Life Size Exhibition

Published: 02 September, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 184, April, 2010

What happens when the art of tattooing is translated into and immortalized in a painting? Well, the 7th Art Tattoo Montreal convention, in collaboration with one of the city’s greatest art galleries, Yves Laroche, set out to discover the answer when they staged a two-man exhibition entitled, “Life Size.”

Balancing the theatrical, vaudeville-esque works of Jean “Turf One” Labourdette with the realism of Shawn Barber, “Life Size” brought gallery-goers two distinct takes on portraiture and tattooing. The contrasting styles of Paris-native Labourdette and New Yorker Barber even made some wonder how the two were singled out for the collaboration.

Sitting down with the artists at the Yves Laroche gallery on the eve of opening night, all their works neatly propped up against the wall in a line, waiting to be hung, it didn’t take long to discover that Barber and Labourdette are not all that different. In fact, before the interview even starts, I’m shown the one piece that has already made it onto the wall: a portrait of gallery owner Yves that is comprised of two separate panels hanging side by side. Turns out that Barber and Labourdette each painted half and only saw each other’s work when it was time to put the painting together. Needless to say, the two are perfect compliments to one another and appear to mirror the yin and yang relationship of the artists themselves.

Beginning our chat with a look back at the roots of their artistic careers, Barber recounts that as a child, one of his greatest pastimes was drawing, but art was not something he took seriously until he headed back to school in his mid-twenties. Attending the Ringling College of Art in Florida and studying towards his B.F.A. Degree, he was met with what could be classified as the defining moment in his career when he made the choice to become a professional artist: “Seeing rapid progression and seeing the personal enthusiasm from the act of making something from nothing was very invigorating and I think at that point, I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight, and I didn’t want to work for anybody so I was going to do it no matter what.”

The evolution and shaping of his style, whether conscious or not, occurred at school, “It forces you into dealing with repetition, working with a deadline, and also being exposed to several hundreds of different opinions and ideas on aesthetics and directions of where you can take your ideas”, and in galleries and museums where one truly can witness and learn from the history of art.

Selling his first work as a “professional” artist in 1999, which was “a large-scale loose, brushy painting of John Coltrane,” Barber hasn’t looked back since. Developing a recognizable aesthetic and slowly melding a place for himself as one of America’s greatest contemporary artists, Barber’s portfolio boasts an eclectic mix that can only be signature to a brilliant talent or eccentric madman, or maybe a mix of both. Flip through his work and you’ll find paintings of tattoo icons from his famed “Tattooed Portraits” series lying side-by-side with commercial illustrations such as a portrait of President Obama from the cover of the Wall Street Journal’s inauguration issue.

Jean “Turf One” Labourdette’s path into the world of painting reads similarly. Interested in drawing since he was a child, Labourdette’s passion for skateboarding led him to become involved in France’s emerging graffiti scene in the ‘80s and, with time, to “painting canvases in the same aesthetic let’s say on rainy days.” The reality of the need to pay for such necessities as rent soon began setting in and Labourdette took on commercial illustrations and in 1996 became an illustrator of comics for French hip-hop magazine Radikal.

Equivalent to Barber’s defining trip back to school was Labourdette’s move to Montreal in 2001. “I was tired of Paris at the time. It’s an amazing city, but to live there on an everyday basis can be quite overwhelming so in the end you don’t really take advantage of what’s good about it,” he says, justifying his move. And just as he changed scenery, he decided to also change the focus of his work: “I was getting a little tired of doing illustrations and dealing with clients and I felt like I needed to figure out what would come out if I was to paint for myself, create for myself and not for clients’ requests.”

The first point of difference with his co-exhibitor Barber is revealed when it comes to the formal training aspect: "My dad was an artist and a teacher at Les Arts Appliqués, a big Arts school in France, but he never really formally taught me anything. It's just that since I was a kid he kind of encouraged me to paint, giving me the tools to paint if I wanted to and giving me lots of comics. So, I think a lot of my knowledge for drawing or notions for drawing come from reading comics," he says.

When it comes to his unique and eccentric works - think midgets, pigeons, skulls and, of course, tattoos – Labourdette strives to do the opposite of what all those years as a commercial illustrator taught him. “Being an illustrator, you try to convey a message clearly to the audience or reader or whatever, as a painter what I try to do is the opposite. I just try to channel whatever images come from my subconscious and give them a life, a shape, so I don’t try to rationalize too much,” he explains and jokes, “As I often say, my shrink could probably tell much more about my work than myself because it’s not really my job to analyze it, it’s just to create it.”

Barber, on the other hand, prefers to embrace realism on canvas and his 'Tattooed Portraits' series has brought him great acclaim as he continually delivers portraits that are often eerily representative of their subject. Ongoing for several years now, the latest additions featuring the likes of Bryan Childs, Jeff Rassier and Kim Saigh, the series started out by fluke, as most great things do. 'I did some self-portraits and painted some friends that were tattooed, then I moved to San Francisco,' he pauses and laughs, "It's all San Francisco's fault!" Citing inspirations, he offers a wide selection of artist friends from that very city, such as Henry Lewis, Kim Cogan and Grime, along with timeless greats such as Velásquez.

