There is a similitude between fine art and skateboarding; and nobody understands that more than Eric “Efdot” Friedensohn. Using bold lines, colors, dots, and abstract figures, Efdot creates works of art that visualize that connection.
Having collaborated with the world’s most prominent brands such as Nike, Coca-Cola, Topps, Adobe, and many others, Efdot is also a fine art artist who creates murals around the world, original drawings, paintings, NFTs, limited edition prints, and trading cards. On March 26, 2022, AKA AirMax Day, I sat down with Efdot in his Brooklyn studio to discuss his most recent collaboration with Nike, life, work, and future:
H: What was baby Efdot like growing up?
E: I’m from the suburbs of New York City, Westchester County, and I’ve always lived there growing up before I was in my twenties. After that I started traveling a lot, but my whole life I lived in this one small town just north of New York City and I always wanted to live in New York City. So I would take the train down growing up, sometimes with my parents, sometimes alone, with friends. Sometimes I would miss the last train back home to Westchester because I just wanted to be here with my friends and skateboard all night. Fucking awesome memories from that, honestly. But as a baby, I was very much the same, you know, energetic, exploratory, curious kid. I haven’t changed much in terms of my attitude. I want to keep that childlike spirit, so kind of like who I am today, honestly, just a more experienced version.
H: What would be the ride back if you missed the last train of the night?
E: Well, then the ride back would be the first ride back, like 5 or 6 a.m. So there is a gap between like 2:30 a.m. until 6:00 a.m., where the trains don’t run from Grand Central to Westchester. And sometimes we would go skateboarding and then, you know, get into all kinds of trouble and whatever, shenanigans. We just kept skating all night. And people would kick us out from one spot to the next… just always bouncing around, trying to learn tricks and get street clips.
H: What propelled you to become an artist?
E: I think everyone’s an artist when they’re young. And everyone can continue to be an artist if they choose. For me creativity felt like the most natural path for my career. I think part of it is based on my DNA – my grandmother was a professional artist. She and my parents were always very encouraging about pursuing creative outlets. Their early support gave me confidence to keep practicing art into my late teens / 20’s.
H: She was a stained-glass artist, right?
E: Yep, yep. Her name was Rita Nelson and she was SO inspiring to me. She had a whole glass workshop in her basement… she would give me her old school drawing books and new tools/toys every year. I loved building LEGO’s and K’NEX, but I also didn’t like to follow the instructions for the most part. I would just make random stuff and create characters and creatures and buildings and you know, similar stuff to what I draw now, just in different mediums. I just always wanted to be making something. I feel happy and satisfied when I make something. So since I was a kid, I wanted that feeling of making something new and making something fresh.
H: I know you worked at WeWork during its heyday. There are so many current TV and film adaptations of WeWork’s historic rise and collapse, did you see its collapse happening during your time there and did you have any interactions with Adam Neumann?
E: Oh my gosh. That’s such a funny question. People ask me about WeWork, but I don’t ever hear it phrased in that way. Because when I say I worked at WeWork, people don’t usually go like, “Oh my god.” They’re just like, “Oh, cool,” because they know that WeWork was cool and was on the rise for quite awhile before it eventually had to scale down. Essentially it blew up and then it had to scale way down based on how they operated their business. And I saw the whole thing on the way up. And then it was starting to feel like this isn’t going to happen, they’re not going to IPO, I’m not going to get any of the promised stock options, and no one else is going to actually get their stock options for quite a while. And so, I didn’t see more growth opportunities at the company at that time, I had little reason to stay there beyond liking my coworkers. I had plenty of freelance work coming in and that was why I left. But I did love working there while they were on their rise. It was a dream job for me, to be honest. My boss was the creative director of the company and he really fostered me as an artist, helping me choose simple things like materials for a piece, how to elevate it or give it a flip on the traditional. It was just a super unique opportunity to be around other artists and be traveling, designing and painting murals for work. That kind of work is not a full time gig anywhere else… So I stayed with WeWork for about three and a half years even though I always knew the end goal was running my own studio. In those years I held down a full time job but was still pushing out online content because I documented all the work I did there, including the 2 years I spent on their Latin America team. So that’s a cool thing that they even let me do that.
H: Was your character, the Blob, inspired during your time spent in South America?
E: My environment always plays a role in inspiring my work – and that was the period of time when I created the Blob. But I have been drawing characters and figures since way before I moved down to South America. So it’s a big mix of influences that came together to form the character. There were a few new things I modified about how I drew characters back then, and that created the Blob as we know it today. Flatter, more abstract versions of my figures started coming out and it finally felt unique and ownable, so I kept building on it.
