September 2011 Archives

09:33 AM
Shane Tan Asian Tattoo.jpgToday's artist spotlight is on Shane Tan: tattoo artist and punk rock misfit currently killing it at Ink Tank Zurich and privately in Singapore. Singapore is Shane's birthplace, although he claims that he's a direct descendant of "one of those immortal flying ninjas from old Chinese films." I didn't argue with him on this point. Shane likes long walks on the beach, his aura color is pinkish blue, and his favorite meal is 13 magnum tubes from Good Luck Irons. He says they taste like steel chicken & go well with mayonnaise. Again, I didn't argue.

Here's some of Shane's work. More on

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06:59 PM

Anderson Cooper rivals our snobbery regarding "bad tattoos." And he's not completely off base. If only tattoo machines came with built-in spellcheck. 
12:29 PM
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Professor Sam Steward is best known to the tattoo community as Phil Sparrow, a meticulous tattooer whom many credit with raising the bar of body art. Steward wrote the seminal "Bad Boys & Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks," a sort of diary on his 18 years tattooing during the 50s and 60s.

Last year, a much lauded biography was released revealing the many different lives of Steward beyond tattoo artist -- the academic, the writer and the "
exuberant erotic adventurer." "Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist & Sexual Renegade" by Justin Spring is lush with sexy stories culled from 80 boxes of letters, drawings, sexual paraphernalia, even pubic hair from Rudolph Valentino (with whom he had an affair). There's some talk of tattooing, but homosexual life dominates the narrative. I guess I wasn't clear about this in my first post on the book because I received a few emails from those who ordered it asking why I was pushing gay porn. It seems not many of you are exuberant erotic adventurers.

For those who are, a limited edition companion book was released by Spring entitled "An Obscene Diary:  The Visual World of Sam Steward." This art and photography compilation, complete with explicit sexual imagery, inspired the "Obscene Diary" exhibit at the Museum of Sex in NYC. The Museum says of the show:  "
This exhibition features the most comprehensive group of artifacts from the Steward Archive that will ever be made available for public view and asks patrons to reflect on what it would look like if their own sexual histories were documented and what this would say about the times in which we live."  [In the age of sexting and kissy-face profile pics on Facebook, I think our sexual histories are not so secret.]

Yesterday, the NY Times offered a multimedia feature on the exhibit, which is fantastic. It includes six photos accompanied by audio narration by Spring, giving context to the image. For example, in the photo above, Spring discusses Steward's tattooing and notes that he was the official tattooer for the Hells Angels from 1965-1970 in San Francisco. Each image is worth a click for these kind of gems.
Many thanks to Bill of TattoosDay for the NY Times link!
03:27 PM
London_Tattoo_Convention_Ed_London_Photo.jpgOnce again, the London Tattoo Convention brought in the modified masses this weekend -- an estimated 20,000 people -- with the draw of renowned tattooists from across the globe, fine art galleries, fire-breathing beauties, bands, and plenty of pints. While we didn't make it this year, we followed dispatches on Facebook & Twitter as well as on Flickr, which has many fabulous photos from the show, including this one above by Ed London Photography. [Links to more photo sets are below.]

And like every year, the press swarmed the Tobacco Docks to bring the freak show into the homes of the unblemished. Some are particularly noteworthy in their approach to covering tattoo culture.

First, in a lead-up to the show, TNT Magazine profiled London-based artists, Mo Copoletta of The Family Business and Nikole Lowe of Good Times Tattoo.The article begins with the outrageous statement that even doctors and lawyers get tattooed (heaven forfend!), but then has the artists carry the piece with their thoughts on tattooing, such as the trend of young people getting neck tattoos without much other coverage. It's a controversial topic among tattooists, and here's what Mo had to say about it:
I believe it's more of a cool factor of belonging to a scene rather than a mature decision of having something on your neck. [...] Before going to neck and hands, you need to live with tattoos and have visible parts of your body, like forearms and legs, done first to be able to get used to people's reactions. Because, no matter what, you're always going to get a reaction from people, and you're not going to be 20 forever and looking rock'n'roll your whole life.
Mo and Nikole also offer general tattoo advice for those new to the art. Worth a read.

