Derek Erdman: The Artist Behind Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ Custom Jean Jackets [Interview]

Derek Erdman painted a custom Nardwuar jacket for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
Photo: Courtesy of @DerekErdman’s Instagram

Ever since we were first blown away by their fashion-centric “Thrift Shop” music video (and track, let’s be honest) late last year, we’ve kept our eyes squarely locked on Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ every sartorial move. When they make it rain on the Jimmy Fallon studio audience with a box of second-hand clothes, we notice. When Mack guest edits for a sneaker blog, we write about it. And when the dudes show up to The Ellen DeGeneres Show bearing gifts, specifically a thrifted jean jacket with Ellen’s bust painted on the back, we remember it forever. THUS, you can imagine our collective ish-flipping when, at the end of their SXSW interview with Canadian research oracle Nardwuar, the Seattle-based duo handed The Human Serviette his OWN bananas unreal custom jean jacket.

The one-two punch of these poppy Ellen and Nardwuar toppers was too much to ignore, so we made it our mission to track down their artist Derek Erdman. (Actually, we’re dramatizing. It was a really easy Google because Macklemore already ID’ed him during the interview.) In keeping with Mack’s M.O. of repping for The Emerald City, Erdman is a Seattle, Washingtonian (though he’s moved there only recently by way of Chicago). A quick scan through his most recent paintings and we catapulted from casual fans to full-blown obsession, pouring over hilariously irreverent pieces like Phoebe Cats (a reimagining of Phoebe Cates’s iconic Fast Times with CATS) and a LeBron James bench brought to life for the sole purpose of pissing off jilted Cleveland Cavaliers fans. We caught up with Derek Erdman (hot on the heels of a LOL-worthy Sub Pop Records scandal [kind of, but not really]) via a very glamorous email chain to chat about his art, working with Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, and other stuff like uniforms and sausage hands. ENJOY!

MTV STYLE: How long have you been making art and how did you start?

DEREK ERDMAN: I started making art in the early 2000s. I saw a piece of clip art that I really liked, so I made a painting of it. Painting clip art eventually became boring, so I learned how to draw everyday items in a clip art style. I learned how to make paintings of the drawings quickly and cheaply, and I made and sold thousands of them. Eventually more and more people began to notice and buy them. I’ve sold nearly 6,000 paintings at this point. I am off to the races. I didn’t go to art school, I went for linguistics and dropped out.

Derek Erdman art with hands.
Photo: Courtesy of @derekerdman’s Instagram

How has your art evolved over time?

I’ve become a lot better at drawing and painting over time, though I still can’t draw hands to save my life. They usually end up looking like mutated sausage link blobs. My paintings used to have more jokes in them, or clever ideas. Now they’re mainly portraits because I’m so lazy. When I first started painting, it was really exciting, the prospect of creating something out of nothing. Eventually, I realized that a person could make a painting of absolutely anything. When I learned that, it was a great tragedy.

What are your favorite things to paint? Are there certain subjects you’re particularly inspired by?

I mostly prefer insignificant characters as subjects. C-list celebs or characters from vaguely notable news stories. Mass culture is just fine, but I prefer a viewer to feel like they’re sharing something special, or only a joke that they’re in on. So, painting Radiohead would be boring. But Sondra Prill? Sign me up!

Derek Erdman art with paper dolls.
Photo: Courtesy of @derekerdman’s Instagram

You paint mostly celebrities and historical figures, but there are a few nods to fashion here and there via your paper doll pieces and your paintings of shoes. How would you describe your relationship with clothes?

I don’t understand fashion at all. About ten years ago, I developed a uniform that I wear 99% of the time. It’s an army utility shirt with brown cords and a baseball hat. I buy these items in bulk so I never have to decide what to wear. I have 40 pairs of black socks from Old Navy, I never have to match socks. I have a lot of different pairs of shoes though. I buy pairs of Clarks all of the time, but I never wear them because I find them really uncomfortable. I’ve always been fascinated with paper doll patterns, or things portrayed in a series. So, a painting of a group of hats would appeal to me, but I can’t exactly say why. There’s a movie from 1909 called Those Awful Hats, but I’ve never seen the whole thing. I’ve tried to watch it, it’s pretty dull.

