Artist Ian Caroppoli doesn't strike me as the Disney type. With his black plug earrings and sleeve tattoos, perched on a stool at the Painless Steel shop where he's a tattoo apprentice, The Little Mermaid isn't the first thing that comes to mind. But Caroppoli will be the first to tell you that his dark, urban paintings stem from practice with drawing cartoons from Disney books. And, actually, if you look at his current exhibit at the Missoula Artists' Shop in downtown Missoula, you can see remnants of that style—little eyelashed birds flying whimsically through the air.
But that's where the comparison stops. Caroppoli's images are mostly dark. Against a blackened background, a gray-toned man with apple green eyes purses his lips to a rusty old horn while lights from a brick building's windows provide a glow to the street where he's standing. A sort of sinister looking red bird is coming out of the horn. In this way, Caroppoli's much more Nightmare Before Christmas than Sleeping Beauty.
"Tim Burton's one of my favorites and that's where the idea of doing the black canvas came from," Caroppoli says. "I use black gesso and then I can make color come out of that. I like working with light sources. I like having that glow."
Caroppoli's first love was writing and he only started drawing and painting a few years ago while attending school in Portland, Ore. He loved words, he says, and had already gotten a degree in literature before he started taking creative writing classes for a second degree. During school he worked at a physical therapy business as an assistant to make extra money. But when the business moved to a different location without much advertisement, he says, work slowed down.
"We'd see only, like, one person in a 10-hour day," he says. "We didn't have any work so we'd play video games on the computer—whatever we could to keep ourselves busy. And I started using the time to think about how to illustrate some of the characters that I had been writing about."
He says he remembers going out to the lobby of the office, rifling through magazines until he saw a black and white photo on the cover of a Field & Stream magazine of a deer trying to eat the leaf off a branch.
"You could see the underside of the deer's throat," he says. "I spent the whole day trying to draw this thing and it came out and it looked, well, okay. It wasn't good by any means, you know, it was just a rough rendition. But that planted the seed of art for me."
That same weekend he pillaged Barnes & Noble and found some Disney books to draw from, the kind of cheap sequels derived from classic fairytales like Beauty and the Beast.
"They're not the actual fairytale," he says, laughing. "They're more like Belle is going to town for groceries."
When Caroppoli came to Missoula to get his master's in education, he was still dabbling in writing, but mostly learning to draw. He got a First Friday show in 2007 at the now-defunct Rainbows End shop where he showed drawings of women with tattoos and piercings.
"That's when art began to run my life," he says. "It became very much a huge outlet for me and I decided it was what I wanted to focus on. I kept drawing and drawing and drawing."
Since he loved tattoos, he'd bring his drawings into Painless Steel where owner Lee Burns would render them into tattoos. One day, Caroppoli says, he marveled aloud about Burns' job.
"I said, 'Wow, that would be a really cool profession. I bet you love your job,'" says Caroppoli. "And he said, 'Yeah. It surprises me that you haven't consider going into tattooing since you love art so much.'"
A few months later, in February 2009, Caroppoli started his three-year apprenticeship as a tattoo artist.
Meanwhile, the Missoula Artists' Shop, a co-op of several artists, had been tipped off about Caroppoli's paintings and asked him to design an exhibit featuring birds for its October show. Caroppoli had recently discovered the work of well-known graffiti artist Justin Bua and used Bua's images of urban street life as inspiration for the exhibit. But most of all, he says, he had become inspired by hip-hop and urban music, particularly the lyrics that reminded him of his initial attraction with words.
In one of his favorite tracks, "Techno Love Song," French duo CocoRosie sing, "I fell in love with a bad bad man/Ever since I met him/I've been sad sad sad/I'm a jailbird to your music/A criminal in your prayer/I watch you when you sleep/even when you're not there."
Caroppoli used those lyrics to create a pastel and oil painting of a woman, her shirt open, revealing a key and a bird. Another has a woman holding a bird in a cage. The aforementioned painting of a man playing a horn with a bird emerging was inspired by hip-hop artist Aesop Rock, who sings about a homeless man so musically talented that he can play a rusty trumpet and still make it sound angelic.
The last time Caroppoli wrote anything was four years ago, but these days, as he tattoos images on people's skin and paints with pastels and oils, he finds that being inspired by other people's words is enough.
"I feel like lyrics provide an image," he says. "The spoken word gives that picture in my head. The irony is that now I don't write ever. Never. But with my art it seems like everything is falling into place now—the apprenticeship here and the art show. It's crazy how my art world keeps expanding."
Ian Caroppoli's art exhibit continues at the Missoula Artists' Shop through Thursday, Nov. 5.