Inked Up with David Hershman
Inked Up with David Hershman
Dave Hershman is a true artist and grandma’s boy, who has more recently allowed his culture to shine through his work in a beautiful new style in tattooing that he’s coined as Geonese-a Japanese traditional style with a little sacred geometry added to the mix. While he thrives in realism and portraiture, seeing something so unique in his portfolio really goes to show how passionate Dave is towards not only tattooing, but his artwork in general. He is currently putting together workshops for oil painting, and attends numerous classes himself, while both on and off the road. His humble persona bursting at the seams with talent, makes him a great artist to work with if you can catch him while he’s in your neck of the woods. On being a traveling artist, he says “Eventually I’ll slow down and probably not travel as much but right now I have the ability to do it. If I can do it and, thank goodness, I can make money while I do it, it’d be kind of a shame if I let the opportunity slip away. I have the dream job of a 6 year old. I color for a living and I can’t tell you how lucky I am.”
So, as a traveling artist, where do you call home?
I grew up here in El Paso. It’s kind of a big city with a small town mentality. Actually I think the evolution of my artwork has really come from different influences throughout my career because I started working as a tattoo artist professionally here in El Paso. It’s an interesting place because it’s one of the cities in the Southwest that is older than the United States.It’s got a lot of history and I kinda romanticize on that. I have a private studio here so this is my home-base since I travel so much. I’ve got my family here, my mother and my grandmother here so it’s a nice place to come home to and get a nice home cooked meal when I’m in town. My girlfriend and existing clients are here because this is where I got my start tattooing, and art in general, because this is where I grew up. I try to stay in town a little bit more. I say that, but last year I was in El Paso 90 days out of the entire year so that’s me trying.
When did you start tattooing?
I started in 2000 at 16 years old and was experimenting with a homemade tattoo machine. Being aware of the culture up to now, in that 18 year span so much has happened to tattooing, it’s mind blowing. When I first started paying attention to “tattooing people” it was a totally different thing.There weren’t a lot of professionals and there was a lot of very specific things you did with tattooing and there was really not an art driven scene for tattooers. It’s always changing.
In 2007/2008 I started at Renegade tattoo and it was one of the older shops in town. I really had a traditional tattooing background where I learned off of old Cherry Creek flash and a lot of stuff like that. Where my art has really progressed is just me taking priority in my art and my education, you know trying to be a formally trained artist as well as trying to be self taught. I’m constantly taking classes and courses so it’s been a long evolution.
Your style seems to be predominantly portraits and more realism than anything else. Who has inspired you the most to become proficient in this style?
When it comes to tattooing I have a lot of preference of what I’d like to do. It seems to be that I have a good eye for being a realist. What I like to paint is a figurative painting, paintings of people, portraits, stuff like that. And so that’s kind of bled into the tattoo work for sure. There’s going to be other realistic artists that are gonna bash me for this but I think there’s less creativity actually in what I’m doing when I am straight up copying a picture of an animal or an actor because now I’m basically demonstrating technical application. I can make the mark where it needs to be so it looks like this image so I’m not really creating much there other than actually putting the ink in the skin. I like doing that quite a bit. It’s really satisfying to kind of go through and render something out and make it look like it truthfully represents what I want it to do. But I really like the idea of getting down specific aspects of art and smooshing them all together. There’s another style which I really like to do-unfortunately because I think it’s fairly new and it might be something that I created, I don’t know- is I like to mix traditional Japanese imagery with sacred geometric forms. Such as, taking the scales out of the snake and replacing those scales with a flower of life pattern or something along those lines. When you meld those two worlds of tattooing together, it really is whether it’s going to catch the eye of your clientele or people that are actually going to want it to be on their bodies. I think that’s one of the limitations to being a tattoo artist.
Is tattooing your favorite medium to practice?
Honestly, I think creating tattooing is my favorite type of art because there is no re-sail value. But the thing that I have the most fun with because there’s a huge safety net underneath you is painting because I can make a mistake and I can wipe it off, wait for it to dry and then paint over it. You don’t really get much freedom and flexibility when it comes to tattooing because not only is it not for you, but you’re also dealing with something that is fairly permanent and there’s real limitations to what you can do with the skin, how much color you can put in one area before you start chewing up the skin, etc. I really appreciate and respect the limitations that I have when I’m tattooing. It forces me to be creative in a different way but I say my favorite thing to do is paint, specifically with oil paints.
