What lead you into tattooing? Was it direct, or a sidestep? I went to art school and moved to NYC with the plan of being a comic artist.
I was about to graduate from college and I knew that I needed a direction to go in that was going to pay bills but still be artistically satisfying.
One day I was looking for references for a painting I was making and I came across some Tommy Lee Wendtner and Victor Portugal work which absolutely blew my mind. I knew then that I wanted tattooing to be my future. At the time I was going to school for computer art. So I moved to Chicago to find an apprenticeship and after a couple months I did find one.
Tell me who was that with, and how it went!
It was at a no-name shop, being loosely mentored by some street shop/walk-in artist. I think the apprenticeship could have been better but it could have been worse. I had very little direction and I think if I wasn’t as driven as I was it could have gone badly. However I spent almost 100% of my free time drawing, sketching, and trying to find people that let me practice on them.
I had people letting me freehand entire sleeves of skulls and bio only 4-5 months into my apprenticeship. I think they trusted me because of my already developed art skills. Some of those early sleeves came out better than you might expect from such an inexperienced tattooer, but still they were nothing spectacular. As time went on I learned very fast, mostly through trial and error, not too mention the occasional technical help from my “mentors” at the shop.
But come to think of it, I doubt a traditional apprenticeship would have allowed me to develop my style so quickly.
You moved to Chicago from what, upstate New York? Was that a big deal? I remember when I was trying to start a career tattooing in NYC, I was eating tuna in a can from Bodega’s and barely making rent.
Haha, yes I moved from upstate NY to Chicago with almost no money at all. I had a part time job at Staples during my apprenticeship and was broke as hell. Luckily my best friend was also living in Chicago (he went to college there) so I slept in a tiny fort I erected in the corner of his apartment and paid him what I could for rent
Yea, that sounds almost like me. I worked at a restaurant part time and stayed in my friend’s apartment in Queens. How long did it take you to actually make some money off tattooing, and when did you start to develop your signature style?
I started making small amounts of money in the last half of my apprenticeship, which only lasted for a little over a year.
At that point a reputable shop back in NY had reached out and offered me a full time position. I moved back to NY to work at Needlewurks in Saratoga Springs, I stayed there for about 3-4 years.
I started really honing in on my style at that point and after I about 2 years (3 years of tattooing in total) I started doing conventions and winning awards. Which gained me more attention and clients. I would say it was around then that my style really transformed into something desirable.
You said some people trusted you to branch out earlier on, did you do a mixture of exploration and flash, while you refined your technique and style? I know I did, just wondering if it was the same journey.
Oh yeah for sure. I did a lot of typical walk in kind of tattoos, tribal and lettering and all that kind of stuff on a regular basis. It was only once a week or so that I really got an opportunity to delve into things I wanted to tattoo.
I remember early on your stuff looked heavy influenced by Tommy Lee Wendtner. He even referred to you as his “mini me”, but it’s developed by leaps and bounds. It’s way different now, having transformed into it’s current amazingly unique look. What helped prompt that?
I definitely used his work for inspiration and as a standard of quality during my early years. After a while I became aware that it was very similar and I knew I had to grow in my own direction more so I stopped looking at his pieces as much.
I also consciously explored new directions in my drawings and sketches. I wasn’t trying to completely change what I had learned but maybe take it and let it evolve a little bit naturally. Over time my work organically became something much different.
I think that artistically influenced approach is totally natural. I look at painters and comic artists for example to inspire my approach to illustration, but I try to take tips and gather influence, not copy their art. That said, I would describe your style as dark, and it has a sort of bio-organic approach. It’s not straight up horror but it’s also not pure bio-mech. Is there a grander agenda you are working towards? Something you are trying to express?
Yes definitely. I love horror stuff and I love bio as well. However what has always really captivated me in art is when something “dark” like a skull is portrayed in a beautiful way. I think when you can portray a dead human head bone (aka a skull) in a way that people look at it and see beauty and flow and elegance within it, that is very intriguing to me and is what I strive for in my art.
My overall artistic goal is to show death and skulls and things people typically view as “dark” in a way that anyone could appreciate if they have an artistic eye. Death is a part of everyone’s life and people should learn to accept it and respect it, and possibly use it to see the beauty of nature, instead of having that primal fear-response that is coded into all of our monkey brains and tells us that it’s all bad or scary.
It’s funny, many Americans seem to view that as so taboo, but in much of Europe it’s the complete opposite! Their fairy tales are darker, their holidays are darker, but I digress.
You’re in a unique position. You seem to do virtually only your style. You draw it on the spot, and I wonder how much prep goes into it? Do you take ideas from the client ahead of time? Do you look at the area of their body it’s covering, maybe gather up some reference materials? Tell me your process?
Yeah, I agree, Americans seem to be much to sheltered from such things and prefer a Disney-fantasy G rated version of reality! To answer your question, there is not much prep time involved, at least not in terms of drawing or preparing designs.
My prep time is more related to my mindset, making sure that I am inspired and looking forward to the work.
I take 3-4 days off every week for non-art related activities, like skateboarding, snowboarding, or hiking. I don’t want to burn out, and I want to feel inspired with every piece.
If I work 5 days a week, 10 hrs a day, it becomes a chore. I can’t think of anything worse than a lifetime of passion and work becoming a mundane task that you have to grind through.
I do sketch the night before appointments to get my head flowing with concepts or new compositions. However when I am at the shop about to freehand a piece, I only use my sketches as a suggestion or starting point and let the final drawing come out how it feels right in the moment. Other times I do no preparation at all.
If a client has a specific idea and it works with my style I am happy to work with their concepts, and I do draw a bit more for out of the norm ideas. For example tomorrow I am tattooing a wolf. That’s very abnormal for me, and I will definitely sketch a couple wolf faces tonight (evil monster-like wolves of course) just to familiarize myself with their shapes.
Not a Disneyfied, fairy tale wolf?
Haha, well you never know. Maybe it will turn out cute.
Well, I’m sure my and your definition of cute is way different than most people, most people suck to be honest, but that’s a different story.
So you have a new shop you just opened in Vermont, how is that working out for you?
It’s great! Working by myself In a Private studio has taught me a lot of things that I never realized about myself and how I like to work. I think it has been a very valuable and educational experience for me. But, I am going to relocate my shop to Troy NY (upstate) next summer. My friend and fellow dark artist Steven Bahruth will be joining and perhaps a couple other artists as well. So my private studio days are numbered, and I look forward to having co workers again.
Nice, whatever works best for you, Vermont is beautiful but it’s also small and isolated from the art scene, I’ll bet that played into your motivation. So, going forward, aside from moving, what are your plans for the future?
We are just moving to be closer to family, my wife and I just had a baby this summer. I would totally stay in Vermont otherwise.
For the future, I plan to continue to refine and grow my tattoo style of course, but I really would like to focus more on painting. I love oil painting and I think that is ultimately where I’m headed in the long term. I will never stop tattooing because I truly love it.
However I do have a strong desire to create more fine art and I think over the next 5-10 years I am going to dedicate much more of my free non-tattooing time to oil painting. I’d ideally like to create some large bodies of work and eventually do some very large scale paintings.
Skin is great and the possibilities are great, but with oil painting you could spend a year on one piece. I’d like to see if I have the patience and ability to dedicate time like that to an art.
Congrats again on the kid Jesse, and if I forgot the first time around, and you are always welcome to come down to my shop for paint night. I do illustrations for books and magazines at least half the time, as opposed to just tattooing, and I find that really helps clear and focus my mind.
Thanks Dan! I really appreciate it man. Yes I would love to come down for painting night again sometime.
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!