueria Cancun (which is right across the street from FFDG and serves what I think is the best burrito in the city) as the self proclaimed "Only overweight artist in the game" spilled all the details.

FRENCH in Melbourne

London based illustrator FRENCH recently held a show of new works at the Melbourne based Mild Manners

Henry Gunderson at Ever Gold, SF

Ever Gold opened a new solo show by NYC based Henry Gunderson a couple Saturday nights ago and it was literally packed. So packed I couldn't actually see most of the art - but a big crowd doesn't seem like a problem. I got a good laugh at what I would call the 'cock climbing wall' as it was one of the few pieces I could see over the crowd. I haven't gotten a chance to go back and check it all out again, but I'm definitely going to as the paintings that I could get a peek at were really high quality and intruiguing. You should do the same.

Mario Wagner @Hashimoto

Mario Wagner (Berkeley) opened his new solo show A Glow that Transfers Creativity last Saturday night at Hashimoto Contemporary in San Francisco.

Serge Gay Jr. @Spoke Art

The paintings in the show are each influenced by a musician, ranging from Freddy Mercury, to Madonna, to A Tribe Called Quest and they are so stylistically consistent with each musician's persona that they read as a cohesive body of work with incredible variation. If you told me they were each painted by a different person, I would not hesitate to believe you and it's really great to see a solo show with so much variety. The show is fun, poppy, very well done, and absolutely worth a look and maybe even a listen.

NYCHOS Mural on Ashbury and Haight

NYCHOS completed this great new mural on the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco on Tuesday. Looks Amazing.

Sun Milk in Vienna

With rising rent in SF and knowing mostly other young artists without capitol, I desired a way to live rent free, have a space to do my craft, and get to see more of the world. Inspired by the many historical artists who have longed similar longings I discovered the beauty of artist residencies. Lilo runs Adhoc Collective in Vienna which not only has a fully equipped artists creative studio, but an indoor halfpipe, and private artist quarters. It was like a modern day castle or skate cathedral. It exists in almost a utopic state, totally free to those that apply and come with a real passion for both art and skateboarding

"How To Lose Yourself Completely" by Bryan Schnelle

I just wanted to share with you a piece I recently finished which took me 4 years to complete. Titled "How To Lose Yourself Completely (The September Issue)", it consists of a copy of the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine (the issue they made the documentary about) with all faces masked with a sharpie, and everything else entirely whited out. 840 pages of fun. -Bryan Schnelle

Tyler Bewley ~ Recent Works

Some great work from San Francisco based Tyler Bewley.

Kirk Maxson and Alexis Mackenzie at Eleanor Harwood Gallery

While walking our way across San Francisco on Saturday we swung through the opening receptions for Kirk Maxson and Alexis Mackenzie at Eleanor Harwood Gallery in the Mission.

Jeremy Fish Solo Show in Los Angeles

Jeremy Fish opens Hunting Trophies tonight, Saturday April 5th, at the Los Angeles based Mark Moore Gallery. The show features new work from Fish inside the "hunting lodge" where viewers climb inside the head of the hunter and explore the history of all the animals he's killed.

The Albatross and the Shipping Container

Beautiful piece entitled "The Albatross and the Shipping Container", Ink on Paper, Mounted to Panel, 47" Diameter, by San Francisco based Martin Machado now on display at FFDG. Stop in Saturday (1-6pm) to view the group show "Salt the Skies" now running through April 19th. 2277 Mission St. at 19th.

The Marsh Barge - Traveling the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico

For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to quit my job, move out of my house, leave everything and travel again. So on August 21, 2013 I pushed a canoe packed full of gear into the headwaters of the Mississippi River in Lake Itasca, Minnesota, along with four of my best friends. Exactly 100 days later, I arrived at a marina near the Gulf of Mexico in a sailboat.