H: I see, it was more of a natural evolution of your characters.
E: Yeah, exactly. All my influences and experiences have shaped the way I think and the way I draw today. And I hesitate to even call it a character. Because, as you know, the Blob not always shown as the same silhouette. It’s always morphing into different shapes… it can be simplified down to just the eye, which still holds so much meaning. Sometimes it’s more of an energy that explodes, turning into vibrating lines, dots and colors and then comes back together to form the Blob. That vision and style is always evolving.
H: What type of message are you portraying when you are creating your fine art? And in your pieces, “HI3R0GLYPHS” are you trying to convey some message to the audience?
E: The message is usually about uplifting, about being playful, being present and sometimes introspective. I approach my work like a designer in that I want the work to function as a needed visual “breath of fresh air” in the viewer’s day. A bit of color or organized chaos can give that feeling. So, there are a few of those simple messages that I put into the majority of my personal work. Not everything has to be defined, but it should never feel too cluttered or crowded or scary or angry or sad. The world has enough of those vibes already. Sometimes I put melancholic emotions to contrast all the optimism – it’s a reflection of how I’m feeling at the time. Some of my pieces are more mysterious and I want the different viewers to interpret what they’re seeing. A lot of times while I’m drawing, I’m finding out what I’m saying while I’m drawing it. It’s not, “Oh, let me translate this message into my visual language.” I have to analyze it later and see where my hand and my brain went and then see, “What’s the message here? What was I trying to say?” And then maybe I’ll use the first version as a study, and then redo the piece again or refine it more intentionally… reusing the symbols that I came up with organically, in a more intentional way.
H: If there was to be a film adaptation of the story of Efdot, who would you want to play yourself?
Chasm. No, just kidding. I think that the one actor that people say that I look like that I begrudgingly laugh at is the guy from Boy Meets World, Cory Matthews. Him, or Shia LeBeouf.
H: Haha yeah, I see a little of both. Why begrudgingly? You don’t like Boy Meets World?
E: How would you like being compared to Boy Meets World when you’re 31? I suppose it could be seen as a compliment. 🙂
H: You made the Nike collaboration announcement a few weeks ago during @alloutofeth’s, Coffee & Twitter space. What’s been going through your head during the time leading up to today’s events?
E: Just getting ready man. Hoping for the best. Preparing for the worst. You know, I’ve been through a lot of different client projects where things go haywire halfway through an event or an installation and you’ve got to be prepared. We almost didn’t get some of the graphics for this event, they almost didn’t show up. And then yesterday we found out they showed up. So it was like, really, really important to me that we get those. I was stressing, you know?! But other than that, just trying to be present. Really take in every moment of it all and experience all the decisions that go into a project like this and all the people that I got to interact with throughout the process, from the photographers to the Nike team to my team, brought some friends back in for help just for the event. It’s been really, really fun just preparing for it. Really trying to be present because I’ve done big collabs before where I didn’t get to fully take it in and I learned that you have to really be present. Don’t be on your phone during a day like today, etc. Even while I’m talking with you here, I’m happy that I feel very present, on such a crazy day.
H: You’ve done a lot of client work before, but Nike reaching out to you, I’m sure it has a different aura around it. What does it mean to you that Nike reached out to you to do a collaboration?
E: I don’t think I fully processed it yet honestly because it happened so quickly. We got the project in the door less than two months ago and it has been nonstop since. And it was just not much time to really step back and think about what it means for me and my career. I would love to do more work for Nike. I want to eventually do a lot of these ideas I have. But I don’t know what it means to me yet because it hasn’t fully set in. It’s an honor for sure, it’s a huge honor, and it means a lot to me and my community, just that they would welcome my work into the stores in such a big way. But it’s hard to put words to the real feeling of it all because it’s so fresh and we’ve just been go, go, go since we got the project.
H: How has it been working with Nike?
E: They’ve been really communicative and great to work with. I mean, they sent a whole film crew to the studio to do an internal training video just for their in-store employees. It was called the “Ekin’s” Team, because it’s Nike backwards, and because they’re the people who know Nike products backwards and forwards, they train the other employees. So they can in and made a whole video to get to know me and my work, that the world hasn’t even seen yet… I really enjoyed the little things like that. They were like, “We want to not only treat you well as the artist, but treat our team well, so they can know you too and talk to our customers about your work and story.” Those details, going above and beyond, was how Nike treated the project all the way. A lot of businesses I collaborate with don’t take it quite as seriously as a brand like Nike would, and they definitely delivered on that part of professionalism and extra details.
