One thing I absolutely love about social media is connecting with really awesome people all over. I stumbled upon Tristan’s Instagram page a few years ago, thought his graphic design artwork was unique, and clicked the follow button. I’ve seen him go from just making cartoons of people for their social media avatars, to custom phone cases for celebrities, and now he is developing a few cartoon shows. During my trip to NY, we met up in Time’s Square to grab a bite to eat and discuss the growth of his career over the years. While shy in front of a camera, he was very open and forward with what he shared with me, including his struggles out of high school to find a job and the lack of a great support system. Using what most would consider a set back, Tristan taught himself all he needed to know to get his business (Tristan Art) off the ground and can’t imagine himself not doing what he loves; proof that if you want something you make it happen!
Did you always draw? I did in high school. After high school I quit all the drawing because it wasn’t going anywhere. I was couch surfing. [Have] you ever seen that movie Half Baked where they have that guy on the couch? I was that guy for real, playing video games all day, not doing anything. I’ve always had a passion for cartoons and I tried to get a job at Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, but it always went back to [not having a] college [education].
You didn’t go to college? Go to college for 4 years, work a 9 to 5 for 30 years, you know… that ain’t life. Not for me anyways. I didn’t go to college. That wasn’t in the plan. I wouldn’t have applied myself in college. It would have been a lot of sports and girl chasing. Girl chasing, partying, and sports! I had an offer to play soccer in college but I turned it down. It would have just been a waste of time. That degree doesn’t guarantee you’re gonna come up in that field. Think about how many times people change majors. That’s why people get fed up and start to become entrepreneurs. “Man, I wasted 4 years of my life, I’m 100 thousand dollars in debt, maybe more.” You know, I’m not in debt with anyone! I’m not saying college isn’t important because that would be the wrong message. I’m just saying in my life, it didn’t hold any value.
So what did you do after the couch surfing? I worked in 2 different plants. I worked a day shift [at one] and I worked night shifts [at the other]. One was a manufacturing plant for fabrics and the another one, I was on the assembly line swiping vitamin packs into boxes. I was like, nah, I’m not doing this for my whole life. [Then] I jumped into party promotion. That taught me a lot about business believe it or not. There’s a lot of shady stuff in party promotion. Stopped that after a year. I tried to get a lot of odd jobs. I probably filled out 50-60 applications and didn’t get call back from any of them. They were building a new grocery store up the street from where I was living in Baltimore, and I was like “okay, I know I can get a job as a bag boy or something.” I filled out an application and they never called me. I went to the grocery store one day and looked at some of the people that they did hire, and I’m like “are you for real? It’s time to get off my ass and put something into motion!” [That’s how I] started making cartoons really.
How did you get into creating art for phone cases? The idea actually was inspired here [in NY]. People were paying me just to do their avi; just a regular display picture. I was with my brother Jay and my cousin Greg and we were riding around Manhattan. I knew people just weren’t gonna pay me for their avi anymore. That was gonna die. I needed do something else; shake it up. There was a blank case in the cup holder. Jay was just taping on the blank case. He said “you ought to put your work on this.” I said, “that’s a good idea.” We were on vacation but I left. I left vacation instantly. I went back to Baltimore. I looked up what the necessary tools to get cases off the ground. At that time, from doing avis, I might of have had 250 bucks. I didn’t even have a bank account at the time… or a cellphone. I spent the $250 and I found a couple girls who had already followed me [on IG] and had a large following. I said, “let me send you a case.” I basically used that $250 as marketing expenses. I let them promo my stuff and the rest is kinda history with that!
Social media really aids with marketing and connections! I was getting a pizza and a couple girls walked in [the pizza parlor]. They were like “you make cases, don’t you? We follow you on IG!” That was a surreal moment. That’s why there’s not a million pictures of me on IG. You have to scroll a long time to see pictures of me. It should be a platform for you to show that you have talent. There was a girl I knew who followed me. A guy she was dating was in Nicki Minaj‘s entourage. She showed him my work, he showed Nicki, and she said “that’s dope, I want something like that.” I did the cases and got it back to them. I got to send it to her, put a personal note. And LeBron [James]! Same thing. I did a case for a lady. Her son at the time played little league basketball and she posted a picture of her son’s little league team. I was like, that looks like LeBron’s son. It was about 3 months that went by and one day I get an email out the blue [from that lady] that Savannah (LeBron’s wife) saw my cases and LeBron wanted one. He’s signed with Samsung and he has an iPhone, too, so I did both of those cases. Then Skylar Diggins… I did a couple cases for the Notre Dame [basketball] girls. I did a case for Kim [Kardashian], too. I have a good resume as far as that goes.
Tell me the process of making your cases. I skip the pen. All computer. I use a couple different programs. People think I add some sort of effects. No, its not picture editing. It’s building cartoons. Everything is drawn, even the background. I’ll let the cat out the bag. For the people who want to get into this kind of stuff, I recommend something like ToonBoom. It’s like a $1600 program. You have to be serious if you want to do this kind of stuff. It’s a good investment. I already have my stock of blank cases: Galaxy, tablets, iPhone, all Apple products. If you’re familiar with a heat press (like how you press on shirts) I have a special machine that you put the cases in and press it down. I definitely did the proper research to get the machine. It only takes about 8 seconds to make each case. It’s very difficult when you do it by your self.
