Artist Shawn Barber

An example of fine art by Shawn Barber

Photo of Shawn Barber

The Artist Says:

I've been documenting tattoo culture and contemporary tattoo history with a series of paintings, The Tattooed Portraits Series.I started painting tattooed artists in 2005, obsessively documenting the men and women that define contemporary tattoo art. My dedication and enthusiasm for the art form gradually opened doors for me to learn the craft from some of the greatest tattoo artists in the world. My life is consumed with tattooing, the art of tattoo and documentation of tattooing through painting works on this subject. Presently, over four hundred works have been made in this series.

Collectors Say:

Foreword from Margaret Cho for the Shawn's book, 'Memoir, The Tattooed Portraits Series', 2012, Last Gasp Books.
Shawn Barber photographed me for reference material for his magnificent portrait of me during a session at one of my favorite places in the world, Everlasting Tattoo – a beautiful tattoo parlor at 813 Divisadero Street in San Francisco. i love everlasting tattoo. It’s one of the places that I want to have my ashes interred, after I have finally shaken off this mortal coil. please leave my cremated remains at Everlasting Tattoo, my face in a jar by the door, like Eleanor Rigby. The place means that much to me. I’ve bled gallons there, my DNA infiltrating the walls from getting tattooed time and time again by the owner mike davis as I marveled at his supreme and surreal Bosch/Breughel inspired paintings there; I’ve hung out there, gossiped with the other artists and clients under the influence of the strange high that being tattooed gives you there – forcing you to reveal more than you might if you were stone cold sober, or at the very least on some other more predictable and traditional controlled substance. I’ve drunk the odd Tecate there (I’m not a beer drinker by nature, but the place calls for it somehow) played guitars with mike there, eaten protein bars standing up like a horse there, laughed at henry lewis until I released small amounts of urine there, smoked cigarettes guiltily in the back of the shop there, shot music videos for jill sobule there, made commercials for my much loved yet ill-fated VH-1 reality project “The Cho Show” there, wished mightily that I had another pristine and untattooed body while staring at the impressive flash there and most importantly, forged a friendship there with one of the most talented, influential, inspiring, prolific, genius - and frankly-just-fucking-cool artists of our time, Shawn Barber. Shawn stood on a ladder, photographing my session with mike from above, as mike tattooed a finely detailed and impressive pink peony on my chest. I was high on the tattoo, loving the design, the flower that signifies my Korean name which means ‘Peony’, and my artist mike - my skin being broken yet again, some spirit coming into me and taking me over, as it always happens when I am being tattooed. My high was not only from being tattooed.  It was helped along tremendously by a cannabis lollipop I had smuggled in from the ubiquitous drug dispensaries in Los Angeles, the big, bristly, vicious looking Malinois drug dog at the Oakland airport not even giving me a second look as I waltzed past his well trained snout with my bag full of drug infused candy. I’d given Shawn a lollipop, infused with highest grade of medical marijuana, meant for cancer and aids patients (but I felt qualified to partake with Shawn because let’s face it – we’re sick) and he and I both sucked on the deadly (or life-saving) sweets with abandon, not realizing that the drugs would have a direct line into our circulatory systems – sublingual ingestion being much more potently unforgiving than plain old digestion or even smoking it. I was so high I don’t remember much about that evening, except that Shawn was a little too high, and then, suddenly - way too high. Shawn put his camera down and sat on a metal folding chair, a fearful look in his crystal blue eyes. I mentioned something about the sinister sand people – the predatory mummy-like villainous creatures who terrorized the dusty planet Tattooine (appropriately named in this situation) in the first installment of Star Wars, and Shawn whispered softly - “That’s freaking me out…” I saw the druggy paranoia in his face – that fear that comes from being in a place where you haven’t been before. Higher than you meant to go. Far from the home of your head and unsure you would be able to find your way back. I felt bad that I had dosed one of the most important artists of this century. I worried. Would Shawn Barber come back from this trip into the outer limits intact? Would he be forever impaired? Did I just dim one of the modern art world’s brightest lights? Fuck! Fuck! FUCK! But I was high too. and the rest of that night is just a blank. Although I vaguely recall mike and I ordering buffalo wings from room service at my hotel and eating them like a wild animal, covering my new tattoo with blue cheese dressing while I worried about Shawn.  I heard from Mike that Shawn remained high for nearly three days after and he vowed never to do anything like that again. I felt bad, guilty, disgusted with myself for endangering a talent so prodigious and I felt akin to the woman who given that last speedball to John Belushi and made a vow that when I am close to greatness, I will not give them drugs. Never again.
Shawn is greatness. His portrait of me from that fateful night hangs in the entryway of my home. it’s the first thing you see - it’s a watchful sentry – the sign by my door that says who I am and what i am here for. It says, “I live here. That’s right. I FUCKING LIVE HERE. this is me. this is my life. Welcome friend. ” The painting is the first thing you see when you come to me and the last thing you see when you leave, and I am so proud that it is a Shawn Barber. I love the painting so much it became the cover of my album “Chodependent” and I believe that the strength of the image was what garnered that record a grammy nomination. Yep, it’s that good. It’s a fucking incredible painting – as shawn captured an incredible moment, a most powerful scene - and one of my best days on earth – me at Everlasting Tattoo - being tattooed by mike, surrounded by art and the people I love, getting high, being photographed and painted and recorded for posterity. Me in the prime of my life, doing something I love more than almost anything else – getting tattooed. Me and my tattoos – work that is in itself a microcosm of the history of tattooing in America – Don Ed Hardy, Mike Davis, Andrew Moore, Nathan Kostechko, Kat Von D – and that’s just above the waist. I am a heavily tattooed human being, and so I am a perfect subject for Shawn’s incendiary and important work. I am of his tribe, the one that he is a part of and documenting for us. There is direct line between the daguerreotypes from the turn of the century and shawn’s painting. It’s about the discovery of being seen. People took to the new invention of photography and realized that their lives mattered, and that they could record their existence with images that could be passed down for generations. It made them feel real. It made them feel important. It made them feel like they existed. It made them feel like they were immortal and eternal. I think that this is exactly what shawn is doing for not only the tattoo community, but for the world. He is showing us, the heavily tattooed, for who we are – in a glorious light.  We exist. We matter. We are real. We are important. We are immortal and eternal. He captures our bodies and in turn our tattoos, our beautiful Japanese hand poked Yakuza/samurai bodysuits and our realistic portraits and our black and grey and our single needle and our flash and our biomechanical and our blackwork and our new skool and our graffiti and our doodles done when it’s slow around the shop and our tributes to those who have passed on and our misspelled kanji and our tribal and our inked jokes and our fuck ups and our bad decisions and our allegiances to our respective crews and our lover’s names and our mother’s names and our shit that we have gotten done at conventions when the sound of the tattoo guns drowns out all and our everythings that have been emblazoned on our skin, which is the record of our lives – the art that we have chosen for ourselves, that we have loved and maybe hated or felt indifferent towards, our bodies of work that have become so much a part of our skin that we barely see them anymore yet somehow define us. Shawn’s work is to me both very realistic, somewhat objective, a pure and unembellished - almost photographic portrayal of who we are at that moment – but also infused with the reality that he is also an incredibly gifted tattoo artist (I can attest – I am the proud bearer of a Shawn Barber tattoo done at his awesome studio Memoir Tattoo that he co-owns with the legendary Kim Saigh), so he is one who is inside, one who is part of the tribe, a beloved and treasured and trusted member and essentially family. To me, all of Shawn’s painting reflects the family we, the heavily tattooed people of the world - are. There is a warmth in the eyes of his subjects, an affection that is genuine and uncomplicated. Shawn's painting us, and we know him well. he's our friend, he's our brother. he's one of us. When he captures us in our glory, we are unguarded, we are safe – because we are with our own. This collection of paintings is really like a family tree, a glimpse of who we are, who we have become, where we have been and where we are going. Shawn Barber is a national and international treasure to all of those who have lived and died under the tattoo gun, and to think, I got him utterly wasted. Shame on me. Thanks Shawn. Thanks for everything. -Margaret Cho


