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The laser focus of Reddit's most technical artist

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From watercolour paintings to Etch A Sketch portraits, Reddit users have a penchant for turning almost anything into a respected form of Internet art.

In terms technical creativity and difficulty, however, no account compares to i_lase_you, run by Tom Bowen. The 47-year-old engineering whiz transformed a $35,000 automated industrial laser into a illustrating machine capable of turning pieces of wood, bread, and even a human hand into intricate portraits.

The idea behind the account was to experiment artistically with his 60-watt Synrad laser, the last piece of equipment he kept from the robotics and automation company he ran for six years. 

“I’ve never done any type of freehand illustration and I thought it would be fun to try,” Bowen told the Daily Dot.

Like other popular Reddit novelty accounts shitty_watercolour and animates_everything, i_lase_you takes popular or interesting posts on the social news site and transforms them into reactionary works on the fly. While most novelty accounts just post a photo of the artistic interpretation on Reddit, Bowen takes his account a step further by creating YouTube videos showing the laser in action.

“That spur of the moment creativity is one of the hardest things about doing something like this,” Bowen said. “You have to catch a story right when it hits. If you miss it by a little bit, it never gets seen or noticed.”

The entire process of creating a laser cut illustration on the 12-year-old machine takes about an hour. It takes 30 minutes to first outline the photos, 10 minutes to copy it into the laser’s program and set the depth and speed, and about 20 seconds to make the actual burn. Afterward, Bowen edits together a video of the process and sets it to royalty free music he finds online. The finished product is then uploaded to YouTube ,where his page has collected more than 659,000 views.

To date, Bowen has created more than 200 laser illustrations of everything from Overly Attached Girlfriend to actor Aziz Ansari.

“I’ve tried about a dozen times to get a laser cut of Wil Wheaton and Tina Fey done but for some reason those faces do not lend themselves to getting lasered very well,” Bowen said. “They always end up coming out looking really weird.”

Bowen grew up in rural North Carolina where he worked on his family’s tobacco farm. The hardscrabble work inspired Bowen to enroll at the University of North Carolina where he majored in physics. Bower never graduated and instead took a job in Japan in 1987 at Mitsubishi Semiconductor. There he ran equipment that made microprocessors and memory chips.

In 1991, he founded Dynamic Controls, Inc., an 11-person company that designed robotic equipment for packaging manufacturing. He sold the company in 1997, with the only provision being that he could keep the laser machine.

Today, Bowen, a father of three, creates a handful of laser cut illustrations a week, typically after work at his automotive manufacturing company and on the weekends. One of his favorite pieces was of a cake for the random Reddit user’s birthday. At the very end of the YouTube video, Bowen lights the candles on fire. The video collected more 160,000 views on YouTube and thousands of karma points—Reddit’s Internet points system for rating content—for the birthday user.

But for Bowen, it’s not about the recognition, karma points, or the money. (In fact, he has never sold his laser cut illustrations or put advertisements on his YouTube page.) It’s about making people feel special.

“I've thought this might be a nice side business to work on one day when I retire,” Bowen wrote in a Reddit AMA (“ask me anything”) a month ago. “That's quite a few years away, though. For now I just have fun.”

The following is a laser cut Bowen made of the Daily Dot logo.

Photo by Tom Bowen