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Profound Voices Rise: Interview with Tattooist Dana James

Profound Voices Rise: Interview with Tattooist Dana James

Tattoo Artists6 min Read

In this interview with tattoo artist Dana James, he talks about his artistic and philosophical heroes, as well as his hopes for the future of the industry.

As the industry hits a pivotal time in a healthy evolution of practices, philosophies, and social responsibilities, the kind caring voices of community members are vitally important. Dana James is one artist who, though he may prefer to keep a low profile, is a beautiful example of how each tattooist, and devoted member of this industry, can use their voice, work, and compassionate being to make a difference in their community.

Dana James was gracious to share his thoughts on master craftsmen like Andre Malcolm, James Baldwin, and the Dalai Lama as well as how he is using his visual vernacular to subvert the status quo.

How did you get into tattooing and why was it something you were drawn to?

I started getting tattooed when I turned 18, and pretty much wanted in immediately. I’ve always liked to draw, and the imagery I found in the shop resonated instantly. But it really felt unattainable. I kinda understood that it was an apprenticeship kind of deal, and it just didn’t seem like my world. My first few experiences were definitely a mixed bag, but I kept coming back. As the years passed the type of folks working at the shop started to change and by the time I was 21 I befriended one of the younger guys, and then a couple more and eventually through a friend got hooked up with Jerry Thomas of Toucan tattoo in Gloucester VA, who managed the shop at the time and he took me on as an apprentice.

Who are the tattooers, fine artists/movements, books, films, etc, that have inspired you over the years?

I’ll try to keep it brief and just list 6 contemporary tattooers, there’s just so much skill out there. My co-workers at Warhorse obviously have the biggest day to day influence but otherwise:

Jay Watkins. My favorite tattooer and consummate craftsman. Makes everything involved in tattooing and is always humble and kind.
Andre Malcolm.  Andre revolutionized dragons and low-key makes it look easy. Has always been a guiding light.
Anderson Luna. Next level.
George Campise. The Reaper King. I work 10 feet from the dude, no smoke and mirrors, non-stop crushes it, at tattooing and being all around solid and decent. Very rare.
Curt Baer. The wildest panthers, slays everything he touches. He respects the magic.
Daryl Rodriguez. Just epic. Great dude, great tattooer.

As far as other artists, All the usual suspects you know, I do have a special love for Pablo Picasso’s work, William Blake is really big for me (Europe supported by Africa and America is amazing)... a lot of comic book artists, Jim Lee, specifically. Bill Watterson. Really would be remiss to not mention Dan Higgs, Chris Conn, and Timothy Hoyer... probably my biggest painting influences. I’d never really painted before I started tattooing, and those guys helped shape my view of what that could be...The Autobiography of Malcolm X, The book of 5 rings by Myamoto Musashi, anything by James Baldwin, and The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. As far as films...honestly, Moonlight is the last movie that really stayed with me.

Many artists have a philosophy or motivation behind their work...what would you say is yours? How do you define success?

I don’t know if there is a specific philosophy to my work... but I feel like there’s a vocabulary of imagery available in the traditional tattooing that can tell any universal story. There’s something subversive to me about using that vocabulary to tell the stories of people who have been historically excluded from the culture. I try to use those symbols to make work about sex, love, loss and liberation. I think financial stability and good work life balance are success to me. I love to work, but I’ve definitely sacrificed a lot of other parts of life to keep it going.

Painting by Dana James #DanaJames

What advice do you have for young artists trying to get into tattooing? What was the best advice you received when you first started?

My advice for anyone wanting to get into tattooing, is take it seriously and do the work, take care of your mind and body, and save your money. Seriously work hard, work out, and get some counseling. The best advice I got starting out was probably “there’s three things that’ll get you out of the industry, hard drinking, hard drugs, and bad relationships” I’m paraphrasing a bit, but that’s the idea.

How do you feel about the future of the tattoo industry? What things need to change, and what needs to stay the same?

The future of tattooing.... thats tough to say... First of all I think Covid-19 has sort of changed the conversation in a lot of ways. But aside from that I feel good about the future of tattooing. The recent uptick in women and people of color is an encouraging trend. That can only lead to more diversity of thought and imagery. That being said, the racism, misogony, and anti blackness that permeates the culture needs to go. I believe in my fellow tattooers. I’ve met so many decent folks since I started, but I’ve also met a lot of folks more interested in maintaining white(and male) supremacy(wether structurally or by just being a virulent racist/misogynist) than the future of tattooing. I guess the less people you let in, the less competition and the less you have to work to be elite. Easiest way to do that is to gatekeep entire swaths of the population. All the casual racism, Misogyny, and homophobia, are played out. The little jokes represent actual violence and oppression to the people you are talking about. No matter how “cool” your tattoos are if you are a rapist, or a racist, you are trash.  There’s no room in tattooing for discrimination and predatory behavior.

As far as what needs to stay the same... I love tattooing. I’m incredibly invested in the imagery, it’s history and culture. And while everything is constantly growing and changing it’s the things that don’t need to change that make tattooing special. Roses always look cool, panthers are always tough and pin ups are always kinda mysterious. I love all the new and interesting style and design choices folks have added over the years, but the distillation of this imagery into a genre happened long before I was born and will remain long after I’m gone. I really dig that. If the design was cool 100 years ago, it’s probably still cool

Beyond tattooing, what are you passionate about? How do you spend your free time, and what do you do on your vacations?

Tattooing doesn’t leave a lot of room for other passions, but , I do paint obsessively, I love music, especially hip hop and older R&B, I used to see a lot of live music when that was a thing, I love dogs. I’ve got a pit bull named Damu and spend a lot of my free time on long walks with him. I’m also a semi-retired sneaker and fashion guy.


Any future goals, plans, collabs, etc. that you’d like to share?

My next big goal is to expand my voice. We’re in a time of profound change and I think I have a responsibility to try to speak to that more directly. My work is inherently political to some extent. In many ways just being a free black man in America is a rebellion, let alone thriving in a decidedly white space. I’d like to explore those ideas on a deeper level... from a painters perspective I think that means making much more personal work. From a Tattooers perspective I think that means making more universal work. Sharing my designs with the people on a deeper level. It’s one thing to hand someone a book full of designs and say “pick something out” it’s really another to try to meet someone and make a connection, like look let’s put something on you that’s timeless and personal... imagery is my business right, let me tell your story for you. There’s a good chance whatever you’re going through, I’ve had a similar experience and made a design about it. If not I’ll whip one up for you. That being said, I’ve got a series of 40 or so small paintings about to drop in a couple weeks. I’m finishing up my third book of designs, and T shirts are coming soon I promise. When the world opens back up you can catch me on the road or working with folks I love and trust at Warhorse tattoo in Berkeley CA.

Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

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