May 5, 2011
Note: I recently got a chance to do a profile piece on an amazing Airbrush artist for www.OaklandLocal.com. Here’s how it turned out.
“Guerilla customer service” – that’s what Ronald Allen Jr., aka Mr. Airbrush Hands, calls it when he gets back to potential customers within five minutes of them leaving a message on his cell phone. And that is exactly what has made him one of the most popular airbrush design artists in the Bay Area. Oh yeah, that and an enormous amount of talent. Growing up in a tough North Oakland neighborhood with no father (Ronald Allen Sr. was murdered in 1982), many people doubted that Allen would amount to anything. Even he admits to being lured into the street life at one point, but it was his God-given talent that kept him from drowning in a sea of drugs and violence. “My art was like a life raft,” he told me. “I didn’t know where it was going to take me, but I wasn’t about to let go.”
Indeed the craft of airbrushing – which is a method of painting using a small air operated tool known as an airbrush – did take Allen away from the streets of Oakland and down to Fresno where he ran an art shop in 1991 while attending Fresno State. The man who originally opened the art shop and gave Allen the position was a well-renowned painter by the name of Ron Artis.
It was in Fresno under the tutelage of Artis that Allen began to appreciate the true power of his gift. It was in Fresno that he began to understand the impact that his art could have on common working class people not just in California, but around the world. Soon Ronald became inspired by the notion that one “shouldn’t have to be rich to enjoy art.” Thus he set out on a journey to prove it.
Mr. Airbrush Hands is a business that Allen started with the unwavering support of his wife Pam and his two children, Ronald Allen III and Sahara. He specializes in airbrushing T-shirts and sweatshirts and runs his business out of his Oakland home. Allen’s clientele often ask him to do RIP portraits, something that he has expressed a certain ambivalence toward.
“RIP shirts are the hardest for me to do,” he said. “Not because I can’t do it, but because the person has passed and I’m painting them … I don’t do as many RIP shirts these days, but when someone does ask me to do one, I feel very honored and will do the job to the best of my ability.”
Allen also has done murals and considers his greatest artistic achievement to be a ceiling that he painted at a friend’s music studio. The painting was a depiction of such fallen musical icons as Lisa “Left Eye” Lopez, Marvin Gaye and Tupac Shakur.
Allen had to endure extreme physical hardships to complete the work. He had to crane his neck for hours on end while paint dropped onto his face, yet and still, he finished the ceiling in a day and a half. Like Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, many that have seen Ronald’s work in the music studio are awed into complete and utter silence, which makes Ronald very proud.
Through all of the adulation, the constant demand for his work and the monetary benefits of being as popular in the art world as he is, Ronald somehow manages to remain humble.
For Allen is not in it for the money – “It’s not about what you earn it’s about what you learn,” he said.
I think every living person can learn a lot from the undefeatable spirit of Ronald Allen Jr. I know I did.