Shawn Barber: The Tattooed Portraits – An Outsider’s View of Another World
Story and photos by Mitch Gurowitz
My trip to the Joshua Liner Gallery for the opening of Shawn Barber’s Memoir: The Tattooed Portraits Series was yet another door opening into another world for me. I went there to view the work of a fine artist who specializes in painting tattooers and tattooed people. While I’m no stranger to art or to galleries, I’ve only recently joined the ranks of the tattooed a few months earlier as a celebration of my 50th birthday.
My mind skipped between the excitement of seeing Shawn’s artwork up close and meeting him and the subjects of some of his work, and also concern that the reception would be a gathering of a very exclusive and private group of professionals… A group that may not appreciate an outsider walking into their world…
I introduced myself to Shawn at the beginning of the evening, bought his new book, started to tell him a bit of my story and quickly stopped. “This is your night, I really don’t mean to bore you with my reason for being here.” He smiled and replied, “Absolutely not. I’m here for you guys tonight.”
A few months earlier, I was sitting in a chair getting the outline for my first tattoo. The one I had been talking myself out of for the past 35 years. There was no going back; the echoing voices were about to be silenced. Those voices had been repeating: “You know what old guys’ tats look like, green blobs with no shape or form, or the blurry names of girls they didn’t marry.” This was going to be painful and permanent, and if I found a bad artist, or a good artist on a bad day, I’d have to walk away with bad art as a punishment for the rest of my life.
At the beginning of the year, I had stumbled across Jeff Johnson’s book Tattoo Machine… “You aren’t thinking about getting a tattoo,” my wife announced. I said no, I just found the journalism fascinating as a look into a world that I never knew existed. Later my wife reiterated her statement when I started watching a few of the reality shows about tattoo shops. I couldn’t help but think how amazing the art form is, and the people who were creating it were from the same land of misfits that I came from: skateboarders, punk rockers, artists who loved their craft, and the individuals who paved the way before them. A secret society in which people had to endure rigorous and sometimes abusive apprenticeships in order to have the opportunity to learn their craft.
I really wanted to be part of it in some way. So rather than dreading my upcoming milestone birthday, I was going to celebrate it – with a tattoo.
I’d been secretly downloading images for the past three years. I researched artists too. After a while a bunch of famous names kept repeating, as well as a local artist named Paul Nolin.
I put together a silhouette of my passions and hobbies. Paul said he could make my idea work, but he didn’t think it would result in something I’d be happy with. He asked what brought me to his shop, and I blurted out “I think your Japanese style is really great.” Now he knew why I was really there, and he steered me toward a Japanese dragon half-sleeve that I am happy and proud to look at every day.
So my discovery of this new world brought me to Shawn Barber’s show, and I observed a fascinating paradigm there: artwork was being appreciated in an art gallery, by viewers who had incredible collections of art on their own bodies, and they were taking photos of photorealistic paintings of other tattoo art collectors. Shawn’s artwork is breathtaking. His sense of shape, placement, expression and recreation of light sources are incredible, and to view his oil paintings up close and see the brushstrokes was an experience unto itself.
As the evening progressed, I noticed a lot of very familiar faces: artists, people who make the machines and equipment. Kim Saigh, Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez were among the many great artists in attendance, as was musician and Ink Master host Dave Navarro. I enjoyed watching artists enjoying the exhibition, and I did my best to capture a few images of the night and of people appreciating the fantastic display of Shawn’s creativity.
Walking back to catch a train after the event, I thought about how fortunate I was to have a chance to view these paintings among a group of artists with a real appreciation for the artwork brushed onto the canvases — and the artwork within the artwork displayed on the people within the paintings.
Mitch Gurowitz is a printing professional and a concert and sports photographer who lives in New Jersey with his corporate historian and blogger wife Margaret, young artist daughter Alice, and two Bengal cats. He waited 50 years for his first tattoo, and is busily planning the rest of his personal art exhibition.