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Artistry in Steel

By Sue Garibaldi

Steel bars on storefronts are not exactly welcoming, but in dodgy commercial neighborhoods, they can be necessary. What if a barrier could be strong and ornamental? Part barrier and part entrance, serving two functions: as security and as a welcome? The steel facade at 1038 Larkin Street in San Francisco achieves just that. Formed of 3/16 steel, it's strong yet lacelike—beautifully intricate, detailed, and symbolic.

Sketched by tattooer and artist Adrian Lee and designed by Mark Heaps, the filigree wall stands just behind the windowed entrance to the Analog Tattoo Arts Kolectiv, a gallery and workspace in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Adrian, the founder of the collective, became enamored with the 1,200-square-foot space after a two-year search. Its first floor is dedicated to display; the upper-level loft, to tattooing.

Initial sketches for the cut-steel door for the Tattoo Arts Kolektiv ketched by tattooer and artist Adrian Lee and designed by Mark Heaps

SYMBOLISM IN A SKETCH

To give his new building the protection it needed, Adrian began sketching gates, eventually creating a complex pattern designed to fill the space just behind the 12- by 14-foot street-facing wall of glass. This sketch, comprising elements prevalent in his personal work, was a balance of art, science, and spirit—the perfect portal to the shop. 

Although Adrian had initially considered other forms of fabrication, by the time his sketch was complete, he knew it would be created from a single plate of steel with a waterjet cutter.

When the fabricator (Keller Industries) told him the outcome would be better if the cuts were made from a vector file, Adrian asked Mark Heaps to re-create the sketch in Adobe Illustrator. Mark remembers the start of the project: "Adrian created this amazing sketch that he inked and took to Keller. But they couldn't scan his artwork at a high enough resolution for the little details to scale up without looking pixelated. When he asked how to move forward, they told him, 'You need this in vector.'" 

Because he'd worked with Adrian in the past, Mark didn't consider the difficulty of the project before saying yes. He simply took it on. 

Mark explains, "I've collaborated with Adrian on many projects. Every single one has been really complex. While some of us simplify because of what we know, he dreams up ideas without restriction." Then, thinking back to when he first saw Adrian's sketch, Mark said, "I immediately thought, 'There's no way. This has to be one vector object to cut it out.' But every time he throws something at me, we figure it out; we solve the problems."

FINE-TUNING

Adrian's sketch consisted of a core from which 16 slices, and the elements within them, radiated. His goal was to get the entire circle to fit in the shop's total available window space. Defining the outer radius meant that scaling had to be calculated from that outer line back to the core. Each of the 16 slices is a division of a full circle with a rotation of 22.5 degrees. 

Illustrator's Shape Builder tool lets you create complex objects by selecting the edges (any section of a path that doesn't intersect another path) and regions (closed areas of shapes) of simpler objects and merging them. According to Mark, without Shape Builder and Illustrator's measurement and calculation system, the project may not have happened: "Ninety-five percent of this piece was done with Shape Builder; I honestly don't know if it could have been completed without it."

Mark initially thought he could simply trace Adrian's drawing. But loose lines and extra anchor points would ultimately affect the quality of the cuts. And at that scale, if one element was off by even one quarter of an inch, it would move all the other elements. Ultimately, he rejected the idea of tracing and re-created the drawing, using the sketch as a reference. 

What began in Adobe Illustrator CS6 ended in Adobe Illustrator CC. Mark spent 48 hours getting the art ready for Keller; one third of that time was spent experimenting.

Mark, whose degree is in fine art, described the process of getting the math right: "It wasn't enough to draw lots of little details, because they had to be scaled to fit into their wedges on the rotation. For the elements to be precise enough for the waterjet cutting process, I had to actually calculate distances and then draw guides in Illustrator. Lots and lots of guides."

In progress shots of a cut-steel door for the Tattoo Arts Kolektiv ketched by tattooer and artist Adrian Lee and designed by Mark Heaps

CUTTING STEEL WITH WATER

Like any form of cutting, waterjet cutting is a reductive process; it's also extremely precise. Water is channeled through a fine nozzle that transforms the flow into a pressurized stream. An abrasive agent (in this case, sand) blasts through the tip along with the water; combined, they can slice through just about any material: wood, glass, stone, or steel. Mark's vector file was, in essence, the cutting map. The computerized cutter traced all the paths from the Illustrator file onto a blank sheet of steel laid beneath it. Shapes with no overlapping paths were key to success.

Mark says that it was the most complex vector drawing project he'd ever done. "Because it had to be one object when it was finished, and all the forms were negative shapes that had to be cut from one piece of steel, a lot of time was spent working in outline view to double-check the quality of the lines." When he showed the working file to Keller, the response was four simple words: "Those lines are beautiful."

Keller staff explained that they could cut to 1/16 of an inch. In other words, they were able to reproduce even the smallest shapes in the original sketch. However, some minor adjustments were made to the art so that no one's fingers could become stuck in small shapes. 

The front of Analog Tattoo Arts Kolectiv is floor-to-ceiling glass with metal windowpanes. The piece needed to fill that space precisely to offer the necessary security and to be aesthetically pleasing. But because it was so large, the gate had to be cut into tiles. Each pane was measured carefully and mapped into the software file so the grid could be calculated and the tiles cut at the same time as the design. It was a marriage between Illustrator CC and the cutting software that worked perfectly.

Finished cut-steel door for the Tattoo Arts Kolektiv ketched by tattooer and artist Adrian Lee and designed by Mark Heaps.

STRENGTH AND BEAUTY

After the cutting was complete, corners were rounded and edges were dulled. To give the metal the varied patina of naturally aged steel, the piece was treated with a black-patina aging element at the top and a rapid-rust wash at the bottom. Then the heavy tiles were prepped for installation. 

However, the piece's designers hadn't thoroughly accounted for its weight. They assumed the metal framing holding the giant panes of glass (essentially the joists and studs for the storefront) would be strong enough to support the additional weight of the steel. After the installation of two tiles, they noticed bowing and worried that the glass would fall out or snap. 

In the end, they floated the pieces, bolting each one on all four sides so the weight would be evenly distributed. They secured the tiles with L-brackets, spaced wherever the design touched the frame and bolted around the edges of the metal framework. The piece is now part of the building's structure. 

Gothic. Industrial. Safe. Beckoning. The entry at Analog Tattoo Arts Kolectiv is all these things. It's proof that security, functionality, and beauty don't have to be mutually exclusive. In Mark's words, "Adrian's ultimate goal was to create beautiful security. That's exactly what he's done."

(Want to learn more about Illustrator’s Shape Builder feature? Check out this interactive Illustrator tutorial.)