Shawn Barber’s loving depictions of tattoo culture have a reverence and attention to detail that is often reserved for Smithsonian Museum Naturalists. His work is extraordinarily respectful of his subjects and he is keenly aware of their setting, though admittedly, it’s a far cry from yer grandma’s old-school botanical drawings.
Portrait of the Artist, Bryan Bancroft, 2010
Barber’s work is a pleasing balance of meticulous observation and interpretive storytelling, nicely packaged with tight technical prowess. The likenesses of the subjects within his oil paintings are painstakingly accurate, but since they exist within a loose framework of gestural brush strokes, drips and smears, they never feel staid or over-analyzed.
Portrait of the Artist, Alison Casson, 2006
His propensity to duplicate arms or heads in multiple positions, only adds to the feeling of movement and verve. Quite simply, Barber’s work is transient and fluid, while simultaneously excelling as an emotional snapshot of the people and places observed.
Portrait of the Artist, Mutsuo, 2007
Barber’s latest show ‘Youth of Today’ at Fecal Face in San Francisco, expands on his on-going doll series and adds eleven new works to the contingent. He continues to employ the same techniques he has used before (gestural brushwork paired with tight observations) yet this series is more metaphorically laden with symbolism.
I asked Shawn why is he drawn to the subject matter of dolls and how it relates to his upcoming show at Fecal Face. He had this to say,
“Youth of Today is the next chapter of paintings in The Doll Series. The Doll Series has been my response to living in a world consumed by popular culture. After living in Los Angeles for two years and traveling around the world, it’s abundantly clear what motivates many young people in America and across the globe. It’s inescapable. Unless you don’t own a TV, don’t surf the Net and live in a secluded town with no human contact- we are bombarded by the bullshit. Celebrities, Politics, Sports, the News- Mass Media controls what the general public consumes. It’s vanilla, it’s boring, it’s watered down versions of someone else’s ideas from 20 years ago and done poorly. Fame is king and it doesn’t mean a fucking thing. All that these assholes want to do is impress the bullies that picked on them in high school and have something to compensate their shortcomings.”
Attention Deficit, 2011 – from the series ‘Youth of Today’
Youth of Today – Paintings by Shawn Barber
July 8 – August 13, 2011
Barber has been interviewed many times by John Trippe, owner of Fecal Face where ‘Youth of Today’ is on display. I highly recommend this FANTASTIC 2009 interview that also features video interview and a peek at Barber’s former studio. There is also this insightful studio visit from 2008 when Barber shared a painting space with fellow artists Henry Lewis & Mike Davis.
The back story for this talented artist.
Barber is well known for his on-going tattoo series of the most talented tattoo artists and fine artists working today. He has displayed these paintings in well known galleries such as Corey Helford Gallery, LA, Yves Laroche Gallery, Montreal; The Shooting Gallery & White Walls, San Francisco, CA; and Strychnin Gallery, Berlin, Germany. His work is owned by supah-stars Mat Hoffman, Van Morrison, Christian Slater and Rolling Stone magazine’s founder Jan Wenner. And if that is not enough to impress you, articles and reviews of his work have appeared in BoingBoing, Juxtapoz, GQ, Maxim, W Magazine, and The Village Voice.
He is represented by Joshua Linear Gallery in NY. Below are images from his previous 2010 solo show with the Joshua Linear titled ‘Tattooed Portraits: Chronicle.’
Worth noting, Ken Harman at Arrested Motion conducted a great interview for this show that is worth a read.
All photos courtesy of Joshua Linear Gallery.
Upper right: Portrait of the Artist, Marisa Kakoulas, 48 x 60 in.
Bottom left: Portrait of the Artist, Thomas Woodruff, 72 x 40 in.
Bottom Right: Portrait of the Artist, Anna Sheffield, 50 x 30 in.
Barber has published two books which are currently out of print and quite hard to come by. ‘Tattooed Portraits’ published in 2006 and ‘Forever & Ever,’ in 2008. Each have huge, well-produced color images. If you are lucky enough to find one of these books used, do not hesitate – buy it immediately.
Fortunately, Barber is in the process of working on a new Tattooed Portraits book with Last Gasp Books. It will be an overview of the past few years with a focus on the best of over 250 paintings from this series.
Sharing his knowledge
Barber is a natural teacher. He communicates the technical steps necessary to achieve success, in a concise understandable way, without laying down a lot of personal opinions about style. He is the kind of teacher where a student can take away a lot of valuable information without feeling bogged down or intimidated.
