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The Fine Art of Bar Codes
Artist Scott Blake converts function to form

by Jeremy Schnitker

On a day-to-day basis, they’re taken for granted — seen only as a means for tracking consumer goods. Barcodes are perhaps the least suspect tool for artistic expression imaginable. They are a representation of all that is plain, bland and uninteresting.

Artist Scott Blake, however, does not see them this way. The Omaha resident has been obsessed in bringing out the beauty and complexity of these labels and making an art form. His work will be on display Feb. 29 at What Gallery, located in his basement on 5709 Lafayette Ave.

Blake's concept is relatively simple: Using Photoshop, he takes multiple barcodes and arranges them to make the faces of pop figures and prints them on paper.

The method is much more complex: With each barcode having a different girth and shade, he has to blend the right gradation of code to match the outline of the figure he is designing.

"I’ve created a large database of barcodes over the years," he said. "I arrange them — they all have same width but some have thick lines, some have thin lines — and that gives my first gradation. I’ve done portraits like that with just the gradation of the density lines, some are big and some are small."

It’s the different grades of lines that bring out the contrast of the portraits. Like a mosaic, some of the prints can not be recognized unless you’re standing a few feet back from the image.

Blake recently purchased a scanner like the ones found in a grocery store or stockroom that he can use with his computer to scan the codes and generate their symbol. For example, with an Arnold Schwarzenegger portrait he recently made, Blake used the barcodes off every one of the actor’s movies and set up a iMac computer next to the collage. Viewers could then scan each barcode and an image of one of Schwarzenegger’s movies would appear on the screen. It took him nearly two months to complete the project.

He can also assign text. His current project is to dictate the Bible in barcodes. He copies and pastes four or five word sections of the Bible and assigns them to a barcode in a software program, one of which he’s created himself. It is an arduous process, but Blake hopes to get some financial backing to get the book published and finished.

"I’m going to make a zine at Kinkos and see if I can get a proposal going," he said. "Before the Guttenberg press, they had to write the Bible by hand — I kind of feel like I’m doing the same thing."

Blake has made portraits of Jesus, Andy Warhol and Oprah Winphrey to name a few. He’s currently working on a portrait of Ozzy Osbourne. With his web site,, Blake sells his portraits along with other barcode creations and has installed different barcode activities, one in which you can enter information about yourself and have a personal barcode made.

"Lately I’ve been getting into merchandising," he said. "I’m trying to sell prints and little gifts and gadgets. Most people haven’t seen my work in the flesh, mostly it’s on the computer screen." He’s sold almost fifty of his prints to date, which sell from anywhere to $25-$800.

Blake has struggled gaining credibility for his work in some artistic circles. His work has been labeled as a pop art, and since much of his work is done on computer programs, some have not taken him seriously.

"People kind of Portray me as a barcode lunatic — people think it’s kind of a gimmick," he said. "Plus, by doing pop icons, a lot of people ask why would I want Bill Gate’s or Oprah's face in my house? Well, why do you watch them on TV everyday, you put them on your television?"

He has had his work featured in magazines such as Adbusters and FHM and cable channel Tech TV featured Blake's work on their show "Tech Live" this fall.
Blake, originally from Tampa, Fla., recently graduated from the Savannah Art Institute in May of 2003. He spent a brief time in San Francisco before eventually relocating in Omaha this winter with his girlfriend, local photographer Dana Damewood. So far he likes Nebraska.

"I’m more relaxed here," he said. "There’s more space. I feel like I can breathe here."

Printed in The Reader Newspaper, February 2004
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