So it’s just you? No team? It’s just me right now. Of course, there are people in my circle like brothers or close friends. I value their opinion, but at the end of the day it all weighs on what I want to do. I definitely take their opinion into consideration when doing things. I partnered with a company on the [World Series] baseballs, that wasn’t me. They brought that to my attention.
Your business is more than just cases now. I [make] shirts. I’ve done headphones. Just did the baseballs, game 3, 4, and 5. Anything artisiticly that I feel I can put my stamp on, I’ll design it. You know, little illustrations for programs, sporting events, and stuff like that.
And now cartoon animations, too. I’m working on 3 cartoons now. I have Tristan’s World, Tyler’s Adventures, and The Fridge. The Fridge is gonna be the funniest one. I’m claiming it now. I didn’t get the plot from Toy Story, but I got the whole… like how when ever Andy came around the toys, they were lifeless. That’s how it is with The Fridge. Basically whenever anyone opens the door, they’re lifeless but when you close the fridge, it’s a colony, a whole city. You get to see what goes on in the fridge… it’s like the orange juice character is named OJ. It’s not like it hasn’t been created. But that’s what I’m doing for The Fridge.
I got class clown in my 5th grade graduation. I got class clown senior [year]. I used to make prank call CDs in high school. All kinds of dumb stuff. I just like making people laugh. With Tristan’s World, I’m actually gonna do an episode where I get to tell my [junior] prom story because people think it’s made up. I got a tux. I’m supposed to drive my brother’s car so I washed the car up. I go to my mother’s house so I can get money for a hair cut. She told me just wash it and make it curly which was some straight savage s**t. My dad calls me and says “bring the car back, you’re not driving this car, you’re not on the insurance.” So I have to take my brother’s car back and use my mom’s car. I drive to my date’s house to pick her up. She comes to the door and she’s in a bathrobe and shower cap and was like, “what you doing here?” I was like, “what do you mean what I’m doing here? You said you were going to the prom with me.” She was like, “I was just joking.” It’s funny now, but at the time it hurt. I was looking like the world had ended. I ended up going to the prom by myself sitting down the whole time… didn’t really dance. It’s definitely gonna be in the cartoon. I’m going to find ways to make it more exaggerated and make it even funnier that what it was. The same girl that did that too me follows me on IG today. That’s a real life story.
She said she was just joking?! All that fairytale dream s**t you see in the movies… that’s not this guy. She gave it to me real. Like, that was gangster! The only thing she could have done worse was if she was walking out with another date when I showed up.
Did you ever think you would be doing what you love? I thought I’d be playing soccer in the MLS or work entertainment field because I like making people laugh. Crazy, cause the same girl who did the whole prom thing commented in my yearbook “in a few years, I’m gonna see your name in lights.” I don’t know if she had a bad day [the day of prom], but I’m gonna stick it to her one day. I’m still nice to her… but when I get a chance I’m gonna really stick it to her (laughs). I definitely want be top of the animation field. I’ve had a girl ask me if I was going to get a real job. I told her, “is money real?” I don’t know what that means. My [work] is registered. It’s an LLC. It’s a real business. I have the seal and everything. It doesn’t offend me though. They’re probably gonna be working their whole life making somebody else rich. I’m working to make me rich.
Did you have support to do your passion? I was talking to a girl the other day and she said her job sucks. I said, “why don’t you start your own business?” She said, “oh, I’m not creative.” I said, “part of being creative is finding your passion.” My parents grew up in the 60’s/70’s… they’re stuck on that graduate-and-work-for-30-years. When I used to have soccer games, I used to win all these awards. [My parents] never came to my games. I lost [money during my time as a promoter] and I had to go back home. My mother never once asked “what do we need to do to get you out of this.” I cant imagine having a son sitting in the house and not saying “alright man, you’ve been in the house for 2 weeks straight, you haven’t even been out, not eating. What do we need to do to get you back out in life? What do you need? I don’t like seeing you like this.” She watched me struggle and now [that my art is succeeding] it’s ok to cheer me on?
I had been doing Tristan Art for 6/7 months and my little brother called me one day. He said my father was talking to someone on the phone and going through all the siblings, bragging about their jobs. [And when he got to me,] “oh yea, there’s Tristan.” I told my little brother “you know what? My goal is to let him know exactly what I do.” How can you just brag on everyone and then be like, “oh yea, that’s just Tristan?” That didn’t get me sad, it added fuel to me! He didn’t really understand it until people at his job starting telling him about me. Now he wants to brag? Well, too late. The bandwagon pulled away, it ain’t coming back. [My parents] will embrace it when it’s convenient for them. My dad’s barber will how I’m doing and he’ll be like “oh, hes doing real good. He moved up to NY” and such and such. But he’ll probably go months without calling me. That’s probably why I am the way I am now though, so I appreciate them for that. It made me figure everything out on my own. If they aren’t going to help me, who is? It’s definitely real. I didn’t grow up with a business plan for when I got out of high school and I’m not some spoiled brat out here just spending money. Nah, I really grinded for everything. Even when I get to the next level, the grind don’t stop.
If you couldn’t do cartoons anymore, what would you want to do? I was talking about that yesterday. I wouldn’t know what to do. I’d be lost if it’s not somewhere in the art field or entertainment. Maybe model management? If I’m not helping myself, I wanna help somebody else.