I dabbled in oil paints a little when I was in high school and it was so frustrating.
It’s interesting, I hear that from a lot of people. They’ll tell me they like painting with acrylics or watercolor. It’s funny, I find that oil paint seems to be the most forgiving medium for me, mostly because if you make a mistake you can just wipe it off or paint over it. The paint is just a little bit more alive on the canvas, than an acrylic which you can’t really do too much with it once it’s already on there. I think a lot of it too is, and I’m getting to this now because I’m currently putting together some workshops for oil painting: It really depends on how you learn oil painting that will set the frustration level. If you go into oil painting and you don’t have some of the understandings of how it works on the canvas it makes it a little bit more frustrating because you start putting paint on it, you start muddying up your colors or you can’t get certain paint to stick on other areas of the canvas because there’s already paint on there. There’s just little things, like any art form that once you know those things you can key into them and really create something. A lot of people assume it’s a slow process. If you figure out the techniques used for pulling off what you want, you can really put it together fairly quickly.
What do you do in your personal life? Do you have any hobbies or anything you like to do that isn’t art related?
I actually play a lot of guitar. I have a lot in my studio where I paint and tattoo. I get into all kinds of things. I think I have to have a lot of hobbies. I go to the gym and was into combative sports for a while before experiencing some soreness and injuries. I’ve been a golfer since a little kid, as weird as that sounds. My dad was super into golf so I kept that with me. But one thing I tend to do a lot while I’m on the road is play a lot of billiards. It’s actually really meditative and you don’t really have to think much about what you are doing which is nice because I typically have an ongoing conversation in head that goes about a million miles a minute. I do that and the other real love I have is playing music-it’s really great. It’s a way to keep myself creative but completely different than I would if I was making a painting.
So you’re a traveling artist. How long do you typically stay in one place?
It really depends on the client base that I have. When I go overseas, I try to get close to a month when I’m gonna be going to London or another part of Europe. I try to stay in an area for 3 weeks if I can. That’s good because I can work with clients and see the progression of how it’s healing while I’m there and it gives me an opportunity to kind of sink into that environment and create quality tattoos or artwork when I’m there. Usually when I’m out on the road I think the longest guest spots I’ll do at a shop is maybe 2 weeks so I can take care of what I need to and spend time with people. A lot of that stuff is a form of education for me because I like being around people that I consider to be better than me, whether it be in one specific area or the way they live their life, whatever it is. I try to take those things and meld them into my life. A lot of it tends to be that unless I’m going on tour to a convention, where it’s much more driving during the week, working the convention during the weekend then you hop back on the road on Monday or Tuesday and head to the next place. That’s sometimes dependent on the string of events that I have coming up. That can be the lifestyle, where I’m living out of my car for weeks. A good example of that is last year I probably put 35,000 to 40,000 miles on my car. I really enjoy driving when I’m in the states.
What are some of the challenges you face when dealing with clients that are not on necessarily on your same wavelength?
I think a lot of what ends up happening when people become exposed to the existing work that you’re used to doing helps to start the conversation for them. A lot of people might not have unrealistic expectations but they may not know the rules of what you can do with a tattoo and what you’re supposed to be doing. Tattoos, first and foremost, go on a body and there’s not one flat surface on any body. So considering placement and working through those conversations where you have to explain to them that this is going to warp and bend and other things they have to be aware of. I think earlier on in every artist’s career, you had to build confidence in your clients. So by doing that and showing them past work and what can be done, you can really break down those barriers when you have the communication blockage where they just don’t understand. It’s actually difficult tattooing about 99% of the time unless you get someone who says ”just do whatever you want.” It’s always a collaborative effort. So trying to make sure that they have a voice in the conversation and that I’m not dominating them or becoming egotistical is very important. I just tell them “here’s the limitations, here’s why you need to be involved in the process of deciding what we want to put on your body and here’s what I can do to make it look cool as fuck.” That’s really the methodology I go to. I just want to use more adjectives and more beautiful language in a visual sense to make them a more beautiful story.
