Artist Spotlight: Henbo
The artwork of “Over the Water” is a barrage of color and activity. Each work, painted in vibrant hues, features a glimpse into a bizarre world filled with mischievous monsters. The largest work, titled “Best Friends,” shows, at first glance, three monster children in suits made of monsters, hugging each other - teeming with life and detail. Henbo, the artist responsible for these vivid mindscapes, sees his work as an expression of his innate self-expression, a bubbling sense of boundless creativity that he has carefully cultivated and perfected since childhood.
This juxtaposition of the fantastical against the mundane began with Henbo’s youth in Warrington, a town between Liverpool and Manchester, best known for its centuries-long history of manufacturing wire. Henbo’s early life was steeped in the humdrum of working-class England. “All my family were in the building trade - my uncle Richard, Uncle Ernie, my dad, and my grandpa - and we all lived on the same block, by the side of the Manchester Ship Canal,” Henbo recalls. “The people on the nicer side called it ‘over the water’ to put us down.”
Though he was raised by a family of carpenters in a working-class neighborhood, Henbo’s wild imagination never faltered. He began drawing before he knew how to walk. “My parents still have one of my first drawings on the wall at home. It was me, my mom, and my dad as tigers, but we all have five legs instead of four,” Henbo recalls. In primary school, this active imagination led him to think of nothing but drawing - often getting sent home for drawing in class. He spent hours reading comic books, arranging action figures, and watching frogs at the nearby pond. In Henbo’s eyes, his everyday world was filled with friendly monsters, hiding around the corner and going about their business. He created illustrated worlds where these characters came to life.
When he was 16, Henbo entered London Road Studios, a prestigious art and design school. “I turned up to the first day of art school in a tracksuit, and suddenly I’m studying with goths and all kinds of people,” Henbo says, “it was nice to meet people who were different from me.” His time there, and subsequent graduation from Manchester University, exposed him to diverse artistic mediums, including live drawing, textiles, ceramics, photography, painting, and bookbinding.
However, post-school life saw him juggling jobs from landscape gardening to working in a call center - a stark contrast to his creative aspirations. His foray into tattooing opened a new chapter. “I just didn't have any money. But I had gotten a couple of tattoos and thought maybe I could do this for a job,” Henbo shares. “I realized some of the drawings some of the studios showed me weren't as good as the drawings I could do.”
It took Henbo nearly six years to find an apprenticeship. “I didn't know anybody in tattooing. I had to break down doors. 90% of the people I went to see either weren't interested in looking at any of my work at all, or the other 10% did take a look and said no,” Henbo remembers. “I just got a lucky break getting into a studio in Manchester that really needed an apprentice. They started me at $40 a week, which was barely enough to cover gas.”
Henbo worked relentlessly. “When people came in, I would offer them one of my tattoos for free. I'd do the name on their neck, but if they stayed after, I’d give them a monster,” Henbo recalls. “I started tattooing when Instagram just became popular. I kept posting my work, and within the first year of tattooing, I think I went from like 200 followers on Instagram to 20,000.”
Henbo continued to develop his designs, drawing inspiration from his imagination, along with Japanese folklore. “I absolutely love monsters. As soon as I learned about Yokai, the Japanese monsters, I fell in love. I started consuming as much information as I could, reading books and learning the stories,” says Henbo. “Then I started to make my own. Every inanimate object can be a Yokai; there are no rules. In my head, the lost remote control or the sock that goes missing from the dryer were taken by little monsters, or maybe they were the monsters themselves.” This sense of supernatural magic continues in his work today, with much of his artwork featuring swarms of creatures.
Meanwhile, Henbo’s renown continued to grow in the tattoo world, leading to guest spots - first in London, then New York, where he decided to move in 2016. “My wife was working in LA as a production manager, and I was left lonely in Manchester. One day she came back to the house and said we needed to move to London or New York, so we picked New York,” Henbo shares.
Since moving to New York, Henbo’s artistic repertoire has only grown. In addition to founding his own tattoo shop, his work now spans various mediums, from clothing design to large-scale paintings, all marked by his signature style of blending the real with the surreal. His highly popular print series 'Monster Soup,' created during the COVID pandemic, exemplifies his style, showing a bright universe teeming with Yokai and monsters.
The exhibition at Nepenthes New York represents some of the largest paintings Henbo has ever completed, including the centerpiece work, “Best Friends.” “I wanted to do a big version of the Monster Soup print, with a bit more story,” Henbo shares. “I started with a really simple line drawing of three kinds of monsters with their arms around each other. It reminded me of the friends you have as a kid, where you just laugh all the time, but you feel yourself growing up a little bit. I spent weeks just redrawing that shape. Then I started to think about the toys and memories I have from that period of time.” To create the highly intricate painting, which features countless monsters, Henbo created the artwork digitally, then projected the design across a wall in his apartment to paint it.
For Henbo, this is just the beginning. This year, he will release the third volume of Monster Soup, launch Amphibian Art Club - a physical and NFT print project that allows users to randomly create a unique character from an archive of 1000 drawings - and create clothing featuring original artwork, all while continuing his tattoo work. “People say the American dream is dead, but it’s not. It can be whatever you want it to be,” Henbo insists. “I’m not a tattooer who makes art, I’m just an art maker. For me, tattooing is the same as painting. I do it because I love it.”