The biggest challenge for Barber so far has been "especially older figures, (the tattoos are) hard to read or the work itself is poor. It’s harder to recreate that than it is to recreate something that’s done well, I think.” What has gotten easier with time though, is finding subject matters; “The more of these painting I do, when people see them they’re more likely to open up knowing that I’m not trying to exploit them, you know?”

Having worked with so many greats in the industry, it’s no surprise that when asked to pick a favourite portrait to date, Barber’s initial reaction is; “That’s a hard one, man. That’s fucking hard.” After a brief moment he comes back with a decision: Stanley Moskowitz. “Stanley is a very large part of American tattoo history and he’s a story teller and he’s generous with his time and excited to share his own history,” he explains and continues, “And the guy randomly calls me all the time just to shoot the shit. He’s seventy-seven years old and he actually tattooed me in Philadelphia, drinking a lot of Polish vodka. He’s a cool dude.” The result? “A piranha with a bloody hammer, and if you know Stanley, you’ll understand.”

While on the subject of tattoos, it’s time to take the conversation into new territory. Prominent features in the works of both artists; tattoos almost become a separate character in their artwork. Asked about their fascination for ink, Labourdette is the first to recall that it’s been there since childhood; “At the corner store you could get that chewing gum that had the little tattoos and I was getting crazy and being all proud of wearing those,” he laughs. And with time that affinity and passion only grew stronger and he explains why; “I find it interesting as story telling. It tells a lot about the life of a character and I find the relationship of ink and skin has something magical about it. It’s art, it’s testimony of a life and it’s art that evolves with a person. (Art) that’s alive and that will die eventually, one day.”

Labourdette’s first tattoo came at the age of twenty after a long period of hesitation because, as he recalls, “it took a long time being stuck at the first tattoo stage where you’re like, ‘I’m going to get one tattoo and it’s going to define who I am forever!’ The long-awaited choice was finally made, Arabic calligraphy on his back, but his real tattoo dream didn’t come true until much later, when he finally met one of his idols: Tin-Tin.

“I’d been a fan of his work forever, since I was seventeen maybe? I always wanted to get a dragon done by him and then I didn’t have the money and then I moved to Montreal,” recounts Labourdette. So when Tin-Tin came to the Montreal convention two years ago, it was settled: he was getting his Tin-Tin tattoo. Money still tight, the two struck a deal and Labourdette paid for his work with an original painting: a portrait of Tin-Tin in a suit and aviator goggles, holding a carving
knife and pigeon.

Returning to Barber, he soon begins talking about his newest career endeavour: tattooing. Beginning in 2007, he apprenticed with Mike Davis, to whom he was introduced by his then-studio mate, and now works at Incognito Tattoos in California as well as in the private studio he shares with Kim Saigh. Relatively new to the craft he admits, “I don’t have a style, I haven’t done that many tattoos, (but) I’ve been doing more black and grey and I think I’m learning the most from it, for sure.” And he soon admits that using his artistic knowledge to help others learn is always satisfying as well: “I think a lot of tattoo artists are phenomenal artisans and they’re mostly self-taught and hungry for any kind of morsel of knowledge and information that will help them get to a point that they haven’t been yet. And, you know, if I can help them in any way with that, in a few hours, why the hell not?” Also involved with lecturing and hosting painting demonstrations across the States, his greatest piece of advice is that of a straight-edged realist: “Nobody’s going to hold your hand and do it for you so, the only way to get somewhere is to put the time in.”

When it comes to his own ink, Barber got his first tattoo at the age of sixteen and it was a black-costumed Spiderman on his leg, which he in fact does not cherish as a memento: “It’s gone through one session of laser removal, (and going to go through more) pretty soon. I have a lot of great tattoos and I want more great tattoos, and I have enough bad ones to have memories from.”

As for their paintings, it seems that time is also an instigator and driver of change, and both admit to never being fully satisfied with their works. “There’s always things that I’m not happy with in a painting,” says Labourdette bluntly and explains, “there’s a lot of things you can master or be in control of in a painting, but it’s also a second alchemy of a lot of factors that just work or don’t work and there’s a lot of things that you can’t fully plan.” Barber agrees, “Unfortunately, or fortunately I think, some of the pieces I’ve kept I continued to pick at (since they’ve been shown).”

Wrapping things up, I figure it’s best to leave with a question that requires some reflection over one’s entire career and catalogue; does art get easier with time and volume?

“It’s probably harder now because sometimes I’m trying to push it further, I just want to learn and challenge myself and I’m very critical of myself. I get a little bit obsessive and that makes it harder on myself, but it’s not hard. I do it because that’s what I love doing and I’m fortunate enough that I make a living doing what I love to do,” admits Labourdette and Barber immediately picks up on the matter of ease, offering an extremely to-the-point response that I now realize is signature Barber: “It’s the easiest job in the world, it’s not hard!” he chuckles and elaborates, “You’re alone doing your thing, not like tattooing where you have to deal with another person. I think when people say “You’re being bold” or “brave with your work,” it’s a fucking painting; you’re drawing a picture. It’s not that big of a deal!”

Both artists will be holding exhibitions in the coming year, in North America and Europe, and Barber is always open to tattoo appointments, so be sure to keep track of two of today’s most innovative and exciting talents. Just remember, don’t call them bold.


Text and photography: Barbra Povane