The BBC covered the show as well with a particular bent on tattoo regret. I was immediately put off by the usual tired line: "Tattoos are no longer the trophies of rockers, sailors, bikers, bohemians and criminals, they have gone mainstream." [It's also used in the next linked article.] Dr. Matt Lodder found a line in a 1926 Vanity Fair article declaring that tattoos were no longer just for sailors, but have "percolated through the entire social stratum." So please, reporters, cut out the cliches. Then the BBC reporter goes on to ponder whether there would be less tattoo regret if people could "test drive" a tattoo, so she gets a temporary tattoo and goes to the convention to see what the reaction to it is. People winced. Rightly so. At least the focus of the writing was on those who do not regret their tattoo choices like Joe Monroe, Cammy Stewart & Lestyn Flye of Divine Canvas. They are shown in a short video of the show embedded in the online article.

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My favorite reportage is The Guardian's "Tattoos: Eyecatching But Art They Art?" by art critic Jonathan Jones. Again, there was "Once associated with sailors, gang members, or circus performers, these markings are now a mainstream cultural force." I too winced. But the rest of the writing makes up for it. Here's a taste:

It is the weight of ritual, the sense of undergoing something that changes you, that stops me personally from ever considering a tattoo. But it must also be part of its attraction. Just by visiting a tattooist such as the celebrated Danish artist Eckel you can change who you are. The change is permanent. You are a work of art.

In the Pacific, anthropologists have associated tattoos with a fragmented conception of identity, a belief that a person is not one but many things. Putting on the shining painted skin of a warrior changes your nature.

Are people now seeking to change their natures, to become fabulous new beings? Perhaps there is something digital and post-human about it all, a new sense of self that is no longer bounded by being inside your own skin, but penetrated - as by a needle - by social media and constant internet information, so you feel part of a larger entity, that imprints itself on your body.

For less talk and more imagery, check the Flickr sets of these photographers:

* Ed London Photography (First image above)

* Rhodri Jones/Rodrico (Image of Jo Harrison tattooing above and facial tattoo below).

* Wild Orchid

* Solamore

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03:53 PM

This video was made to sell beer. But it also has a little message about discriminating against big scary tattooed men.

Many thanks to the fabulous Stephanie D. for the link!
11:49 AM

While I secretly wish that I was London Tattoo Convention this weekend, I'm going to openly revel in Kustom Kulture thanks to the Flakes & Flames documentary from Dirk Bealau and Jesper Bram.  The filmmakers have been traveling throughout the U.S. and Europe to seek out "the world's best car and motorcycle builders, tattoo artists, pinstripers, custom painters and pin-up models to share their tricks and experience."

They've got some slick preview videos up on their site, but I'm partial to the one above, with footage of artists The Pizz, Coop and Von Franco - plus some gnarly bikes and hot-rods spinning their wheels and kicking up bleach-burns.

Flakes & Flames will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2012 and, I have to admit, I'll be gifting it to myself as soon as it's available.
03:48 PM

The final installment of Vice TV's Tattoo Age profile on Troy Denning is now up and horrifying vegans across the Internet. It begins with Troy "putting crabs to sleep" in preparation of a BBQ he's hosting, with many of NY's tattooratti in attendance. You'll also see him rocking out at Karaoke and mocking the "Engrish" of his Japanese friends, who in turn, mock his Japanese language skills. 

But amidst all the carousing video and catchy soundbits, there's serious discussion on Troy's work. For example, he explains that his favorite Japanese-influenced tattoos have been those that were rendered more flat and readable, without a lot of "bells and whistles." There's also talk of the Japanese mythology that figures so heavily in Troy's large compositions. 

As I've said before, I'm liking how Vice TV is approaching these videos by having fun footage where the artists' personalities shine, but also some substance when it comes to tattoos.

In case you missed them, here's Part I and Part II of the Troy Trilogy.
11:26 AM
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On October 1st, one of my latest book projects will hit the shelves of major bookstores:  "Tattoo World," published by Abrams Books, is a 384-page hardcover featuring 1,000 tattoo images from 125 stellar artists -- artists I stalked for over a year in order to have them be a part of a book designed to show a mass audience the possibilities of tattoo art. As always, I'm utterly grateful for their participation.