Shawn Barber's body of work focuses primarily on painting, portraiture, and documenting contemporary tattoo culture. Barber’s intimate renditions of tattooed individuals balance both meticulous brush strokes and loose energy. Figurative in nature, these large paintings take on abstractions with explosive colors, meandering lines and paint dripping down the canvas. In 'The Tattooed Portraits Series', Shawn has created an homage and study of modern tattooing through painting portraits of historical tattooists and artists, tattooist's at work, their tools and environments. Documentation through present day genre painting, Shawn has captured tattooing from a personal perspective, as a tattooist and painter, reflecting this experience with respect and admiration for the history of tattooing and the individuals that define it’s rich past.
Shawn earned his B.F.A from Ringling College of Art in 1999 and A.A.S. from Cazenovia College in 1997. His paintings are held in private collections throughout the United States, Canada, Asia, Europe and Australia. His paintings have been exhibited in diverse solo and group venues including: Somerset House Museum, London, UK; Craft and Folk Art Museum, Los Angeles, CA; Halle Saint Pierre Museum, Paris; Pinnacles Gallery, Queensland, Australia; Mesa Contemporary Arts Center, Mesa, AZ; Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA; Artspace, Shreveport, LA; Joshua Liner Gallery, NYC, NY; Southern Illinois University Museum, Carbondale, IL; and the University of Houston, Houston, TX.
Among his extensive achievements, he has taught drawing, painting and the business of art for 20 years at various art schools throughout the country. After years of documenting the art of tattoo, it was a logical progression to pick up the tattoo machine and add tattooist to his resume.
In 2009, Shawn and his girlfriend Kim Saigh, opened Memoir Tattoo in Los Angeles, CA. His most recent fine art book, 'Memoir : The Tattooed Portraits Series' a 256 page hardcover visual tome, published [...]

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