Kids, don’t be like Aaron Kraten. Sure, he’s a successful mixed-media artist who has had his work shown throughout Orange County and Los Angeles and even across the country. Sure, his images have been licensed by popular iPod- and cell-phone-case manufacturer GelaSkins. But—gasp!—he didn’t stay in school.
“I’m not formally trained,” Kraten says. “I’m a high-school dropout. I did go the full duration; I just didn’t pass. They were like, ‘You need, like, nine more years of high school to pass. You failed all your classes, except for auto shop.’”
A lack of certificates from learning facilities doesn’t seem to have hampered Kraten. His art is far more influenced by graffiti and the lowbrow movement than classical masters, with colorful and heavily stylized pieces that frequently depict sketchy, mostly featureless women at the foreground and found objects, such as old photos, pasted in the background. He eschews traditional methods to the point of rejecting brushes, instead fingerpainting works such as his 2003 mixed-media-on-wood Workers Compensation.
The 35-year-old artist was born in San Francisco but moved with his family to Huntington Beach at age 6. As a wayward youth, Kraten was fascinated by graffiti, even though he had to go out of his way to find it. “I didn’t really see a lot of graffiti in Orange County,” he says. “I would practice it, drawing it, the shapes, and [see] how it works. I still don’t really understand the colors and how they trap one another.”
Kraten’s style is a product of his environment, especially growing up in the OC skateboard culture of the ’80s and ’90s. “I think being around that environment was really creative,” Kraten says. “And that’s been a huge influence on my artwork: the people in Orange County, the skateboarders and delinquents.”
So when pressed to name what’s most iconically “Orange County” to him, it’s not surprising that Kraten cites The Skate Parks, especially Etnies Skatepark in Lake Forest and Volcom Skatepark in Costa Mesa. Kraten moved to Costa Mesa in 1993 and still lives there, saying he skates at Volcom quite a bit.
This year, Kraten had a summer show at Neue Transit Studio in Santa Ana and a winter show at the Box Gallery in Costa Mesa, but he maintains that OC can be a tricky market for a visual artist. “People are kind of in their own bubble,” he says. “I’ve got a bit of a following, but it took a long time for that to develop. I had to show a lot before people started taking notice and taking interest. I think it’s kind of a tough scene.”
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Following those OC shows; two Seattle exhibitions; and showings in Philadelphia, Burbank and Oceanside—all in the past year—Kraten’s back to creating.
“I’m kind of taking a break and just painting,” he says, “just focusing on new work.”