He will be on the road this year teaching seminars. He can be found at:
Seattle Tattoo Expo in August- tattooing and teaching a heads and hands workshop and Paradise Tattoo Gathering in Massachusetts in September – tattooing and teaching two portrait painting workshops.
Check out a trailer for this DVD.
These are two samples from the DVD
Weaving a narrative thread
Aside from his keen technical skills, there are two qualities in Barber’s work that I appreciate the most. The first is his uncanny ability to capture his subject’s honest personalities. At times, there is such intimacy to his portrayals the images almost feel voyeuristic. In his most successful portraits, Barber is able to peel back the veneer and capture each person’s inner, unspoken truth.
Portrait of the Artist, Henry Lewis, 2008
I have featured Lewis before.
Portrait of the Artist, Shannon O’Sullivan, 2008
Portrait of the Artist, Grime, 2006
NOTE: Grime is the man behind the infamous San Francisco tattoo shop Skull & Sword, where I see Yutaro Sakai for on-going (eghm) therapy.
Portrait of the Artist, Norm, 2007
Portrait of the Artist, Paul Booth, 2006
The second thing I truly admire is Barber’s keen knack for storytelling. In many of his portraits there is a clear narrative.
At times it is abundantly clear…
Portrait of the Artist, Christy Road, 2007
Portrait of the Artist, Bob Roberts, 2008
… while in others, he allows a complicated story to unfold.
Portrait of the Artist, Chantel Menard, 2007
An artist reborn
Given the years that Barber spent painting the BEST tattooist on the planet, it is no surprise he decided to take up the medium himself. What is extraordinarily impressive is how quickly he was able to master the demands of the merciless tattoo machine. For those not familiar with the fine art of tattooing, I really can’t emphasize enough that this is BY FAR the hardest artistic skill to master. Why do you think there is so much BAD tattoo work out there? It would seem in about 4 years time, he has been able to achieve what takes many tattoist 20+ years to master.
Below is a brief sampling of his work.
Recreation of James Jean’s ‘Crayon Eater’ on the arm of blogger David Huyck over at Drawn.
You may view more of Barber’s tattoo work at the website of his LA studio, Memoir Tattoo, which he opened with the infamous and staggeringly talented Kim Saigh. You may view her work on her personal website and at the shop website. They share the space with the talented James Spencer Briggs and Adrain Dominic.
For those of you who can’t make it to LA, Barber will be traveling to three conventions this year.
Seattle Tattoo Expo in August, Paradise Tattoo Gathering in Massachusetts in Sept. and Convention of the Tattoo Arts in San Francisco in October.
Barber was interviewed by Kim Saigh, for Tattoo Society magazine, 2009. This older interview still provides insight into Barber’s tireless and humble journey to become a tattoo artist.
What is it like to have to assume a beginner’s mind in learning the craft of tattooing, having the level of accomplishment that you have as a painter? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered while learning to tattoo?
Honestly it has been the most frustrating and humbling medium I’ve worked with. I think coming into at 36 years old, the sense of responsibility was the most difficult obstacle to tackle. I’m becoming much more comfortable with the process, but still occasionally sweat bullets. I also know that coming into it part time has definitely slowed me down. Tattooing is not a hobbyist’s game. It deserves and demands all of your energy and complete attention. I really am excited to focus more of my energy on drawing for tattoos.
You’ve been exposed to so many tattooers that have a broad range of styles who are also at the top of their game. What have you been able to take from those opportunities & how has it influenced the direction in which you want to take your own work?
I am in a unique situation. The community overall has been very supportive and gracious with their knowledge and experience. I’ve gotten tattooed a lot the last 5 years and travelled extensively to document the artists and the process. Everyone has completely different opinions and ideas on how tattoos should look and how the process should work and I’m fascinated by it. I’m trying to be a sponge and take it all in, but it is overwhelming to have all of these different opinions in my head that I respect and sincerely appreciate. There is definitely an overall consensus that ‘tried and true’- skin is skin and the thirds method creates the most opportunity for the longevity of tattoos and I get it. A third black, a third color and a third skin. It’s always ‘The Threes’… Light, Middle, Dark; Foreground, Middle ground, Background; Focal Point, Main Subject, Overall Impact; Image, Message, Content. Balance that shit.
What are your thoughts on traditional & Japanese tattooing versus photo realism & “painterly” tattooing?