How did you link up with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis?

Macklemore saw some of my paintings at The Crocodile, which is a music venue here in Seattle. He liked them and asked me to make a drawing of Jimmy Iovine for the deluxe edition of The Heist. Jimmy Iovine was so flattered that he apparently has a giant print of the image hanging in his office. A bunch of other artists made art for each of the tracks on the CD, they’re all really great. Working with [Macklemore] and his management has been ideal, they’re really great people. I’m really fortunate to be part of what they’re doing. Before getting a full time job at Sub Pop I used to fill in there, they released his single for the song “Same Love.” Coincidentally, I’m the person who hand numbered the back of each cover.

Had you heard of them or heard their music before you worked together on these jackets?

Yes, I’d heard The Heist and that “Thrift Shop” was becoming huge. I’d only heard his name before being asked to work on the CD, though. He was notable around town, but I’ve only lived in Seattle for two years.

Derek Erdman painted custom Ellen DeGeneres and Nardwuar jackets for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis.
Photo: Courtesy of @DerekErdman’s Instagram

What was the process of customizing each of the jackets (Ellen and Nardwuar) like? Whose idea was it to link you guys up? How much direction did Mack and Ryan give? Did they supply you with the original jackets?

Portraits with a name banner are a staple in my work, as soon as I got the request for the Ellen jacket, I had a picture in my mind of what it was going to look like. They didn’t change the initial drawings for either jacket at all, they’re either easy to please or I did a good job. I added stars around Ellen’s head because the space needed to be filled in, they don’t have a significance. The maple leaves around Nardwuar are in tribute to his rabid Canadian pride. I really respect Ellen, but I absolutely love Nardwuar. That guy is such a laugh riot. He’s like a modern day Studs Terkel. Macklemore provided the jacket for Ellen, my wife Emily bought the jacket for Nardwuar. From the video, it appears to fit perfectly. Emily’s in a band called Tacocat, of which Nardwuar is allegedly a fan. What are the odds? Pretty good, actually, I guess.

Had you ever done custom work on clothing before? Do you think it’s a thing you’d be into doing more regularly?

I made a series of Parker Posey jean jackets a few years ago. I’m currently planning a show of paintings that are only on clothing, I’d like to do it in a town outside of Seattle. I remember being into hip hop in my early teens and painted pants were really popular. People had words painted on their pants, they were really obnoxious. I think that could come back in a really major way. Portraits or anything else on jackets would make me happy. I’d like a jacket that has a really tall roast beef sandwich on the back with the words “ARBY’S IS #1″ underneath.

Finally, wanna address the whole Sub Pop customer service thing?

On my first day [working at Sub Pop Records], I received a letter from a customer complaining about the cover art on a Father John Misty CD. I thought that maybe the letter was a joke, it seemed really ridiculous. I wrote a response that I’d like to receive if I had written the letter, I was actually trying to be more complimentary than funny. The people who run the Sub Pop blog thought it was funny enough to post, but Sub Pop customers on Facebook didn’t find it funny at all. There were a number of comments about how my response was the reason why the music industry is doing so poorly. In response we decided to fire me on the internet, which was then picked up by a bunch of those web regurgitator sites. Eventually, people who I hadn’t talked to in years were writing to see if I was okay. The internet is so dumb sometimes. It’s a really good place to sell a Parker Posey jean jacket though. Parker Posey was born on November 8th, five years to the date before the right ear of John Paul Getty III was delivered to a newspaper together with a ransom note, convincing his father to pay 2.9 million USD. Is that a coincidence? Yeah, probably!


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