By Dan Henk
I want to address two things in this blog. They might seem unrelated at first, but I’ll try my best to tie them together.
The first is that people love to complain, and they have a ton of excuses on why it is someone else’s fault. You know what I’ve learned in my 41 years on this planet?
Shut the fuck up, put your nose down, and try doing some ground work for a change.
I hear all the time “I’m a good artist, but no one would give me a chance, so I bought this kit of eBay and starting tattooing out of my house.”
Unless you happen to be one of the very few who just stumble into opportunity, like Kim Kardashian or Paris Hilton, you have to go above and beyond, spending countless hours trying to realize your dreams.
I spent years doing menial jobs until, at age 28, I finally started tattooing for a living. Even then it was a touch and go at first. But after striving for so long, I was not about to give in. The guy who taught me was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I lived in Brooklyn, New York. Working at his shop was not an option. The first shop I worked at was way out in the ghetto in Queens. I would barely even call it a shop. The second shop I worked at was Underground Tattoos on Pitkin Avenue in Brooklyn. That is where Mike Tyson is from. We closed at dark so we didn’t get robbed, I got called “white devil”, and we had to call the cops more than once when we were being scoped out by some guy who wanted to rob us. People tried to pay with food stamps. My third shop was also a nightmare, one of slowest shops of an infamous chain in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. I wasn’t until my fourth shop, on St. Mark’s Place in NYC that I could finally pay rent and afford 3 square meals a day.
I had been to art school (on my dime, back in DC) and I used to get tons of shit from people who had been tattooing longer than me (which was almost everyone at that point) about how I was just a frustrated painter, and art skills in another medium meant nothing in tattooing. I was just respectful to my co-workers (most of whom I am sure looked down on me), and tattooed whatever big and complicated stuff I could on friends and friends of friends for almost nothing. I tattooed a big piece on myself just to show customers what I could do, hoping it would help me get bigger work. I took photos and sent them to every magazine I could find the address to. I attended conventions and watched my idols work. Some, like Benjamin Moss and James Kern, were very generous with their words and advice. I constantly put my stuff up on message boards, taking the good with the bad, hoping for advice. Eventually I had my first interview, in Hardcore Ink (which I don’t even think is around any more). And you know what? I still do that. I post my work. I send in to the magazines. I do every interview, even if I’ve never heard of the magazine and it has a readership of 10. I get asked questions on facebook and via email by young tattooers, and give them my evaluation and long replies. Because I was there. I know what it takes, and I respect anyone trying to do their own thing.
That guy who is a scratcher today? He might be amazing tomorrow. I’ve seen it happen. That magazine with a readership of 10? It might be the new hot thing. That customer you are arrogant to and slough off? Karma is a bitch, and he might be the next Frank Frazetta. Or Frank’s best friend. Or the owner of that magazine you always wanted to be in. And me, personally? Who do I think I am to be a douchebag? That guy that washes dishes? I did that once.
The same thing applies outside tattooing as well. I have a stack of rejection letters from comic companies I applied to. That made me determined to attend art school. I worked as a bouncer during the week, waiter on the weekends, and got around on a beat up old Kawasaki motorcycle. I decided I needed to be in NYC for an art career, and moved there overnight, driving up from DC on my motorcycle. To stay at my friend’s small row house in Queens and look for a job. I interviewed with DC comics twice, Penguin books once, and did tons of art for bands, clubs, labels, and anyone who would give me the time of day.
And you know what? It paid off. I do conventions all over the world and have clients waiting for me. I have done book covers, comics, and even written my own book and a stream of horror short stories that have been put out by the likes of Anarchy Books and Splatterpunk. I can’t even remember all the magazines, books, and galleries my art has been in. I count myself very lucky, but it took years of hard work and dedication to get there.
Then I see some slovenly looking guy, wandering in and telling me he can “draw good”. I ask to see his portfolio, and he mumbles “well, I have some drawings at home, if I can find them”. And people wonder why it is so hard to get into tattooing. Tattooing is easy! If you keep at it, and you are good, someone will eventually take notice. You should see what musicians go through! Many are phenomenal, and work at Guitar Center!
A famous comic school I always wanted to go to was the Kubert School of Art and Design. I met one of their graduates today. He works in the framing department at Michaels Arts and Crafts. Donato Giancola is an amazing artist, and has done countless book covers. I wanted to buy a booklet of his art, called the number on his website, and he picked up the phone. He lives in a brownstone in Brooklyn, and teaches art at SVA to pay the bills. J.K Rowling, the lady who invented Harry Potter and is now the richest woman in the UK? She lived on her friend’s couch, in the middle of a divorce, and received rejections from 27 publishers before anyone took a chance on her.
So my advice is two fold.
One, don’t give up. If you have a dream, pursue it. Move if you have to. Pay for someone to teach you. Live below your means, on an air mattress in your friend’s house if you have to. Have the drive and determination to make it. Talent is only 10%. For the rest you need to roll up your sleeves and get dirty.
Two, broaden your horizons. Learn the basics of art outside of tattooing. I can’t stress how much illustration has helped me. With anatomy. Light and shading. Perspective. Color usage and contrast. And for me, personally, writing has pushed me to think about the motivations behind my tattoo. The story being told. The background and how it reads.
It’s like Chris Rock says, there is a huge difference between having a job, and a career. A career isn’t for everyone, but I wouldn’t be satisfied any other way.