Most of the tattoos that I have on my body, are a mix of traditional, new school and japanese. There is a timeless and graphic aesthetic that just looks great on the human form when it’s done well. Photorealism and more painterly tattoos, at times, look amazing. They don’t always complement the human form, nor does there always seem to be a concern for overall composition. The greats out there doing it can do it well and are actually quite considerate of the human aesthetic, but there are way too many that are just slapping on designs with the focus being on rendering detail and a complete lack of interest in composition. There also seems to be an overwhelmingly poor use of color, with no balance of cool to warm, no consideration of contrast and the necessity, power and longevity of using black as a foundation to help the tattoo last the clients lifetime.
How is the tattooing community different from the artist community? What attracts you to,or repels you from both?
I think that a lot of artists in general are either insecure, ego-maniacs or both. There is no segregation between crafts. Artists that are progressive are typically humble enough to understand that “you know what, I’m not that good. I want to improve and I’m going to consciously and objectively critique my flaws to get to the next level”. That’s a difficult realization to accept for a lot of people that are used to getting smoke blown up their asses. With the tattoo community, there is an overwhelming sense of FAMILY. Sure there are cliques, and at times it feels like high school, but everyone is so fucking cool. A lot of tattoo artist’s are workhorses that love everything tattoo and they embrace the community. They share their stories, they cherish their experience with humanity and they appreciate how awesome a job it is to be their own boss that gets to travel the world and draw pictures on people. Tattooing is a medium that you cannot do in isolation. You have to interact with humanity. Most fine artists sit in their studio and create in isolation. I do it as often as I can. But I need a balance of both. The artists community outside of tattooing, is familial- but I think it’s much more about where you live, than being connected to the worldwide arts community.
Though Barber is taking less commercial and editorial work these days (preferring to focus on painting and tattooing), below are a few of his commissioned pieces I pulled to show his range.
Right: Angus Young, painted for The Grammy Awards
Middle: Portrait of Elvis Costello for the Vancouver Magazine calendar page.
Right: Portrait of Louis Jordan for Rolling Stone Magazine’s Immortals Issue.
Left: Portrait of Margaret Cho used for her comedic album “Cho Dependant” (photo property of Margaret Cho)
Right: Portrait of President Barak Obama for the Wall Street Journal’s special Inauguration edition.
And in closing, here are the five questions I ask everyone plus a juicy one just for him.:
What artists or creative person has influenced you?
I have so many close friends that are pushing the boundaries with their respective crafts. They always challenge my own personal work ethic and inspire me to dig deeper.
Not including other artists or art, what inspires you?
Knowing that our time here is limited, traveling and experiencing situations that are surprising and humbling inspires me to live.
What is the part of your process you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the act of painting and the freedom of not being fearful of destroying a work in progress.
… the least?
I know that deadlines push most of us to be more efficient and force you into ‘completing’ work, but the deadline is always a pain in the ass.
If you were NOT an artist (fine art or tattooist) what would you be doing?
I enjoy working with my hands and the technical aspect of art making. I’ve worked on old cars for a few years and could see getting into restoring and building vintage automobiles.
One of my (many) favorite paintings of yours is owned by my friend Buddy Nestor, (who has a solo show in LA @ Hyaena Gallery now). The painting titled “This is my Blood” is from your ‘09 show “Anathama” at Last Rights Gallery. Many of your pieces in this show featured women dressed as nuns performing highly erotic acts. With the recent brutal destruction of Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” and Jenny Harts’ two light-heartedly irreverent religious works stolen from a Toronto show, there continues to be pressure on creatives to stay away from religion. Can you speak about your experience showing your works in the “Anathama” show?
This is My Blood, 2009 (in the private collection of Buddy Nestor)
The ‘Anathema’ show was a great experience for me in many ways. At the time, I had just ended a 9 year relationship, left a couple of work situations that I wasn’t happy with, and was sleeping on the studio floor for a couple of months. I was at a point where I was over allowing anyone telling me what to do and trying to project their own insecurities towards the way that I wanted to live my life. It was cathartic. That series was for a friend’s gallery in New York- Paul Booth‘s Last Rites Gallery. Paul is passionate and devotionally serious about having a forum for artists to go in a darker direction with their work, when it might not always be what they are known for. “Imagine having Thomas Kinkade-’The Painter of Light’, doing work fueled by his own personal demons- and you know he has some dark shit going on in his head”. Through many conversations with Paul, not only did I want to support his gallery, but I wanted to have fun with the show and just go off, with no reservations. As a non-believer in any form of religion I could have fun with provoking the silliness of ALL of it and just paint. It was a nice escape from having to worry about a likeness, as well.
Did you encounter hostility?
I didn’t encounter any hostility and was actually surprised by how many people liked the work.
Would you pursue similarly controversial subject matter in the future?
As far as approaching controversial subjects in the future, anything is possible if it needs to happen.
Thank you for your time Shawn.