State of the Arts

Somewhere between yesterday and today is Brian MacNeil, a classically trained artist who funds his work with a tattoo gun.

Photos by Adam DeTour


Brian MacNeil speaks of art in the same way a man might speak of a lover. “When you’re drawing a boring tree for four or five hours, you start to see how interesting it is,” says the 32-year-old. “You start to really look. It becomes almost meditation. Now I see the world differently. It’s more of an intimate thing. And it isn’t about making the artwork then — it’s really about what’s happening.”

Represented by the Royal Gallery in Providence, R.I., MacNeil teaches portrait painting and drawing workshops at the Academy of Realist Art in Boston. This year, he also began coaching students through the core program, which graduates in difficulty from copying master drawings to three-dimensional forms. Though his experience touts otherwise, this Boston native is more mutt than purebred. MacNeil works full-time at Regeneration Tattoo in Allston, has stretched ears, and is inked from neck to foot.

Though there’s been some crossover with classical and tattoo art in MacNeil’s life, he has deliberately kept them separate. “In my mind I had to choose one or the other: Am I going to be a tattoo artist? Am I going to be a fine arts painter?” he says. “I felt that if I spread myself too thin, I won’t be great at either.”

His history with each form runs deep, and he’s regarded highly in both worlds. “My first impression [was] that this guy is an artist that tattoos as well,” says Edwin Marquez, who, as a fellow tattooer at Regeneration, helped bring MacNeil to the shop. “He’s just on another level.”

Michael John Angel, who was MacNeil’s teacher when he studied at the Angel Academy of Art in Florence, Italy, agrees. “Brian immediately showed himself to be an extremely talented student,” says Angel. “He’s one of the exciting new generation that is working at bringing representationalism into the modern world, saying new things with an old language.”

At the moment, MacNeil has to fight more for his paintings than his tattoos, largely due to demand. “A lot of people equate photos to realistic paintings. They feel like there’s not much of a purpose for it,” MacNeil explains. “But it’s not photographic at all. I can look at a photo, and it can be representative of life, almost exact, but I’m not fooled. But I can look at a painting,” he adds, “and there’s something about it, an essence, a sense of volume that tricks my mind, that tricks my eye into believing that it could be real for a split second.”

When MacNeil was a kid, his mom would drop him off at the Museum of Fine Arts on summer days. He spent most of the week there, copying paintings and statues late into the afternoon until his mom picked him up after work. “That was my summer program,” he says. “And I was fine with it. I loved it.”

By the time he was 16, however, MacNeil had focused his artistic interest on tattoos, giving his first one—bad, he says—when it was still illegal in Massachusetts. Two years later, he moved to North Carolina for an apprenticeship that turned abruptly into a full-time gig. “They basically just threw me to the wolves,” MacNeil says. “That’s how I learned. I just had a loose base of understanding of tattooing before that.”

He stayed for a year, learning the trade before making his way north again, stopping in Philadelphia for three years and then working as a guest artist at various shops in Delaware and New Jersey, biding his time until the trade was legalized in the Commonwealth.

But when that finally happened in 2000, MacNeil felt a pull elsewhere. “I had gotten a traveling bug. I went to Paris. I went to the Louvre,” he says, where he saw the large-scale paintings that make up Europe’s artistic landscape for the first time. “It was like the IMAX version of what I’d see here in Boston. That really kind of blew my mind.” Drawn to paintings spanning the 17th through 20th centuries, MacNeil pinpoints the human aspect and specifically the presence of the Greek Ideal, which focuses on balance, as qualities that captivated him. “There also seemed to be more to it than I could actually see. There was a mystery to it that I was drawn to.”

When he was accepted to the Angel Academy of Art in Florence in 2004, he’d been tattooing steadily at a shop in Plymouth for a few years. But for the next four, MacNeil spent nine months of the year in Italy producing and studying the classics before returning for summer-long tattooing binges, a separation that he maintained even after completing his study and moving back to the States.

His commissioned paintings, however, began to feel stale. “I was just doing whatever [the clients] wanted, and it wasn’t necessarily based in any artistic idea or thought,” MacNeil says. Then last October, he joined the team at Regeneration, where he had more flexibility in his schedule to work on his practice, teaching and tattooing. Thus began his transition.

Shortly after starting at the Allston shop, he allowed the two forms some crossover. For example, during tattoo consultations, MacNeil helps clients understand why he makes certain artistic decisions. “With that same concept in painting, there are design elements that I like to take into consideration,” he says. “The typical person and even the typical artist are more inspired by photography, so in their mind they’ll just take a little snapshot. What I want to do is take it out of that snapshot idea and really compose an actual painting.”

He got that opportunity when Marquez commissioned MacNeil to paint his wife’s French bulldog. Titled “Count Frankie,” the work depicts the smug pooch, eyes closed slightly as though he’s enjoying a scratch behind the ears, dressed in 16th-century nobleman attire, and perched with his back to rolling hills and blue skies. The portrait has all the elements that MacNeil prizes in his painting—a mixture of landscape, still-life and portrait, of old and new, details of realism—but there’s an added sense of sensationalism, reminiscent of his tattoos. “The family heirloom is the picture of this dog,” says Marquez, adding that his wife started crying when presented with the gift. “Best s*** I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe it.”

Though MacNeil often works on as many as five pieces at a time, he’s currently focused on one inspired by the hermit tarot card and Led Zeppelin. “I really like the idea of the journey of the hermit who’s going out, maybe seeking knowledge, maybe seeking spiritual growth, and as he passes through town, he shares it and then goes off,” explains MacNeil. After winning the Hudson River Fellowship—and spending two consecutive summers outdoors painting the skyscape every evening—MacNeil finds himself drawn to light in paintings and using that as a focal point to drive his story. Toying with light, MacNeil sets the scene at dusk, with the hermit’s lantern illuminating his face from below. “It’s that weird in-between. You don’t know if it’s the sun rising or the sun setting. It’s up to the viewer to decide if they’re going out for that journey or if they’re coming back from it.”

This article originally appeared in the December 14, 2012, issue of The Improper Bostonian.