The text is by Michael Kaplan, a well respected journalist who has written for the New York Times, Wired and Details. Michael interviewed the artists for profiles that accompany the collages of their work. The cover art is created by Chris Conn Askew, which was then laser cut for 3-D effect.

It was an interesting experience working with a large US publisher, representing the interests of our tattoo community in a project designed for a mainstream audience. [A big difference from my monster books for Edition Reuss, which are specifically geared towards serious collectors and artists.] I am excited that the average person can walk into a chain like Barnes & Noble, pick up "Tattoo World" and find out about Horiyoshi III, Filip Leu, Paul Booth, Guy Aitchison and others who have had a profound impact on the art. The book isn't limited to the "big names," however, and highlights the work of some emerging artists pushing tattoo in new directions. Of course, we couldn't include every brilliant artist (and not everyone agreed when asked). I do believe the work shown will inspire people to do more research and learn about the many tattoo masters across the globe.

tattoo world.jpgAs with any book release of mine, there's a party. Once again, we're joining forces with our dear friends at Tattoo Culture--who are celebrating their six year anniversary--for a joint bash in their Brooklyn studio.

Mark your calendars: Friday, October 7th, from 7-10PM. Click here for address & map. More on Facebook.

The book is available on for pre-sale. For anyone interested in a signed copy, perhaps with a love note, I have only 15 books available to Needles & Sins friends for $35. First come, first serve. If you're interested, hit me up at marisa at

Hope to see y'all on Oct. 7th!

shige tattoo world.jpg Tattoos in layout above by Shige, Yellow Blaze Tattoo.
10:02 AM
yushi takei tattoo.jpg Our friend Yushi Takei just hit us up with some new work and also added 50 images of his traditional Japanese tattooing to his online gallery.

Yushi will be working
at the London Tattoo Convention this upcoming weekend, then doing a guest spot at Frith Street Tattoo from Sept. 29 to Oct. 13. He'll then be at the wonderful Brussels Tattoo Convention Oct. 14-16.

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12:06 PM
Frankenstein copy.jpgIn the many interviews I've done with artists, the issue of whether "a tattoo should look like a tattoo" has come up repeatedly. Some say that only "bold will hold," that is, strong outlines, bold color, and lots of black. Others contest that tattoos need not be limited by these constraints and can indeed stand the body's aging while not strictly adhering to these tattoo tenets. Personally, I got quite a lot of flack for my "Art Brut" chapter in Black Tattoo Art, where I featured the avant garde style of deconstructed tattoos. To some, it looked like scribble, and to others, a new and exciting tattoo genre. When such tattoos are expertly executed, I generally fall into the latter category. While so much of this work has centered in France, Belgium & Montreal [see Yann Black, Jeff, Boucherie Moderne, Loic, Noon ...], there has been an emergence of US-based artists working in this genre.

Simon Watts of Immaculate Conception Tattoo in Hollywood is one such artist. I talked with Simon about his evolving tattoo style in which he's incorporating his painting and street art approach into his tattoo portfolio. He explains:

The drawings kind of look like I just sat down and tossed off some random scribble but there really is a lot of tweaking and editing along the way. And even though it happens quite quickly and looks effortless, that is only possible thanks to years of drawing, editing and critiquing.
simon_watts_art_tattoo.jpgI then asked Simon to discuss his artistic background and how it has shaped his tattooing:

The background to my style is this: My natural tendency is to be a bit of a control freak and perfectionist, which doesn't inspire spontaneous creativity as you tend to overthink everything. So back in the 90s, I was living in central London and set myself a task of sorts. I decided to grab a big fat marker pen and head out into the night and make some drawings. This kind of set me some necessary limitations as the cops don't like you running around drawing on public spaces, so you have to work fast. Without even realizing it, I'd kind of found my own visual voice so to speak and had my own style.

I then started to incorporate this looseness into my paintings in preliminary drawings for my paintings where you'd still see the linework visible in some parts of the paintings but eventually my experiments with painting moved away from line as I started to use the same "Loose" principles in my handling of paint and the drawing part just happened with the brush rather than the pen and the looseness became the key and the line not so important.

