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Monday, January 14, 2013
Updated: February 19, 2:25 PM ET
Cut it out

By Jesse Locks

Armed with nothing more than a No. 11 X-Acto blade and paper, Northern California artist Tahiti Pehrson merges the rawness of street graffiti with the whimsy of paper art to create masterpieces of astonishing intricacy. Each piece of art -- from skateboard graphics for Toy Machine to commissioned album covers and portraits for notable musicians such as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, M.I.A. and The White Stripes -- is a physical feat, requiring hundreds of painstaking hours of cutting thousands of tiny holes in repetitive geometric patterns. The end result is a marvel of skill, patience and creativity.

"He is the best artist I have ever met and, to this day, my biggest inspiration as an artist," says Chris Senn, professional skateboarder and three-time X Games gold medalist, who grew up skating with Pehrson.

Pehrson was raised two hours northeast of San Francisco in the small historic gold rush mining town of Nevada City, Calif. Nevada City and neighboring Grass Valley are known for harboring an eclectic mix of artists, musicians, skateboarders, burners and boomers. He was raised in a family of artists -- younger brother Galen is a filmmaker and animator who has collaborated with experimental rap group Death Grips and actor James Franco -- and spent many of his formative years skating the town's steep streets and schoolyards with Senn and John Cardiel.

"Art and skateboarding [have] always been intertwined," explains Pehrson. "Skateboarding was the very first clear path for me; before that, I was a weird kid that had no friends and no direction. It wasn't even about being pro or being the best; it gave me the confidence to do anything."

Pehrson had always painted, but it wasn't until 15 years ago, after leaving the San Francisco Art Institute, that he began cutting paper. He had found the critical aspect of art school disenchanting and turned to graffiti and stenciling for something that felt "alive." While hanging out with graffiti artists PEZ, MIZE and Pneu, he started cutting out stencils on sticker paper and sticking them in news boxes. Eventually Pehrson moved on to experimenting with layering stencils to create three-dimensional works. He began using computer images, searching for patterns until finding one or several he liked to layer on top of one another, manipulating them in Photoshop and finally drawing on top of them to create strata of dimension. These earlier pieces are mostly figurative works inspired by actual people and events in Pehrson's life.

To date, Pehrson has shown at boutiques and galleries in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., New York City, Milan and Paris. In 2012, the San Francisco City Arts Commission contracted Pehrson to create a large-scale installation in a site-specific window. The result was "Sea Of Love," a myriad of spirals inspired by symmetry in nature and guilloché patterns (a series of complex geometric patterns often found in currency) created from hundreds of linear feet of hand-cut paper.

"There's a nice dichotomy between the subtleness of the white cut paper on white background and the bravado of the gesture; the intricate hand-cut image is certainly a feat," explains Aimee Friberg, Director of K. Imperial Fine Art in San Francisco, who has been working with Pehrson for the last year. "The work is simultaneously austere and playful, psychedelic and precise."

Holed up: Tahiti Pehrson at work on "Sea Of Love."

On average, Pehrson's larger pieces can each take up to seven 16-hour days to finish. The work is just as challenging physically as it is mentally. To pass the long hours, usually spent in solitude, Pehrson listens to astronomy radio while he works; as he sees it, if he "is going to be chained to the work, I might as well be learning about something."

He tapes his fingers on his right hand to keep them from flexing and cramping as he makes thousands of precise cuts with an X-Acto knife. At the end of the day he ices his hand and elbow to minimize the swelling and ensure another day of work.

Behind Pehrson's art studio, under the pine and cedar trees in the backyard, is a mini-ramp for impromptu skate sessions. He calls these breaks "brushing your teeth for your mind."

"I'm not the kind of person who can go and meditate to clear my mind of words and thoughts," Pehrson says. "I've tried. Inevitably there are always some words and thoughts still left in there. But when I get on a skateboard, it is all gone. It's just physical thinking."

Last month, Pehrson finished a large public art commission for the University of San Francisco, where he was also asked to speak and to teach an art class. The installation, "Active Synchrony," is a confounding, imaginative example of paper architecture that explores how people interact with physical space and art.

Pehrson wanted an installation that invited people into the art, immersing them in the work and allowing them to move through it instead of being on the outside looking in. "I wanted people to get into their own version of higher calling with it, on their own terms," he explains. The installation will be up through March 3. Afterward, Pehrson will begin preparing for a solo show at K. Imperial Fine Art in June.

When asked what drives him to create such laborious works of art, Pehrson answers that it's the process and the importance of owning one's time.

"The process reminds me a lot of sports. It is super physical and I have to get into that state of mind to go until I'm finished," he explains. "There is a good lesson in skateboarding for artists: There is a lot of trying and failing, but you only remember the ones you land. I think it is important for artists to learn that failure is a system of refinement. I kind of had that mentality already from skateboarding, that this was going to be hard and take a long time."