The Outtakes: Extended Q&A with artist Robert Tatum

Tatum outside his working studio. (Bryan Rindfuss)

From our May 28 cover story: Meet the Artists Behind SA’s Most Iconic Restaurant Interiors

How would you introduce yourself to Current readers that may have seen your work out and about in San Antonio?

I’ve always been an artist. I was born to know how to draw. I never went to art school, I went to school for marketing and design. The art thing, I just love art. I always drew and painted, I just fell into it. People liked my art and I started showing. I don’t really have a background in art; I just kind of do it. My whole thing is nontraditional in the way that I present myself as a fine artist. I don’t do it on purpose; I don’t know how to do it in the traditional, “right” way. It just works for me. I’ve shown in galleries, I’ve shown at Blue Star, Ana Montoya has represented me at shows in her place [AnArte Gallery]. But my favorite thing is places like this–coffee shops, restaurants. Bars

can be fun for a one-night thing, but the reality is I like underground spaces and one-night shows. If you have your work up for a month in a coffee shop or in a restaurant, it’s fun that people can see it and it adds something to that bar or restaurant, but I charge now. I don’t show my art in bars and restaurants. People really don’t buy it. If you’ve got $25 prints in a Family Dollar frame, you can sell something, but I’m on a more professional level now. If I do my paintings, they start at $4,000, $4,500 dollars. And they wouldn’t sell at coffee shops. That’s what I do for a living, I’m aware of money.

What would you describe as your signature piece and can you give us the story behind its inspiration?

If we’re talking restaurants

when I step into a restaurant or high-end bar or lounge, my whole thing is to get an approach, to get the whole package. I love startups. I do logo design, interiors, menu design, I do fine art, I do murals, I do sign design. To me that’s, like, a huge sculpture piece. It’s one. If I get approached by a restaurant or bar that has a weak presence, and they say they don’t need my interior, but I don’t dig their interior and their logo sucks­–I won’t touch anything. I’m a fuckin’ diva.

The most recognizable one is The Luxury. It’s outside, it’s public and it’s a monkey going like this (makes OK sign). It’s got fun eyes. It talks to people when they walk by. I’ve had people who live in the condos, they take time to email me, find my name, and say, ‘I just want you to know, when I wake up in the morning, and I walk my dog, I always get such a big smile when I walk by the monkey. My day’s going to be OK.’

Did Andrew Weissman want that monkey?

Nah, he just said I want something cool up there. I said I got this monkey, this OK monkey. I create icons. Now what I’m doing is licensing. I licensed that to Andrew, he paid me a fee to use my monkey. I own that monkey. It’s kind of like public art. It’s fine art, but still related to the restaurant. I did that a lot. Personally I like it. It sets the tone without being too commercial or becoming a logo. That rides the fine line of commercial, but it’s still my art, original.

What was your first show in San Antonio?

1992, I had my first show at Rosario’s which back then was called Babylon grill.

Was it a conscious decision to start showing outside of galleries?

I hate galleries, I love museums but I have galleries. I still play them once in a while. I have a big gallery show this Saturday in Houston at Summer Street Studio in the Art Warehouse district. The art scene in Houston is crazy, but the money is so much better. I love living here but the art scene in Houston is a lot bigger.

Do you find the venues or do they find you?

They (businesses, owners) just see my work. I’m really easy to get a hold of. I’ve done stuff in so many years. I don’t pitch any work, people call me, which is pretty cool.

A look inside Umai Mi. (Courtesy Joanna Armijo Zammaron)

Do the restaurant owners/chefs have stipulations on what must be included?

Usually we’ll talk about a theme. One of my favorite recent projects is Umai Mi. It’s very challenging. It was really fun, my wife and I are a team when it comes to interiors. I do the fine art and the initial meetings. My wife (Carol Martelle Tatum) is more of a conceptualist, a really good art director and designer. She’s better with the nuts and bolts, I’m fly by pants. I’ll drive some clients crazy. I’ll say what’s your budget, and they’ll say we don’t really have a budget

So I say ‘Let’s start with a million.” Suddenly, it’s “we were thinking $50,000.’ Do I go through a thrift store, or go through catalogs. I have a design fee, but what’s the budget for spending money. If it’s $50 we can still make it work, but it’ll be pretty simple.

Jason (Dady) approached me to change his restaurant completely. It was pretty nutty for him to go, ‘I have a restaurant that totally works, it’s super successful and I just want to trash it and start completely over.’ To me that’s a visionary, and someone that has balls. What a challenge. He came in with very much a theme. Asian meets contemporary, and it’s all mixed up. Nothing traditional. It’s Asian, but fusion. He’s all about spices. That was really fun for me as an artist because that’s what I do with my icons, mixing things and mish-mashing and not having any rules about offending people, religiously, spiritually or culturally. It’s like a comedian that goes on stage. When it’s across the board it suddenly becomes PC. I like confusing because it starts a dialogue.

