Artists: Shawn Barber
Los Angeles, CA
For a period of time you were a part time instructor at a few colleges, but you seem to have stopped doing so. What made you decide to stop teaching?
I’ve been teaching since 1999. I started in the institutional environment, but made the conscious decision to take a break from my career in education in 2006, around the time I started a tattoo apprenticeship. I’ve taught workshops actively since then around the world a few times a year and currently teach two days a week in Los Angeles at the Safehouse Atelier, for serious full and part time students interested in observational drawing and painting.
How did you make the transition from educator to tattooer?
It was a very difficult transition for me at that specific time for many reasons. I think for my age, at 35, to switch careers was a bit of a challenge mentally and financially. I’ve always been an efficient multitasker, but the overwhelming density of learning to tattoo at that age was, at times, overwhelming, yet very humbling and inspiring. I was fortunate to meet, befriend and learn from many knowledgeable, passionate, dedicated tattooists who love the craft and appreciate its history and cherish the traditions of the past.
How did you get into tattooing?
I started getting tattooed at 16 years old in Cortland, NY. I would draw flash and tattoos for the local tattooists in trade for tattoos. At the time, I was consumed with being a comic book inker and tattooing wasn’t my focus. As time went on, I abandoned the dream to work in comics and fell in love with painting. I continued to get larger scale tattoos and appreciated the impact of new school tattooing throughout the 90’s. My hometown friend, Bryan Bancroft had an enormous impact on me and my work and encouraged me to consider tattooing as a craft. In early 2000, I painted a few portraits of tattooed friends and artists whose work I admired, and inevitably fell into tattooing as a professional pursuit. I shared a studio with an artist and tattooist, Henry Lewis, in San Francisco, above a gallery space that had a constant flow of tattooed artists visiting for exhibitions and fun. Henry had worked for a painter/tattooist, Mike Davis, who he suggested might be willing to help me learn the craft.
It is uncommon for a tattooer to have a degree in the arts, do you feel your education has helped you in tattooing?
I think by having an understanding of drawing, composition, color theory, anatomy and art business—there’s a jumping off point that allowed my progress as a tattooist to excel in many ways, but was also a hurdle in many aspects. Tattooing is it’s own craft. You make a mark in the skin, whatever type of mark you’re trying to make, the second you break the skin, something is there. Whether it’s a purposeful mark or a remnant of a timid scribble, it’s a permanent reminder of that action. After being a professional artist for 15 years, to switch mediums and attempt to tattoo professionally, on a regular basis, was a very obvious reality check that tattooing is its own art. It takes time to learn the craft—the mechanics of tattooing, the variables of human flesh as a surface, drawing something to compliment the body and consider the tattoo’s lifetime on the individual—there is a lot to consider.
You have a number of commercial clients, including American Airlines, Converse, Target, and Scholastic Books, how did you become affiliated with these brands?
I’ve been a professional commercial illustrator since 1999. I started as an editorial illustrator, and the work grew into unexpected places with projects that have been interesting and life changing. I still do a little bit of commercial work a few times a year, mostly portraiture for college textbooks. Having this experience had definitely prepared me for the variables in requests in tattooing. I don’t have any problems separating what is being made for someone else’s needs and how to be efficient and content enough in doing my best with each assignment. I produce so much work, much of it for my own needs, that I’ve found a decent balance.
Many artists feel it’s hard to find time to paint and tend to focus all of their time on making art for their tattoos. You on the other hand seem to have found time for both. How do you balance time for tattooing, art, and family?
I’ve definitely found a balance through experience and having a life partner that gives me the space to do what’s best for me. As artists, we are selfish in our need and desire to create. I’ve embraced this reality and don’t apologize for my need to make pictures. It makes me happy and people seem to like the work enough at times that it affords me the flexibility to make work for commerce and also make a lot of work that never considers its own financial stability. I also have the freedom to keep unusual hours and have a working schedule that allows me to travel and experience more than I could have ever imagined. I love tattooing. I practice the craft; I make paintings about its practitioners, pioneers and places; I give back to the community as much as I can through teaching and being an example of someone who genuinely loves everything about tattooing.