Fast forward to the present and my control freakish tendencies helped me get a handle on the endless technical and mechanical aspects of tattooing. As I'm sure you're aware, it's very demanding to learn all that stuff. But I've finally reached a point now where I was kind of on top of all that and could put it to the back of my mind and concentrate more on what I can do creatively with the medium, and because line is so important to a good tattoo holding up over time, I naturally started to think about my drawing style and how I could apply it to tattooing.
It didn't seem obvious at first or even possible as I'd really had to relearn to draw for tattooing and my usual style contradicted everything I'd been taught. But deep down I knew it could work. After all there's lots of line movement so the line is always changing direction, which is good (no straight lines); there are lines crossing over each other everywhere, which breaks up large flat areas so you're not having to shade vast areas of flesh and trying to get it even. Plus you can play fast and loose with how you shade things. You still want to give the correct overall impression of three dimensions but you don't have to be exactly literal with directions of shading or depth, etc. So it's kind of liberating. I love it.
You can see more of Simon's work on Facebook & the Immaculate Conception Tattoo site.

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12:05 PM

We're hooked on Vice TV's Tattoo Age series for its fun and fascinating look into the art and personal lives of tattooists. We're particularly loving the videos on Troy Denning -- a made-for-TV character with a portfolio to justify the airtime. 

As with the Dan Santoro & Grime, Troy's profile is in three parts. We lauded Part I here and Part II [video above] is equally compelling.

This video starts off with footage of Troy & Jeb Maykut making bank by stumbling into the Cash Cab in NYC. It establishes Troy's smarts but goes on to discuss how the artist is self-taught in many facets of his life. There are also photos of him as a child, then as a punk rocker, and then images of his early days tattooing as the narrative follows his path from a kid who drew those cartoons from the TV Guide to a sought-after tattooist. As with all of Vice TV videos, we highly recommend watching it.
03:38 PM

Today our friend Nick Schonberger posted "The Complex Guide to Tattoo Lettering," the first in a series of tattoo articles designed to help people avoid indelible mistakes. Nick enlisted one of my lettering favorites (and all around good guy) BJ Betts to offer advice on what to consider when deciding on the look and placement of your Nietzsche quote -- the one you'll regret later on in life no matter how well the tattoo is executed.

While geared primarily towards those new to tattoos, long-time collectors will also appreciate BJ's recommendations. I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on finding the right tone and ornamentation to the writing.

Then, of course, there's the obvious reminder to check spelling. See above.
[More cautionary tales here.]

Check BJ's portfolio for quality work, like the script below. His own lettering guides are available at Kingpin Tattoo Supply.

04:07 PM

For those interested in hand-poked tattoo work, Grounded TV Network created this documentary short on Butterfly [no web site found], a painter who discovered traditional tattooing by hand in Goa, India and has traveled the world sharing her art ever since.

In the video, Butterfly discusses her spiritual approach to tattooing and the freedom to be able to work anywhere -- up in trees and volcanoes she says -- giving people the opportunity to be tattooed in nature and sacred spaces. [However, as far as I know, she has not tattooed in Tompkins Square Park with found objects from garbage cans.]  The film is by Syd Woodward and definitely worth the watch.

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03:29 PM

In May, I raved about the documentary Travelling Ink, a film that was part of a collection of films made for the Body Arts exhibition at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, UK. Now the films, including the one above on Tatau and Ta Moko, are available to download for free as part of Oxford's iTunes University podcasts.

What's particularly cool is that you can enjoy the films without being tied to a computer as the podcasts can be viewed on any device. But if you prefer to stream them online without downloading, you can watch them here.

Travelling Ink was created by anthropologist Cyril Siorat, and directors Dr. Udi Butler and Alan Mandel.
01:11 PM
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In the November issue (yes, November) issue of Skin & Ink magazine on newsstands now, you'll find my profile on Jesse Smith of Loose Screw Tattoo in Richmond, Virginia. I came to know Jesse's work upon seeing two of his clients at a convention sporting bold and colorful bodysuits, which seemed to illustrate stories that would be beloved by children but best appreciated by adults. Jesse shared his art and his own personal stories for the magazine. Here is an excerpt:

The characters that populate Jesse Smith's tattoo and fine art work are up to no good. Rabbits, squirrels, and mice may look cute but they play out evil plots in full-body tattooed color bombs reflecting the political and religious views of the wearer. The juxtaposition of heavy subject matter relayed in light and charming form has become a signature for Jesse that has attracted an international clientele since he began tattooing in 1999. Today, he welcomes these clients into Loose Screw Tattoo in Richmond, VA, which he opened May 6th of this year.

