Whenever someone in the arts obtains a certain level of success there are cynics who are quick to ask if they have paid their dues. To some people you have to prove that you have earned success through years of struggling or at the very least by having started at the very bottom. Dan Sperry, the heavily tattooed magician currently starring on Broadway in “The Illusionists,” has paid his dues and then some—he worked as a clown for children’s birthday parties. You can’t start any lower than that.
Growing up in a small town there weren’t a lot of people who could teach Sperry how to become a magician so he had to take what he could get when it came to mentors.
“There was a guy in our town who did magic tricks, he did shows for the boy scouts and schools,” Sperry says. “The really terrible thing was that he was a fucking clown. I didn’t want to be a clown; I wanted to be a magician. But he helped me out and put me in the show.”
Regardless of what he wanted to be doing Sperry realized that he was getting paid to be a clown. He would do the shitty shows that his mentor didn’t feel like attending and after a short while he was building up a resume of performances and filling his closet with oddly colored clothes and giant comical ties.
“I didn’t have a clown name or a clown voice,” Sperry explains. “I would use my normal voice and be like, I’m Dan Sperry the clown and now I’m going to do some magic. It was really fucking bad.”
From day one Sperry was hustling to figure out a way to turn his hobby into a career. When he wasn’t swallowing his pride and taking shows as a clown he was calling magic shops long distance to get help on tricks or placing ads in the newspaper when he was only 10-years-old. Instead of asking his parents for help Sperry was always scheming on his own, often with hilarious results.
In order to be taken seriously Sperry knew that he would need to have a business card. Since this was pre-Google he wasn’t able to quickly look up how to make a professional business card or take three seconds and order one off of Vista Print. Instead he got on his Apple II and made some of the worst looking business cards imaginable, each one was topped off with a drawing of a top hat and wand. In order to get the word out Sperry hid his business cards among the toy aisle at the grocery store, a seemingly ingenious idea.
“It didn’t fucking work,” Sperry says with a laugh. “I’m sure the parents looked at [the cards] not knowing that a kid made them and thought Holy shit, what kind of pedophile made this?”
Sperry credits a lot of unsupervised time by himself as a child for his independent drive; since he was used to having to do things for himself he never even considered asking for help launching his fledgling magic career. All of that unsupervised time also allowed Sperry to get creative and do outlandish things like cut up his mother’s clothes to wear to school and give himself piercings in the bathroom. It goes without saying that Sperry was used to getting in hot water. Yet when he got his first tattoo on the sly at the age of 18 Sperry wasn’t thinking about the trouble he would get in.
“My dad had gotten remarried and my step mom was really religious,” Sperry explains. “So it was not so much like Oh, I’m going to get yelled at as it was feeling guilty for my dad because I knew that he was going to get a fucking earful.”
At the time the small blackwork tattoo on the cap of his shoulder seemed enormous, as many first tattoos do, but now it is just a small part of a larger vision. From his shoulder the tattoo spread down his arms as Sperry added ink whenever he had the cash to do so. Where some people see his ink as being similar to the oft maligned tribal arm bands Sperry sees something more refined in the sharp angles and black ink—elegance.
As he adds smaller, non-abstract tattoos it’s very important to Sperry that he maintain the theme that he has set with the blackwork. After falling in love with Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd Sperry wanted to add a straight razor tattoo to his arm.
“I had this open spot on my arm where [the tattoo] would open and close, that would be kind of funny,” Sperry explains. “When I’m posing for pictures I can wrap my arm around their head so their chin is laying right where that blade is.”
While the straight razor may have ended up being a sharp looking tattoo it’s a good thing that when he was younger he didn’t have access to anything that deadly.
“When I was a kid I really wanted to be a pirate so I figured I could just cut my hand off and get a hook,” Sperry said. “I tried to do it secretly in class with a pair of safety scissors. Of course it didn’t work because they were fucking safety scissors.”
To commemorate his failed attempt at self-mutilation Sperry now has a zipper tattooed around his wrist. At times he may still long for a career of piracy as a real-life Captain Hook but he’s made good use of both hands as he has built up a career as a shock illusionist amazing crowds with his tricks.
In what could be described as The Avengers of magic, Sperry is part of an epic team of magicians performing on Broadway for the next six weeks. Much like how Nick Fury chose the team in the Marvel films, the creators of “The Illusionists” handpicked each performer for their specialty. Together they have created the biggest magic show in the world.
“It’s good for people who like magic shows but it’s also good for people that aren’t way into magic shows,” Sperry says. “It’s not just one dude coming out being all wankery and shit in a top hat and cane. It’s got the stuff that I do for people who are into weird shit and it also has stuff grandma and grandpa can watch without being scared away.”
One thing that will often bog down a magic show is a ridiculous amount of theatricality and build up before every trick. What Sperry and his cohorts understand is that people are paying to see the tricks, so they have cut off most of the fat. The streamlined performances are accompanied by original music played by a live band; it is a show unlike any that have preceded it.
The New York dates represent the first time that “The Illusionists” has been performed in North America, a feat that is notable since the majority of the performers hail from here. As the show has traveled across the globe they have set attendance records everywhere that they have performed. It was time for The Illusionists to hit the States. Much like Sperry they have paid their dues, it’s time for them to hit the big time.
Tickets for “The Illusionists” can be purchased at their homepage. See more of Sperry's ink in the gallery below.