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Dana Helmuth Traditional Asian Tattooing


TattooNow: What kinds of art interested you as a kid?

Dana Helmuth: my parents were hippies and my mom was an artist and ballet dancer. My dad had a surf and skate shop ..he was a champion surfer and also board shaper ……so I was always around creative and open minded people…….my mom started me out drawing and painting when I was very young and gave me a lot of guidance and discipline……my dad exposed me to all the skateboard art and surfboard art and the art of the magazines for the counterculture of the time…..it was the early seventies…….so Rick Griffin and that kind of stuff……and lots of album cover art too….and I was exposed to lots of art from their friends who were artists too. Later I really got into renaissance art more for the drawing factor than anything I think.

TN: Do you remember any particular 70’s album cover that really stuck with you?

DH: There are so many great ones…it’s hard to pick a few…but the ones with actual hand done artwork and not just cool photos I remember were….the Cheap Thrills album from Janis Joplin…Revolver…all the early Dead albums had great art…..especially the Rick Griffin stuff…….and the Hendrix Axis album too …that was like the first exposure to crazy eastern art mixed with psychedelics…..and then also so many great reggae album art from the time like the Lee Perry Super Ape album……and The Gladiators Sweet So Still…those are pretty obscure….then later the Black Flag covers and one Youth Brigade album I remember with a riot kind of scene…and then all the Pushead stuff……

TN: Are there other art avenues that caught your attention early on?

DH: Skateboard art…….graffiti art……comic books……

TN: Do you remember your first impressions of tattoos when you were younger?

DH: The first tattoos I saw as a child were on a guy my parents got pot from….he had a zigzag man and a dragon…..and some Vietnam thing on his hand real small. I thought they were cool…..then when I was about six…..down the street from my house I saw two bikers get hit by a car real bad…..hit and run…..lots of blood and screaming metal…. and I remember they seemed to be more worried about their tattoos than their broken bones……and I think that stuck in my head…….later on when I was a teenager I saw lots of punk rock tattoos and skater tattoos……like this guy Fred Smith and Josh Marlow were the first people I saw with lots of real cool tattoos……then later lots of friends were getting work from people like Dan Higgs and Sonny Tufts and Tattoo Tux….that’s when I started wanting to get tattooed.

TN: Can you tell me a bit about your first tattoo, and how you ended up getting it?

DH: Well the first things I did on myself on the school bus with a rapidograph pen…….an anarchy symbol and black flag bars ……but it wasn’t really deep enough and only lasted about a few weeks I think…..then it looked more like scratches……first real tattoo was a sacred heart with "mom" and I got it because she died.

TN: When did you decide that becoming a tattoo artist was a good fit for you and how did that come about?

DH: I didn’t decide…..it just happened…you know ?? Most things that are important just happen ….

TN: Starting out, what was challenging about tattooing and about working in the industry?

DH: challenging……….hmmmm???? I struggled as an artist and musician for many years before I started tattooing……so I was challenged for a long time before I tattooed…..lived out of my van or a tent or wherever……once I started tattooing I was so full of love for the art I didn’t even think……wow…..I’m actually supporting myself with my art……..the fascination and hunger for gaining technical ability overshadowed the paycheck……I mean it was nice when I finally realized I was paying rent steady…..but when I dove in to tattooing I dove in so deep I think I’m still holding my breath…… More direct on your question…there's definitely aspects of tattooing that can challenge you…especially inside the realm of tattooing……negative stuff…….I never really got into the whole tattoo rat race……head game….name calling…….bumbaclaat…..negativity….I just stay focused on doing good tattoos and getting better……...I love tattooing.

TN: Who were your mentors or who’s work did you admire?

DH: my main mentors have been Mike Roper…..Ms Deborah…..Seth Ciferri …….those people have helped me the most….I always have a place in my heart for them……I try to do every tattoo up to their standards……..that’s a tough order. All the people I’ve worked with at all the different shops….and the people that first got me started……they have all influenced me in one way or another too…….oh yea, I worked as a sign painter for many years a long time ago for a guy named David Lane …….he is one of my biggest life mentors.

TN: What of their influence do you carry with you daily? Artistic approach, personal values, etc?

DH: I think when you get deep enough into you’re art it kind of goes hand in hand with your personal values……commitment is deep.

TN: Does that ever come into conflict with the other pieces of your life?

DH: Of course……but that’s it…that’s the essence of it….the struggle is always there and we make art to address that …….whether we know it or not….you have to embrace the struggle and conflict….there would be no joy without it.

TN: What other types of art do you enjoy? Mediums? Styles?

DH: I paint a lot in watercolor……..and of course draw probably three hours at least for every tattoo I do……I used to paint in oil mostly but haven’t in quite some time……and I love to play guitar.