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When asked about the serious undertones in his art, Jesse offers this example of how one of his larger tattoo projects developed:

"One of the pieces that I feel really had a lot of political fuel behind it was the 'Oppression' piece. The client who owns this piece really had no idea as to what he wanted when we first sat down together. His main concern was to cover-up this rather large piece that ran across his shoulders. I asked what his political and religious views were and if he'd be interested in trying to illustrate something that revolved around those particular themes on his back. We soon came up with the concept of oppression. In this particular piece, the gorilla represents the government/corporations and their massive size. The gorilla is trying to give the squirrels--which in this piece represent the average person--a toxic acorn. The toxic acorn represents all the things that the government/corporations try to give us that aren't good for us (i.e. credit cards, high interest loans, etc.). The squirrels take the acorns, but rather then eating them, they turn them into acorn bombs and will eventually give the government/corporations a taste of their own medicine."
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Of course, not every tattoo Jesse creates bears enormous ideological weight. His portfolio is peppered with playful works that stand on their aesthetics alone, from pink bulldogs to a penis on a swing. But most are crafted in a distinct style that is very identifiably his own. It transcends the old "New School" label. Jesse has called it "Lo-Brid," and explains how he coined the term:

"When I first started tattooing, New School was the genre of tattooing that I looked up to and connected with the most. As I matured as an artist I noticed that the artists who were being grouped into that particular genre had surpassed what all that genre encompassed. I had discussed this thought with other artists and they all seemed to share the same opinion. So I started to brainstorm a bit and came up with the name Lo-Brid. I liked how it played off of the words hybrid and low brow and seemed to run parallel to their meanings. I, personally, consider the Lo-Brid style a movement of tattooing that has collected inspiration from graffiti, tattoo, comic book and lowbrow art.
Read more of the article in Skin & Ink.

Jesse is also one of the many wonderful artists featured in my last monster book Color Tattoo Art: Cartoon. Comics. Pin-Up. Manga. New School (along with Jason Stephan, also at Loose Screw). Reduced rate copies are still available for $150 plus shipping via my online store or by emailing marisa at

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01:36 PM

As expected, Vice TV's latest in its Tattoo Age series is as intense, fun and endearingly obnoxious as the artist it profiles:

Behold the life and times of Troy Denning of Invisible NYC.

Standing in sharp contrast to the emo art school kids that populate the new crop of tattoo talent, Troy is best described by his long-time friend Chris O'Donnell, (who worked with Troy for years at NY Adorned): "Troy's personality can overwhelm people. He just looks like this super tough, crazy guy...I think people are surprised that he's really good at tattooing too, like, How can you be this character and be a really talented artist."

It's a difficult balance to strike, having a high octane, "savage" persona and also being respected as a serious artist, but Troy has mastered this in his nearly two decades of tattooing. In fact, he's managed to infuse his work with so much of what drives him personally that his portfolio has a distinct, energized quality that let's you know just who created the work. Invisible NYC artist Kiku calls Troy's tattoo work "super wild and strong," while Chris describes it as "over-sized refined Japanese style" with a toughness to it.

Vice could've just showed Troy drinking and partying across NYC -- and there are some clips of that -- but I dig the fact that they didn't let boys-gone-wild footage overshadow art. For example, there's great discussion in this episode on American interpretations of Japanese tattooing ("hard outline, hard black, color"), which Troy is known for, and also how he has evolved his drawings to work quicker and smarter to meet the high demand. This evolution, he says, came about during the "dark period" when he was navigating a divorce and trying to run a business and be creative at the same time. It's candid and compelling.

I highly recommend checking out this episode and staying tuned for Pt. 2 , Sept. 14, and  Pt. 3, Sept. 2.

See more of Troy's tattoos on his online portfolio, including the work below.


11:44 AM
Congratulations to the winners of our last contest, Kellie D. and Aaron Pascual Ortiz, for being the chosen ones of They'll each receive $25 gift certificates for bling at the Ear Gauges online store.

