HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — With a brightly colored feather in his cap, a bright red neckerchief and two paintbrushes in his hand, Ryan Byrd danced and twirled in the glow of the Ritter Park Amphitheater stage lights, putting the energy and flow of the music into an oil painting that became more magical with every note and beat.
While Byrd is best known as the owner of the new South Charleston-based Rock Lake Tattoo Co., his colorful painting performances are making his name known on the regional festival scene from Huntington and Columbus, Ohio, to Maryland.
Byrd said it has been a lifesaver to stumble upon the festival scene which has recharged his love of art, people and painting outside after putting in long days at the tattoo shop.
“I feel like the scene is where the humanity is left and where everyone is cheering everyone else on,” Byrd said. “We are kind of missing that in everyday life, so for me I feel like it has been a spiritual awakening the last few years to find the festival scene.”
Byrd said this past year — during which he has opened his own tattoo shop with his partner Preston Shomo, and in which he has been found on the regional festival scene as a live performance painter — has been a welcome struggle and a bit of heaven as his art has finally has risen to where he can make a living doing it.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘loser,’ but I have been in a bad way for most of my life so when something like this falls on you it is heavy,” Byrd said of his newfound exposure. “It is heavy to know what you got. When I paint I go in with no idea, no idea at all. I use some breathing exercises and meditation to clear my mind all together and then enter the void. I am basically painting the side of the universal subconscious, and the forms just kind of happen. Think of ether and smoke and creation — stuff like atoms — and that is what the paint is to me, and I just start moving it around.”
To have people marvel at his art, to hug him and cry when they see his work, and to give him hefty chunks of money for his creations has been a humbling experience for the 44-year-old Byrd, who was always an artist but who didn’t make a living as one until he found tattooing about 8 1/2 years ago.
As a teen, and even now, Byrd’s art and mind delved into the fantasy worlds of comic book heroes, “Star Wars” and “Dungeons and Dragons,” and, in fact, the self-described nerd said he sold his “Magic The Gathering” collection to scrape together the $2,000 to help launch the tattoo shop this past January.
After graduating with his GED from the Putnam County Education Center in Eleanor in 1990, Byrd went to The Art Institute of Pittsburgh but ended up back home in Putnam County before completing the program. He tumbled from one job to the next while hoping to break into the field of commercial illustration.
“I felt like I haven’t become who I was supposed to be until later,” Byrd said. “I did a lot of years of having a hard time at life, a really hard time, and so it is pretty awesome that I got to where I am today for where I was back then.”
Growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, Byrd said he didn’t think much of tattoo art, but when he saw a beautiful piece on a girl’s leg, he reconsidered his perceptions of the art form and began to explore it.
“I was 34 years old and got my first tattoo. I got Spider-Man crawling down my leg,” Byrd said. “I then considered that since my drawing skills were good that I could take up an apprenticeship. No one would take me at first, but I just started hanging out and then got picked up the shop.”
When opportunity knocked late last year, he and fellow tattoo artist Shomo teamed to open Rock Lake Tattoo Co. on Jan. 16 in South Charleston.
Although Byrd has been super-busy at the shop, he said he could not shake the great feeling of performance painting to music which when he attended last year’s Mountain Music Festival in the New River Gorge.
“I had a friend who told me about this guy that painted at festivals, and it was when I was listening to some EDM music while I was painting at home. When I was listening to the music I would also dance with no fear, and I would paint with no fear, none. I didn’t have any fear left, I was not afraid of any bully or afraid to stand up and say what is right, I had lost it, and I was not afraid.”
After Byrd had live painted for friends at a Halloween party in 2014, he started taking his paints to festivals.
“That Mountain Music Festival in 2015 was the first festival I have ever been to, and the first time I had seen that culture, and it is like home,” Byrd said.
Byrd said Aaron Brooks, another festival painter from Hurricane, encouraged him to get out on the scene and in front of the people to see what he can do.
“It felt like the universe was keeping me from being able to get to a festival, and every time I was almost there, it would be another financial disaster that would take the money away,” Byrd said. “It was frustrating because I knew the whole time that if I got up in front of a lot of people it would pop off. I never have had something that no one else in the world had, but I felt like that, and that is why I was pushing so hard. I think I was trying too hard, so I was like, ‘Quit trying so hard and slow down and just be,’ but that is hard because I am so hungry for it.”
If he was anxious, it was for good reason — because once festivalgoers have seen the paintings come alive throughout the day, they’ve blown away, such as when he painted in front of thousands at the Werk Out Festival in early August at Legend Valley, east of Columbus, Ohio.
“I was in a line with the flow artists (the fire twirlers and Hula Hoopers), and every little sound and vibration in the music was hitting my body, and I am just on it like fire. And the people are like rain dancing and staying near me and hugging me out in the crowd and crying, and so they were like ‘We have to get you to Resonance’ (another Legend Valley festival).”
Byrd said he now hopes to take his art to the next level, establishing a festival art business with an online presence selling fine-art prints and art merchandise in addition to his originals — which are now fetching more than $1,000.
“For me it is not about having a big crowd — that is not why I do it,” Byrd said. “I just love live music, and it is always nice being out and painting and being with people and so getting away from the shop is like a vacation. It is a party for me. On my days off I am always working on something. I do not rest. I am stirring to paint.”
Information from: The Herald-Dispatch, http://www.herald-dispatch.com