The best Renaissance masters were proficient in multiple disciplines, most commonly painting and sculpture. Such crossover can be found at the intersection of any number of unlikely different types of art. For Kenny K-Bar, it’s tattoos and Legos.
At his Brooklyn shop, Leathernecks, Kenny bangs out a constant stream of quality comic-influence realism pieces in a workspace surrounded by dozens of Star Wars Lego sets.
“I’ve been collecting Legos since I was about four or five, Star Wars since ‘99. What you saw was the tip of the iceberg. I have hundreds of Star Wars sets as well,” Kenny says, with an air of pure enthusiasm known to only the most hardcore of nerds. “In my old apartment, I had a Lego room, and now I have a Lego basement. A workshop with drawers organized by type of piece and color. Hundreds of little drawers.”
When asked how his lifelong love of little plastic bricks has influenced his tattoo work, Kenny does not hesitate with an answer. “As a kid my mom always inspired me to be creative. She bought me crayons and pencils, and then bought me my first Lego set. As I got older, I would draw my layouts of what I wanted to do and try to mimic it.”
It didn’t take long for young Kenny to develop an interest in a much different kind of art. He got inspired when he met his first tattoo artist working out of a house next door to his friend, back in the days when tattoos were still illegal in New York City. He told Kenny to try to draw up some tattoo designs — which Kenny jokingly says sucked.
Bitten by the tattoo bug, Kenny eventually drew up a piece he wanted to get as his first tattoo. when I drew it up and showed it to her she said, ‘If you get that tattoo, you’re not going to be welcome in this house.’” When Kenny was 18 he finally got the piece, done by the tattoo artist that inspired him, whom years later would end up guesting in Kenny’s shop.
After his childhood, Kenny signed up for the Marines, giving five active duty years to his country, including two tours of Iraq. Kenny reflects on being at a crossroad, “Being raised in Brooklyn, you get a lot of negative influences. If you let it take over, you can live a life of bad decisions. I got in a little trouble here and there. And then I got into a lot of trouble, and I said, ‘I need to do something to change my ways.’”
Craving order, Kenny joined the Marines where he learned the intricacies of teamwork and leadership, which would pay off in his next job as an an officer of the NYPD. “I was drawing a lot and decided to get a memorial piece for a friend I lost in the NYPD and a few I lost in the Marine Corps. While I was getting the tattoo, I inquired about an apprenticeship... After work as a cop, I would go and spend all hours of the night trying to learn from this guy. And then I decided to leave the NYPD to pursue this.”
Tattooing led Kenny to meet his wife, Valerie Restrepo, with whom he opened Leathernecks. Kenny remembers meeting her when she came in for a tattoo, “I saw her smile and it took my breath away… By the end, we were just talking and laughing, and a tattoo that should have taken an hour and change took three and a half hours.”
At Leathernecks, Valerie is an indispensable part of the team. “Running the shop is good team effort, because I have the background of someone who lead marines through combat and patrolled the streets of New York. I’m very diligent and organized. Valerie’s more warm-hearted, and we create a good balance,” Kenny says.
Kenny K-Bar may not be a Renaissance master, and his works in tattooing and Legos will probably never make it to the Louvre, but we can’t imagine it bothers him. With a beautiful, loving wife, a thriving tattoo shop,
and a basement full of Legos, who could want more?