Rob Rez's corner inside Bound by Glory Tattoo is decorated with deer skulls, a bandolier stuffed with bullets and rows of tattoo designs detailed in lush colors. His World War II-style model airplanes hang from the ceiling, and bottles of rubbing alcohol line a bookshelf full of National Geographic magazines dating back to the 1950s. "They're great reference material," Rez says of the magazines. Like any longtime tattoo artist, he has a thick portfolio of commissioned work—pages of skulls, birds and pinup girls rendered in black and white or color. He loves tattooing, he says, but at night, after a full day of crafting images from other people's imaginations, he likes to pull out his paints and let his own ideas pour onto the canvas.
"Tattooing is so rigid and pre-planned," Rez says. "It has a structured outline and then you fill in your colors precisely. When I do these paintings, these are more like sketches on canvas. It's not really the best phrase in the world but I call them 'slappers' because I'm just slapping the paint down in a fun way. I just let go and do it."
Rez has worked as an artist in multiple capacities for several decades, but it's only been in the last two years that he started regularly making paintings. He began with geometric designs—Cubism-style pieces that play with color and abstracted subjects. After that he moved on to more figurative images of flora and fauna: insects, crocodiles, flowers and snakes. He did a whole series of monsters, including a portrait of Bela Lugosi as Dracula, before he grew bored. Then he did a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
Rez often works in bright aquas, reds, pinks and yellows that give the paintings a pop-art quality. The brush strokes provide a sense of movement. His approach to painting is almost exactly opposite his approach to tattooing, but similar principles of structure and anatomy apply.
"I throw the colors down and hope they land in the right spot," he says. "Then I add the lines. A lot of the time, halfway through or so, it's like, 'Eeee! Is this going to work? I don't know!' And I don't always trust it will, but I feel like the painting trusts me to get it onto the canvas, and it works out."
Besides being a longtime tattoo artist, Rez is an illustrator who has contributed to almost every issue of the Indy since 1994. His covers have accompanied a wide range of stories on everything from dog sled racing to the survival of independent bookstores. His cartoons usually accompany short news stories on local politics and environmental issues.
"My favorite cartoon was about how polluted the rivers around here are," he says. "I drew two guys swimming in the water and smiling, and they're saying, 'Come on in, the water is great!' But below the surface reveals that it is one body with two heads and there are barrels of toxic waste and gross litter."
He got his start in Dover, New Jersey, at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, which was and continues to be the only accredited school in the country devoted entirely to the art of cartooning. It was an intense education, Rez says.
"Everyone's work gets put up on the board for everybody to tear it down," he says. "You were supposed to say, 'You call that a hand? It looks like meat sausages!' I love that. That's how you get better."
Most important of all, he says, he learned about deadlines. (For the Indy, for instance, his weekly assignment arrives on Tuesday night and he has to have it done by first thing Wednesday morning.)
"That's an important thing people don't think about when they're getting into art," he says. "When you're a kid you think, 'Oh, I'll just create whenever or however I want.' No. You miss one deadline for Field and Stream, there's 10 other magazines that are owned by the same people you'll never get hired for."
The attrition rate at Kubert was huge, he says. If you got a C or lower in a class you were put on academic probation, during which time instructors would assess your portfolio to see if you were worth keeping around. The work ethic he learned there helped him stay disciplined later when he attended the Hussian College School of Art in Philadelphia, where he learned the fundamentals of painting.
Rez is an admitted misanthrope, a lanky tattooed character with a dry sense of humor and a distrust of government and media. He loves the wee hours of the morning when the rest of the valley—minus his fellow night owls—is asleep. That's when he can pull out his paints and let loose. He has tics from Tourettes syndrome, and painting helps him shed that electric energy. Sometimes he can't paint fast enough—he'll deploy a blow-dryer just to dry the last layer of paint so he can get to the next. He sometimes whips out a new painting every three hours, one per night.
"People always say things like, 'How the hell did Picasso make hundreds upon hundreds of paintings, thousands of pottery pieces and sculptures.' He just did. You don't let things distract you in life—Netflix, YouTube. And with this style of painting I finally hit on something that feels like a really good groove to me, that I can be prolific at."
Rob Rez exhibits his paintings at Five on Black Fri., Feb. 3, from 5 to 8 PM.