Graffiti wrapped trains transported a small window into urban culture as they navigated through a modest agricultural town in New Mexico. These encounters at the railroad crossings sparked a young Drew Merritt's drive to emulate the images that flashed in his memory. He grew to respect those graffiti styles but found his own voice within his art to what we now see today.
Drew and I met by chance in Seattle when I was meeting with one of Treason Gallery owners, Dominic Nieri, in Seattle. High up on a ladder working on a mural with white painters pants he looked down and smiled. Right of the bat he was very personable and that energy carries into his work. Each piece, whether it be a huge mural or studio painting, has a very personal story full of empathy. His paintings are incredibly refined and figurative causing the viewer to be in awe with both craft and the search for meaning.
How'd you first get into art?
It's just something that I've always kind of done. As cliche and boring as that sounds, I mean everyone [jokes] " I was born with a crayon in my hand" you know whatever it is. But yeah it's just something I've always kind of done. It just kind of evolved.
How old were you when you started doing graffiti?
I was probably 11 or 12.
And you just left the house and hit walls?
It was a little bit different for me because I grew up on a farm and ranch. So we were like 15 miles from any town. So it was just different. There was one road going in and out of the ranch and there were train tracks going across it. So when we were going out or in we would be stopped by a train and there was just graffiti... graffiti.... graffiti... going by. So I have a different perspective of it.
That's a pretty dope way to be introduced to it.
Yeah it was really weird because there was like horses, cattle, very middle of nowhere then graffiti. Because in my hometown there wasn't very much aside from the farming community so it was like farms, ranches and the Santa Fe railroad.
So is that what inspired you when you were younger, did you have any other influences?
Yeah also we didn't ever have the internet it was really middle of nowhere nothing. So I would try to impersonate and emulate what I saw just pass and when it was gone I would try to go home and draw stuff. I was a comic book nerd and was like trying to remember graffiti with comic books. That's where my figurative work kind of came from. Like when I was a kid I kind of got years and years of figure drawing classes without ever going to one.
So would you just sit across from the tracks and wait for [the trains]?
Yeah and then it got to the point to where I was just sitting there waiting for them to stop so I can ride on them. So that was when I was young which is kind of different. And then I just kind of kept evolving when I got older. I was always around [graffiti] and always kind of did it but I was never really good at traditional graffiti. I was always just bad. It was different since it was not really your culture like New York has hand styles and LA had gang culture hand style influences and New Mexico had that but I didn't really connect with that or relate to it because I was a farm kid. So what I was trying to do is completely different than whatever then I just realized I had really bad hand style so then I just started just using my own hand writing. Now people are like "Oh that's so cool!" it's like I could've done that from the start [laughs]. If I would have done that from the start it could have made things way easier instead of trying to be something else. It's just being real.
How would you describe your art?
Whenever people ask me that I guess I have a hard time describing it because...how do I put that into words? I feel like if you can describe your work, like if you can actually articulate what you do then you're not pushing enough boundaries. So every time I feel like I start falling into a category I try to go outside a little bit or push another direction because if I can describe what I'm doing and put it into words then I'm just doing something someone else is doing that falls into categorization.
How would you compare your street to your studio work?
The studio work keeps getting more and more tight. Like more refined and tighter. With more success comes the ability to buy better materials and really refine things and take my time with stuff. It's really strange coming back to walls where it's a little bit looser. It's more raw instead of taking 6 months on a painting. Instead it's like here you have a day, 2 days, or 3 days. So it's interesting to see where both will go but right now they're getting pretty close to the same. For a long time they were really different. The studio work was like oil paintings that were really refined and the other stuff I was doing on walls were completely different and now it's just kind of evolving and going back to that just being real to yourself. And it's kind of merging. When you look at a canvas piece it's like oh cool and you look at a wall piece and it's just bigger basically.
So is that your goal as an artist to have your studio and street work be the same?
Since I'm kind of better friends with myself and I know myself better it all kind of merges. If I'm being real to myself and honest to my work there shouldn't be two different me's because the medium changes or setting changes. It should all be very much the same. If I was trying to be something else and write traditional graffiti and my studio was all figurative and people then it's kind of two separate things. It's still fun to write graffiti every once in a while just for fun. My work now is mainly about what I want to say about society or viewpoints and that makes the work come together.
Do you have common themes running through your work or does it constantly change?
Yeah every painting kind of has its own meaning. With the studio work it's really easy to push boundaries and say exactly what I'm thinking in terms of vision but whenever it comes to public stuff like walls things change a little bit. It has to be public friendly like kids are going to be walking by so I can't just paint really morbid, grotesque stuff on a wall. You kind of have to be a little more under the radar or subtle with stuff.
Do you feel more restricted to voice certain opinions in that case?
Not restricted, it's just being aware of how people will view a thing and if they're going to view them differently. Like right before you stopped by. This person stopped by, [they] were first generation, El Salvadorian immigrant, transgender and it was a really strange conversation. They walked up and it's the first work they've ever seen of me and it was like "white girl on a wall". They said "It would mean a lot to me to - like you know not a critique- but if you can just paint somebody besides white." Okay noted but I was just in Israel and I painted my black friend there and before a Hispanic girl on another place. It's not a race thing it's who fits what I want to say at that time.
So that was kind of interesting to see a small reaction to one piece that they saw. So it is very important to keeps things in mind with walls.
I had a similar problem in Atlanta. So I painted this black neighborhood and this guy walked by from the neighborhood and he was gnarly. His eyes were going two different ways and I asked are you from here and we had this really cool conversation. And at the end of the conversation, because he was having health problems, he was like yeah thank you so much, because I asked if I can paint him. He said thank you so much for painting me on the wall I'll tell God you said hello. I was like oh that so heavy! He's gonna die. I was half way done painting him and the building owners came by. They were like "Can you not paint dude we were thinking something else". I mean it's your building I understand I guess. So I sent them a few different mock ups because it messed with my head. So I sent them a few different mock- ups of a blonde girl, brunette girl, Hispanic girl. They picked the Hispanic girl because you couldn't really tell the ethnicity. It just really messed with my head because they took dude down that was from the neighborhood who was black and then they replaced it with something ethnically neutral.
Pretty girl whatever. That's gentrification at its finest. It wouldn't have really bothered me because I get it maybe they don't want crazy dude with two different eyes with missing teeth on their wall. It just really messed with me because the last thing [the owners] said was "Yeah that would attract the right kind of people". So I was like oh it's on. Oh and I just found out they put a sign over my signature so next time I'm in Atlanta I'm going to bomb their wall.
The public mural game is so strict. I love working with Treason gallery because they're like do whatever you want. No restrictions no boxes.
Oh before I forget, going back to the other thing I did an oil painting of that dude and I turned him into t-shirts, stickers. I'm like he's going everywhere now. It lit a fire in me. Dude told me he's going to tell God hello for me, he's going everywhere.
People don't really realize how personal some work is to some people. A lot of people make their art and it's fun for them but it's not an actual extension of them. Like Jackson Pollock is a really good example. He just splattered paint on a canvas but that dude was a train wreck and you look at his work and it's like yeah that's pretty much him.
Most of my stuff kind of touches on empathy for other people, society view, social issues. A lot of it is very personal, relationship stuff. It all has it's own narrative.