I grew up all over the country on isolated army bases. When I wasn’t playing soldier (using fireworks as weapons) with my friends, or building tree forts and biking all over town, I was reading sci-fi and any weird, horror based comics I could find. Often at the local library or in the seedy local used book stores.
At first I wanted to be an author, but by the time I was entering junior high school, I wanted to draw as well. I couldn’t decide which I should pick, but with my exposure to the new breed of comic writers and artists, such as Alan Moore and John Totleben, I made my mind up to be both a comic writer and artist. It worked for Frank Miller!
Fast forward almost 10 years, 10 years of first homelessness, then being kicked around by society while I did art for local bands and clubs, and even the occasional magazine. All that had middling success, and I finally bucked up, put myself through art school, and moved to NYC for a career.
There I did much more art, and even interviewed with DC Comics and Penguin Books, but I was starting to realize that a commercial illustration career could be very restrictive. And getting paid was a nightmare! I can’t count the number of times I got ripped off!
I had a group of punk and hardcore kids I hung out with, and I started getting exposed to a way more developed form of tattooing than I had ever considered. Full backpieces and sleeves by the likes of local superstars like Sean Vasquez and Mike Ledger. This wasn’t just the simplistic folk art I had pictured, this was a whole revolution in style, format, and most of all, art skills.
Leading this new wave were artists like Guy Aitchison, Aaron Caine, Jay wheeler, and Tom Renshaw. All were doing amazing work, but Guy alone seemed intent on sharing his revolutionary approach.
He was one of the early superstars, at a time when tattoos were haphazardly emerging from the stigma of “crude art” exclusively for the lower class. He seemed to disregard the stereotypes entirely, focusing on technical highs that were incredibly uncommon at the time.
He sculpted, carefully lit, and photographed whole models that he intended to use as reference for tattoos. He welded carbon needles on the spot, autoclaved them, and custom modified his machines. All of this he spelled out in a self published book for sale on his website.
I had an early version that consisted of photocopied pages in a three ring school-style binder! I remember Steve Boltz, now owner of the famous Smith Street Tattoo in Brooklyn, looking at a magazine spread of his in 2001 and muttering “He’s too good, too good”.
I dug into his past, and discovered that he had started out doing artwork for metal bands, much like me. Not only that, but he still actively painted, and he was good too!
Flash forward 20 years, and unlike many of the legends, he’s still easily accessible. He regularly attends conventions, teaches workshops, and took the time out to do this interview with me!
Sit back and listen to his words of wisdom! If it wasn’t for people like him, many of the big names that everyone looks up to now wouldn’t even work in this industry.
Dan Henk has been working in and as a part of the tattoo community for 20 years. He writes novels, illustrates magazines and books, and owns The Abyss Fine Art & Tattoo Gallery in Long Beach, NY, and competes in Muay Thai and Brazilian Jujitsu. Check out all his adventures on danhenk.com!