Troy Denning isn’t afraid to speak his mind; in fact, he makes no apologies. Tattooing since 1992, Denning has strong opinions about the craft in its current state. Laughing at how he sounds like an old man ruminating on the past, he calls himself “Troy ‘You kids get off my lawn’ Denning.” But the brawny Oakland native can get away with it because he’s developed a reputation for bold, strong work that matches his personality. During this interview at his Invisible NYC studio, Denning was tattooing an intricate Celtic sleeve, a style not often seen in his largely Japanese-inspired portfolio. Over the hum of the machine, he talked about his approach to tattooing, why celebrities get bad tattoos, and the difference between tattoo conventions and a high school cafeteria.
INKED: I’m surprised to see you tattooing Celtic work and not your signature Japanese style.
TROY DENNING: Invisible isn’t an exclusively Japanese shop. I like a lot of different styles in tattooing. When I first started, all I wanted to do was Japanese work, but I didn’t understand it very well so everything I did would be overdrawn. Nowadays, when I draw a large-scale tattoo design, I really try to make the background, the motion, and the action as much a part of the design as the subject, like having waves crashing, fire, wind, and things of that nature that are really timeless.
So much of Japanese tattooing represents myths and legends. How do you feel about tattooing work on clients who want something completely contrary to Japanese tradition?
As long as it’s not ostensibly bad or transgressive of a lot of the rules of Japanese tattooing, then I’ll do it. I’m not Japanese and I’m not a super-stickler, but I also won’t make a hodgepodge of different things in one tattoo. If you put a certain head on a different body, I think that’s really lame. But for the most part, I’m not a huge stickler on having a certain flower go in a certain place—although some flowers don’t go together because they don’t look good together. The rules exist for a reason, but they’re just guidelines to build upon. Personally, when Western clients come in and they are really up on all of the rules and traditions that apply to Japanese people, I think they’re kind of creepy. You know they go home, put on a fundoshi [Japanese loincloth], and sit in seiza [a traditional sitting position] with a Samurai sword listening to haiku on their iPod.
What kind of work do you particularly like to do?
I really love all tattooing. I love the actual act of doing it, so anything that is challenging. The term “challenging” is a double-edged sword, though, because I don’t want to be challenged by something I think is a bad idea. I only want to be challenged by something where the result is favorable, and I’d be proud of the finished product. If I wanted to challenge myself with bad ideas, I’d still work in the ghetto.
That was back in California?
Yes, around 1992. I got into tattooing to get out of what I saw was a dead-end life of a lot of fighting, drugs, and hanging out with unsavory people. And then when I got into tattooing, the people I was subjected to were the worst of the people I was dealing with before, really hard-core bikers and gangbangers and others like that. Then I met a lot of the right people and made good connections, and that helped me out a lot. I was able to parlay that into something positive.
Did you ever apprentice?
I’m self-taught. I never apprenticed. At the time I started, tattooers then thought that there were already too many out there, and they weren’t teaching anybody. In hindsight, there were probably only 10 percent of the tattooers that are out there now. Today I hear stories of tattooers who have five or six apprentices. When I ask why they don’t have a house full of guys working for them, they say, “Oh, he went to do his own thing.” I’m like, “Are you a fucking idiot teaching people just so they can open up across the street from you?” How do you benefit from that? But tattooers are so vain. A lot of them take on students just to feel like they know something themselves.
So you think the tattoo world is overpopulated?
I used to be a DJ at a strip club, and you had professional strippers who made a fine living and could do whatever the hell they wanted. And then there were the strippers who just worked enough to buy drugs and pay their rent. I think the majority of tattooers are the latter. They’re going to find out that this isn’t really for them, because to make an actual career out of tattooing, it’s a complete and total lifestyle. It’s not something you get into because you wanted to meet people in a certain band. To be a real tattooer, you have to embrace it totally. I see tattooing being treated like a hobby or sideline now, like, “We’re renovating French modern furniture and doing tattoos.” Tattooing is bigger than that.
And tattoo culture isn’t as tough as it used to be, so it’s easier to get into.
For sure. When I was working at Everlasting, we had guns everywhere. And that was normal. At the first tattoo shop I ever worked, immediately when I started, [the owner] said, “Do you know how to use a gun?” I said, “Of course.” And he says, “This is where it is.”
I don’t think as many tattooists today know how to use a gun.
