Akira Beard recently became a tattoo artist so he could “go anywhere, tattoo, make money while I’m there, trying to open up doors of opportunity with my actual art,” he says. (Photos courtesy of Akira Beard)

Art Exposed: Akira Beard

How painting saved this artist’s life, and how tattooing supports his work

Back Web Only Apr 28, 2021 By Shoka

Things fell apart. Artist Akira Beard was living in San Francisco when several events changed his way of life and where he laid his head. It was late 2012, and, “I was going through a breakup. I lost my apartment,” he says. He was teaching at the Academy of Art University, but, “I got fired.” Instead of replacing what he lost, “I decided to do the opposite, which is just throw myself into the uncertainty and actually deal with the pain,” he says. 

In his words, he became a vagabond, bouncing around the map, staying in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, New York, and France, Mexico and Peru, often with friends and acquaintances, making art wherever he went. While he never intended on becoming a professional exhibiting artist, Beard — who was born in Tokyo, grew up in Sacramento and dropped out of UC Berkeley, where he was studying Japanese and business, to attend the Academy of Art — was sought out by galleries to exhibit as soon as he graduated art school. 

After five years of nomadic living, Beard began to feel ungrounded. “It was really exciting to live that way, but a repercussion was I’d wake up, and I didn’t know where I was,” he says. He settled in Grass Valley, where a friend resided. He began meditating. Got a dog. Continued painting. He healed. 

Akira Beard, who grew up in Sacramento, spent several years traveling around the U.S. and abroad after losing his job, partner and home in San Francisco.

While in Grass Valley, artists Franceska Gamez and Shaun Burner invited Beard to show his work in Sacramento. Beard’s art is introspective and deeply personal but also reflects culture at large. The work conveys elements of peace, beauty and discomfort, often illustrating countenances with textured pastel hues that transition to saturated swatches. Sometimes the portraits are surrounded by handwritten text, journal-like and existential.

Lately, Beard’s work includes more illustrative ink drawings, stemming from his new occupation: tattoo artist. Through his travels and networks, he was introduced to tattoo artist Stefano Alcantara, who has tattoo studios in Peru and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. So after being in Grass Valley for two years, Beard relocated to Fort Lauderdale to begin an apprenticeship, using the income from tattooing to fund his art practice. He is represented by Groundswell Art in Sacramento and plans on returning to the Capital Region in some capacity. 

Are you still connected to the Sacramento and Grass Valley region?  

Yeah, definitely. … One of the reasons I’ve gotten into (tattooing) is every artist has to figure it out for themselves with supporting themselves financially while doing the art that they want to do. So (with) tattooing, very fortunately, I’m discovering a middle ground for that. And so it’s just a temporary thing for me to be out here, but I have family in Sacramento. 

Are you done with your apprenticeship?

I am done. It was kind of rushed. It went fast in my favor, because having a background with art with being able to draw and paint — I guess being a little older too … just being really open-minded and not having an ego about it — and so, I really just jumped into it I think a lot sooner than the usual case. … (It was less than a year) before I started tattooing real skin.

Akira Beard never planned to be an professional exhibiting artist, but he spent more than a decade showing his work because he kept getting offered opportunities.

Is that what you’re doing full time now?

I’m doing that full time, but ultimately, it’s a means to an end. … It’s kind of like a gold card, you know: You learn to tattoo, you can travel the world and support yourself doing it. And that’s one of my goals, to go anywhere, tattoo, make money while I’m there, trying to open up doors of opportunity with my actual art. … 

Up until like three years ago, (I had) no tattoos, never been in a tattoo shop. The friend that presented it, he’s kind of a mentor on the business side of things, and he mentioned, “How many people do you know that own original artwork that they bought?” And I had to think about that. Then he said, “OK, before you answer that, how many people that you know have tattoos that have paid for them?” It was too many to count. And so I was like OK, I get what you’re saying. … I work at a great shop with artists from all over the world who do guest spots there. 

You mentioned you didn’t have any tattoos. Do you have any now? 

I do. This is my first (a line on the inside of my ring finger). … Now I have two bigger tattoos on my leg. One by Stefano. 

Akira Beard has tattooed his own drawings on some clients.

So your plan is to be able to go wherever you want and provide tattoos for people who want them, right?

You have to buy your freedom, you know? … Even though I’ve done a lot of shows and whatnot, it was never consistent in a way to climbing that ladder. And so I want to continue to go further and further with my art, and so I would love for it to be autonomous where I’ll make money in a different way, which is tattooing. Even being at the bottom, I’m already achieving my goal this early. … And I’m tattooing my art on bodies a little bit, which is amazing. 

How did you wind up being a professional showing artist for so many years?

I graduated art school in San Francisco in 2004, and I did my first show, I would say 2005, maybe 2004. My peers, upon graduation, they were already working on portfolios with the intention to start a career. … I did a show because I was offered one, and, right from the start, a gallery in San Francisco, they saw it, and they invited me for an interview. … When I put my first show up … I sold my work. … And one show would lead to another. … 

I was able to live off my art, even when I was a vagabond. I was going deeper in exploration, doors would open when people would buy my art, people would invite me into their home. It was crazy. … I never applied for one show, and I always got invited to do them. It’s not bragging, but I’m extremely fortunate. I know that, ultimately … I want bigger opportunities.  

