Erik Otto
The High Note | Artist Interview
By Rachel Cassandra
Published Apr 2016
A vicious smell permeated Erik Otto’s art studio, one of several makeshift rooms on the second floor of a large warehouse in San Francisco’s Mission district. Erik said it was the “stops you in your breath, hit-the-back-of-your-throat style” bad. Bob has been living in the place for 35 years since it stopped being a distribution company where he worked as their fix-it guy and has the keys to every room. So, together they unlocked every door till they opened the latch of the small room next to the freight elevator. There was a dead someone, the back of his head exploded, his body halfway to decomposition. The construction contractor who’d been renting that office, not the dead body according to Erik was “kind of a shady dude” who rocked matching velour jumpsuits and drove a Lincoln Navigator with black tinted-out windows and 20-inch rims. Everyone renting in the space had different ideas and conspiracy theories about the body and they traded speculations while the forensic team worked to discover the cause of death. It’s been four years since the dead body was found on the first floor of Erik’s studio building. His studio is a small area parceled off from the wood shop. Erik wears thick-rimmed glasses and dresses in all black, with surprisingly clean black sneakers, considering that his main occupation requires him to spray paint and cut wood. He wears a billed hat, which he removes every once in a while to brush his hand over his hair. His words motor fast, winding circuitous stories that end with him trailing off and sipping his beer. This is Erik’s fifth studio. The first was half of his parents’ garage on the border of Milpitas and San Jose, near where the bay turns into marsh. “My parents didn’t quite understand me,” says Erik, “But I always needed to tinker, like make and paint.” He had room to, for example, see what happens when you stick an eggbeater in paint and crank it. (The answer is that it gets as much on you as on the canvas.) At one point the whole back wall was stacked with empty oil drums Erik had collected, mostly from abandoned industrial areas. Erik describes himself as overly optimistic. Whenever his parents asked him how he would survive as an artist, he told them it would just work out. After graduating from his illustration program at San Jose State, which gave him an award for innovation, aka “disruption,” he moved to San Francisco and gave up the suburban spaciousness for a tiny studio. He put fake wood linoleum over the hardwood floor to protect it and masked the white walls with drop cloths. His living and sleeping needs were beside the point. “My first pieces of furniture were a lawn chair and a sleeping bag,” he says, “and I did that for, like, six months.” Soon he wanted a separate space for work, so found studio number three in the Mission district of San Francisco, at 17th and Capp—a place where you heard your neighbor’s phone conversations or coughing fits like they were sitting next to you. He started getting into spray paint and since the place had poor ventilation, would hold his paintings out of the window and spray them out there. This, he explains, was not ideal. He found a more private spot at 6th and Market, an area dense with SROs—single room occupancies—which, included high concentrations of those facing addiction, homelessness, or severe mental illness. Erik moved in bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, imagining he would be a “beacon of light,” bringing arts into a struggling neighborhood. He would be relentlessly friendly. He would offer to show people his art. He became friends with Bernard, who identified as homeless-by-choice, “my translator, if you will,” for the neighborhood. He got to know the crack dealer who met her supplier in front of his studio before she parceled the rocks into smaller baggies. When she chastised him for putting decals on his windows, trying to spruce up his storefront, he realized, “Dang, I don’t even know what ecosystem I’m affecting right now.” It took him a bit more time, though, to tuck his bushy tail beneath his legs and walk off. One night he’d bumped shoulders with some guy on the street—a super-tall “Einstein-looking guy with crazy electrified hair.” Erik was kind of drunk and they exchanged watch-where-you’re-goings until it escalated and Erik stepped inside his studio and reached for his baseball bat. By this point he’d taken to keeping bats, mace, and the local police on speed dial. He stood in his doorway, holding the bat while people on the street chanted for them to fight. They were maybe both bluffing, but eventually Erik shut the door. What am I doing? he thought. I am the peaceful guy who won’t kill a fly. He looked at his painting wall, painted red instead of his usual white or neutral. It was the only time that his art had gotten weird, angry. He was barely making anything, consumed with life outside his door. “There are problems that were there before me,” he realized, “and will be there long after I move on, and the best thing for me to do is to get the hell out of here.” Which brings us to studio number five. The posting for the studio space was a “crazy ad, no punctuation, rapey-van style,” as if foreshadowing the dead body incident. Erik was the only one who vied for the space, which was a dark and undeveloped warehouse. He went into the corner of the workshop, looked out the window, saw a dumpster he’d been raiding for scrap wood for a while, and took it as a good sign. The dead body was only the last in a series of misadventures. The crazy ad was the sign of an absent, uninvolved landlord who would kick people out if they started asking for repairs. One tenant, Kyle, secretly turned his parcel into a makeshift hostel, renting beds for the night to “hopping-off-trains traveler types,” who would sometimes deal drugs out of the spot. Next there was John, who moved in “fresh out of prison” and drove an old limo from the ‘80s, whose room had a stream of “super fucking young” women coming in and out. Erik had found a girl curled up outside of John’s room one day, crying and telling him that John had threatened to kill her if she was still there when he got back. Weeks later, a plainclothes FBI officer came up to Erik, flashed his badge, and started asking questions about the underage women. John, soon after that, escaped to Thailand. Erik has stayed here partially out of optimism—the rotating cast always promised a better tenant around the corner—and because of the incredibly cheap rent, something he’s managed to find at all his studios. Here he can run the table saw at three in the morning. A good studio, he says, is where you can feel “like you have no clothes on, and no one’s watching.” When he’s in other cities working, it’s his studio he misses, and it’s often the only place he feels he can truly be himself. The dead body became the rock bottom that turned things around. The forensics team posited that the guy, a recovering alcoholic, had gotten drunk on a kegerator, passed out in a chair, and asphyxiated. As the body decomposed, gases built up pressure and it exploded. There was no suspicion of foul play, but soon Mr. Velour-jumpsuit came in the middle of the night, grabbed his most expensive tools, and bounced. After the body ordeal, Erik says, “the clouds parted and it got cleaned up so quick.” The landlord showed up in person, saying “my grandpappy”—who’d started the place when it was a distribution company—“is rolling in his grave.” The landlord began vetting applicants and it became more like an art commune. The studio is now a cozy, quiet place that reminds Erik of his parent’s garage, studio number one. Since then, Erik has created a self-directed residency in Mexico City in a six-room apartment, soon to be demolished. “There was a tree that was ripping through the ceiling and growing back out again,” he said. “That was the selling point.” His residency, in studio number six or perhaps five-and-a-half since he was still paying rent on his place on Treat Street, lasted five months. It culminated in a three day show, his “most occupied art event in history,” with a line streaming out the door opening night. He returned to San Francisco and received a prestigious grant from VSCO, which he used to direct a massive art event. He’s now launching a business that curates experiences in modular spaces, and considering creating a bi-coastal lifestyle between San Francisco and New York. He’s remained in studio number five, which he and two other artists renovated this year—revamping lighting, building walls, executing the “ultimate purge”—and it’s become a sanctuary, more so than ever. In the end, perhaps his optimism has prevailed. “Things are fucked up,” Erik says about life, “but, like, let’s at least leave it on a high note.”