The Eyes of a Stranger - Ian Robert McKown

Published: 17 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

The more and more I delve into the tattoo world, the more I am inspired by the artists out there plying their trade. We aren’t talking about guys and girls who can just copy stencils, or colour in pictures on skin; we are talking about genuine artists…

Long gone are the days of the tattooist just being a tattooist; nowadays, these guys could have their work hanging in galleries around the world. One such artist is Ian Robert McKown, a tattooist working out of Denver, Colorado. Ian has been tattooing since 2003, but in 2007 he picked up a paintbrush and tried his hand at a different medium. Going on his clean, deep, accurate realistic tattoos, one should have guessed that his paintings were going to be good, but saying they were just good is an understatement. Ian’s paintings rock. Hard!

“I began tattooing mid-2003 in Boulder, Colorado. It was a small street shop and I tattooed under an artist named Chris Smith. My apprenticeship was short as I had to move out of state. I moved to New Mexico and worked for a few shops out there, namely Exotic Expressions (no longer a shop) and American Graffiti (owned by Andy Barela… the artist who tattooed my face). After a couple years I moved back to Denver and began tattooing at Bound By Design. I’ve always found myself drawn to what some would call ‘realistic’ tattoos, but only recently came into my own in regards to finding my own style within this genre of tattooing.

“It was late 2007, early 2008 that I first picked up a brush and began oil painting. I’d done a small amount of acrylic work before that, but nothing that really had much significance. Believe it or not, the majority of my art before oils was more new school tattoo-related stuff. I think we all go through the phase of drawing and making tattoo flash.

“Whilst perusing some art magazines one day, I came across an article written by David Leffel, a representational Realist painter who paints in the classic Flemish/ Dutch old master style. I had never before had an emotional hit from a piece of artwork. It was a revelation. I cannot stress enough what an eye-opener seeing his work was for me. It was as though I was seeing art for the first time in my life. From then on out, for the most part, I mainly painted portraits and still-lifes. I find this type of work very rewarding. I’ve been able to bring together some of my painting and tattoo styles, combining them into something fresh, and hopefully unique. I think the longer I worked towards that style of painting, the more and more my tattooing came to follow suit.”

Following this revelation, Ian dived head first into the world of painting. Since then, he has produced a huge amount of work, exploring different styles and techniques, while at the same time still producing amazing realistic tattoos. So how does it all come about in Ian’s world?

“I have spent the last year working more or less in a monochromatic style, but I’m now moving back into full colour. I like to paint emotions people often miss, or would rather not see; sadness, pensive silences, the quietude of a person alone with their thoughts. I enjoy darker imagery without the all-out bluntness many artists strive for.

“Even though I’ve made strides to maintain a certain look or style in both tattooing and painting, they are still both very different animals.  They share certain similarities, obviously, one being that if the customer wants something simple and straightforward, say a skull or something, it’s more or less a no-brainer. Of course, such things as approach and composition still play a part, but more or less a skull is a skull. Now, when someone is looking for something more involved or possibly trying to communicate an implied or blunt narrative, then different design elements need to be given more or less attention. Either way, when a big piece is involved, I’ll normally spend a couple weeks either passively or actively thinking about an image. Before long, I’ve got a general idea what the composition will be and then I will start fleshing it out. In tattooing you often have customers who are very specific about what they would like to see and therefore you are often limited in that regards. But in painting, I’m given quite a bit more leeway as far as the whole product.  I think that customers are cued to seeing tattooists as merely a means to their end, whereas they feel a bit less so when dealing with a painter.

“Currently, and for the past eight years, tattooing has been my day job and painting was merely my hobby. Within the last year or so, I’ve reached a bit of an equilibrium between the two. In a perfect world, I’d be able to have painting be my bread and butter, allowing me to tattoo exactly what I wanted on people (people who wanted a nice piece of work), rather than being a commercial artist as most tattooists seem to be.”

One of Ian’s projects, and my favourite, is the Stained Glass Project. The paintings that Ian created for this project are a mix of world religions, mythology and philosophy.

“This project came about from one of my collectors. He was busy having a pavilion built in the city and wanted to know if I would be willing to take on the project. Now, I was only contracted to design the overall look and composition of the panels (six in all) and had no part in the actual fabrication portion of the project. A lot of ideas were tossed around regarding content, and knowing Bill as I did, I figured a spiritual vein would be a good one. I finally settled on the themes of Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Native American, Pagan and finally modern man or science. The panels were painted by hand, and fired, and then set into a leaded glass frame. It proved a good learning experience for me, not only as an artist, but also how to handle professional contracts. Very rewarding and I hope to see similar work in the future.”

Another aspect of the tattooing world that Ian is passionate about, is the crossover between tattooing and other arts that is really growing by leaps and bounds at the moment.

“We’ve reached a tipping point, where tattooing has been ingested by mainstream culture. This has allowed many of us to explore avenues outside of tattooing including fine art. I think that we have been able to successfully bridge the gap between, what most would consider commercial art, and being able to be successful and thriving in an art community. Tattooing in general has benefitted so much in recent years with this new direction. Gone are the days of street shops doing only flash pieces, and many artists are now being lauded for their abilities with the brush. Some even eventually leave tattooing behind to pursue careers in fine art. I’ve got a few solo shows this year, and hopefully will be opening my own gallery mid 2012.

“I’d like to be more active in promoting local artists and my local art community. So many artists have no idea in which ways they can promote their work and become successful, whether it’s in tattooing or in fine art. I’m by no means saying I have the formula, but I think it’s a lot easier to make headway in both industries when you have people who support you and want to see you succeed. Something I’ve always held close to heart is that the successes of my friends are in some small way, a success for me.

“As things stand in the tattoo industry, we seem to be mirroring the American economy, with a growing percentage of great and horrible artists, and a marked decrease in simply good ones. I think as a whole we need to find a bit more community and learn how to best promote one another. This always leads to great rewards for all! I’d like to thank all those that support me, whether through sitting in my chair, buying a piece of work, going to a show or merely taking the time to let me know I’ve done or made something they appreciate… and of course, special thanks to my friends here and around the globe for the support and encouragement.”

I agree 100 per cent with Ian’s words, the tattoo world is evolving, not devolving as many people would like to have us believe. And with people like Ian on board, we can only be heading onwards and upwards to greater things in this world we love so much.

Ian Mckown

Denver, Colorado


Text: Trent Aitken-Smith; Photography: Iam Robert McKown