By Dana Helmuth
My name is Dana Helmuth and I tattoo full-time at Independent Tattoo on Fenwick Island, Delaware, three miles from the Atlantic Ocean, and just north of the coastal town I grew up in Ocean City, Maryland. I began tattooing professionally in 1998.
This last week was great. The energy in the shop has been awesome, everybody in high spirits with busy schedules and the cool fall weather just making it fun to drive to work with the windows rolled down and some good tunes blasting from the dashboard. When everyone you work with on a daily basis is happy and smiling it just makes the day go by so smooth. The way it's supposed to... On top of all that, I had some people on the schedule I have been anxiously awaiting to return for quite some time, which just added to my overall excitement. After having two days of quality, family time I was ready to jump in and cover a great deal of ground. It really doesn't get any better...
Tuesday started out with Brandon, a young tattooer from Altoona, PA. He's been in the game for a few years now so he's always full of questions. Sometimes I have answers, sometimes I don't.
He has big holes in his ears where he used to wear enormous plugs and his pants are too tight, but he sits like a rock and has a nice laugh. You get the picture. He came to me about three years ago while I was living in NYC and we started a full backpiece of Nyuu Unryu Kosonshou (from the Suikoden*) riding a dragon. Very fancy.
I was working with Horizakura from the Horitoshi Tokyo Family at the time, so I was very focused on making things look like they were "supposed" to. Horizakura was a huge influence on me and working with him every day for almost two years was something I could never replace or compare anything to. His dedication and genuine character are unparalleled in this era.
Since starting on Brandon's backpiece in NYC, I think I've worked on him in Brooklyn, Manhattan, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Delaware and even from an outdoor summer studio I set up in a screen tent behind my house in my gardens. There is nothing like tattooing outside; it's amazing! A real great experience for the client... and tattooer as well.
On the back of his right leg the piece transitions down to rocks and clouds and a red oni with battle-axe standing on a giant skull. He had gotten stuck in traffic on the way so his six-hour drive took a little longer and shortened the amount of time we had to work on the tattoo. I had to change my game-plan for the day in order to strategically take the wisest course of action in order to accomplish the most work in fewer hours. I chose to finish the grey shading on his lower right ass cheek and color the oni.
When finished I felt good about having finished the grey in a very difficult area to tattoo and doing all the red, gold and brown in the oni. Next time he comes we plan to finish the other side and then in the following session I should be able to complete the details of the dragon and the kimono patterns on the main portion of the tattoo, above the waist.
Wednesday arrived and I headed to work very excited to finish a sleeve begun two years ago. We both had moved around a bit in the time since it was started so it probably didn't help in the speed in which it was finished. I was incredibly busy and prolific during the time I started her sleeve. For instance (just on arms) I started and completed 16 sleeves that year, as well as dozens like her's that have been a little more relaxed in their rate of completion. Kaitlyn is a makeup artist and generally an all around kick-ass person. I first met her through an apprentice of mine at my old shop, Solid State Tattoo, about six or seven years ago.
I did a small cat memorial piece on her and some sakura and branches, and after that she would bring cooked Korean barbecue to the shop for us on a regular basis. Awesome. Years later she came to see me in NYC in order to start a sleeve; her idea was incorporate a bird-cage and some birds with blossoms/branches on the arm. I had already done some blossoms and branches on her, so it started out in a good way, and now it was time to finish it in a good way. I had previously colored the swallows in an aqua green color and didn't really like the way it looked overall so I suggested we color over the aqua green with a light salmon to achieve a nice golden brown; I think it was very successful.
I added some more blossoms in a little bit larger size than the previous additions, to give it a more natural look and show more depth, and then I layered a little more Sumi [black ink] in some areas, particularly adding some new silhouettes; I think it came together very well, and fits her character perfectly.
That is a very important consideration (and greatly overlooked among many tattooers). Making a cool sleeve is great, but when it looks cool and also really matches the person wearing it, then it just adds extra mojo! The tattoo has to have soul. I believe I spent about five hours finishing it up, and it was a great session. She had spent several months travelling around the Southwest last year and it was nice to hear her stories and share my own stories during the course of the session. I think the american Southwest is an amazingly powerful and beautiful place and I have also spent a lot of time there over the years exploring canyons, mountains and rivers. Those things make us who we are. The dirt.
Resp is a great tattooer and artist from Philadelphia. He first came to me in 2006 for a sleeve. He drove down from Philadelphia to my shop in Salisbury, MD at the time, and I worked on him two days in a row for eight hours each day to complete it. He left with a great sleeve made of a snake and peonies and a Vajra with a cloud background, and we've been tight ever since. Two years after that initial meeting and doing his sleeve, he moved down and worked for me for about six months and then a few years later he came up to NYC and wanted to start a dragon backpiece.
Fast forward a few years to a beautiful fall Saturday, three miles from the Atlantic Ocean with a hint of saltwater always on the breeze; it had been about nine months since our last session and he had added a son to his tribe since then so there was a lot of catching up to do.
It was my best day tattooing in quite a while. The five-hour session is my perfect session right now. I've gotten just that amount of work time down to a science with my stamina as well as my attention. Other than the shop apprentice turning off T-Rex to put on some terrible excuse for music it was an epic day!
In the five-hour period I did all the pink in the fleshy parts of the arms and fingers and palms and lips, all the gold in the beard and whiskers, and all the hair and horns. If you took all those spaces and hooked them together and laid them out flat it was probably about the equivalent of a sleeve's worth of skin: we got all that colored in on him in one session. Two weeks from now we plan to color the koi and Kannon on the back of his right thigh. That's one of my favorite parts of this tattoo so I'm really looking forward to that color session.
Check back to see in a few weeks! I hope you enjoyed these photos and stories...
All the best,
(Dana Helmuth is a tattooer and contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine.)
Dana is featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine #16: