Shawn Barber, an accomplished fine artist, began painting portraits of tattoo artists in the early 00’s. Since then, his “Tattooed Portraits” series has grown to encompass over 350 works, immortalising the most important figures in contemporary tattooing. This journey led Shawn to pick up a machine and grow to become an accomplished tattooer in his own right.

We caught up with him to find out more ahead of his appearance at The London Tattoo Convention 2019, where he will exhibit his latest works and teach two exclusive painting workshops this September.

The London Tattoo Convention, Tobacco Dock 2019

You painted professionally and taught art for many years before discovering tattooing. What sparked your interest in tattoos?
I got my first tattoo in 1986, an image of Spiderman on my leg. I was obsessed with comic books at the time and wanted to pursue that as a career. I continued to get tattooed over the years. I fell in love with painting around 1995 and a few years later started painting people with tattoos. In 2004, I made a trip to San Francisco to document a few tattooists and check out the city and art scene there. That trip changed my life and outlook on tattooing and art.

Which tattoo artists did you draw inspiration from?
I’m influenced and inspired by hundreds of tattooists in our community. I’m especially inspired by those that are pushing the boundaries of their art and tattoos. Some of these individuals are: Filip Leu, Grime, Tin-Tin, Adrian Lee, Eddy Deutsche, Steve Moore, Henry Lewis, Mike Dorsey, Genziana Cocco, Yutaro Sakai, Claudia De Sabe, Tim Biedron, Ichibay, Jondix and Nathan Kostechko.

The London Tattoo Convention, Tobacco Dock 2019

How did you balance working for your commercial clients and completing an apprenticeship?
Juggling multiple projects has always been in my nature. I love being productive and have too many things that inspire my desire to make work. Finding a balance isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but I do my best and refuse to make excuses for my shortcomings. Every day is a new challenge.

The London Tattoo Convention, Tobacco Dock 2019

Do you apply any similar thought processes or techniques from your paintings to your tattoos, or vice-versa?
For me, tattooing and painting are completely different art forms. I personally feel that I have complete freedom in painting and can pick up and stop what I’m working on, shift gears between projects and not loose momentum. I can choose my own subject and approach it in any style or technique that reinforces the context of each painting. Tattooing is it’s own animal. There are constraints that exist, for me, that I have no control over – a client’s time, their need to (at times) dictate and micromanage details and subject that affect the outcome of the finished tattoo, their pain threshold, their budget, and their own personal dedication to the process.

The skin also has it’s own limitations that are specific to tattoos.

What do you love most about teaching? What are the most important lessons you took from your own art school experience, and what do you hope your students take from you?
I really love sharing information with people and helping them understand that there are multiple ways to approach drawing and painting with a similar outcome. I think that fear and uncertainty challenges a lot of artists from being productive. I appreciate and admire many styles of art and like to share these interests with people that are willing to be open minded.

Ichibay at work by Shawn Barber
Ichibay at work by Shawn Barber

What does your studio space look like? Do you collect anything or surround yourself with any particular reference materials?
We have a lot of art in the studio! There are hundreds of paintings from friends and artists that I admire. We also have a healthy collection of historical tattoo artifacts- flash, art, photos, tattoo machines, misc. objects from tattooists past and present. All of these objects are a constant source of inspiration.

The London Tattoo Convention, Tobacco Dock 2019

Are you working on any new projects right now?
I’m currently working on 24 different paintings. I’m working on several pieces for the London Tattoo Convention in September; a few paintings for an exhibition in June 2020 with my friends Carl Dobsky and Coro Kaufman at Maxwell Alexander Gallery in Los Angeles; a few commissioned portraits; and ten portraits of psychologists for a college textbook. I tattoo about 12-15 days a month, help run the studio with my girlfriend (tattoo artist Kim Saigh), and try to have fun outside of work.

Portrait of Shige, 9 views by Shawn Barber

Lastly, can you share a little about the workshops you’ll be offering at the convention? How can interested parties sign up to attend?
I’m really looking forward to this year’s London Convention! It’s an honor for me to be a part of this amazing show. My favourite part of traveling to conventions is spending time with friends in the community and learning more about the history and individuals that are pioneering the art form. I will be teaching a portrait painting from reference workshop and a skull painting from reference workshop. We will be working in oil paint and focusing on form, anatomy and color theory. Interested parties can email me directly via email:

Portrait of Shige, 9 views by Shawn Barber
Portrait of Shige, 9 views by Shawn Barber

For further information about Shawn Barber’s painting workshops, email or message Shawn directly. Attendees of Shawn’s workshops will receive discounted tickets to the event. Spaces are expected to fill quickly so don’t delay!

This interview was originally published on The London Tattoo Convention website

Follow Shawn Barber on Instagram @shawndbarber