A Man Named Tabari

By Davin Michael Stedman, Photos by Todd Hobert

Everett, WA has some notable artists living and working in the city today, such as Jesse James Jeter, Brian Sanchez, and Lindsey Anzures, just to name a few. The environment for a thriving art scene is here. You have rents right downtown that a working class artist can enjoy without a trust fund or a major endowment. Then there’s the architecture juxtaposed by natural beauty. Everett at its core blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th century, between the majestic Cascade Mountain range, Whidbey Island, and Port Gardner Bay, which was bestowed its name by Captain George Vancouver. Many of the original mansions and landmarks still stand. There isn’t just potential here, there is a promise. A promise that someday soon, in that sweet spot between rising rents and the rebirth of the downtown, a prominent art scene will emerge.  But for serious art collectors or those that are just serious about supporting art, it’s worth taking a close look at the artists that give Everett some dignity and character today. Everett is an old boom and bust town; there’s always money to be made here. You just have to be able to spot the diamonds.

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There is a painter that lives on Colby Avenue named Tabari Ahmad. He lives to paint and works full time to live; yet still daydreams about becoming a big stand up comedian like Richard Pryor. Such characteristics would not be so terribly unique if Tabari were not both deaf and, if you care to listen him, a fine storyteller. When he tells his own tale there’s a glimmer in his eye, the shine of a man that chooses to laugh instead of cry. You want to root for the the guy because it’s a hard truth that most painters that ever leave a mark on the world, will have a hard road before them or at least behind. To be worth remembering, a painter pays his dues. It’s a life suited for those brave enough to keep finding comedy in the human condition. Take for instance the true story of how Tabari Ahmad’s very first collection became a permanent fixture of the Everett community.

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The first time I hung out with Tabari we met up at Red Rocks Subs on Broadway. He brought along his 11 year old daughter, occasionally telling her ‘ear muffs’ if he anticipated we might curse (she quickly covered her ears). The first tale Tabari told me really knocked me out. He explained how one day back in 2009, he brought a few of his first pieces to his local barber shop. His barber dug his stuff. He said he had real potential. Tabari was naturally moved and with pride he hung his best work in the shop. But upon his return a few weeks later for a regular trim he discovered his paintings were gone. You see his barber was not an art dealer nor a collector. Customers came in, liked a painting, and made him an offer. The barber sold each painting like a bootleg DVD, with no overhead. When Tabari asked his barber how much money his art sold for, the gentleman shrugged and said “I dunno”. He hadn’t bothered to keep track of the money. In fact, folks that bought the art had no clue about the painter’s identity, because the pieces weren’t properly signed or priced for sale. Tabari added with a wince, then broke into a smile, “I can imagine people coming over to some guy’s house and asking ‘who painted this?’ The host just scratches his head and says, ‘I dunno”. In the end Tabari traded his first art collection to his barber for a pair of free hair cuts.

“Tabari is one of those people whom you know is an artist and always will be an artist. No matter what other things or jobs are going on in his life, his identity definitely stands out as an artist. In a historical context, Tabari is a contemporary artist who incorporates graffiti and a street art style to his paintings. I love how his portraits are of powerful, yet feminine black women in iconic poses. His portraits have a great energy about them, and bold use of color.”

 – Painter Shannon Cyphert

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After enjoying pot roast subs at Red Rock, Tabari took me up to his apartment and studio on Colby to view his work up close. When we arrived his daughter sat down and jumped back to work on her latest painting. It was a touching experience watching them interact as two artists. While Eden isn’t his daughter by birth, you can see the father’s pride he takes in her progress. It’s touching how much she admires the father figure in her life. It isn’t the easiest hand being a deaf, black painter, in a town where his art is often met with tin eared remarks along the lines of suggesting that his art would sell much better at the local Art Walk, if he instead focused his efforts on painting more popular images like pretty horses, kittens, and puppies. He explains that he loves puppies, he just doesn’t paint them. But he does listen to the masters. Most painters take for granted the lessons they learn in art class, but Tabari Ahmed learned about his idols like Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo the same way he first learned about Biggie Smalls. From the word of his peers and word on the street. You should have seen Tabari’s eyes light up when recalled the great day he first heard about the late Haitian-American painter Jean-Michel Basquiat.

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For Tabari life is good. I watched him put finishing touches on some of his favorite work on his very first canvas: repurposed wood from his days working at Dunn Lumber. He also recently saved up a couple thousand dollars to purchase a new state of the art hearing aid that allows him to interact with the world like never before. But it’s more than just about new sounds, it about an old soul. As he recalled, as his daughter smiled at him from across the room, “When I was younger I just felt so isolated with my disability, but then I discovered painting, and all these great artists like Picasso and Basquiat. And for the first time in my life, I knew I wasn’t alone. They became my friends.”

By Davin Michael Stedman

Photos by Todd Hobert

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