John Haywood re-paints the narrative of what it means to be Appalachian and to be an artist

John Haywood grew up in the Appalachian region of southeastern Kentucky with dreams of becoming a rock star. But mountain folk don’t become rock stars. Mountain folk don’t even go to college. Mountain folk work for the coalmines, and that’s the future Haywood might have had if his grandfather, who did work for the coalmines, hadn’t given him a piece of advice early on that stayed with him.

“Pappaw quit school in the sixth grade to work in the coalmines. He told me, ‘Do something you love in life; don’t do something for money,'” Haywood remembers. “A lot of people ignore what their [parents and grandparents] say, but he had a way about him – if he said something, you listened. I think about that every day, that I had someone who told me that.”

Haywood has been an artist for pretty much as long as he’s been breathing. “It’s been the only way for as long as I can remember,” he says. “I don’t remember even ‘getting into it.’ I just knew that it always was.”

His granny kept the comic strips he drew as a kid. His granddad encouraged him to do what he loves. His high school sweetheart, now wife, was instrumental in convincing him that he could have a viable career in the arts. And John Haywood, who loved to draw and grew up wanting to be a rock star, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in graphic design and a master’s degree in painting, learned how to tattoo and opened his own parlor, and even became something of a music star, if not quite on the level of Tony Iommi (of Black Sabbath for all you non-metalheads).

“Growing up I wanted to be a rock and roll star, but I lived in the mountains and there’s no hope to be rock and roll star when you live in the mountains,” he says. “I got into heavy metal in 7th grade; it was just a gradual rebellion into rock and roll away from bluegrass. All the stuff I’m really into now I was against as a youngster. Rock and roll was my escape route from the mountains. I always had a band, but living in the mountains ‘rock star’ was not a viable career option.”

Haywood’s first mentor was respected Appalachian artist Tom J. Whitaker, who said, “Being a native of the head of the holler in Magoffin County Kentucky was an asset for me.” That’s another quote that stuck with him. “Growing up in the mountains has everything to do with the artist I am today,” Haywood says. It made him want to escape his roots, and later, it made him want to return to them.

“As a kid, I was used to going to places and being made fun of because we ‘talk funny,'” he recalls. “I experienced prejudice because of where I’m from in Kentucky. People think we don’t wear shoes or have electricity or indoor plumbing. When you grow up like that, when you get excited to go places just to have someone put you down because of how you talk, it really affects you. I feel like it has hindered me.”

He would be scared to talk in front of people, worried that if he opened his mouth people would say, ‘Listen to this stupid hillbilly. Who does he think he is?” As a teenager playing in rock bands he would disguise his accent, figuring why not? British singers do it. “I developed a way to slip into a different character when I was in front of people. [While I was at the University of Louisville] I worked on developing a Midwestern accent. I worked on ways of changing my accent a little. Plus with rock and roll you can’t really understand [what the singer is saying] anyway!”

As a teenager and young adult, Haywood sought to escape the stereotypes that came with being Appalachian, and did everything he could to downplay his own heritage. “At first I tried to escape that, to get out of that stereotype and people pigeonholing me because I’m from southeastern Kentucky.”

He jokes that people would tell him he was an “alright” musician but really great at drawing, and he kept at it all through high school, but it was Kelli Hansel, his then-girlfriend, who convinced him that it was something he could make a career out of.

After earning his degree in graphic design from Morehead State University, Haywood decided he wanted nothing more to do with computers. He was more interested in hands-on arts – painting, drawing, and printmaking – so he then attended the University of Louisville to study painting at a graduate level.

As a painter, Haywood focuses on people, and the figures in his paintings always bring some kind of narrative element to them. “I always referred to [my work] as ‘painted narratives.’ They’re somewhat expressive,” he says. “When I’m truly being myself I bring a lot of things to the table,” everything from his training in classical painting to the fundamentals he learned from tattooing, even using technology to find recipes for Northern European oil painting from the 1400s.

While in Louisville, the subject matter of his paintings began to focus more on people, starting with a guy pushing a shopping cart full of cans. “I started feeling like observing and discovering [the people around me],” he says. “I started exploring those people in artwork. I saw how happy this one guy was, who was pushing a shopping cart with a big grin on his face. This was a month after 9/11. The old guy had an American flag attached to his cart and was listening to the radio. He was smiling, in good spirits, and he said hello. I felt really good about meeting this person – ‘Well here’s this guy who has nothing but he’s smiling and dancing.’ He was happy.

‘That [entered] me into this world where I explored people like that at first – people who were happy despite their place in the world. I finally put it together that I’m interested in these people because that’s where I come from. People think we’re ignorant and inbred and all these stereotypes. As an artist I started to confront those stereotypes and realized, ‘Wait a minute, I should be proud of this; this is what makes me who I am.’ It became my distinguishing [characteristic] as an artist…I started finding these things that maybe people would have felt ashamed of at first and started feeling dignity in them instead of making fun of them.”

