Rob The Original has a thing about trying new things. But he always seems to come back to Tupac.
“That was my very first portrait I did,” Rob “The Original” Ferrel tells En Fuego. “And ever since then, it became a tradition of me doing Tupacs as my mediums. Every time I tried a new medium, I would do a portrait of Tupac.”
When you find Rob in his element, he has an instrument of creativity in one hand and his phone in the other. Like a hip-hop artist trying out some new bars in the studio, he’s glancing constantly at an image that he’s simultaneously creating.
Sometimes that image is done on a table. Sometimes it’s on toast. Often times it’s on the scalp of an eager customer who paid handsomely to get done up in the chair of a modern-day master.
The Original. The One and Only. He’s an artist. That’s as best I can lock him down to one word. But if you have the time to get to know one of the most eclectic minds throwing it down right now, it’s worth the journey.
Get this man a bottle of ketchup and he’ll drop your jaw. Have some toast laying around, he’ll create for you a portrait of Kylie Jenner that will have you stopping people on the street just to show them the image.
Recently, the 35-year-old found himself in a Beverly Hills restaurant alongside Mexican soccer legend Jorge Campos. With a flat surface and some colored sand, an original began to quickly take shape. In a matter of moments, Campos was tending goal again.
Rob The Original is constantly producing. Perhaps it’s a life of constant volition that breeds such prolific creativity.
He grew up in L.A., moved to Tijuana, Mexico, when he was seven then, after a couple of years, the family moved up to the Bay Area. He eventually found himself in San Antonio where he opened a barbershop but now resides in Phoenix.
He’s in a tattoo parlor in Los Angeles when I catch up with him via Zoom. At the moment, he’s engaging in another career pivot. Not content to master temporary mediums like grains of sand, he is now taking up the tattoo needle.
It’s a natural extension of a man who was once a young boy trying to distinguish himself amid a large family.
“I've been drawing ever since I can remember,” he explains. “I'm a natural born artist, self-taught.”
“I grew up in a big family, so my parents didn't really notice me when I was growing up. I was a middle child out of out of eight kids. So, the way that my parents paid attention to me was when I created art.”
The kid lovingly referred to as “Gordo” discovered that pen to paper immediately separated himself from others. Who he was as a person had a direct link to his creations. He was hooked.
While Ferrel might use table salt to create something epic, it was an iconic salt image that kicked off his passion.
Coming from a family that spoke only Spanish, he worked to find his way in school at a young age. He remembers one of his first experiences with paint.
You probably all remember having old milk cartons cut in half presented to you as you doodled with a teacher nearby.
What inspired him at the time was a container of Morton Salt, the classic image of a girl with a drenched umbrella overhead.
“I don't know why I painted that, but they liked it so much they framed it and put it on the cafeteria. And that was like the first, ‘Oh, wow; they noticed.’ And I was so young. I was in first grade, you know, I must have been six years old.”
The art continued as did the recognition. And it didn’t stop with pencil, paint, or Crayon. By the time he was a teenager cutting his own hair, he realized that he could incorporate his natural ability to literally carve a new path for himself.
Rob The Barber
Rob is constantly driven not just by creating but putting his own stamp on whatever he is doing at the time. During his early days as a barber, he recalls a kid came into his southside San Antonio shop asking for a hair design.
A few neatly crafted lines later and he had something that was fresh but imitable. “I kind of taught myself techniques and all of that to the point where other barbers or other people that were doing designs were imitating my designs.”
Even at the grocery store, he spotted designs that were absolute knockoffs of the stuff he was doing.
It made sense to take things to the next level—do things nobody else was doing at the time. “So then I was like, OK, I got to step my game up,” he said. “So, I decided to do a portrait.”
Social media, for all its ills, presents a wonderful democracy of talent. People like Rob can find fame in an instant.
Incorporating this singular ability to not just line up someone with a cool design but to make a lifelike portrait resonated with thousands the second his early Tony Parker design hit the Internet.
“That went super viral,” he recalls. “I uploaded that to YouTube video and overnight it was viral. It was on the front page of Yahoo! Sports, and it was like huge. Everybody was talking about it from there.”
Not content to work with hair, Rob continued to push himself in ways most wouldn’t consider. One of his favorite works is a massive portrait of Kylie Jenner made out of bread.
Created last April, 100 pieces of bread are toasted to various degrees, lined up on a table and immediately recognizable as something different. It garnered over 1.5 million views on Instagram.
And if you’re wondering, the bread is still good. Now while I wouldn’t try it, Rob explains that he still has the portrait.
“I did that at the beginning of the pandemic,” he explains with a smile. “It's close to a year now and it's still the same. Like, the toast is not going bad.”
This is what he does, essentially anything his mind comes up with. My personal favorite is a portrait of Willie Nelson done with what looks like piles of dried herb. What looks like indiscriminate mounds up close is a lifelike image of the iconic artist the minute the camera pans out.
Of course, hair, toast and Oreo cookies are cool and all, but they are temporary. There is certainly a beauty in that—a snapshot in time that will grow out or go bad eventually.
But there is something about his latest endeavor of which he is especially fond.
Tattoos are forever. They are a time capsule that stays with you even as your life endures so many twists and turns.
“A lot of my art goes away,” Rob tells me. “But tattoos are something that, it's permanent.”
He is starting slowly, ensuring that the same level of technique and mastery goes into this art form as all the other mediums he’s worked with prior.
And from his initial Tupac ink to others he has since shown on social media, fans can clearly see that Rob The Original the tattoo artist is going to be just as successful as previous iterations of his work.
While just 35, he is remarkably prolific and diverse in his talent. When asked what kind of wisdom he can impart on the next wave of dreamers coming up, he is direct in his advice.
The man they call The Original is here to implore young artists to simply pick their lane.
Ferrel is clear that what has worked for him is being singular in his craft. There is only one you, so make that your passion.
“Don't follow other people's footsteps,” Rob The Original said. “It's good to be inspired by other artists but try to create your own lane.
“Be original, create your own lane, get inspired by other artists 100%. I mean, the way they work, you know, things like that. But when you create something that is yourself and it's dope, people like it. That's when people are going to notice you. I mean, because you're not like anybody else.”
The second thing he’s like you to know is the thing that is obvious when you look at how much art Rob has produced. He doesn’t take anything for granted. His art is his passion, and it shows.
“Work hard,” he continued. “Nothing comes overnight. I've been doing what I do for many, many years. A lot of people noticed me back then but there's still a lot of people that haven't noticed me to this day. So be patient and just keep doing what you do.”