Tanner Goldbeck has done graphic design work for the likes of Powell Peralta, Bones Brigade Skateboards, and Jesse James from West Coast Choppers. He grew up in Baltimore County, Maryland, forty minutes north of Baltimore city, out in the country. Nothing but corn and cow fields occupy the land where he grew up. He was an Irish kid adopted into a German Catholic family with a Jewish last name and an adopted Korean sister, as well as two adopted cousin. No one in his family was genetically tied to their of his relatives. His first mentor in the arts was his maternal grandfather, who was a Navy welder with a nuclear license and not only did he teach him how to draw ships, he also taught him how to wield iconic Navy phrases, “Shit on a shingle,” when referring to chipped beef toast.
One day while he was walking to school in his senior year of high school, just days before graduation, a car hit Goldbeck 40 mph. He was airlifted by helicopter to the shock trauma unit. As a result, he suffered short-term memory loss, with his head having gone through the cars windshield and his body took the door frame off the car. The impact dented the cars bumper and buckled its hood and Goldbeck suffered brain hemorrhages, and was paralyzed for a few days. Miraculously, he made a full recovery.
Fast-forward to his twentieth high school reunion, where Goldbeck recalls his former classmates remembering, ‘shit, I thought you were dead!’ He replied, ‘I’m back from the dead,’ and told me, ‘I died when I was eighteen and came back later. I didn’t think anything of it, until the twenty-fifth anniversary. When I got out of all that, I was so fucking happy to be alive. Our (high) school was like a ‘future farmers of America.’ It was as about as far away from the city as you can get, but I went. I didn’t know anything about art school but I had one teacher that told me about college. So I went (to) Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. I knew nothing about living in the city, or Baltimore in the late eighties, it was pretty rough. I lived kind of on the edge of the projects. Lots of drugs, not gangs but a lot of drugs and just crazy violence. I went from the country to that, going to art school. So you learn a lot, real quick. I graduated with a Bachelors of Fine Art.” I had many questions for this miraculous survivor.
DB: How did working with Powell Peralta come about?
TG: I answered an ad in Transworld Skate Magazine and it was for Powell Peralta. Then it became Powell Skate One, but Powel was looking for artists; there was one page in Transworld that said, “Are you an artist? Looking for an artist, send four samples of your work” in a brief paragraph, and I was thinking, “I’m going to live in New Jersey, I’m going to work in New York.” I thought I was going to be in the society of illustrators, and I was focusing on being in New York, but I sent them four samples; four color copies with a paragraph. It just said, “this is what I do, If you want to see more, give me a call.” I didn’t even date it. I didn’t think anything was going to happen, and about a month later, I got a voice message from George Powell. Growing up skateboarding, I was tripping out. That was kind of a fan boy thing for a minute. I couldn’t believe George Powell called me! So I called him back and talked to him for like an hour and he’s like what do you think? I thought, “Do you think about what? I think I live in New Jersey you know your out in fucking California.” So Powell said, we’ll fly you out. So they fucking flew me to California.
DB: What brought you to seedy downtown LA?
TG: I had this really good job working in Santa Barbara, working for the Powell Peralta Skateboard Company, but the art scene in Santa Barbara kind of… like a bubble. It’s very touristy. I was with a group of friends that I met up there. We were doing our own art shows; we were putting on these events, but we weren’t getting a lot of people. We had our group of people showing up. It wasn’t really going anywhere. So a couple of us decided that, if we were going to be artists, we would have to go to LA. We came down here because there wasn’t anything up down here. It was pretty empty at the time. Fifteen years ago. First, my other friend came down here. Then I moved down here. I thought I was going to be a painter right off the bat. Screw working for corporate shit. I thought, I’m just going to be a painter. I’m not going to have any more bosses, but turns out I needed to pay rent. So, about three months of being down here, I got a call from a friend down in Long Beach, and she was a photographer for Jesse James of the West Coast Choppers and their artist… just quit. I didn’t have a job. She knew I was down here, so she called and I ended up working for Jesse James for like two and a half years in Long Beach. Everyday (I) was driving to Long Beach, but it was cool. That was a whole another crazy universe of chaos.
DB: What was that scene like? What was the energy like there?
TG: I didn’t know he was married to Sandra Bullock. I had no clue. I didn’t know. So when I went to my job interview, it was on a Saturday. West Choppers… It was like a compound. There were a couple of buildings, but it was all gated. I knocked on the first gate, and he knew I was coming. Sandra Bullock answers the door, which if your already nervous about a job interview, and someone famous… I don’t know a lot of famous people, but I recognized her. My job interview was with Sandra Bullocks and Jesse James. I was pretty fucking nervous about that but it went well. We just hung out and talked. That was probably the craziest place I ever worked. It was kind of chaotic. It was a warehouse full of super expensive high-end cars, bikes, and choppers, and people were always filming. There were always people with big cameras rolling around. People would come in, like movie star people would come in with their entourage. It was kind of comedic. These people were building bikes for super wealthy people. It was Hollyweird.
DB: How has Los Angeles influenced your art?