H: The day isn’t over, but what have you learned from this experience so far?
E: I think with what I was saying before about being stressed about how the graphics might not show up. At a certain point, you’ve got to let go because that’s out of your control. So I realize now that I was stressing over something that was very out of my control. So I learned if that ever happens again, I’d probably be like, “I’ve been to this rodeo before. I’m not going to be stressed out about this. Whatever happens happens.” And I always try to be that way, but now I feel like I have really lived and learned that. Also, I learned more about planning events. I learned some do’s and don’ts around planning a full day of events. That was really helpful to go through that process of planning and executing the full day.
H: I know you still have to wrap your mind around this whole day, but in a nutshell, what does the Efdot Nike AirMax day mean to you?
E: It means I’m not here to fuck around.
H: I love it, let them know!
E: I’m not letting anyone know anything, I’m just doing me, man. They should already know and if they don’t, they will soon. But it’s not me letting them know, it’s Nike letting them know. I’ve been doing this for 10 years plus. So it’s like Nike’s letting them know that I exist and then I’m going to keep doing my thing. I plan to go bigger and better; sometimes scale back to retreat, and then go bigger and better again.
I’m off the back of like a two year project with Topps, right? That was a big deal. When that came in the door, it took two years to finish the full body of work. This just happened in two months. It’s just the beginning of a body of work it feels like. And the beginning of a new relationship with Nike. Hopefully a lot more really cool projects – that’s what I’m excited for. But again, I’m not trying to overplan anything. I’m just going to let it happen and keep doing my thing. But I’m really grateful that Nike wanted to let people know that I’m here and give me the AirMax to play with.
I see stuff every day and I just want to play with it, that’s my skateboarder mentality.
AirMax is not a Nike SB/skate shoe, so it’s kind of a different thing for me, I didn’t know the full history behind it. Honestly, I didn’t grow up wearing that many AirMax’s. I was more of a SB Dunk kind of guy, but remixing the AirMax was a really fun challenge. Just like with the baseball cards I did last year, I got to dig into a new subject matter and just bring it to life in my own way, you know?
Also, I think that getting my community together with Nike and the whole event structure is something that I’d never done before. Having an in-person apparel customization event and then an open studio where you can see where it was designed, get stuff signed and all that. That I feel will probably become a staple for more events in the future, like at least once a year. I can imagine doing more events like this. It’s just so fun to see people in person and the fact that Nike helped me bring those people together and give people another reason to come to New York, it was really dope how it all came together.
H: Most of us who are familiar with your “Optimist” story and work know about your apartment burning down. Take me back to that time, what was racing through your head while you were waiting to go back to the apartment. Did you have any introspective realizations as you were walking in for the first time after the fire?
E: Man, you’re cutting to the deep questions. It was a really chaotic day, and I didn’t know how much of my apartment was going to be damaged at the time when I left. It was all smoke and some fire coming in the windows from the backyard. So I basically ran outside and hoped for the best. Wasn’t super optimistic because I saw the fire getting bigger before it got smaller, and then it got really intense with so many helicopters, fire trucks, police, interviewers trying to get my word, I was just like, speechless…
H: Were you just waiting outside the apartment the whole time?
E: Yeah, I didn’t even have my shoes on. So it was like thinking about what might happen, what it would mean. It was a whole “life flashing before your eyes” kind of moment, you know? I made it out alive, I knew I was grateful for that, and I was healthy and my family was healthy. Everything else didn’t matter. I had already written my own story in my head, I was like, “I’m going to be okay. Actually I’m gonna be great.” I hadn’t even found the Optimist artwork yet, but when I did, it just cemented that I had to own this story. I was looking for confirmation from outside sources, but I knew inside me that I was okay and that I could rebuild and it was an opportunity to start fresh. I had already framed it in that way before I’d even seen fully what happened. I was like, “There you go, blank slate. Boom. I know who I want to be now. This is great.”
It sucks to lose all your shit, but it’s just stuff in the end. I have some stuff in my apartment right now, I have some stuff behind that curtain over there that I just don’t really need. And if it was on fire right now, I might be emotionally reacting to it, but I haven’t touched it in years. Why do we hold on to all this stuff? The fire forced me to question, what do you really need? What do you really want? What makes you happy physically in your apartment or in your workspace? So I got much more intentional about what I brought into my space after that. I still ended up collecting a lot of stuff between then and now, but a lot more intentionally and I think about the fire before I make any big physical purchases. If this would burn tomorrow, would I be sad? Maybe, I should return or sell or donate this. I wouldn’t be sad about that.
