Since the dawn of Christian art, the go-to way to make figures look divine has been to put halos above their heads. Robin Hernandez, better known as Lil B, blows this ancient cliché out of the sky with his with bold, graphic style, putting a ring of black around everything instead. He creates statuesque black and grey tattoos of religious imagery possessed by the soul of street art. His depictions of Christ, angels, and other spiritual icons make heaven look like it isn’t just paved with gold. It’s covered in graffiti, too.
“I was always drawing, but when I found out about graffiti and tagging, I went nuts. It’s all I had on my mind and all I wanted to do,” says Lil B. “I was constantly trying to create new handstyles and was looking for walls to hit up to get my name out there. Graffiti was definitely my first love, along with skateboarding, and without it, I wouldn’t have got into tattooing.”
Lil B’s love of graffiti led toward the life of an artist, but street art doesn’t pay the bills, so he turned to tattooing. Seven years ago, he saved up, purchased his first tattoo machine, tested it out on some oranges, did his first tattoo the very next day, and has been at it ever since. He was immediately drawn to black and grey realism because of the difficulty of the style, but he wanted to push it to the next level and started to imbue his work with a street art aesthetic.
“I would describe my style as ‘street fine art.’ I just made that up and it sounds pretty good so I think I am gonna keep it. I take realism and mix it with elements such as bold outlines, galactic backgrounds, et cetera, that come from the type of art that I love the most — street art,” says Lil B. “I always want my pieces to stand out just like a fat-ass spraycan handstyle on a nice white wall in the middle of the street. To me it’s all about mixing technical skills with style.”
This balance of style and technique is what makes Lil B’s take on black and grey realism so outstanding. There are numerous tattooists who specialize in creating stonelike depictions of religious icons like the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, angels, et cetera, but he’s the first artist to combine this popular form of body art with elements of graffiti. Looking at his work, you’d probably think that he received a classical education in the arts alongside learning to tag, but surprisingly that wasn’t the case.
“It might sound bad to say that but I always found [fine art] quite boring,” Lil B admits. “It is only when I got into tattooing that I started to pay attention to it because it is what I found to be the most challenging to do. I really enjoy Michelangelo, Bernini, and, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpieces, but to be very honest, if I had to stop tattooing, I would probably lose interest for this type of art.”
Though Lil B’s passion is still shaking up a rattle-can and tagging a virgin wall, he is revolutionizing religious iconography, modernizing it to better reflect a 21st-century sense of spirituality by transforming his clients into inner-city versions of the Sistine Chapel.