Asher Emerson: Art, Artist, Artisan

Words by Justin Coffey
Photos by Justin Coffey

In a dimly lit corner of an automotive restoration shop in Tempe, Arizona, there’s a giant dragon. It looms overhead, long and twisting and yellow, with flames thrown from a mouth adorned by a mustache. I look up from below, admiring its form, its size, then pull a few paper towels from the roll, dry my hands and exit the little bathroom in the back of Asher’s studio. On the walls there are tracing paper sketches of the human form with could-be tattoo designs covering their butt and backs. Traditional Irezumi art is everywhere. There’s a small drafting desk, a padded massage table and a big bendy light, which looks a little bit like that character from The Brave Little Toaster. Asher is standing in front of his computer, which casts a blueish glow over his upper half. He’s looking at something that he’s scanned, the outline of a design which he’ll soon paint onto the back of my leather motorcycle jacket.

Asher is an artist, but not the kind we’re accustomed to these days. His skills harken back to a time when art and artists were far more multifaceted, utilizing their skills however and wherever they could. He tattoos by appointment only, hand paints signs, pinstripes hot rods and helmets, and, most recently, has been painting big metal horses pulled from a vintage carnival carousel.

I met Asher through a friend who seemingly knows everyone and likes to connect people whose passions align. He introduced me to Asher one afternoon while we were visiting the shop where his studio resides. It’s a big, industrial space tucked into the back of a light brown colored multi-plex. You would drive by it a thousand times and never know it was there. Welcome to Phoenix. But that’s the way they like it. Quiet, clean and difficult to discover. Which is partly the reason Asher has kept his studio in this place for so long. He himself is quiet. Difficult to discover. Music echoes from his computer speakers as he looks over the design he’s just printed in multiple parts and is now stitching together with masking tape. He traces the design with a rolling wheel that perforates the paper, then lays the connected sheets across the back of my jacket. Its starting to come together…

His work is a mix of mediums; pen and paper, needle and ink, paint and brush. The result of a childhood spent drawing and the necessity to diversify as a working artist. Inspired by traditional Japanese tattoo masters and their work, Asher has amassed a deep knowledge of Irezumi, the Japanese word for tattooing, but more importantly the designs that it is best known for. This passion translates to all his work, and is evidenced in his pinstriping, painting and, subsequently, the design that’s about to be on the back of my jacket.

Having moved from the Midwest to Arizona in his late teens, Asher spent the latter part of his youth building vintage Volkswagens and honing his craft. He worked odd jobs, and then eventually found himself a spot as resident pinstriper at a local custom-paint shop, where he worked with some of the top builders, painters, artists and dealers in the custom motorcycle industry. This was a time when wild paint jobs on ridiculous rods and customs were king. But when the market took a shit in 2008, Asher watched his workflow slowly dissipate. This is when many artists would throw in the proverbial towel, find a ‘normal’ job and get on about their life. Instead, Asher branched out and took work hand painting signs, motorcycles and automobiles in the Phoenix area. Right around that same time, he began to develop a new passion: tattooing. Over the next five years, while working from his home studio, Asher, again, honed his craft.

I’m watching Asher lay the design he’s done across the back of my jacket. He takes a little cloth sack filled with talcum powder and “tamps” the design through the perforated paper and onto the black leather. On the bookshelf next to him is a collection of tattoo guns, one of which he made himself when he first became interested in the artform. There’s also an assortment of Westmoreland glass bulldogs (Google it), and a bountiful collection of books with a wide range of topics. This collection sort of sums up Asher himself – diverse, curious and complicated. The next step is to put down the first layer of paint, a big white blob on the back of my jacket. Asher looks up from the desk that my coat lays across, squints his eyes a bit and says something about either ruining my jacket or creating something he’ll be proud of. Life lessons laid out in paint and leather.

The process takes about two weeks, with Asher carefully putting paint layer atop paint layer. He can see the thing coming to life, I just see a disconcerting swatch of colors on the back of a beloved motorcycle coat. But that’s the difference, this is where a life spent working as an artist shows itself. Where I see a mess, Asher sees a foundation. Where I see confusion, he sees the outlines of a conclusion.

Being an entrepreneur is no small task. Being an artist is even more difficult nowadays. Combine those two, and I’m not sure how anyone could eat. But like I mentioned earlier, Asher’s skills lie not in a singular ability or skill, but in his willingness to apply those skills to any task afforded him. In this case, a shitty old jacket. But tomorrow it’ll be custom painting carousel horses, and then a one-million-dollar vintage race car, followed by a tattoo appointment where he’ll put the finishing touches on a back piece he’s been working on for months. Diversity and defiance is what allows Asher to work as an artist in a market oversaturated with the single-skilled and stubborn. He’s willing to take the work, willing to make it work. That’s a skill in and of itself.

In the end, paint layers transform into tiger stripes as an image on the jacket takes shape. Like any artist, Asher isn’t satisfied with his work, but I can tell he’s happy it turned out the way it did. Or maybe he’s just happy it turned out? He likes to take chances, which sets him apart from those who stick to what they know, what they’re good at. Taking on the odd project like this one gives him the freedom to squeeze out those extra creative juices which might be kept in reserve during well-paid, highly-scrutinized jobs. It’s his willingness to risk his reputation which allows his work to move forward, to progress. With that mindset, he could do anything. So, I consider myself lucky he keeps saying “yes” to all of my dumb ideas.

Photo by: Kyra Sacdalan

Find Asher on the internet – @thr_asher

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