I’ve met artists who strictly refuse to tattoo designs that are obviously done by other artists. How do you react when people bring in other artists’ work and ask you to copy it?
That’s kind of a mixed bag. Every great artist has taken something from another great artist. One of my favorite painters John Singer Sargent took inspiration from Diego Velazquez and his teacher Carlos Duran and he put these things together. He had a relationship with Monet that brought in impressionism and kind of mixed all these things together. No successful artist has specifically taken and said “I’m going to be the next Da Vinci” and paint just like Da Vinci. That just doesn’t work as an artist because you’re going to look like you’re taking someone else’s artwork. You’re probably also not gonna do as good a job at executing it because you didn’t come up with the formula to make that. That’s one of the things that I try to keep in mind when someone brings in a picture of a tattoo.
A good example of this is a Harry Potter tattoo I’m starting right now, which I’ve been waiting my whole career to do an awesome Harry Potter sleeve. This girl is getting her entire leg sleeved out with Harry Potter stuff! There’s another really big inspiration to me,. Ben Ochoa has done this beautiful sleeve in full color and that was one of the things that was referenced. And I said “look this is really great. Thanks for bringing in a high quality tattoo to show me.” If someone brings in a picture of a shitty looking tattoo you’re gonna be like “um yeah that’s cool but we can do something better.” It’s a harder challenge when they bring in a great tattoo because they know the quality that they want but you have to be able to change that image and make it individual. The last thing I would want to do is take this person’s tattoo and stick it on your body. There’s no worse feeling for a tattoo fan to walk through the mall and see your tattoo exactly like you got it on someone else’s body. I try to explain that first and if it comes to the point where they are adamant about getting the exact same thing I will refuse to do it. I don’t find any joy out of copying someone else’s work verbatim. It’s not good for my own education and growth and that person is receiving a lesser quality product even if I can execute the tattoo better than the person who originally did it.
Do you have a favorite piece that you’ve worked on throughout the years?
They’re all so different so it’s hard to lay them down. I think the ones I’m the most emotionally attached to are the things I’m trying to add to tattooing. I think the stuff where I’ve found my own voice in is what I like to call Geonese, the Japanese and Sacred Geometry style. I really enjoy doing that stuff because it’s different and it’s also much more autobiographical to me because it fits my background a little bit more. So I really like the stuff that I was doing there and there are certain pieces that I felt like I executed very well. There’s a black and grey tiger with some water splashes and bamboo leaves that I’m really happy with that has healed up really well. Honestly there’s not a lot of stuff that I can look at that’s maybe 2 years old that I’m really thrilled about but I tend to be really hard on myself. I’m always trying to find my new favorite tattoo. But I really like that Geonese and a lot of the stuff that I’m doing right now.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever permanently etched onto someone’s body?
So I had a guy who was working at a warehouse and was apparently experimenting with psychedelic drugs. He was on LSD and driving a forklift so these things don’t go very good together and he ended up tipping the forklift over and it landed on his foot, amputating his pinky toe. And so in the place where his pinky toe should have been, I tattooed the number 10 because he wanted to still be able to count all of his fingers and toes. This was back when I first started tattooing. It was definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever put on someone, especially because of the story. Unfortunately I’ve never tattooed genitalia or anything interesting like that. I have buddies that probably have better stories than that but that’s the best one I got.
Do you have any personal tattoos that you hate? If not, No Regerts?
I don’t think I hate any of them. I have a caricature of my ex wife on the back of my leg.
I hate getting tattooed by the way and I especially hate getting my legs tattooed. Sooner or later I’m gonna get it covered up because it’s unnecessary.
How often do you get a new tattoo?
It really just depends. I don’t usually get tattooed spur of the moment instances but there has been a couple times that’s happened. One of the most recent ones was when I got tattooed by a guy who’s one of my best friends for sure, Jason Elliot, who did a really cool Darth Vader on the back of my leg because I’m a nerd. I made a 10 hr trip to go hang out with him because he’s on this season of Ink Master which is funny because this is the first season I’ve ever watched. He was having a viewing party and I was like well I’ll drive to College Station and hang out, maybe do a few touch ups on some clients. The day before I was gonna leave, Jason was like “hey man I wanna tattoo you.” I am not the kind of person who’s like “cool! Fuck yeah I wanna get tattooed.” Jason knows that I hate getting tattooed but he was really appreciative that I came all the way out there and I appreciated it because it’s a really great tattoo. It actually was a pretty easy experience in consideration. It just happens sometimes.
