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Jesus, Shiva, and the Kabbalah Cavort In these Tattoo-Inspired Paintings

A book of paintings by Robert Ryan challenge the boundaries between the ancient and modern worlds.
November 13, 2016, 12:40pm
All images courtesy the artist and Featherproof Books

If you think your life is disconnected from any type of ancient tradition—you’re wrong. The Inborn Absolute is not just a book of tattoo-inspired art, but a primer on how images and concepts of spiritual truth connect through time and around the world.

“Everybody reading this article probably has, in their pocket, a very powerful symbol,” artist Robert Ryan says. “It’s called a dollar bill, and it’s riddled with esoteric imagery. It’s actually worth very little, but we believe that it’s worth more. It’s a system of beliefs that the exchange between two people can be expressed with this symbolic object. We spend our days toiling for it.”

Symbols are everywhere in human culture. They’ve been in use for hundreds of years and are a part of the vernacular stretching back over generations. Robert Ryan’s work explores ideas and images that are so deeply ingrained in human culture that they’re in fact timeless.

The Inborn Absolute is packed with images that are familiar but also challenge assumptions. Looking at a hyper-stylized portrait of a bleeding Jesus Christ with Shiva rising from his thorned crown, you can’t help but ponder the roles of deities around the world. The book offers plenty of similar questions, all worth pondering.

The book is a collection of Ryan’s paintings from 2011 to 2014. The images, mostly painted with gouache on illustration board, combine esoteric imagery with the line-drawn aesthetic of tattooing. Ryan grew up in New Jersey, the grandson of a Freemason with an art collecting habit; later, he entered the NYC punk scene, and started tattooing in his twenties. Spirituality and Eastern philosophy literally found him, when a Hare Krishna stopped him on the street.

The journey that followed is outlined through two conversations in the book: first with tattooing legend Freddy Corbin, then with counterculture legend Genesis P-Orridge. Rather than writing first-hand about his experiences and opinions, Ryan shares them in conversation. It’s a clever stylistic choice from publisher Tim Kinsella of Featherproof Books.

The conversation with Genesis turns out to be a tour of some of the symbols in Ryan’s work. Much of it centers on the Hindu mythology, which makes up a big portion of Ryan’s work. While painting the deities, Ryan uses mantras and puja to meditate and discover the vision he wants to express.

“I discovered this style of painting called kalighat,” Ryan says. “It takes place mostly in southern India, in Kolkata, outside the Kali temples. There are bazaar painters that paint on the spot, very fast, and you can watch them work. Their style looks almost exactly the same as the Western, tattoo-influenced, graphic style of painting that I had been doing. They are inadvertently married to each other, because there’s an immediacy to both of them.”

Ryan developed a hybrid of the two, which faithfully portrays the traditional imagery, and is ready to be inked on the skin. It’s an ideal metaphor for the artist’s ability to bring ancient concepts into today’s world.

Learn more about the Inborn Absolute published by Featherproof Books here.

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