White sparks fly as David Hebert lowers his helmeted head to grind metal, bringing out color and smoothing edges. Wearing red gloves and a leather apron, Hebert ignores the beads of slag that scorch his arms as he shapes hoods of Fords, Plymouths, and Buicks into modern rustic tables, wall hangings, desks, and sculptures. With skills he learned as a shipbuilder, banging metal and throwing sparks has become Hebert’s outlet and art, and he has finally found the balance to make him happy through Mob City Metals.
“Welding is playing with fire, it is hot and it hurts, but it is a cool process,” says Hebert who has a braid tattoo around his left forearm to cover the seared scars. “I get burned and sometimes my T-shirt will catch on fire, but I grit my teeth and shake it off to finish. In the hours of staring at the bright light and everything, good or bad, comes into focus. It is a good feeling to salvage scrap metal and turn it into a pretty coffee table or simply join two pieces together and make it look like one piece. I would do this for myself even if no one wanted to buy it.”
Hebert, raised in Florida, Louisiana, and Alabama, is a modifier and changer, adding his own twist to make any object different. When he was a child, he made swords, nunchucks, and weapons out of PVC pipes and window frames to be like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He spent more time taking toys apart, repainting, and fixing them than playing with them. He painted skateboards and traded them at school for better skateboards and he got in trouble in class because he made elaborate drawings instead of taking notes. “I was able to listen and comprehend and let the art do its thing because that is how I learned,” he says “My whole life made me who I am. There was always something for me to mess with and I have always liked to do weird things.”
After high school graduation, Hebert became a welder at Austal in Mobile and quickly reached personal goals of job promotions, first house, and marriage. “I am an achiever and I like conquering and succeeding in something I’ve never done before,” he says. “I had a plan and it worked like that, but I got to a point where it wasn’t what I wanted. I quit the supervisor job because I didn’t like the politics and left the shipyard industry because I felt I wasn’t meant to be just a number. I just wanted to work with my hands and make things, so I stopped setting so many goals and made some changes to enjoy my life.”
Hebert started new businesses remodeling and flipping houses and making metal railings and wall hangings in a small shop in Saraland. “The metal art started as a side business while I was at Austal. It was a reason to play with welding tools and have a shop,” he says. “I made art for my home and when I had parties at my house people would buy art off the walls. A friend remodeling a building in downtown Mobile asked us to put a couple of pieces there for Arts Alive! It was a chance to have a showroom and people see inside my head. I stripped away all of the pieces in my house and almost sold it all on he first day. I had to make things at night to sell the next day. I couldn’t believe that people would be interested in just metal.”
There was an interest in Hebert’s art, but he was internally unsure of his style. “The first time I tried this as a business, I took my quirks and weirdness out of it and made things based on what I thought people would like,” he says. “After a while, nothing was sticking and I got burned out of the stuff I was doing. I had maxed myself out in flipping houses and making art. Eventually I had to call everyone and say ‘I can’t do this.’ I locked the door and it stayed closed for about a year.”
Hebert couldn’t stay away from his shop and reopened a year ago as Mob City Metals. “I missed the metal and realized it was up to me to make things fun in my life,” he says. “I can be a 275-pound man with a red beard who listens to rap, Sinatra, and oldies at the same time while making art that inspires me.”
Hebert was also rejuvenated when he discovered his direction while searching for inspiration from gears and sprockets in a junkyard. It rained during his first visit and he sat under the raised hatch of a minivan, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the storm to pass. The rain washed away the dirt and dust and the broken-down cars gleamed when the sun came out. “They looked so different when they were wet and the car beside me became a metallic blue,” he says. “I realized that if people take pictures of rusted cars and hang them on their walls, maybe they would hang a piece of the car on their walls too. “
A wall hanging made from the top of an Impala sold quickly at an art gallery and Hebert began making car tops and other recycled objects into jewelry, tables, and signs. “I started taking a spray bottle full of water, a sabre-saw and crowbar to the junkyard,” he says. “There is some weird stuff out there and you never know what you are going to find.”
Each piece begins with an idea that he draws out in chalk on a steel table. He cuts out metal pieces almost like construction paper and pieces them together. “I began to realize that I see things differently. I see things in texture and I like the way they feel, it does something to my psyche,” he says. “The rust or texture dictates the direction of a piece and I love the texture of old buildings and worn-out metal. The things people think are trash I think can be the coolest things ever. Each car has a story and every scratch and dent represents an event from the life of the car. They have been through wrecks, floods, and hurricanes.”
Hebert has attracted dedicated supporters, including Brooks Conkle, who became Hebert’s real estate agent and Mob City Metals business partner. Conkle manages sales and provides a protective bubble that removes some of the pressures.
“David has so much natural raw talent and he is still trying to figure out what he has,” says Conkle. “He would be happy to just make these things and put them outside for other people to come get it, but people will pay for his art. Mob City Metals has the potential for a team of artists and to have galleries in Mobile and New Orleans, but it has to grow the right way. We would love to have a gallery in a vacant building in Mobile and help Mobile be a successful town for artists. ”
Conkle’s support gives Hebert the confidence and room to work. “As an artist to have someone watching out for me and do things for me is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of and it doesn’t feel like a realistic thing to ask someone to do,” says Hebert. “I didn’t know that people like that existed. This is my happy place. If I get caught up in too many other things or the business side of this, it shuts me down and I lose track of creating the art. That is what ruined it for me the last time.”
When Hebert needs to gets away he takes off on his motorcycle. “I am completely aware when I am riding and leave everything else out,” he says. “The motorcycle takes my mind off of what it is used to being on.”
Today bicycles hang from the ceiling, car hoods lean against a wall next to buckets filled with scrap metal, and the floor of his shop is filled with red and teal coffee tables that are part of a first furniture order from New Orleans. The orders are coming in and Hebert has a new plasma cutter to help keep up, but Hebert still has his quirks. “My hands dry out and I have a panic attack if I touch powdery things such as dust from the old cars. My eyes water just thinking about that because I had asthma as a child and weaned myself off the inhaler. I have to wash my hands every five minutes at the junkyard.”
“David is charismatic and he sees differently and can put his vision into an art form,” says collector Bob Warren. “I have a steel headboard, a steel see-through fireplace, a small chandelier that looks like something out of a castle, and a steel fountain that David made. He had never built a fountain before, but you could see it in his face when he figured out how to do it. David has the innate ability to find the art and beauty in rust and things the rest of us overlook.”
‘Hebert is where he wants to be and he is staying focused on making the quality art that he is good at. His art has taken him to unexpected places, including the finals of the World of Wearable Art competition in New Zealand. “I wasn’t raised thinking that art can be a business or a way to make a living. Art to me was something to do as a hobby. You could be an architect, then be an artist on the side. But this started so organically and happened on its own. I get to be straightforward with what I make, and if people are happy, they will come back for something else.
“I have to love every piece before it leaves my shop. If I don’t, then it doesn’t go.” Hebert says. “I am very happy with my life right now, and there is more out there. If I was a millionaire, I would still do this. If you have a passion for something, you figure out how to do it.”
Photos by Michelle Stancil