Dana Helmuth: We are Pirates in a Sea of Blood
By Dana Helmuth
As I stepped across the gap from platform to train, encumbered by the weight of my baggage and gear, in the short span of less than one foot I was magically teleported me back in time to another part of my life, like a sacred opening that led to the ethos of only thoughts and memories. It must have been a half-hour before I realized that I had taken a seat, and that my train was well on its way up the coast from Baltimore to Manhattan…
This was the first time I had worked at a shop in New York City for over a year and my great friend and band mate in Snake Farm, Jesse Howard, had invited me up to guest spot at a new Lower East Side shop called Rivington Tattoo owned by Ethan Morgan and the actor Wass Stevens. I love the Lower East Side neighborhoods, so I was very excited, optimistic, and very happy with the response I had received from old clients who wanted to start new large-work.
It was the first day of November and all the leaves were changing. The blur of the color from the movement of the train made me think of a Wolf Kahn painting, only peppered with these rusty dinosaurs of the rail and graffiti covered buildings peeking through the trees.
My mind raced back-and-forth between this intense visual stimulation, the marathon tattoo days ahead, and the visceral thoughts and memories of this ride, and how many times I had taken it through so many different phases of my life. I realized in this whirlwind of thought that it’s our work that remains constant and our passion for expressing this vision that rides on through the good times and the hard times. Tattooing is forever.
It’s much deeper than any television show can glorify or extort. We are pirates in a sea of blood. Those that try to mainstream this blood are outsiders and should be kept outside. They can walk the plank. l love what I do and the life it gives me and I intend to protect its secrets and traditions. It’s a good ride.
Before I knew it I was rolling into Penn Station and stepping into the madness of Times Square. I jumped in a cab, my baggage suddenly seemed much lighter, and headed downtown to make tattoos. In the crazy city madness I slipped into a familiar calm state of mind as my good buddy Jesse opened the door and let me in to Rivington Tattoo. Great shop.
First order of business was Greg. I had previously done a black and gold koi half-sleeve with loose blossom petals falling throughout. He has decided to make it a full-sleeve by adding a hannya and several peonies and continuing the water and rocks. Greg is an Irishman and a fine bartender at the Pig and Whistle in Rockefeller Center.
We always have a great time and fun conversation during our sessions and he likes to do four or five hours at a time, which I prefer. I think the flow from top to bottom works well and the placement of the objects into their surroundings corresponds well with the muscles and joints of the arm.
After Greg I was starting a new dragon and peony sleeve on a talented NYC photographer Patrick Winfield. I had previously done a sleeve on his other arm I like very much. I had run into Patrick coincidentally a year ago at an upscale group show at a SoHo gallery that we had both ironically been chosen to show in.
So as I’m in this stuck-up gallery in SoHo, full of movie stars and celebrities looking at paintings and photography, and sculpture for their Upper West Side lofts, I see Patrick across the room and just had to laugh at how small this world is. I think he understood the dress code a little more than myself and Jesse, who I brought along to share in the booty.
My best Pendleton and stingy brim didn’t seem to fit in with the suits. Jesse missed the text that it wasn’t a tattoo art show and was wearing a ZZ Top hoodie that read, “Beer Drinkers and Hellraisers” in large print on the back. We stopped for several cold beverages on the way and I had been saving some fine chocolate treats for a special occasion. We were in great form. They really didn’t know what to think of the bearded freaks at the swanky art show drinking all their booze and laughing out loud hysterically.
Honestly there were several times I had to tell people I had a painting in the show when they tried to find out who we were and why we were there. “No,” I replied, “I’m not a rock star, I’m a fucking tattooer!” For some reason I still can’t figure out, Patrick sold his work and I didn’t. Maybe I would have had more success if they hadn’t been handing out free trays of tequila drinks. But hey, now Patrick had money to start another sleeve! The sweet smell of irony.
The next piece I started was a new sleeve on Vince. Previously, I did a koi and tiger sleeve on him and he had decided on his other arm he wanted a flaming rhino head on the top which was a cover up as well, and a dragon on the bottom portion.
We both really liked an Albrecht Durer rhino print and I decided to go with that one. I stylized it more to show more texture and make it look more scaly and ominous and encased it with some flames. Honestly, when I got to the shop that day he was already waiting for me outside and not knowing he had lost over 100 pounds since I last tattooed him, I walked right past him not even recognising him.
He looked like a different person, and obviously had a lot of stories to go with his new life so it was a great session. This rhino head is about 12″ tall and highly detailed so I spent about eight hours on him that day and I’m really happy with the outcome.
I spent this past summer doing mostly production tattoos in a street shop, all day long, and all styles, so I got to delve into some styles I hadn’t tattooed in over 10 years and in the process I really stepped-up my game and vocabulary of tricks and moves. My tattooing has improved this year and I’m happy to have a lot of new skin to show it on.
I will continue to show the progress of these new works and others I started in New York, as well in the upcoming ramblings I post. I also started some new stuff at Independent Tattoo in Fenwick Island, Delaware so I’m going to post these below, as well as a few one shots I did recently that I like a lot. Thanks for reading this, I hope you enjoyed it.
All the best,
Dana is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine #16: