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by Adriana de Barros

Raised in Winnipeg, Canada, Dave Lao became an electrician after high school, taking what he considered the tranquil route with a job that made $10K a month. The trade came with consequences, however: Lao worked three weeks each month in Saskatchewan, on 14-hour shifts in icy temperatures at a construction site, and he barely saw his girlfriend and their pets. After 10 years as an electrician, Lao wanted to do something more fulfilling for his personal growth and love for the arts. A life-changing moment arrived when a friend of his showed off work by Lil B Hernandez. Lao got tattooed by Hernandez, and the two became acquaintances. Hernandez later mentored Lao on how to use a single needle, but the rest of Dave Lao’s journey to becoming a renowned tattoo artist was his to navigate alone.

You married your long-time girlfriend Meghan in Sedona, Arizona, a place both of you had already visited and where you got the inspiration to become a tattoo artist. Why Sedona?

We just found a connection to that place. I don’t want to say “spiritual,” but you feel at peace there—no one is judging you. Then, I was reading a book by Eckhart Tolle, “The Power of Now,” and everything just clicked. I went back to work [as an electrician] and I just told my buddies [about changing jobs], and they were giggling at me, saying, “You can’t be a tattoo artist; you’re good, but...”

Explain a quote you posted on Instagram from “Buddha’s Little Instruction Book: “No matter how hard the past, you can always begin again.”

You don’t need to bring the past into the now. You can just basically use it as a lesson, and if you’re in the present moment, then all you ever need is the moment of now.

Was this already your way of thinking, or did you learn with the years?

It was in the last five years. I quit alcohol three years ago, and it just opened my mind. I started doing a lot of work on myself, such as working out, etc. I don’t know if I’d even call it “spiritual teachings,” but I was reading much literature on Buddhism and self-help books. It gave me a different outlook on life, as opposed to the way I was living throughout my 20s. I was a mess before. I’m glad I didn’t start tattooing at that time, because I don’t think it would’ve been as good. I wasn’t as disciplined as I am now.

Why is there so much Greek mythology and sculptural figures in your work?

When I was drawing—before I started tattooing—I was really into Greek mythology and Roman art. I guess “classical art” is what you would call it. Maybe because my bloodline comes from Italy.

So the Italian Renaissance is a connection to your heritage.

My wife is due in July. We’re thinking of naming our first kid Leonardo, if it is a boy. [Like] Leonardo da Vinci.

Why do you use black-and-grey ink instead of colors?

I like it! And the fact that people can specialize in one art style. I think over time all tattoos will fade, yet when black-and-grey fades it will still look cool. It’s clean, it’s classy and it looks good on all types of skin.

You started applying white ink, too. Do you have an idea of how it endures with time?

I started using white about three years ago, it still looks really good! It depends on the person’s lifestyle. You know what I mean?

Yes, eating right, hydrating, protecting the skin... 

Exactly. If you’re going to spend so much money on tattoos, you’re going to need to keep up with maintenance. And yes, the whites do hold. My white application actually hurts. I go through one pass, then go back to the blacks, and then go a second time and even a third time with white. People don’t like that!

They’ll certainly remember you! On a last note, why did you name your studio “Lone Wolf”?

It is in a private location [in Winnipeg] and I am just able to focus on the task at hand. I call it “Lone Wolf” because it’s a one-man show. Eventually, in the future, I would like to welcome apprentices to the shop