H: What are some comparative qualities that you see between your art, process and skateboarding?
E: Yeah, that’s a great question. Skateboarding is an art – a dance with architecture on wheels – it’s all about play and expression.
I see the world through lines – I want my drawing lines and skateboarding lines to feel similar. I channel the energy of skateboarding when I’m creating my visual art.
H: I used to skate as a kid, but never that great. I’ve seen some of your skating videos where you do some really gnarly tricks. But with skating comes the inevitability of injury. Can you tell me your worst skateboarding injury?
E: A few years back, I broke my leg trying a blunt to fakie in a backyard mini ramp. The break was just above my left ankle and I damaged some ligaments too. This was right after I got the job at WeWork. Luckily they let me work from home while I healed. It was slow – the recovery had complications and lasted over 18 months. Barely any walking for a year and a half and no skating, obviously. But I made it out, and it really showed me what mental strength is… when you’re cooped up in a fourth floor walk-up apartment with a broken leg, just going back and forth to Manhattan for surgeries every few months, you have to figure out how to stay positive.
I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to jump or do any tricks again. I knew I’d be able to cruise around – no one could stop me from doing that. If anything, I’d be on my butt cruising if I couldn’t stand. I’m really glad that I could re-learn some of my favorite tricks. Call me an adrenaline junkie but I just want to keep having more fun and progressing in the sport, not just cruising. I can’t take quite as many risks with stairs and stuff like that these day… like I did in my 20’s or teens, but I hope to keep pushing my low impact tricks.
H: What were you doing during your recovery?
E: I invested in my first iPad Pro around that time, so I did a whole series of black & white illustrations about skateboarding. That was the first time that I’d put skateboarding into a polished series of artwork. I hid it previously because I wanted my work to be more “professional” and buttoned up for the agencies in New York to take me seriously. That feels silly to say, looking back, as I realize now that I have come all the way back around to my first love of skating. But you know, to reference the hero’s journey, you to leave home sometimes, and fight some battles, to come back home with new information and experience. that’s the idea with skating and art. For a few years, I barely drew anything related to skateboarding, and when I broke my leg, it was like, it’s OK time to bring it back and be myself again.
H: Do you have any more skateboarding art coming in the future?
E: It’s been five years since that first skateboarding illustration series. I drew some figures, but I didn’t have a good grasp on color, how to tell stories, or draw them in motion. Fast-forward to today, I’m working on a new project that is skateboarding-focused on a whole new level. I never expected for this to get to this large of a stage. My new project combines my past experience with sports / trading cards and NFTs with my passion for skateboarding.
I’m illustrating 16 individual skater cards for the USA Skateboarding National Team who are moving forward to the next Olympic Games in Paris in 2024. It’s going to be put out as a series of NFTs and physical trading cards. It’s pretty wild to see the growth from that first series five years ago… to look back and connect the dots.
Even if they didn’t pay me, I would still do this project. This is one of those projects where I will be going off, making additional art beyond the project scope, leading up to the big Olympic games (which I hope to attend!) just because it’s so epic. And the art is all being made now, behind the scenes, at the same time as my Nike collab is dropping. It’s been wild for all these opportunities to come in Q1.
H: Getting the opportunity to draw current pro skaters must be an incredible opportunity for you. Who are some of your favorite skaters?
E: I grew up skating in the early 2000’s until now, basically 2002, 2003. The Baker videos were coming out around that time, Flip “Sorry” and “Really Sorry”… all those old skate videos. My favorites were Andrew Reynolds, Erik Ellington and the whole Baker team. Mark Gonzalez. Rodney Mullen, the creativity, right? Talk about skateboarding meets innovation, it’s Rodney Mullen and Daewon Song. And then today it’s pretty cool to have a few of the skaters in the Olympic team that are some of my favorites like Nyjah Huston, Jagger Eaton, Zion Wright. There’s also eight women that I’m going to be illustrating, which is incredible because I’ve never done a trading card for a woman subject before and this is an opportunity to highlight women’s skateboarding. With the women’s skateboarding element, it feels revolutionary because 10 years ago, that wasn’t really a celebrated thing. Women weren’t celebrated in skateboarding 10 years ago, 15 years ago as much. So now there’s eight men and eight women in the Olympics and it feels really epic to be able to balance it out like that.
H: Skateboard culture has impacted and changed the world through film, art, fashion, but New York skateboarding in particular seems to be the epicenter of a lot of it. What is it about New York skateboard culture to you that makes it so impactful?