“I was able to live off my art, even when I was a vagabond,” Akira Beard says.

What do you mean by bigger opportunities?

For example, I had … this opportunity twice to show at (Art Basel in Miami). … One was through a gallery, the other was through this weird competition — I didn’t know it was a competition — that I won that was with Red Bull, and they flew me out, put my art in Basel, and that was great. But I didn’t have a say in how to install the art. … If I go to Basel, I want to hang the art the way I want to. … (It’s) an extension of art making.

You didn’t realize it was a competition?

I was in San Francisco, and I was working with this one gallery where the director mentioned this thing with Red Bull, that they’re gonna film select artists at the gallery. So I said yes, and I did that, (thinking) it was just a promotional thing. … I got contacted again, not through the gallery but through a different group, and they told us the exact same thing, so I said yes. … 

They show up at this venue, they film you, there was like 20 artists, and … we have the whole day to paint. … I did mine. I remember I finished it, I was walking around looking at everybody’s, and this artist came up to me, asking me, “How do you think they judge this thing?” And I had no idea what he was talking about. He said, “Hey, this is a competition.” … 

Later, they have an opening, and … the MC announces first winner, judges’ choice. It was me. … I was telling my friend on the way there, there’s no way they’re going to (pick) me because everybody else, their pieces were polished, and mine, it wasn’t even finished. … It was unreal. I was focusing on all this spiritual stuff, so it was weird that was happening consistently.

It sounds like you’re very open to experiences, and as long as you’re making the art that you want, you will say yes to whatever comes.

Yeah, that goes back to painting as a vocation. It’s really a calling. I was really insecure about that for the longest time. I can remember growing up, my mom telling me indirectly never become an artist. …  She told me a story — I must have been like 11 years old or something. She had a friend that drew comic books and was poor as hell. And so she put a seed in my mind: Never go in that direction. … 

I credit art so much to my psychological balance. … The line between life and art really blurs at some point; I actually healed emotionally in a way I never have. Anytime life gets uncomfortable … I would just do what most people do: I’d … run away. But the only reason I ran towards it is because of art, where I didn’t use art as a form of escape.  

Because of his work as a tattoo artist, Akira Beard says his drawings and paintings are being influenced by the medium. “I think it’s becoming more illustrative,” he says.

I’ve spoken to other artists who struggle with that balance of creating something because it’s therapeutic or they’re passionate about it versus making compromises to be marketable.   

That’s never been an issue ever, because … it’s almost like you really had a near-death experience, and you’re kind of shaken from it, even 20 years later, you always kind of use that as a point of reference. It was my foundation with making art. It started in that place where it really saved my life. And so I would never compromise that. … 

This thing with Red Bull the first time around, the only reason I did it was not to try to promote myself at all, but … I have views on commercial art, and I wanted to challenge those views, because I felt if I never challenged it, it would just be a prejudice. I’m going to have the experience with a commercial corporation where they let me make art, and I made it the way I made it, and I was impressed. I didn’t compromise. … I actually won something with all my integrity, and there’s no better feeling. … It might mean that you’re rejected — I’ve had both experiences. It might be painful, but I can sleep at night knowing that I was true to my art. 

A lot of your work involves bright colors, and lately you’ve been doing more monochromatic pieces. What inspired that shift?

The black-and-gray stuff and color, it really relates to tattooing, because I’m so deep into that, and there’s colored tattoos, obviously, but that for me has influenced my work aesthetically. … I’m going to tattoo this Friday with one of my drawings, and if I didn’t get into tattooing, I know I would have never created a drawing like that. … With tattooing, I’m really open to how it influences my art. I think it’s becoming more illustrative. … The shop I work at, everyone specializes in black-and-gray realism tattoos. And I know, being the new guy, that really influences me because I try to learn from them. 

Akira Beard says painting is his calling and credits his psychological balance to it.

You did a series of paintings that started in 2004 and goes until 2018, or is it still going?  

That’s the first body of art I ever made. … I worked under a mentor at the time, and he gave me basically the constructs (for it). … He called it “Self, Culture, Nature.” … We started off with self — looking at myself in the mirror for hours while journal writing, putting the two together. … From there, getting the culture, all the cultural portraits, trying to understand the world around me as opposed to what’s inside of me. And then it’s nature, which is … the nature of reality, the nature of death. … I’m not done, but … I’m in the process of (putting the work into a book). 

What else is up next for you?  

I started playing with the money thing a little bit. I see it as a form of art. I’m taking the money — through a friend who knows how to invest — in different things to try to make it work for me. 

Investing in stocks? 

Yes, stocks and (cryptocurrency), of course. It’s all … with the aim to make money to support the art. How nice would that be to be able to multiply the money that I’m making with the tattooing? I can get my goals faster. 

Edited for length and clarity.

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