Dan Henk: Sometimes The Old-Timers Are Right
By Dan Henk
When I first started tattooing, the industry seemed to be breaking new ground. People like Guy Aitchison, Tom Renshaw and Aaron Caine were redefining what could be done with the form. It was an exciting time. I had been to art school, was doing album covers for bands, illustrations for a few clubs and magazines, and I finally saw that tattooing could be as detailed and complex as any other medium. I had interviewed with DC Comics, and Penguin books and both were very restrictive…
The comic companies in particular wanted back-breaking volumes of work, things that would take up, not only my work week but all my spare time as well and they wanted to pay me almost nothing… And they would only start me out drawing superheros. I couldn’t ink or write my own stuff, and who knew how long it would take before I got lucky and was paired up with people who wouldn’t turn all my hard work into crap? I had seen a recent interview with Guy Aitchison, and both the quality of the art and the mentality behind it were mind-blowing. The guy who got me started was a tattoo artist who painted as well, and I saw the field as wide open. If I could paint or draw it, I could definitely tattoo it. Now I’ve been at this for 12 years, and I was so wrong…
I had plenty of people telling me, in the early days, all sorts of rules. Throw a black line around it. All those little details aren’t going to last. That doesn’t look like a tattoo. And so on. Now, I had come from a punk rock background. I had very conservative parents, I was constantly harassed by the powers that be and I was use to being defiant in the face of an over-restrictive authority that wanted nothing more than to crush me into the ground. So I argued. A lot. Now, veteran tattoo artists can be grumpy bastards. They would rather tell you what you are doing wrong, than try to explain anything to a young pup that they consider barely worth their time. So, following in the footsteps of my adolescent heroes, I would throw their advice out. Unfortunately, in a way, they were often right.
I hadn’t seen how tattoos looked five years down the road. In fact, a lot of people didn’t do color portraits at the time, so no one had. Now, I have seen them. And, sad to say, a soft color piece I did eight years ago looks nothing now like when I first did it. Lines spread. Colors get lighter. Arm hair grows over that super detailed bio-mech piece, and makes it virtually unreadable. A small tattoo in the center of a big muscle looks like a sticker. A backwards or upside down piece, even if done at the request of the customer, just looks wrong… And will for the rest of their lives. And they’ll probably hear that every single time someone views it, I don’t think anyone is exactly sure how ink stays in the skin, but the best current theory I’ve heard is that ink particles bond to cells.
Now, some of those cells die over time, lightening the tattoo, and the ones that remain, hardly stay stationary. They drift over the years, and small details can blur out. Not only that, but the absolute best tattoo, one that is done well, heals perfectly, and is well maintained, only keeps about 60 percent of the ink originally put in the skin. The longer it takes to heal, the more ink it loses. Now they have a head start in the tattoos are done large, flow well with the muscles they cover, have a slightly elevated level on contrast, and none of the details are too small. They have an even greater chance of lasting, if you get in more than one session, layering 60 percent on top of 60 percent. You don’t have to hard-line everything, but it needs to sharper than a painting to hold up. Solid saturation helps to keep details, provided they are big enough, from spreading. And adding more black in the darker areas is never a bad idea. This is just what I’ve observed, over time, from the tattoos I’ve done. Both the ones that have held up, and those that haven’t.
Everyone’s goal should be to do a good tattoo. Both, one that looks good when you take a photo of it for your portfolio, and one that still looks good on the customer years later. It’s a permanent body modification. An incredibly old art form that, despite what TV might tell you, can’t be learned in two weeks, and many of the traditions aren’t just the tales of old men. A little respect and care for the medium needs to be observed. Otherwise you’re just another snake oil salesman, making all of those who take it seriously look bad.