The RL Q&A: Tripoli Patterson

The surfer turned gallerist on how he got his start, the power of the ocean and why surfing is like performance art
Tripoli Patterson isn’t your average pro surfer. He isn’t exactly your average art dealer, either. Over the past decade, Patterson has proved as adept at spotting emerging artists as he is at spying the perfect wave, opening an eponymous gallery in Southampton, New York, in 2009, at the tender age of 24. Following the success of his Southampton gallery—its latest show featured works by contemporary heavyweights like Ryan McGinley, Richard Prince, Julian Schnabel and Michael Avedon—Patterson has just opened a second gallery, in East Hampton.

RL Magazine: You earned your first surf sponsorship at age 13. How did you start surfing?

Tripoli Patterson: I started when I was, like, 8 years old. My mother was a water person, and it’s an ocean community out here on Long Island. For us, it was natural to be raised on the beach and in the ocean.

Did your mother surf, too?

She surfed when she was really young, but I think she got slammed with a board and then didn’t surf again until she was, like, 35 years old. And then she was very into it; she was one of the only women that would surf on Long Island year-round. I think she was the New York state champion for several years for her age division, and ended up placing in the United States championships two years in a row.

What do you love the most about surfing?
Just being in the ocean and being surrounded by nature—it’s very instinctual. When you’re in the ocean, you’re not technically thinking of the things that you do; you’re more interacting with the things that are around you. Being connected to that natural element is a big part of what I still love the most.
Portrait of Tripoli Patterson, who is seated on a vibrant red rock
The pro surfer curated his first art show at 20 years old
Tripoli Patterson cresting a wave on a surfboard
Just another day in the waves for the Sag Harbor native

What are your favorite local surf spots?
The local spots change constantly because Long Island has mostly a sand bottom and the sandbars are constantly shifting from one beach to the next. There are some good rock-bottom places in Montauk that I like to go to, and those also vary depending on the swell direction, wind direction, the intervals of the swell and how close together the waves are. My playing field of spots that I surf are from New Jersey all the way to Montauk Point and in between, the whole bottom coast of Long Island, all the way up to Rockaway and Long Beach, depending on the conditions we’re dealing with.

You opened Tripoli Gallery at a fairly young age. What inspired you to open an art gallery?

I opened the gallery in 2009, but I had already been doing art shows for three or four years. I did my first when I was 20, the Thanksgiving Collective, which is the 10th annual this year. That first Thanksgiving show wasn’t really that thought-out. I had tons of friends that were artists; eastern Long Island is a very artistic community. I was just putting things together. I was a social person due to my surfing history, so that kind of naturally led to putting on an art show.

I invited four artists that I thought were great. One of them was Angelbert Metoyer, whom I’d met on the train coming from the city to Bridgehampton. So, it was a very organic process. The others were Lola Schnabel, Tin Ojeda and John Ros Rist. I did the event at a gallery in Bridgehampton, which was an old barn—a beautiful location—and it turned into an amazing evening. We had almost a thousand people show up.

The interior of the Tripoli Patterson gallery
“I had tons of friends that were artists; eastern Long Island is a very artistic community.”
I was a social person due to my surfing history, so that kind of naturally led to putting on an art show.

That must have been very encouraging.
Yeah, and so the following year I ended up renting my own barn, redoing the inside lighting—because lighting is one of the most important parts of showing artwork—and that was the first art show that I put together by myself without any other people. Chuck Close showed up, and we had a 75-pound pig that I had a local restaurant roast underground. The people that came were very encouraging and supportive, and that pushed me forward.

Then I curated three exhibitions in one summer, including a solo show with Félix Bonilla Gerena, a Puerto Rican painter that I had met on a surf trip. After that there was a switch of how serious I was taking it because I could tell how much this meant for Félix. I could tell how honored he was that this show was all about him, and it made me take it more seriously.

He went back to Puerto Rico and dedicated nine months to painting a new exhibition we had planned, but I didn’t have a space yet. I was between the rocks. I had a good friend who was a real estate broker and found a great space in Southampton, right across from the Parrish Art Museum. I signed a six-month lease, and that was six years ago.

Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship to art and artists?
That goes back to my upbringing. My godmother was Lisa de Kooning, Willem de Kooning’s daughter; she and my mother grew up together. My father was a pre-Columbian art dealer. My mom painted for fun. My little brother is an artist; his artist name is Yung Jake. And my little sister is an artist; her name is Matisse Patterson. I’ve shown both of their work.

Tripoli Patterson surfing
“I can tell who’s surfing from miles away just by their body language.”

Do you create art yourself?
I like being behind the scenes. I think I have a good eye and good taste—it isn’t confusing for me to tell what I like and don’t, and the artists that I believe in. So it was a natural role to take, being a curator and an art dealer.

I’m realizing that surfing is also a kind of performance art in however you decide to express yourself on the ocean. I can tell who’s surfing from miles away just by their body language. I don’t need to see the details of their face or color of their hair, just the path on the wave that they take. I think that goes to show that everyone has their own way of interacting with the same medium, like painters have different ways of interacting with paint.

Has surfing influenced the way you dress? How would you describe your personal style?
Comfort is definitely a top priority in what I’m wearing. I like a sense of utility, something you can move and work and live your life in.

Has your aesthetic as an art curator influenced your style?
Yes, and I think dress suits are the main thing, or button-down shirts. You do, at times, have to feel the part.

Are there any words you live by?
A word very important to me is honesty. I like surrounding myself with people that are clear and to the point. I think it’s good for your heart.

  • PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT CLARK
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY GORDON M. GRANT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY JAMES KATSIPIS
  • COURTESY OF TRIPOLI GALLERY
  • PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT CLARK