TG: There’s a lot of history that I didn’t know about when I moved here. The art history, the kind of art history I learned, was very East Coast, very New York. It was pretty much geared to New York and Europe. At least, I’ve never heard much about LA at all. I didn’t even know Andy Warhol had his first soup can showing here; it wasn’t in New York. I thought everything was in New York. It turns out a lot of people who were in New York came to LA for a period of time, at least in the art universe. So I learned a lot more about art history. I met up with Gronk Nicandro (whose house we’re in right now,) through him, his whole Chicano history of all things Latino in LA History of LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Art) being around him. His way of painting is a lot more loose, and lot more conceptual and free form, it made me loosen up a little bit. My technical stuff has always been really… especially with the commercial work, really clean lines, very specific. Everything has to be sharp and crisp, and now a lot of my work is starting to get loose. The drawing loosens up a lot, you’ve seen in some of the photos, the people that I’ve created, a series of people that I’m working on right now. I really want to connect to the texture of what’s going on in Downtown LA, the streets. Being now here for fifteen years, I’ve gotten to see the way it was when I got here, which is the tail end of how crazy it use to be and watching it transition. You feel like a grumpy old man. You feel the connection to how things use to be, I can document that a little bit. Just photography and even the drawing and painting the textures of the way things were; the walls, the graffiti. Like graffiti is a big part downtown. Anywhere graffiti happens, guys come out and tag a wall and then the owner patch’s the wall, but as soon as the wall is patched, the color never matches the color that was. Originally painted. It’s this kind of back and forth dialogue between the street guys and the owners and property managers. It’s constantly like putting up things, pasting over them and tagging and buffing. When your downtown LA, there’s a history to that you know. You meet a lot of the old graph guys. Like they all know who did what, where, when, why. There’s a lot of stuff. If you’re really going to get into it, you got to know all these people, and there not exactly like going to cozy up to you the first time you meet them. Nine times out of ten, it’s going to take awhile. You get to meet them along the way. It takes a long time I think, so that’s definitely influenced the way I do things. Doing things on walls it’s very fast. It’s temporary; the high-end word is ephemeral. It’s temporary, but it’s true. It’s kind of the opposite of the gallery world. LA is very much controlled by the academics of the art world: who gets where and what, galleries, museums. So the street art is something they can’t control, they can select people to be put into their group, but it’s very hard for them to control and kind of a battle between the two in away, validation, accreditation those two things are always bumping heads. It’s going to be in the middle of it. I have one foot on both sides hopefully. I’m not an academic. I don’t have my MFA. I didn’t get it in Los Angeles, so I’m not part of that crowd. I kind of understand a little bit.
“The thing about LA is there’s more room in the middle, like New York.”
DB: So they don’t recognize your work because you don’t have your MFA?
TG: There’s definitely a hierarchy, sure. You go to school with certain people, you have certain professors; they can put you in certain places. You can get into this “gallery,” higher end situation museums, you can be selected; it’s definitely a chain of command. How you work your way into that network. You don’t have to do it that way. You can be your own person. Do things on the street level. There are street artists that have gotten important enough that have actually transitioned over because everyone wants to work with them. There’s no specific way to do it. There are street gangs. The academics; the “Jets vs. the Sharks;” “Westside Story.” The thing about LA is there’s more room in the middle, like New York. When I was in New Jersey, I was trying to figure out if I was going to be an artist in New York. I didn’t find a lot of opportunities to be a little fish, you know. You either sit on the roof looking down at everyone or your not in Manhattan, you’re running around the burrows somewhere doing something. I think in LA, its bigger it’s wider, there’s more spaces in the middle. Yeah, still trying to figure it out.
DB: What do you believe distinguishes your art?
TG: I think a lot of what I do. What I consider important is learning how to… things like learning how to paint very technical, very… don’t want to say formal. Originally when I was younger since my parents weren’t artists. I didn’t know you could be a conceptual artist. I didn’t understand that like if you could see a tree, paint a tree, you were a good artist. If you could see a sunset, paint a sunset. “Oh my God, you’re a great artist!” My parents put it on the refrigerator. “Yay, you’re a great artist!” So I didn’t know about conceptual art. I spent half my life learning technical stuff but it wasn’t satisfying. I didn’t quite know that at the time. I just thought I got to get better at it. Once I get better at it, I’ll feel more satisfied. It never caught on. So when I moved here… I just got more conceptual. And that’s what distinguishes my work. A lot of the line art I’ve spent thirty years developing. Other people don’t have to see it, but it’s very distinct my drawing style with the clean lines, smooth shapes. All of that stuff; it’s almost very commercial. I guess there’s a style to it but now I’m breaking that down. It’s like schizophrenia. I want to be sharp and crazy perfect and precise but I want to get all crazy, wild and loose and fuck shit up. You know? That’s why we drink beer. The more you drink the looser you get. It’s all-good.
DB: Do you consider yourself a street artist?
