Q&A With Peter Tunney: Legendary Artist Discusses Sobriety, Inspiration & Advice To Young Artists

Written by Kerry Shaw

You've probably seen Peter Tunney's work but didn't know he was the brains behind it. Tunney's billboards, with inspirational phrases such as "The Time Is Always Now" and "City of Dreams" greet people as they enter New York City, and have started appearing in places like Starbucks and the Long Island Expressway. He's also famous for his "Grattitude" surf boardsJason met him at Art Basel Miami and was blown away by his powerful message of positivity.

We had the good fortune to talk with Tunney last month, and hope you enjoy his insights as much as we did!

MindBodyGreen: How did you go from Wall Street to where you are today?

PT: I’ve kind of been selling the whole time. When I was in Boy Scouts, we had to sell light bulbs door-to-door. I think I sold more light bulbs than anyone in America. I worked 12 hours a day. I had a great pitch. I said, “This is a product you’re always going to use. You’re never going to throw one of them out. They cost $3 in the store. You can buy them from me for $2, and you help the Boy Scouts. How many packages would you like?”

So it sounds like you combine inspiration and perspiration.

That’s why it’s working for me now. Because I’ve grown up, I’m organized, I don’t get stoned every day. I love what I’m doing. I’ve got a schedule.

Many of our readers want to make big changes in their lives. It sounds like you were looking for something similar.

I went to a party when I was 13 and I came home when I was 43. I was running, trying to get stuff, accomplish things. When I got sober, I gave up all that. I just let the whole world come to me. And once I surrendered and let go of everything, good stuff happened to me.

Was there a specific moment that made you want to give up that life?

I would say it was the moment when my family said, “You better go to rehab.” But I never had that moment. I never knew anything was wrong. I just thought life was hard and that’s the way it is.

Were you open to the world of spirituality back then?

As I know it today, I was always this way. Even at 5am when we were partying, inside of me I felt shameful and guilty about what I was doing. There was a part of me that wanted to get better, but I wasn’t able to see that so clearly or process it. So it was there. I can give you 100 examples of when my life sucked.

And the universe’s way is awesome. I was great at cutting off the miracles, of blowing up my own world, like lots of people in that position, who are just completely self-destructive with their behavior. We don’t have a healthcare crisis in America. We have a health crisis. We don’t need better healthcare, we need better health, mental health especially.

There’s this debate about raising money for Sandy Hook, whether the money should go to gun control or mental health. Mental health! People are crazy. Let’s have a day where no one does anything. Everybody sit still for one day! Just sit in a chair and be quiet for one day and we’ll have a peaceful planet.

Do you practice meditation or mindfulness?

I do. I meditate every day. I like to do it in the mornings; sometimes I do it in the afternoon. I just have to go out and re-center because I’m in the middle of a lot of chaos. It’s kind of a personal thing. I take time out of the day and I redirect my energy in a different way.

For me, praying is talking, meditating is listening. So it’s just listening, listening to the wind in the trees and just connecting with something else.

I remember seeing your “Grattitude” sign, with double T’s. Can you talk more about that?

Well, it’s just come to me over a while that gratitude is not just something you say when you get what you want. I like the idea of putting it out there of gratitude as an action. How are you expressing your gratitude specifically? What is the physical manifestation of that? And I meditated about that.

How did the billboard project come about?

I was driving into NYC, and everyday, I’d see the same billboards. And it all felt so fake. I was just tired of these too-skinny models almost pretending to give each other oral sex. Or billboard about buying beer, stupid stuff. What if some rich guy put up a billboard that said, “Everything is okay”? So I just started talking about that, and then the next thing you know, the billboards went up.

The first one said “City of Dreams.” But how perfect. So I decided to rename New York City the “City of Dreams,” which it absolutely is.

So I just put up the stuff. I firmly believe that New York City will be called the “City of Dreams.” We have 50 more signs, billboards, walls coming.

We have so many billionaires in the city. How many, ever in the history of New York City, have felt like putting up a positive message? Like me, Peter Tunney, $800 in my checking account, I’m the guy who has to do that? That’s shocking to me!

Do you see fear as the primary driver to our world’s problems? Do you see yourself as using your art to overcome fear?

A thousand percent. That’s my subject, man. I want to be a fear-diminisher. That’s it. If I do that a little bit, that’s good. I also like to bring up the possibility of magic, that when you come into my place, it’s like a magic world.

I want you to come in and realize that anything’s possible. You can just do what you want to do. You have to take some lumps along the way, I certainly took them. I needed every one of them.

What do you say to someone who’s in that dark place and they’re overcome with fear?

I have that conversation like 25 times a day. I tell almost everyone I talk to that they should be afraid of where they are right now. Run down, dark, hopeless-that’s the thing I’m afraid of being. That’s the only place you don’t want to be. And it’s not a real place. There is no hopeless place. Not in Darfur, not here, not anywhere. There’s tons of hope everywhere. If you close the door on that idea, you’re just wrong.

What’s the advice you give to young artists?

Number 1 on the list of qualities you need: ability to suffer. You have to have the ability to get through it. That’s the admissions ticket. It will not be easy. You have to be so strong in what you’re doing. I would say that if you want to be the world’s greatest clarinet player, square dancer, or actor. Work your ass off. Put your head down and be ready to come in 28th and be happy. You have to enjoy the process. If you’re in it for the end game, you’re doomed. You’ve got to be in it for today.

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