Against the Grain

Tyler Hildebrand’s art isn’t always pretty, but neither is the world he comes from

The bay windows at David Lusk Gallery in Wedgewood-Houston act like a magnifying glass to the late spring sun. Inside, the natural light is amplified by the room’s tall white walls, transmuting it into a fluorescent glow that doesn’t soften anything. Nine-foot canvases lean all around the gallery, featuring grotesque characters offset against bright, cheerful backgrounds. Paint cans and coffee cups litter the room at its seams. Tyler Hildebrand’s exhibit opens in four days, and it’s hard to make out what’s finished and what’s still a work in progress.

I see Tyler walking along past the windows at the front of the gallery, coffee cup in hand. He swings open the heavy glass door with ease. Tyler looks like a normal guy—a guy’s guy. His Cincinnati Bengals cap is fraying around its bill, his cargo shorts are splattered with paint, and if you were related, he’d be the cousin you wouldn’t want to line up against in the touch football game at the next family reunion.

The characters in these paintings are plucked out of different worlds—the streets, sports, television, newspapers. For Tyler, it’s all fair game. Pimps, drug dealers, the 1992 Dream Team, Davy Crockett, Macho Man Randy Savage, and Pete Rose all make appearances, sometimes on the same canvas. “[My inspiration comes from] other stuff than art,” Tyler says, watching a truck pass by on the street out front. “One of my main influences has always been Johnny Cash, since I was young . . . The way he carried himself, bucking the status quo, I always wanted to emulate that in whatever way I could.”

Tyler’s work is nuanced and layered, but it’s as much about attitude as it is intention. Like Cash, he illuminates the harsh realities of the world outside in a way that you don’t need a doctoral degree to appreciate. “Art can be stuffy,” he sighs. “But I don’t think it has to be.”

Nothing about Tyler’s artwork feels delicate or refined—it’s bold and physical in a way that isn’t always easy to look at. He doesn’t polish the edges off the world—he zooms in on them.

“If I have a goal or a meaning,” he says, “it would be to kind of lift the veil to this uneasy reality that people generally don’t want to look at, or pretend doesn’t exist.” He uses color as a tool to lure people in, juxtaposing brighter shades with hulking, sometimes monstrous figures. “I’m portraying ugly realities,” he admits, “but I try to do it in sort of a beautiful way, where it almost makes it uncomfortable.”

Tyler’s brazen style might seem a bit out of place in the highfalutin world of art galleries and conservatories, but then again, that’s not the world he comes from. “My dad was a cop and my mom was a crime reporter, so those were the things I was saturated with [growing up].”

“Back then it was different,” Tyler says of his early days in Cincinnati. “[My dad] had a guy take his gun from him and shove it in his face. He kept trying to pull the trigger, but my dad was holding on to the cylinder of the revolver so it wouldn’t turn. And these were things that were going on. It never scared me or anything, but it was very interesting. I would always have him drive me through these bad neighborhoods so I could see what was going on. And he would tell me what had happened where and say, ‘That’s a hooker, there’s a drug dealer.’”

“When I started getting older, I was crazy, man,” Tyler laughs, a bit amazed looking back on it. “I was drinking, I was using drugs, and I was obsessed with these places. I got an apartment right at the top of the hill of this bad neighborhood, and I would get drunk and go down there. I don’t know if it was exciting or what it was, but I was just drawn to this place. And I don’t drink or do drugs anymore, but I’m still drawn to these places and these people—they’re way more interesting to me than normal people. I would love to take everyone from the street where I used to run around in Cincinnati and bring them here. Because I think they would appreciate this art too.”

Tyler figured out early that you can’t please everyone, and that has given him the freedom to explore artistic territory that many would shy away from. “All the stuff that you can’t act out in normal everyday society, I can act it out in my art. It’s art, and you don’t have to accept it, but you have to look at it either way.”

Tyler never lost the youthful spirit that led him to venture into the dark alleyways of Cincinnati as a kid—he just channeled it into a different medium. “I’ve always had some kind of a thing with authority, and it’s gotten me into trouble. But with art there is no authority—you can do whatever you want, and you can get away with it. That’s what I like.”

Throughout his evolution, Tyler has always drawn inspiration from the people and places around him. He went from Cincinnati to Memphis to Nashville—all working-class cities with a bit of grit if you know where to look. In each city he’s found a new wealth of experience, and it’s all filtered into his art. “It evolves wherever I go because I’m feeding off people, feeding off myself and my environment. Right now I’m living in Donelson, Tennessee, on Lumberjack Road,” he laughs. “[You might think] there’s nothing crazy about Donelson, but if you can soak it up, there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on.”

With art there is no authority—you can do whatever you want, and you can get away with it

Few would call Donelson an artistic or creative hotbed, but Tyler seems to have inherited his mother’s crime-reporter sensibility for sniffing out a story where others might not think to look. “There’s these little pockets of characters. Just going to the laundromat or wherever it is, you meet these people. And their stories inform my work. I’m not running amuck anymore, so I’m not making my own stories—I have to feed off other people.”

Though it’s clear that Tyler’s art is deeply ingrained in his identity, he doesn’t gloss up the realities of living as a professional artist. “[Art] was something that I kind of just fit into—just something that I did. Honestly, I used to coach high school football for a while up in Cincinnati, and if I could do that and make money, I might just do that,” he shrugs. “Because art is a weird thing. You’re by yourself a lot. You’re just in your brain, painting these weird pictures, hoping that you can make some money, hoping that somebody’s going to buy it. And, like, who wants to buy a painting of Davy Crockett with a tiger that’s nine feet tall?” He laughs because that’s the first painting you see when you walk into the gallery. “But I have to do it.” In case you were wondering, that painting, titled Victory or Death, was the first piece to sell at Tyler’s David Lusk show.

Tyler’s art has enabled him to stay true to himself in a way that no other life could—constantly experimenting, questioning authority, and shining a light on people and places that many would prefer to keep tucked in the shadows. “I never want to be comfortable where I’m at, and I want to push the boundaries. I want to be able to say what I want, the same way Johnny Cash did. I want to kick out the lights at the Grand Ole Opry, play San Quentin prison—go against the grain. And if I can make enough money doing that, then I’ll be happy. That’s all you can ask for.”

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