As many of the greatest artists have done before him, Haywood found a way to take the negative narrative of his heritage that he had internalized and turn it on its head. He was telling a new narrative in his work, a positive one, one that celebrated the Appalachian culture rather than denigrating or disavowing it. And people responded.

“Instead of seeing you and the art and thinking, ‘Oh, you hillbilly,’ now, as a result of the paintings, people would approach me with interest in what’s going on,” he says. “Since I’ve been doing this I noticed [the response] has gone from ridicule to people seeming to want to listen to the reality. There is an element of me grabbing onto these stereotypes and painting them” – literally – “in a new light and getting people to see them in a new light.” He again references the stereotype of Appalachians not wearing shoes: “People [would be] acting like, ‘Oh, this poor pitiful Appalachian kid not wearing shoes,’ and my aunt [would be] saying, ‘If you can’t walk barefoot on gravel you must be some p–sy city slicker.”

Haywood re-wrote – or, rather, re-painted – the dominant narrative about Appalachian culture, and he also re-wrote his own narrative as an artist by combining his fine art skills with the “low-brow” folk art of tattooing.

“[My work as an artist exists somewhere] where classical painting meets folk art, tattooing being a folk art,” Haywood says. “I’m technically not a folk artist from the standpoint of a university or museum because I went to college, but some guys who have been tattooing straight out of high school and have been tattooing for 20 years now are amazing artists. Tattooing in a way is like a crash-course drawing school – one day you’re doing little roses on people’s ankles, then 20 years later you’re doing full body suits. Tattooing is one of the best art educations ever because you’re drawing every single day. It may be even better than college because you’re going to learn to draw and draw every single day and get better every single day and execute your craft every single day.”

After Haywood completed his master’s degree he was part of an artists’ co-op space while trying to get his work into different shows. This was where he met tattoo artist Big Daddy Tray Benham. Benham asked Haywood, who already had collected several tattoos of his own, if he had ever considered using his illustration skills to work as a tattoo artist. “I said yeah, but I always just figured there was way too many of them already.” Benham offered to apprentice him and he couldn’t get the offer out of his head, despite being convinced that people would say he was throwing all those years of college away. He eventually apprenticed for a year by night while working as an adjunct professor during the day.

Haywood started the apprenticeship in 2004 and worked with Benham for five years while also doing art shows on the road, playing music gigs, and trying to raise a family. He and Kelli decided to move back to East Kentucky and he opened his own tattoo shop, Parlor Room Art and Tattoo, in 2011, where he has built a strong reputation for his style of work and now has customers on a waiting list for months at a time.

As a tattoo artist, Haywood has developed a style that reflects his work as a painter, and many of the works in his tattoo portfolio look like something he might have painted. “Tattooing has yet to catch up to art and painting. A lot of times when people want a portrait they want you to replicate a photo they have, but when I think of portraits I think of the many ways you can do portraits and the many different ways artists have done them over the years.”

He even quit tattooing at one point because there was such a disparity between the world of painting and the world of tattooing. “It was two separate audiences and two separate lives [I was living],” says Haywood. “[Every night] I went home to paint because I wanted to be a painter. Then [the next day] I went to the studio to do tattoos. But now that I have my own shop it’s starting to cross over a little.”

Haywood now attracts clientele from all over the world who know him equally as an artist, a musician, and a tattooist. There was a Scottish music journalist who came into town, got tattooed by Haywood, and also bought the largest painting he ever made. A Swedish musician, who was raised in a mountain town similar to southeastern Kentucky and thus identified with mountain folk their music, commissioned a painting from Haywood…to be tattooed on his chest, as the nomad lifestyle of the musician precluded him from being able to keep one of Haywood’s paintings with him on the road.

During all this time he was growing as both a painter and a tattoo artist, Haywood continued to play music. Eastern Kentucky is a hotbed for old-time traditional mountain music and bluegrass, and despite having rejected these genres as a self-conscious teenager, he embraced them as an adult.

“As I began painting more mountain imagery I also began playing more mountain music,” says Haywood, who is now known as an old-timey musician, a style with roots than can be traced back to the pre-Revolutionary War era. “I rediscovered the banjo, started playing the fiddle, and even my guitar playing changed. To play the banjo and sing sounded better if you have a little twang to your voice, and nowadays [instead of hiding it] I go the opposite way and throw a little extra twang in there.” He is definitely no longer afraid to open his mouth.

Growing up, John Haywood wanted to escape from the mountains and everything that being “mountain folk” meant. He wanted to be a rock star without roots. But his roots are who he is, and as an artist he has come to celebrate them. And while the fields in which he has chosen to work professionally – painting, music, and tattooing – might initially seem disparate, Haywood has succeeded in connecting them, with one informing the other and all of them inseparable from his identity as an artist and as an Appalachian.