Is there any type of maintenance involved?

There’s touch up on murals. I’ve done 16 bars all by the same owner, the Karam family. They own Las Vegas Bar, Chicago Bar, New York Bar, Boston Bar–I did all the city-themed named bars. They wanted me to come all the way down, and I always encourage clients to start at a wainscoting, where they have a border and start the mural up from there. He likes the mural to start from the floor and people put their feet on it, they lean on it

I was going in (every few months), but I keep raising my prices. I put it in for the first couple of years, as maintenance, free. But if they’re coming in and they’re not paying much, and the older I get the more I can raise my prices, but for years, if I went in, I’d give them a really killer price. Now I can’t go back every week and touch it up for free. I probably made more money at the end of the year, touching up than I did initially during the whole mural. Sort of. It’s a pain in the ass, you have to match all the colors. I would rather spend my energy creating something new for that money than going in and touching up and touching up. Every time you touch up it starts to change. It’s like being a scientist and matching all those colors. I’m good at that, but it still changes a little it.

Is there any trade involved as payment?

It depends. Yes, there’s a bonus. I still have my price, and then I’ll help them curate young people’s art who do need exposure. I try not to mislead young people

that they’re not going to sell out their work in a restaurant or a bar. It adds an ambience to the owners, and how dare, how dare any restaurant or a bar try to take a percentage from any young artist. That’s just bullshit. They should be paying that artist for the ambiance they’re creating. ‘Oh, we want to give exposure to the artist,’ ‘We’re only going to take 30 percent’

whatever, dude. That’s what I try to help young people out with, to not get suckered into that.

A look at Tatum's mural inside Mellow Mushroom. (Courtesy of Rolando Ramirez Ramos)

Favorite thing to eat at each eatery:

At Umai Mi, it would be their deviled eggs–they’re like crack! I like simple little things. Hot Joy’s interior is beautiful. I know the guy who did that, but I think it’s a little busy, but hey man, it’s a visual, sexual explosion–it’s awesome. What I like about Jason Dady and Andrew Weissman is that they’re both experimental in their own way, and they’re both very tedious with their presentation, which I respect a lot as an artist. But they’re also really good about not trying too hard. They’re canvas is what they put on a plate, and my canvas is the interior. Seeing them be passionate about what they’re making inspires me as an artist to be just as passionate and give them an interior that reflects that.

It’s hard to choose a favorite. Every time I go back I experiment with something I haven’t tried. At Luxury, their pulled pork sandwich is pretty damn good and I don’t eat pork (laughs). I’m pretty spoiled, when I go to different places I ask for things that aren’t on the menu. I’m also aware of my diet. I’m a lot more aware of not eating fried foods, trying to eat less red meat or less pork. I’m careful with my bread intake. I love all that stuff, but as I’m getting older I’m more aware of eating healthier.

When you do a gallery show, how does that come together?

That’s galleries approaching me, cause I do have a reputation for not liking galleries. I’ll do one every few years

but I’m a whore in this town. My shit’s everywhere–my logos, signage–the whole list. I don’t want people to throw up when they see my work. It’s a small town and I’ve been here 21 years. I’ll do stuff all over Houston, but who knows, maybe in 20 years I’ll be a whore there too.

Are there any local artists you collect or would like to?

Yeah, I collect a lot of young, upcoming artists. One, it’s a lot more affordable. I think that with my age, and everything I’ve done, there’ve been a lot of young people that look up to me. I’ve enjoyed buying their art, and watching them grow, but at the same time I think they appreciate me taking the time to go to their shows, and buy their work. It makes them feel good. I buy it because I like it. The dynamic that goes into that is important. Show them the value of their work and give them some comments. It’s easier for them to take criticism when you purchase a piece. It’s a teaching process and I think I’ve been very lucky so it’s important for me to give back. There’s Evil Dave, who’s a tattoo artist out of Calaveras. Others are, Dennis Hodges, who’s from San Antonio but now lives in San Marcos. His early work was brilliant and now it’s just awesome. Scotch is one that I collect; he’s real quite and shows outside of San Antonio. I like independent artists. Soupé I’ve known since he was a kid and I’ve seen him come a long way. I think his photorealism of characters is flawless through spray paint, but I’d want him to get more conceptual.

Where do you fit between contemporary, commercial and fine artist? Which do you identify more with?

Take all three of those, and just combine it. Throw it in a bowl of soup and add one more ingredient and that’s who I am. I just like to create. Whether scribbling or painting.

What’s the ingredient?

It’s a secret!

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