TG: Yeah I do, but not at first. I consider myself a painter. First and foremost I’m a painter. If I take ‘The People’ (his street project) they go out on the street. Then it becomes street art. I paint them in the studio. I kind of wrapped my head around being a painter. If it happens on the street, cool and if happens in the studio, cool. I’m not a street artist because I grew up without the streets in my life. I would never come to LA and say, “I’m a graff guy,” I’m a street guy because I’m a transplant. I’m a poser, this guy shows up from fuckin’ Baltimore. All of sudden he’s a graff guy. Nobody hates when somebody comes in and pisses on your wall and acts like he knows everything, like all the other dudes. They’ll probably kick your ass. So anytime I get a chance to paint a wall, I love it. Someone says, “Hey come paint a wall,” I’m on it; I’m there like the Container Yard (a creative compound in downtown Los Angeles, https://thecontaineryard.com) That guy Ash, he’s let me paint there a couple of times. It’s awesome. I love doing it but I haven’t done it enough. I haven’t done it enough to really call myself a “street artist.” I think my little people that I’m taking around streets are more, “me,” that’s very “me.” That’s me doing my little street murals and they’re portable. They’re on a personal level. There’s this whole theory behind it.
DB: Tell me about that. So the “Street People,” where did you come up with that idea of the “Street People?”
TG: The idea? In my old studio, I couldn’t get a four by eight sheet of plywood in the elevator; I had to cut a foot of it off. You don’t want to carry a sheet of plywood fucking ten flights of stairs. That’s not cool. So I had one foot cut off every piece. I had like a stack of these one by four pieces of wood. The idea was totally random; it was innocuous. I had these spare pieces of wood one day. I was going to frame a piece, but I left these two long pieces… it kind of looks like a person. So I painted it and just stuck it in my studio and the more I thought about it… “Yeah, it kind of does look like a person…” and then I made four, five more and I had all the people in my studio. Okay, now what do I do with these things? …And then I started thinking about… At the same time, I was trying to figure out how I can relay my work to the street art stuff without… I’m not a graffiti guy. I’m not going to run around hopping and painting trains, I’m too old. I’m not going to try to muscle my way any kind of area, where someone’s going to kick my ass. I don’t have a name that I tag everywhere. I don’t have any of that experience, but I do live down here. Now I have fifteen years of time down here, I think that’s enough experience to be able to navigate. What I see downtown with the people. The older, the rougher people, the more they mimic the texture downtown you know; the street guy, the old men that have been here forever. The old Korean guys, the old Latino guys’ their textures kind of reflect the walls in the streets. You know, you see them on Broadway in front of the jewelry store and that’s all going away. They had this thing in downtown called “bring back Broadway” and the funny part about it is, Broadway never went anywhere. It was ‘bringing white people back to Broadway’ basically what they should of said, which is weird for a white guy saying that but it’s true. There’s always been families down here. Broadway’s always been shopping day, but those people don’t count in the eyes of bigger Los Angeles network, the city people. They want tourism. They want wealthier people. The new buildings; they want young people, hip people. They want people that can pay thirty five hundred a month for rent. In downtown you get a blending of all kinds of people. You get the jerkoff in there brand new Lamborghinis that are twenty nothing years old. You got the street guys. You got the city officials. A lot of city guys work down here like the Department of Justice, DOJ; all the lawyers and stuff, they’re always down here. So on the streets they’re always blending… and people are always judging too. There’s obviously a lot of drama with what’s going on with the wall. On the east coast, everyone calls anyone south of the US. “Mexicans,” because they don’t know. They don’t know anything, about anything, except what they’re on TV, right? I wanted to create these people that don’t have any specifics. They’re not one race or another. You can’t judge them on anything specific because they don’t have any specific characteristics; like the Los Angeles Lakers. I did that just because they’re Lakers fans. They could be anybody. I want other people to have to figure what the story is. What are these people doing? It’s cool when I don’t tell them to do that. They start to try to Who figure out what’s up with these people. Who knows where it will go from there. That’s my connection to Los Angeles. I want to capture that if I can somehow. A lot of the ones that I’ve taken with the people, they’re in spots that are already gone. I take them around and put them up on the walls. I shot photos of them and not thinking two years later. That whole place has been torn down. Just down the corner I did one with some checker, checkerboard floor, it was an old taqueria, you know. They ripped it all down but left the floor and I painted it. I painted the guy and dropped him in there and three days after I shot the photo they tore it all up and there’s a high rise there now. It’s just a little moment in time.
As someone that was born and raised in LA, I consider Goldbeck one of us now: a true Angelino not by birth, but heart.
Getting to spend some time with Goldbeck and seeing his work in person, there is nothing pretentious or fake about the artist. He’s passionate and humble with remarkable talent. As someone that was born and raised in LA, I consider Goldbeck one of us now: a true Angelino not by birth, but heart. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever come across in the art world. “LA is very much controlled by the academic art world but the street art is something they can’t control, he said. In many ways, the streets are the Community’s galleries, and Goldbeck has one foot in both worlds.
You can visit more of Tanner Goldbeck’s work at https://www.tannergoldbeck.com/