Dan Henk is a renowned tattoo artist, painter and writer. He's made quite a name for himself by executing some astounding realist tattoos, with a primary focus on dark and/or horror themes. So, naturally, the Vile staff, being avid fans of his work, asked Dan if he'd be interested in providing an interview for the launch of VileReviews.com. Well, since Dan Henk is not only extraordinarily talented, but also gracious and accommodating, he agreed to help us out. You'll find Dan has been quite generous: with a full and hectic schedule -- his skills as an artist working in multiple mediums in very high demand -- he still found the time to sit down and not only answer our questions, but provide some truly thoughtful explanations which make for some very interesting reading...
VILE REVIEWS: Was tattooing something you had long planned on pursuing or was it a sort of natural progression?
DAN HENK:I always wanted to be tattooed, but I didn't consider doing it at first. I wanted to be a comic artist, and to me tattoos were all old school designs. A few interviews with DC Comics, and my seeing the work of ground breaking tattoo artists like Aaron Cain and Guy Aitchison changed my mind. The comic companies paid virtually nothing, gave you zero control, and expected mind numbing levels of work. Not to mention, they were real arrogant about it. I did quite a bit of work for record companies, album artwork and so on, and musicians were even worse! No money, they can't make up their minds on what they want, and after you spend 40+ hours doing a cover painting, they change their minds. With the new level of tattoos coming out, I saw amazing, well illustrated pieces in an industry that let you do your own thing. And it didn't hurt that it paid very well. It's funny, now that I tattoo, I have done comics, book covers, and band artwork, but all on my terms.
Are you often asked to design tattoos -- to see a piece through from conception to completion? When, if ever, is this process difficult or arduous due to the customer or subject?
Fortunately, I usually have people coming to me with a foreknowledge of my work, and a healthy dose of trust. They like what they have seen and just want me to bring something to life for them. I've had a few difficult-to-work-with clients, but if they get too out of hand, I just step away from the project. If I don't think it is for me in the first place, I turn it away before I ever get started. I usually end up having a very heavy hand in the design process. Often, people just give me an area of their skin they want covered, and let me have free rein.
Is horror your preferred tattoo theme -- the type of tattoo you enjoy doing the most?
I think anything with a dark element, whether it is straight up horror or not, is my preference. I do anything realistic, but the darker and creepier, the more I seem to enjoy it.
What type(s) of tattoo(s) or theme(s) do you dislike most?
Well, the ones I really dislike, I just don't do! I don't do anything religious. I don't do tribal or Celtic. I tell people who want a religious tattoo that I don't do symbols of hate. I tell tribal customers that I need to see their tribal ID card, proving they belong to a tribe, before I'll tattoo them. That usually drives away most people. I'm actually pretty lucky, I work by appointment, and people come to me knowing they want something in my style.
Have you ever refused to tattoo someone? If so, why?
Well, aside from what I just listed above, I've turned down kids who want their first tattoo on something like their neck. That kind of shit is called a job stopper, and will usually catch up with them. I've actually been fired for that (*cough*...Tattoo Lou's...*cough*).
Can you recall the first horror-themed tattoo you were truly proud of?
I really like my Jason Voorhees tattoo. It was one of my first chances to do what is now a matter of course for me. I put in a background that helped set the tone, it wasn't just a floating body or face on the skin. I did a Toxic Avenger tattoo, and Lloyd Kaufman liked it so much, he put it up on his website! That was another one. Gunnar Hansen really seemed to like the Leatherface I did, he signed it and I tattooed over the ink.
Have you ever done a Leatherface tattoo?
Ha! Of course! Quite a few, actually. He is one of the more popular horror figures. It's weird, most people love it. This one guy, I tattooed at a guest spot, calls me like a week later. He just got it because I was a "horror guy", and now he regretted it. Sucks to be him.
You're a painter as well... is there any one thing you draw inspiration from above all others?
There really isn't just one thing. Anything can spark an idea. A book, a movie, a dream, a trip in a plane or the countryside (often away on a guest spot in Europe or something). Ideas usually come out of the blue, but once I have them, they stay a constant focus until they are on a canvas or written down.
Do you recall the first painting you were awed by?
I can name quite a few, but I have no idea what was my first one. I tend to like the things certain artists pull off, and remember the artist, and their paintings, more than one specific piece. Frank Frazetta, John Harris, John Totleben, Michael Wm. Kaluta, and Bernie Wrightson have all been huge inspirations.
Do you have a favorite painter?
If I had to pick one, it would probably be the massively underrated John Totleben. Both his illustration style, and his oil paintings made a huge impression on me when I first got serious about this whole art thing.
How long have you been writing seriously?
I actually thought I would be a writer before I considered being an artist. I debated both careers in high school and only went to college for art after taking quite a few creative writing courses, and seeing that most writers just major in English. There isn't really a "writing major" in most schools. I scored 700 out of 750 in English on the SATs, so I was hoping I was good to go there!