E: I think you can only really do it by comparing, right? Comparing East Coast to West Coast. I think West Coast is more smooth, more transition, more hill-bombing, more beach, sunlight, kind of always beautiful out; therefore the terrain is less sketchy. Like everything’s pristine out there compared to here where the changes in weather really mess up our roads and sidewalks. This is called “the East Crust,” like it’s crusty here on these streets, so you have to push through those pebbles to get to the rusty ledge to maybe grind it for a second and then land on a sewer grate. It’s like that with the spots in New York, you know? And that style really comes through with the videos and the way that they capture it here. It’s more power skating and the spots are more concentrated together. It’s the architecture, the weather that sort of defines it. And then the fashion compliments that in different ways. So in a nutshell, that’s it. The East Crust, man.
H: Favorite places to skate and favorite skate tricks?
E: Back in 2010 I studied abroad in Prague where I did a whole project about skateboarding photography. That is one of my favorite places to skate. Skate tricks: 360 flips, switch bigspins. Switch frontside 360 shove it is like my Swiss Army trick where no one can get that back, but I also am not that good at it. I’m still trying to perfect it. And other places like LES Skatepark, Astoria Skatepark, Venice Beach, San Francisco Hills. But I’m not that good on the hills, like this is more flat. Surprisingly, Boise, Idaho has one of the dopest skateparks I’ve ever skated.
H: What’s next for Efdot?
E: I have a long term dream that I want to build a skatepark and design it to be like a sculpture park that’s meant to be skated. I’m starting to put that dream out there more when people ask me. I think I didn’t believe I could do it, but now that I’ve done some of these other huge projects, I feel like I can really do it. So that’s like a long term legacy type art project for me. I’m going to keep making my fine art, I want to keep prioritizing that. Getting pickier with more commercial gigs unless they’re really a perfect fit, so I have time to make the fine art because I need to have the right balance. Also, pushing forward on my fine art just feels right in this season. It feels more like what I’m meant to do here, because when I do commercial work, it’s about a company’s goals, first and foremost. And if I fit into them, that’s great if we can both have mutual goals. But I didn’t come up with the project most of the time, I’m not out here pitching commercial work, mostly just attracting it to me.
Another thing is I’m obviously present in the NFT world. I’m building collections and minting 1/1’s at my own pace. Playing more with time-based dynamic NFT’s. I’m really excited about some new ideas for this year.
H: Do you have a location in mind for where you want to build that skatepark?
E: Well, ideally it would be in New York City, but I don’t know if that ‘s possible with all the red tape and cost of land here. I would likely lose creative control. Probably NY state, and the closest location I can find near New York City.
H: What advice would you give to aspiring artists and baby Efdot?
E: Don’t see your art as just a means to make money for you and for a company. It’s way, way more than that. I think I had this idea studying graphic design, that that’s what I thought I was here to do, do graphic design for companies that did great things, but now I realize, no, the art can do great things on its own without a company. And then if you find the right places for your style, it just gets additive from there.
When you realize it’s way more about your art has its own value. Focus on your own version of that, even if you don’t see it yet. Think about if you did work on it for 10 years here and there, like you’d have something great, but people just don’t see that. I didn’t see that when I was starting, I didn’t see abstract art as seriously as I do now, I didn’t see illustration even. I was doing lettering and design, mainly. So I think I realized I was capable of so much more. So my advice would be, you’re capable of so much more than you realize and don’t neglect your art that you have inside of you. You have to give it time. Don’t give all your time away to other people if you can avoid it. Spend time on your art consistently and it will build something amazing.
H: When did you think that shift happened for you in mindset?
E: I think the fire really put things into perspective because I realized that there’s a small chance something like that could happen to me again, and I might not make it out. So that reminder of mortality is there. It sounds cheesy but it made me start to live every day as if it was my last. Tomorrow is not promised. Let’s use our time wisely, let’s not take today for granted.
H: Is there anything else you would like to cover?
E: I’m really grateful for the people who helped me get here, the community. I’m grateful for this moment in time in my studio right now with us talking. This feels like where I need to be for this season. And I’m stoked on it. I’m just really optimistic for everybody who I’m talking to these days. There’s something being transferred right now between this experience today specifically, so I’m just really grateful for it all.
And you know, hit me up, I’m an open book, if anyone wants to ask a question or just chat at an event. I’m not rich and famous, you know, not yet at least. I want to keep making time for my people, so don’t ever think I’m too cool to talk to you if you’re reading this.