“My art has become a history lesson for me,” reflects San Francisco artist Shawn Barber. “I’m constantly learning about the tattoo industry, the people that have defi ned it, and those who have changed it.”
The 37-year-old painter has devoted the past three years to creating Tattooed Portraits, a bold collection of paintings of artists with tattoos, tattoo artists, tattooed art, and tattooist materials. The pieces, which average about 30 inches by 40 inches, reveal Barber’s talent for capturing a raw sense of simplicity existing in a swirl of intricate designs, patterns, and colors.
He creates more than 100 paintings a year, and those have been collected into two books, 2006’s highly successful coffee table tome, Tattooed Portraits, and the recent follow-up Forever and Ever, which contains “The New York Experience,” a two-and-a-half month project for which Barber photographed and painted the hands of 25 respected New York City tattoo artists.
“Hands are an artist’s primary tools, the thing most connected to your work, the most intimate part of your body,” Barber muses. “Hands are totally unique, and to show the difference between them is fascinating.”
The New York native became interested in tattoos during his teens (he first got inked when he was 16). But it wasn’t until he developed a more sophisticated art appreciation while attending art school in Florida in his mid-twenties, and after graduation, when he move to San Francisco, that he began to understand the tattoo as fine art.
“I’m a heavily tattooed person, and fascinated by portraiture and art history, so spending the past three years in San Francisco, the mecca of the American tattoo, brought all of these things together and really inspired me to document tattoo culture,” Barber says.
The next chapter in Tattooed Portraits is a solo show documenting the Los Angeles ink scene, which will be displayed at Billy Shire Fine Arts in Los Angeles in July. “I’ll probably continue to work on this series for the rest of my life,” Barber reflects, “constantly trying new things and exploring different aspects of documenting the artists and culture of contemporary tattooing.” Barber is even trying his hand at tattooing. He’s been working through an apprenticeship for the past year and a half with Mike Davis at Everlasting Tattoo in San Francisco. He admits it’s tough. “I’m still surprised at the awkwardness of the medium. … It’s much more difficult than you’d expect.”