Forget letting straight-edge kids handle a gun. I couldn’t see any of them having to actually grab somebody by the back of the neck and throw them down the stairs. In early tattooing, guys were rough around the edges, but you could see their softer side by the fact that they were creative. When I was doing tattoo conventions in my early 20s, there were a lot of scary people involved, and I wanted to keep my involvement with them at a minimum. I don’t want those days to come back. But today, kids have such a spoiled, myopic view of everything. There are some who tattoo thinking they are only going to do the style of artwork that they’ve been doodling for their friends. You’re not a real tattooer if all you do are your own drawings on people your first year of tattooing. That’s something you build up to and are blessed to end up in. Their work just has no soul. There’s nothing rough or raw about it. I’m Iggy Pop, and they’re Blink-182. It can be the same chords, but it’s totally sterile. I see tattoos online that are completely perfect but there’s no spirit behind them whatsoever.
How do you approach a tattoo project? What’s the process when a client comes to you wanting, say, a back piece?
I generally tell people to send me a bunch of images. A picture speaks a thousand words. If you send me a file with five or six photographs in it—and each can be completely different—I will understand the idea behind your project and what you’re trying to get. Then, depending where it is on the body, I have a pretty good system of mapping it out and making it fit right. When I was going through a bit of a rough spell but still was slammed, I had to figure out a way to draw really fast and make sure people are happy with it. It was like a pressure cooker. It forced me to come up with methods and strategies to get the most out of the time I spend with the client. I never liked the art school tattooers who think that the client’s time is not valuable and that they can sit there and stare at a fucking arm for hours until they come up with some bullshit. That’s for you to do on your off time, not when your client is there. When your customer shows up, it should be camera, action. Make the time valuable. I approach tattooing like a craft. It’s no different than building a house. You don’t start painting it before you have all the walls up and installation in.
It’s interesting that you brought up tattooing as a craft, because many refer to it as a fine art today.
The people who say it’s an art are the ones who have to defend what they do. They say, “You can’t rush art.” Well, you can, actually. There are things called timelines and working hours. And those things rush art. I’ve always looked at my job more like a Frank Lloyd Wright and less like a Salvador Dalí. Shit has got to look good and has to fit into your overall aesthetic, but it’s got to work. It can’t just be about your feelings.
I can see the fine art angle in the sense that so many are going to tattooists and saying, “Here’s my arm; do what you want.” I’m sure you get a lot of that yourself.
If someone came to me and said, “Here’s my arm; do what you want,” I’d punch them on it. [Laughs.] The client is never happy in the end. And they never really mean it. You have to have a direction. If it was just a tattoo done according to my taste, the client would have no connection to it. That’s fine for a little souvenir tattoo, but not for a sleeve. If I was to do just what I wanted, it would be a witches’ Sabbath with a bunch of goat men having sex with nuns. But people don’t want to walk around wearing that. Only I like that kind of stuff.
We’ll put that out there in case someone wants to get it.
Put my number in the article and have them call me.
Are there any tattoos you won’t do? There’s some debate over hate tattoos, for example. Some say they would never do a “White Power” tattoo, and other tattooers say that they’d do it so people know just what kind of person that client is. What do you think?
I see the logic in doing the tattoo, but you have to take into consideration that you actually have to spend time with that person. Those people never have money, anyway. Anybody who wants some sort of Nazi tattoo has a bunch of dumb friends who will do that shit on him for free. It’s not even worth your time. There are a lot of kids right now getting ironic racist tattoos because they think we’re past all that, which I think is ridiculous.
Beyond irony, what popular tattoos do you see?
Tattooing is so vast that every genre has its own demographic with people who don’t care about other styles at all. People tend to get whatever the guys in their social circle who they look up to get.
And you see tattooists who specialize in certain styles stick to their own groups as well. Sometimes conventions are like the high school cafeteria, where the goths are on one side and the hippies are on the other—
Sure. The only thing different from a tattoo convention and a high school cafeteria is, in high school, there are actually cute girls. [Laughs.]
You’re going to be in so much trouble for saying that.
C’mon, that was good!
I like your honesty, but do you ever get in trouble for it?
Not at all. They know where to fucking find me.
Well, speaking of where they find you, I see you’re doing a bunch of renovations on your shop, Invisible NYC.
We’re expanding the shop and creating a “Super Invisible,” where it will be even better. We now have six stations and a full drafting area. In the corner, we’ll have a men’s club bar area like a mini izakaya [Japanese bar with food]. It’s fun. I love being here, working with my guys. It’s a really good time in my life right now.