Re-creating images ‘with what destroyed them’

The image of Abe Lincoln stared out blankly at pedestrians on the sidewalk from a glass case by the art gallery’s entrance.

From a distance, the portrait of the slain president resembled a bed of raised nailheads. A closer inspection revealed that the bottoms of bullet casings formed the contours and shades of his bearded visage.

The likeness of Lincoln, by artist David S. Palmer, greeted visitors walking into the Lu Martin Galleries in Laguna Beach on the night of this month’s First Thursdays Art Walk.

His Lincoln is one of several such portraits of famous people whose lives were cut short by killers’ bullets, which the low-relief sculptor calls his “Fallen Heroes” series. John Lennon, John F. Kennedy and Tupac Shakur are the other portraits in this series of highly unusual artworks created out of thousands of used bullet casings.

Look closely and one can see the words “40" and “S & W” engraved in their bottoms and repeating themselves over and over, signifying them as .40-caliber Smith & Wesson casings.

“I have re-created their images with what destroyed them,” Palmer said.

He doesn’t own a gun but said that he is neither pro-gun or critical of those who speak out against firearms. Through his art, he wants to show how these weapons prevail in American society and culture.

Although he continues to create portraits of famous people by using bullet shells as part of his mixed material pieces, the 58-year-old Laguna artist said he has moved on to less morbid subjects. Still, he hasn’t stopped creating likenesses of people associated in some way or other with bullets and the gun culture.

Take Palmer’s latest finished piece, titled “The Duke,” his bullet-casing portrait of John Wayne.

Displayed in one of the gallery’s main showrooms among a collection of oil paintings of beautiful lands and townscapes, Wayne’s likeness seemed to draw the most interest among the visitors who stopped by Lu Martin Galleries on the evening of Jan. 5.

“When Dave told me about his idea of using bullet casings to produce unusual art, I was a little skeptical,” said Lu Martin, the gallery’s owner.

“I consider our gallery a place where people can relax and find beauty in every corner of the gallery,” she added. “So to me, bullets conveyed negative emotions .... But when I saw the John Lennon piece and witnessed people of all ages responding to the likeness and the beauty of the art, I changed my mind.”

In November and December 2010, when Palmer worked on his John Lennon piece — his first attempt at bullet-casing sculpture — he was concerned about how people might react to his artistic tribute to his musical idol. Palmer created the piece to commemorate the ex-Beatle and anti-war activist on the 30th anniversary of his killing.

But the reaction to the Lennon piece and other works has mostly been positive, Palmer and Martin said.

The idea of using objects associated with bullets came to him in an epiphany as he was trying to figure out how to create a pixelated likeness of John Lennon.

“I did not know how people would respond,” Palmer said. “People responded and got it.”

His first Lennon piece and his portrait of JFK sold for thousands of dollars.

Palmer works out of his small apartment in the hills above Laguna overlooking the ocean.

In a corner stood a second portrait of Lennon, which was about twice as large as the first.

Palmer used some 8,000, .40-caliber casings to create this piece, which weighs about 150 pounds.

The piece is worth $12,000, he said.

He purchased the casings in bulk via the Internet. The spent casings came from gun and military ranges and had been cleaned before shipment, he said. Each casing cost about a nickel.

Palmer, who studied art at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., in the 1970s, said the secret to his art lies in his knowledge of chemicals used in painting automobiles. He used to custom-paint vans.

The artist first takes a piece of wood, which serves as the foundation for his canvas, and sticks rows of bullet casings onto the surface by using an epoxy resin as an adhesive.

He then builds a reinforced frame around the canvas and fill its with more resin in order to seal the casings in place. He applies automotive paints and a scorcher to individual casings to create different shades and colors.

“If I hadn’t painted cars, I wouldn’t be able to do this,” he said.

Twitter: @ImranVittachi


What: Bullet casing portraits by David S. Palmer

Where: On display at Lu Martin Galleries, 372 N. Coast Hwy., Laguna Beach

When: The gallery is open daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

For more information: Go to, or call (949) 494-8074.