TN: Much of your work on the Solid State website seems very traditional/Asian influenced. Is that a style you’ve always enjoyed, or was it something you discovered when you began tattooing?

DH: I started studying Asian art in Baltimore at MICA in the early nineties……and fell in love with Japanese prints……and there was a group of Japanese carvers who came to the school led by Hashimoto and lived there for several years carving a thirty foot tall fudo myo-o statue inside a traditional building they built as well…….they used ancient cedar wood from a special forest in Japan….I still have a block of the wood……. Of course ……that made a huge impact on me…….so much that I have a fudo backpiece…….so yes I love tattooing subject matter from the culture and history of Japan and China…and tibet….it appeals to me…….the abstract qualities of the backgrounds in japanese tattooing are intense………when you look at them from a distance……the power of the imagery…….it just feels right for me.

TN: Okay, you stumped me, I had to look up fudo myoo. That’s an unusual representation of the Buddha, but I really like the symbolism: capable of transforming love, hatred and ignorance into energy that leading to enlightenment even in a single life time. Does the symbolism of traditional Asian imagery influence your work?

DH: yea……that's it……it's powerful.

TN: Did it take a while to grasp the Asian style, and what, in your mind, makes a piece traditional?

DH: I’ll never grasp it all the way…I'm not Japanese. I’m definitely a novice….an outsider.….I’ve never even been to Japan…..I plan to go…..my Japanese language skills are improving….but with me the mystery of it all is what is so alluring…knowing that there is so much to learn..so I'm always looking into a world that is different……and the imagery I’m looking at in books and prints is from a whole other time……but that kind of makes it timeless to me…the floating world…….I’m observing and making notes through tattooing…..and also I don't think it's real traditional unless it's hand poked by someone Japanese and trained by a master…I'm just emulating with my own input and take on things…I try to be as true to the way it's supposed to look as I can…I don't want to be disrespectful……..there's certain ways things are supposed to look and be done…there are lots of people really butchering the art in tattoos and not doing their homework..it’s hard work...and that’s all that I tattoo now…….just by request…….maybe because there is so much for me to learn ……I love doing it more all the time…..it is always teaching me…….when you aren’t learning or improving I think you should move on or work harder.

TN: What are some of your favorite subject matters to tattoo?

DH: Right now I’m tattooing a lot of Koi and dragons and tigers too……..six months ago it was snakes……..I just started two big phoenix rib pieces…….I lovedoinflowers……peonies……chrysanthemums…….I’ve done a lot of hannya this year too……we’ll see what’s next…..I like doing American traditional too but don't get to do It so much any more

TN: What do you think about the current popularity of Asian imagery tattoos in Western culture?

DH: you mean like mixing the images into a traditional American style ?? I think it was just as popular during the time of sailor jerry and Paul Rogers…..look at the old flash…..I think it works well done that way…there are parallels in strength and simplicity between the styles……but It doesn't work when It's done like color bomb new school style…both styles lose out…I don't like that mixture.

TN: Do you have an all time favorite piece?

DH: All the work I have from Mike Roper

TN: What makes a good client?

DH: well……they’re commissioning me to put my artwork on them that will remain forever…..and trusting me with that…….so what more could I ask for?

TN: When you’re working on a piece, what’s the most important thing you try to achieve?

DH: I try to work as efficiently as I can…..to the best of my ability…..every tattoo should be the best one you’ve done…….I don’t like distractions and I try to keep it real mellow.

TN: Can you tell me a little about your process? A client has an idea, do you look at reference, take time to draw and come back to the client or just dive right in to drawing a custom piece right on him/her?

DH: I prefer to draw things ahead from detailed tracings of the area I’m filling and the surrounding tattoos if any……so it ties in to the space well……I also draw a lot right on the skin too……especially backgrounds …..it fits the body better that way…..

TN: What makes you really excited to do a piece?

DH: When the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars…….I don't know sometimes things just fall into place…..sometimes they don't.

TN: Is a certain level of artistic freedom helpful? I guess compare a client who walks in and says “tattoo THIS on me” as opposed to the client who says “I like Geishas, do something cool.”

DH: I really only tattoo stuff I draw …….people usually know that before they get involved with me I think. 

TN: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the course of your career as a tattoo artist, and how has it changed the way you work?

DH: It’s all a lesson, it’s easy to get overly analytical……..but you just wake up and tattoo…….and love your children and family and let them all know it……and then do it all again the next day……keep it simple…….breathe deeply .

TN: If you magically got an extra 8 hours a day, how would you spend it?

DH: Sleeping.

Thanks so much for taking the time Dana!

more Dana Helmuth Links: Email Dana Helmuth Call (410) 546-5081 to secure an appointment with Dana. SolidStateTattoo.com

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