I wrote my first book (which I am sure is horrible now) in 5th grade. I got sidetracked with illustration and tattooing, but wrote blogs and articles for zines and magazines. I always had this vision of putting out a graphic novel. I went through four different drafts (of a few pages each), had the third version almost picked up by Kitchen Sink, and then Paradox Press (but both went bankrupt), and finally did a fourth version I pitched to Andrew Helfer at DC Comics. He told me (in very rude terms) that they would only hire me if I drew superheroes (and I couldn't write or ink my own stuff). A few years later, I had the epiphany that I should do an illustrated novel instead. That started out as "By Demons Driven," and eventually became "The Black Seas of Infinity." That's been out a little over a year, and I've since put out a limited, signed and numbered chapbook entitled "Christmas is Cancelled," and I soon have a collection of short stories coming out with the working titled of "Down Highways in the Dark...By Demons Driven."
Can you describe your writing style?
I think the two biggest influences on the way I write are John Steinbeck and H. P. Lovecraft. I tend to be very descriptive of the scenes, trying to bring them alive in the readers mind, and I tend to use a first person narrative style. I like the reader to see through the eyes of the main character. There isn't an omniscient narrator to tell you all the unexplained little odds and ends, you are just as caught up in the moment and unfolding events as the protagonist. For better or worse. Keeping all that in mind, I do try to make sure it all keeps flowing. I definitely don't want to fall into that later Stephen King trap of over describing all the minutia that has nothing to do with the story.
Do you have a favorite author? If so, who is it?
H. P. Lovecraft is my favorite, although quite a few people have put out amazing books that have been a game changer. I think I would be remiss if I didn't give props to Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, George Orwell, Richard Matheson, Alan Moore, Ayn Rand (yes, that Ayn Rand), Neal Stephenson, Walter Gibson, Clive Barker, John Steinbeck, and Anne Rice.
If you had to choose a single discipline to focus on exclusively, what would it be and why?
Wow. That would be really hard. Fortunately, I don't have to! Ha! Ok, ok, how about...illustrated books? That way I can write and draw?
What about being an artist do you find most challenging?
Pulling off the ideas that I have in my head. Sometimes, it's a piece of cake. Other times, I struggle to get out on paper what is so clear in my mind.
In your website bio you note your struggles with many "low lows," are there any "high highs" you feel comfortable sharing with us?
Lows: Military, super-religious parents that forced me to go to church four times a week, believed strongly in corporal punishment, and forced me to keep all my punk rock stuff (music, clothes, art) at friends' houses. My room had to be kept like a guest bedroom. I had high SATs and a 3.9 grade point average, and tried going to my guidance counselor to find a scholarship for college. Her exact words were "get ready for a career of pumping gas, because that's all you'll ever do."
Then my parents kicked me out of the house when I graduated high school, and moved. I spent the next 8 months homeless. Like, rock-as-a-pillow-in-the-woods homeless. About a year went by. I got a job, a room in a house, and an old Honda Civic. A girl (who was a friend of a friend) flipped the car. My face went through the windshield. The EMS decided, based off my punk rock appearance, that I must have no insurance, so they stuck interns on the job of sewing me up. In the middle of it, the girl's mom comes in the emergency room and starts yelling at me. While I'm still getting stitches in my face. It turns out the girl was underage and was using a fake ID at the club we were at.
A year later, a crackhead tried to rob my girlfriend's sister, I got in a fight with him and got the tendon on my left thumb severed.
Two years after that, I was getting around on a motorcycle, going to art school, when a car plowed into me. This would be one of five times this happened, and I now have totaled three bikes.
I moved to NY, had started tattooing, and everything was going pretty good, until I came down with brain cancer. I was actually recovering in ICU in Bellevue Hospital on September 11, when the twin towers went down.
In December of that year, I married my girlfriend, Monica. 7 years ( and a few bike wrecks later), she was killed in a hit and run.
Just recently, in Austin, Texas, a car plowed into me at 40 miles an hour while I was on my bicycle, and I spent the next four hours in a coma. But, I'm still alive! So, the highs:
I've been all over the world tattooing, in 70+ magazines, videos, websites, the whole deal. Like me or hate me, most people in the tattoo industry seem to know who am. I have done album covers, book covers, comic strips (both political cartoons for newspapers, and full page strips for magazines), t-shirt art for bands, ad art for clubs, conventions, publishing houses, and so on. I have a book out, articles and blogs in magazines, and I'm doing art for at least one comic (maybe more, but that's not confirmed yet). I work by appointment and live comfortably doing art for a living. Everything bad that's happened to me I seem to bounce back from.
What artistic goals are you currently working toward?
I'm still heavily pushing my first book, and hope my second one will do even more. I'm pretty excited about the comic work I'll be doing for The Living Corpse, I'm currently doing illustrations for Black Static Magazine, Splatterpunk, Deadite Press, This Is Horror, and TAM; and Sinister Grin just got ahold of me for book covers. So, the more the better! I'm working on 9 tattoo sleeves, and 4 backpieces currently. Some are almost done, and it should be awesome! So, too much! I think I should actually be drawing right now, but instead I'm slacking off and doing this interview!
Judging by a certain picture on your site, you have an affinity for zombies (or at least dressing like them)... do you have a favorite zombie movie?
Evil Dead. Hands down. But...I really love Dawn of the Dead too! Both are way above the current crop of "Hey, look, it's a zombie horde, run"-type movies that seem to be dominating the industry right now.
Jason or Michael Myers?
Jason. All day! I describe him as the best character in the worst movies! He's an undead, supernatural killing machine! Michael Myers has nothing on him!