At first look, “The Tabooist” seems like an easy chuckle. The everyone-gets-it reference to Norman Rockwell, famous for his realistic vignettes of iconic American experiences is translated into today’s parlance: a tattoo artist inking the names of a girlfriend on a bearded man’s bicep.

That is pun enough. But when you look closer, you recognize the tattooist as Rockwell himself from behind, as painted in his famous “Triple Self-portrait,” and the bearded man as Brigham Young, head of the Church of Latter-day Saints. The tattoo is not a single name but a list of Young’s wives, a legacy of the now-taboo doctrine of polygamy. Another tattoo portraying LDS church founder Joesph Smith is on Young’s lower arm.

So it’s not just an easy laugh. The painting is a commentary on hypocrisy and the evolution of morals—what was once accepted is now unacceptable—but it’s hard to get rid of unacceptable, immoral customs.

Artist at work

Steele was born in Washington and moved to St. George, Utah, when he was in high school. He attended Dixie when it was still a two year college and his interests vacillated between golf and art.

“I thought I wanted to be a golf pro. My Dad has an art degree but never worked as an artist. That’s what I thought I wanted to do.”

But he changed his mind and became an art student at University of Utah.

“By signing up for independent study courses, I managed to take seven courses from John Erickson—he became my teacher and mentor. He encouraged me to come to Helper. Paul Davis and Dave Dorrnan moved to Helper and made this coal mining and RR town an art community.”

Ink is permanent. Ways of thinking are sometimes impossible to change. But Steele veers away from making a condemnation of this slightly harsh comment—the painting style, at its most popular during America’s idealistic period, makes the comment almost loving.

“I like conceptual art,” says Steele. “But often, I don’t need to see it. Other pieces are well-painted but not that meaningful. I like to blend those two worlds—concept and vision.” In “The Tabooist,” Steele juxtaposes idealized Americana with historical Americana. Steele seeks out this kind of resonance—doing paintings of Crayons, for example, creating a Mona Lisa coloring page or putting Rembrandt’s self portrait on a Pez container.

The paintings are technically lovely but strikingly modern in their mashup of cultural icons. The result is art you love to look at, but also makes you think. bensteeleart.com; modernwest.com

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