Jason Hellinger (writer)
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.