Mark Robbins, 57, has been a body technician most of his life and he loves every aspect of it, but his real passion is art—from airbrush creations to elaborate tattoos and all the way to painting sculptures of some of the West’s most beloved wildlife. Working at Blue Body & Paint in Billings, MT, Robbins calls himself a “starving artist,” although he has sold some of his work and has a few pieces on display in art galleries, as well as on people’s bodies in the form of tattoos.
Robbins found his artistic muse all on his own and has never taken an art class.
“Everything I’ve learned in my life is self-taught,” Robbins explained. “I wanted to learn how to do airbrushing, so I just started doing it. I love to paint different things and explore new methods, because that’s the part I really enjoy. The art is a great release for me and therapy, in a way. Every time I get an idea about how to paint something, it’s exciting, and then when I see the finished product, it’s very satisfying.”
In the old days, all of the work was done by hand, but now technology has changed that, Robbins said. “When I first started airbrushing, it was very popular and everyone was either doing it or trying to do it. It was time-intensive and projects might take days or weeks. But, now with stencils and vinyl graphics, they can do it in hours. The finished product isn’t anywhere as good, because it lacks depth and ends up looking like a decal. For people who want fast and inexpensive that works, but I tell them I don’t do that.”
Robbins will paint anything—trucks, muscle cars, classic vehicles, vans, motorcycles, even furniture and t-shirts, just to name a few. He also does glass etching for local businesses in Billings and there are also a few people walking around town with tattoos that he designed.
Robbins said he always “messed around with oil paints” and enjoyed drawing as soon as he was old enough to pick up a crayon. But, doing murals on cars didn’t happen until a school buddy asked him to put a medieval scene on his ride.
“He had a 1967 Pontiac LeMans and it was turquoise,” Robbins said. “I painted a dragon with a castle in the background on the big hood of that car and after I finished it, I said wow—I can do this. After that, I go a lot of offers and started doing murals for people all over town. I did a lot of El Camino tailgates back then with scenes with pirates and castles in the clouds, for example.”
After refining his processes, Robbins’s creations became more involved and intricate. “I free-hand the illustration, then outline the entire image in white paint. Then, I fill in the colors and the details by misting colors over the top of it. It really stands out and the colors pop, because of the white undercoat. That’s how I get that 3D effect that people really seem to like.”
Robbins has always been enamored with the art of the late artist Frank Frazetta, who was an American fantasy and science fiction artist, noted for comic books, paperback book covers, paintings, movie posters, LP record album covers and other media. Best known for painting dragons, muscle-bound warriors and semi-clad women, Robbins has done his share of Frazetta-inspired art over the years.
After tasing some success with his art, Robbins got hooked and now he hopes to make it part of his eventual retirement plan. “I’m not really thinking about retiring right now, but when I do, I at least have something to do with my spare time. The art has changed my life, because now whenever I look at any piece of art, I see things that I did not see before, like certain colors or shading or shapes, whatever.”
With five grown children and five grandchildren and a wonderful wife who supports his art, Robbins is happy, but he still wants to take his art career further, if he can. “I’ve been married for 35 years now and my wife Robyn has supported me every step of the way,” he said. “She always encourages me to do more art and take chances with it. I have sold a few pieces and now I want to sell more. Every time I do a mural or a tattoo, I get excited. Seeing the finished product is so satisfying—it’s just like painting a car and knowing that you did a great job!”
In 2012, Robbins was able to use his artistic skills for a higher cause when he was asked to paint three sculptures of Bighorn Rams. “They gave us the money for the paint and supplies and then let me go at it. It’s great knowing that one sits in the National Bighorn Sheep Interpretive Association in Cody, WY. Then later, I did the same for a series of Grizzly Bears for an art collective project that also took place in Cody, WY. Twenty-five artists were chosen to paint these five-feet-tall Grizzlies, so it was an honor to be included.”
These animal creations brought Robbins some national acclaim and his role as the painter in each case was satisfying, he said. “If I can use my artistic abilities to help the community in any way, I’m willing to do it. “It has been a great experience painting these sculptures, so who knows what’s coming next?”
Whatever the future does hold for Mark Robbins, it will undoubtedly combine collision repair, art, philanthropy and more for this Renaissance man. “I want to keep doing everything and creating art is a big part of that,” Robbins explained. Maybe one day he will be able to shed the title of “starving artist” and replace it with “full-time professional artist,” so stay tuned.