Thanks to everyone who played along on our Needles & Sins Facebook page. Many more contests to come!
12:50 PM

I'm having my morning coffee when my email dings and it's telling me to check out the "Scott Campbell Makes a Prison Tattoo" video with the description below:

The vid follows Campbell around NYC while he searches for supplies to make a homemade "prison tattoo" gun, which consists of a nine-volt battery, a toothbrush, and masking tape, among other random things. Of course, Neistat [viral video virtuoso] wants a piece of the action, drug-deal-ishly meeting up with Scott in Tompkins Square Park to bare his forearm for his own "prison tattoo."
[Actually, Scott tattoos another guy, not Neistat.]

And there's Scott buying batteries and a toothbrush and digging through garbage for the rest of the parts but all the while he's discussing tattoo art and his own experiences in a thoughtful and compelling way. I want to hate this. He just dug through a garbage can and will now open up someone's skin. Then there's the little voice inside of me saying, This is kinda cool, as a watch him talk and nonchalantly put the "gun" together. But then we get to the end and some dude shows up and sits down on a bench next to Scott in Tompkins Square Park--a bench upon which I've seen too many junkies having sex--and then I'm just thinking, Eww. I understand the hipster irony of getting a (rather well done) "Bless this Mess" tattoo in a place the homeless use as a toilet, but ... no, actually, I don't understand it.

Your thoughts? Share them on Facebook in the Needles & Sins group page under this post.
12:21 PM
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For our SoCal friends, tomorrow Sept. 3rd, American Beauty Tattoo in Sunset Beach will be doing $20 flash tattoos all day (until 8PM) to benefit Team Tough Titties fundraising efforts for the Team Spirit Breast and Ovarian Cancer Walk (Sept. 24th).  

Check the tattoo designs available here. The t-shirt design is below.

The artists are not taking appointments and space is limited, so arrive early. This is the third year in a row that Team Tough Titties and American Beauty Tattoo have joined forces to benefit cancer research. The Team has raised over $75,000 since its inception in 2004.

For more information, visit the Team Tough Titties blog.


01:53 PM
afancylady.jpgIt's been a while since we've done the Proust Questionnaire for Tattoo Artists, and so I roped David Tevenal into playing along. Dave does strong, graphic tattoos influenced by Americana, folklore, contemporary art as well as traditional Japanese work. You can find him at Memento Tattoo & Gallery in Columbus, Ohio.

The Proust Questionnaire for Tattoo Artists

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Living for nothing. Having no sense of purpose.

What is your idea of earthly happiness? Watching my daughter grow, and also making fun tattoos on great people.

Your most marked characteristic? I obsess over art, more so - my work. I literally drown myself in it constantly. I'm also rather loud, and lack an inner-monologue.

What is your principle defect? I often struggle to please everyone.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction? The Marvel Universe.

stormtrooper.jpgWho are your favorite heroes in real life? My fiance and daughter. They put up with so much and are extremely supportive in my endeavors. They are there for me when nobody else is and take me as I am.

Your favorite painter? James Jean. Hands down.

Your favorite musician? Well, I have a ton of favorite bands. I guess I'd have to say Glassjaw.

Your favorite writer? I don't really read for leisure's sake as much as I should, but theoretical physicist Michio Kaku's books always have a way of putting into perspective how infinitesimal we really are in the grand scheme of things.

The quality you most admire in a man? Hard work.

The quality you most admire in a woman? Well considering my search is over, the qualities I admire most in MY woman is her sense of humor and her dedication to our family.

Your favorite virtue? Sincerity.

Who would you have liked to be? Nothing, I'm pretty stoked on how I turned out. Dents and all. But I would have loved to live in Feudal Japan or be a Roman Gladiator. Death was the central aspect of their lives, so they embraced it. That's pretty deep shit.

What are your favorite names? Chloe. Lisa.

What natural gift would you most like to possess? Music. I've never been musically inclined ever in my life. I always admired those who could play music.

How would you like to die? I don't care, as long as my job here is done.

What is your present state of mind? Crush, Kill, Destroy.

What is your motto? "Plow deep while sluggards sleep." - Benjamin Franklin

See more of David's work here. Also check this beautiful time-lapse tattoo video of the artist at work, directed Sean Grevencamp.

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