Like many artists, Louis Carreon has a colorful background—and we’re not just talking about what covers his canvases. The Los Angeles-based painter dropped out of high school at 16 to tour with the Grateful Dead and do graffiti all over the country. Dealing drugs to pay for living expenses eventually led him to federal prison. It was there that he kicked his drug and alcohol addictions and solidified his plans to become an artist. That humble dream metamorphosed into his working studio The Drip Factory, commissions as unusual as painting a private 12-seater jet for Art Basel, and garnering attention from celebrity collectors like Colin Farrell.
Though Carreon mostly shows in Europe and South America, his latest exhibition, No Unsolicited Submissions, opens May 18 at the Hamilton-Selway gallery in L.A. We asked the contemporary artist about his whirlwind trajectory to success and about his unconventional side-gig as a nightclub owner.
Crave: How did you initially get into art?
Louis Carreon: I was very “doodle-y” as a kid. In about ninth grade, I was introduced to graffiti by a street cat I used to meet at the beach. I was engulfed in the codes and the way they were writing on poles and everyone had their own name and it was like an art gang. At this young, impressionable age, I wanted to be in this art gang. They gave me a graffiti name. I started learning how to write it. Then I got addicted to art. It took over my whole life. I became one of the biggest graffiti artists around my community. It took a long time, but I got the respect from the peers. I still do it, but it’s different now.
You did time in federal prison for a drug-related crimes. Tell us about that.
I was hustling the wrong products. As a young cat, I was living in cars, doing graffiti all over the United States, and seeing the Grateful Dead play, which is a very drug-influenced band. They wouldn’t say that, but the culture is. I was selling weed, mushrooms, things of that nature, to get hotels and see the next concert. Unfortunately, I got addicted to drugs and the lifestyle.
Later in life, I was an alcoholic and a drug addict. I introduced two wrong people and got a conspiracy charge and went to prison for a little under two years for distribution of drugs. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. It cleaned me up. I learned about respect, value, self-love. Prison actually saved my life. It was a blessing in disguise.
How did prison change the aesthetic of your art?
In prison, you don’t get to use paints, so there’s a lot of pen time. I was drawing in sketchbooks every day, learning different penmanship and fonts and reading about art. The whole time I was in prison, I was doodling, but on a different scale. I was plotting my road map as I watched some street artists gain a little bit of gravity at that time.
My forte, graffiti and street art, just got famous in the last eight years. Before that, it was ninja silent codes. Street artists weren’t cool. Graffiti wasn’t cool. It wasn’t something you could tell your parents or your girlfriend. Nobody was proud to be a graffiti artist except graffiti artists. Now brands want to pay you to paint on their tennis shoes.
Does the process of creating feel different now that you’re clean and sober?
I often ask myself: If I was still using, would my stuff flow more? Or would it be darker? Would I say what I really want to say? I think the process is all the same. I have struggled with that but I have so many places to pull from that I’m able to go there if I need to feel blue. I have certain trigger songs and things to make me inspired to paint.
Painting was always an outlet for me, and I only painted when I was in a dark place—which was a lot, because I was a drug addict. Now, I have to say my life is pretty amazing and blessed and I’m very fortunate. Some days I don’t want to paint; the sun is out and it’s beautiful and I just don’t want to. But it’s a job now. The process is still reaching deep within and finding it. Some days it doesn’t come, some days it does. I roll with those punches. I’m lucky to be able to do what I do.
What is the theme of No Unsolicited Submissions?
The last five years I’ve been on the rise in this contemporary world of elitists. There are a lot of doors that get shut on artists like myself or that you can’t penetrate in this world of decision-makers. Any time you send an email to a gallery or a museum, you get a bounce-back email that says, “No unsolicited submissions.” So I’m using that as the fuel for the show because that’s what’s been thrown in my face for a long time.
I did [a remake of] The Last Supper, called The Trap Supper, depicting black Jesus and the narrative of how hip-hop is raising our youth. Most girls and guys, they can’t even stitch you a verse out of the Old Testament, but they can tell you every lyric of a Kanye West song. I’m also doing big ballerinas, a nine-foot one. One is a spin-off of dancing in Hollywood and how everyone comes to Hollywood, dreams of their future, and ends up not being able to attain their ultimate dream — acting, modeling, the limelight — and then they fall victim to their own insecurities and then move back to their hometown with alcohol problems and drug problems. Hollywood can really eat you up. It did me.
You’re also a co-owner of two nightclubs. Why did you want to be involved in those?
Nightclubs weren’t a thing that I ever thought I’d be in. When I got out of prison, I didn’t have many options. When you come from that life, and you get out of prison, you have to take a normal job. A lot of my friends owned clubs at that time, so I started working in clubs. The entrepreneur and hustler that I am, I saw a lot of opportunity. I saw the people who owned the clubs and I looked at the cars that they were driving and the lifestyle that they were living and I ended up saying, “I know I can sit in that seat. I’m able to facilitate a lot of the things that they’re facilitating.” So I raised the money and opened my own club. Now I’m part of a group called The H. Wood Group and I own a piece of Bootsy Bellows and a new club opening called Poppy.
It was my job and now art is my job. I don’t know how I’m going to marry those two. I think the next thing for me is hotels. I’ve never really voiced that to anybody, but, yeah, in the next couple years I’m going to start doing my own hotels. With hotels, you can use more design. It’s more art-based than nightclubs. It’s fun.
I love what I do. I love freedom and I love painting. I’m very blessed and very lucky to have carved out a little niche.