“There are ways of being alternative and coming out to say I can achieve my goals regardless. Overcoming persecution and bullying will make you stronger.”
Owen is a man who lives his beard. He does not simply wear it: He oils it, he strokes it, he researches its care, he nurtures, he feeds it. He treats it as you would a living entity. Since the unbridled awkwardness of fifteen, this strapping lad has sported facial hair, imperials, soul patches, line beards, neck beards, chin beards, you name it, he has likely experimented with it. But for now, Owen dons a full beard, one that he has been trimming every fourteen days. “It can be a pain,” he shares, “back home I constantly wipe my face with a serviette because you don’t know if you are spilling or getting any food in it.” But for now, he is in the clear.
When I ask Owen if he will share a bit of his beard story with me, he begins by telling me that “beards are becoming more common and therefore less attractive, they are losing their sex appeal.” He goes on to explain the cause of this undermining by detailing a version of the typical hipster with his horn-rimmed glasses, barely wine, fully buttoned dress shirts, bright belts and of course, the beard. Its not the beard as Owen knows it however, rather it’s ‘beard cool’ or ‘beard chic’, designer beards that devalued beards. He misses the days of admiration, his father’s beard, and celebrated English batsman, W.G. Grace’s regal beard; “He would stop the game to have a toke and fix his beard. That was the time.” Owen’s attitude towards his own facial hair is reminiscent of those times of undisputed prestige. He tells me of the World Beard Championship, a fantastic festival in which judges examine everything from length to quality to color. This is an event that celebrates beards as a component of the male identity.
Growing up in England, beards were a commodity, but over the years, his hair has become a true source of pride. “This probably has to do with my having lived in rugged Australia for a while. I feel like a man’s man, I am proud to be a big guy with a beard, and it was Australia that drew that identity out of me.” With a beard of blended auburn fall and golden hues, he’s got more than a tinge of ginge on the fringe and love its color. Without his beard he imagines, “I would feel vulnerable. I would feel like a child.” In fact, as an only child in boarding school, Owen shares he was often bullied, made to feel small and insufficient. Reflecting, he says that in the long run this maltreatment elevated his confidence and challenged him to be better, to seek out his passions. But the road to this attitude was not without bumps, wrong turns and flat tires. He says that his ability to capitalize on his man-hood through his facial hair got him behind the wheel. Having this hair made him look older, it was a symbol of status and made him successful in not being bullied. It wasn’t only his facial hair that crafted his hard look. For a while he was a skinhead and this made him look mean. “People were a little cautious, but I like people looking at me and being wary, like ‘look at this guy.’ But the truth is I’m not aggressive, I’m a teddy bear.”
Owen no longer wants people to feel intimidated by his appearance, although he is acutely aware of his image and its power. I asked Owen about the tattooed spine weaving itself along his right forearm; “I broke my back on a dive boat. The doctors said it was miraculous that I survived.” Radiant shaded anemone bursts from the spinal column knitting itself along his wrist, then trailing upwards to wrap his inner arm and elbow in a display of abundant sea life. Out of trauma blossomed passion. Just as his beard is an element of his personality, so too are the intricate tattoo paintings along his body. At least once a year he adds to his canvas, “I love the ritual, I find it empowering, the process of scarring and modifying my physical being.” He styles his body with old and new school tattoo aesthetics and the varied tattoo cultures of the Māori of New Zealand who used sacred Tā moko to perpetuate their genealogy and identify themselves as warriors. A Japanese koi fish swims down the waterfall of his left arm. These fish represent strength, purpose and perseverance. A French Polynesian traditional aesthetic, painting the interconnectedness of land, water and humanity reveals itself in the form of a manta ray gliding north of his right ankle. In discussing the recent New York Times article, Before Ink Dries on Army Rules, Soldiers Rush to Get Tattoos, Owen bemoaned, “Certain police forces now won’t allow ‘sleeves’ past the elbow. When I did security work at football games I was asked to cover them up and also take out all my facial piercings because they may incite aggression. The world is getting too PC, scared to offend anyone. Look at the moko- these tattoos are a proud symbol of status. If someone wants to censor me and my expression in ink, then I go and get tattooed!”
Dr. Owen O’ Shea currently works as a scientist at The Cape Eleuthera Institute, researching and teaching about the marine life that shades his body and lives within the surrounding Atlantic and Exuma Sound. More specifically, he is involved in shark research and conservation, as well as studying physiology and stingray ecology and biology. That is not all that he teaches however, he is a model, emphasizing the reality that there are multiple roots and visual languages that can lead to a life of academia. He is a spokesman for his beliefs, confident that bullying served as a catalyst for his attitude. I ask Owen if he were to send a message to kids these days what he would share. “I would tell them that it’s all about seeking out the positives over the negatives. If I hadn’t had those experiences, I wonder if I would have accomplished all that I have in my life.”