When we picture dive bars, the images that come to mind often include scuffed-up floors, worn barstools, and quirky decor. But when Michael Long enters a local dive, he envisions his next masterpiece. The Santa Barbara, Calif.-based artist uses grungy bars as inspiration for his lifelike, miniature dioramas.
The grownup dollhouse-like replicas are made from found pieces, such as miniature beer cans and chairs, sourced from flea markets and other artists. His recreation of Santa Barbara’s La Bamba is composed of paper, glass, and acrylic paint, while Elsie’s Tavern, also in Santa Barbara, is made from wood, paper, and “assorted trash.”
Between the pieces’ colorful collections of mini mismatched barstools, tiny glassware, and “open” and “exit” signs that actually light up, Long’s pieces are accurate down to the posters and photographs decorating the walls — a testament to the artist’s authentic respect for these neighborhood haunts.
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You might be wondering: Why dive bars? The answer is simple: camaraderie. Long calls the dive bar “a community’s public house.” The artist sees dives as judgment-free places of comfort, where a community can come together. Like a place of worship, the dive bar can feel, for some, like a home away from home.
What makes dive bars translate so well to art pieces, Long suggests, are their imperfections. Long says the grime of these establishments, such as cigarette burns, wobbly chairs, and tilted art on the walls — are his favorite parts to recreate. Unlike their more high-end counterparts, dive bars have personalities that shine through from the inside out.
So far, Long has made mini versions of The Mecca Sports Bar, Elsie’s Tavern (both its interior and exterior), La Bamba, and Jimmy’s Oriental Gardens in Santa Barbara. He’s also recreated The Dive Bar in Worcester, Mass., and the Mercury Lounge in Goleta, Calif. — both of which were commissioned by dive bar enthusiasts. He says he has plans to make more dioramas in 2021.
Long has been creating artwork, including collage and assemblage pieces from found objects, for over 30 years, but none have become as popular or beloved as his dive bar replicas. While his other mini dioramas aim to capture the eeriness of his childhood nightmares and are inspired by Dadaist artwork, his dive bar replicas evoke a different mood: one of warmth.