As the lazy sunbeam of an L.A. afternoon drips to the floor via skylight in his West Hollywood Memoir Tattoo Studio, Shawn Barber stands smiling. Paintings adorn every facet of wall space, and he is enthralled in conversation with fellow artist Adrian Dominic, as Adrian applies a fresh leg piece to an also-smiling customer. The sounds of Sabbath fill the room, and Barber’s girlfriend and studio co-founder Kim Saigh sits at a drawing table, preparing for whatever Tuesday afternoon’s client has in store for her. The warmth in the room is abundant, and it becomes clear to me that Barber’s smile stems from the piece of mind that a person can only get when they are exactly where they want to be in life. Surrounded by art, this open studio space is “like a dream come true” for this purveyor of many palettes. While he may be enjoying the moment, the underlying perfectionism within Barber serves as the yang to this Zen-like yin. It is his fuel and his resolve; he is simply never satisfied with his work. “Taking a look back at the work I’ve done, I can honestly say that I wish I could redo all of it,” he says in between smiles. He’s dead serious too, but this sentiment is not uncommon among true artists, who usually spend a lifetime looking for ways to better execute technique and express themselves. Famed “Nighthawks” painter Edward Hopper was once quoted as saying, “If I could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” Perhaps this is why Barber is best known for his works on paper canvas, aside from the fact that his journey with the living canvas is just beginning.
Speaking volumes about his reverence for tattoos, Barber’s painted works are to contemporary tattoo culture what Annie Leibovitz’s photographs are to pop culture. If you name an iconic tattoo artist, chances are that Shawn has painted a portrait of them. It seems as though he is an unofficial portrait journalist of the culture, capturing these iconic men and women who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the hum of a needle. Rooted in realism, Shawn’s interest in figurative painting was heightened by the dimension of having to add tattoo work on his subjects. “The challenge for me is now bigger than portraiture; of course it’s exciting trying to get a likeness, to get the essence of that person. Unfortunately, it can become boring, and for me, tattoos make it a lot more interesting. They tell a story about that person’s life and my job is to also capture them in a painting. It’s a different kind of challenge,” Shawn says. After graduating with his BFA in 1999 from the Ringling School of Art & Design, in Sarasota, Florida, Shawn began teaching art courses, a path that eventually led him to San Francisco, where he lived for six years and shared a studio with tattooist Henry Lewis. “The studio we had was above a gallery called Whitewalls, and in that gallery there were tons of artists from all over the world that visited every month, and a lot of them had tattoos. I started to document these people by doing paintings of them, and Henry encouraged it. My friend from back home, Bryan Bancroft, who did a lot of my work, had wanted me to get into tattoos for years. Henry was working for Mike Davis at the time, and he asked him if I could apprentice there, so that’s how I started to become a tattoo artist,” Shawn says in between booking appointments. While not an easy transition at 35, tattooing has since become the newest muse of this incredible painter.
Barber’s painted works can be found in the collections of icons like Van Morrison and Robin Williams, in addition to extreme sports legend Mat Hoffman and Rolling Stone magazine founder Jan Wenner. In addition to two published books, Tattooed Portraits, and Forever and Ever, Barber’s work can also be found all over the globe, including the Joshua Liner Gallery in New York, where he will show off his latest exhibition this July. He has received accolades from American Illustration, Society of Illustrators, Communication Arts, RSVP, and The Artist’s Magazine, among others. Yet and still, he is focused on his latest infatuation with the living canvas, obsessing about tattoos day and night. Tattooing has definitely made its own mark on this revered painter, and though it would seem strange to some that such an accomplished artist would focus on a different medium, it’s important to remember that Barber’s world clearly revolves around making one’s own choices, oblivious to the skepticism of convention. In the shooting gallery of choice, Barber pulls the trigger and never looks back, confident in his empowered walk through life as a true artist.
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