The only tattoo I got last year was a little star of David, just simple lines, on my right hand by a guy who’s not even a tattoo artist. This guy David Kassan, who I took a portrait painting workshop with for a week. He wanted me to tattoo his kid’s name on his arm in his son’s handwriting and he was like “what do you want for it?” I told him I wanted him to tattoo me. We joked a lot about being “Jewish” with quotations over our heads because we are both Jewish by blood but neither one of us practice. But he did that for me and it’s actually one of my favorite tattoos. I don’t really know if tattoos are just artwork- they are more like a moment in time, a moment in space. So I can look down at my hand when I’m holding a paintbrush and it gives me a lot of inspiration to really do something amazing. It’s just one of those things like when moments like that show up, I’m like “fuck it I’m gonna get a tattoo.” I have plans to get really big pieces but I feel like I’m the mechanic with the shitty car. I’m always working on everybody else’s so I don’t have time to work on my own. I think that maybe when I’m a little less busy and can stop myself from taking my equipment on vacation, then I’ll probably start getting more tattoos. That’s the worst thing about traveling so much and knowing that I can work is even when I just go out of town to go see my brother in a different state, I’ll bring my tattoo equipment with me just in case cause you never know. You never know! So I think when I make it a priority, I’ll get more. But right now my priority is to learn how to tattoo.
Color or Black and White? Why?
I like doing both actually. A lot of that comes back to learning what we’re supposed to be doing as artists. If you stick to one specific thing without experiencing all the others, you limit yourself.
The most important thing for artwork is contrast. And the easiest way to convey that is with values and that is your black and white. That sort of gives you an understanding of how light moves, how it rolls over the tip of a nose and how it stops abruptly. When you understand how light moves you can use your black and grey experience and add color. Black and grey is the simplest way with the least amount of information to convey a sense of reality. I think the black and grey is a personal preference amongst clients so if I only did color I would only tattoo so many people and I think that I would miss out on a bunch of opportunities to create some great tattoos. Whether you’re talking about American traditional or going all the way up into high realism in tattooing, understanding contrast is a foundation for all of that stuff. You can change the mood and the tone of the picture just by adding color. Most artists would gain a lot of good knowledge by working with both color and black and grey, especially at the same time.
If you could tattoo anyone in the world, who would it be?
Joe Rogan or Anthony Bourdain. Joe Rogan because he’s got a really amazing collection already from Aaron Della Vedova and I love his fuckin podcast. And Anthony Bourdain because I’m a budding foodie and he’s also got some really cool tattoos. It would just be an amazing experience to sit down with those guys.
I’m a fan of both those answers. Now, if you could tattoo one person that you dislike and there were no repercussions, what would you put on their body?
Oooh that’s a spicy question. One person that I really dislike...I don’t know. I could be super political and make a statement right now but that’s just not my style. I don’t know, I don’t think I’ve ever considered that. I don’t really dislike many people. I think I’m playing out the situation too far in my head. I don’t think I would tread in that territory very much.
Totally okay. I’m going to ask you another controversial question though.
Bring it on.
Does pineapple belong on pizza?
No. I like pineapple on pizza but it doesn’t go on pizza because you can’t call it a Hawaiian pizza. It’s delicious, salty and sweet, all that stuff. I can dig it and I can eat it. But I don’t think it goes on pizza. I think I’m also super biased in my pizza experience. I spent some of my childhood in the Northeast part of the country growing up in Boston, and we’d go to the city and grab a New York slice of pizza. So I’m kind of light on the toppings, I love pepperoni but then again, to each their own. I like a lot of weird shit that a lot of people might not like but I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of throwing pineapple and ham and all that stuff on pizza.
Alright, I can’t really argue with that one. What is some advice you would give to someone who is looking to start tattooing? Anything you wish you would have heard before you began your journey?
I think the most important thing for anybody to understand is that there’s so much crossover into other art forms. Learn how to draw, really really learn how to draw. Take some figure drawing classes. I don’t care what style you want to do. Learn how to take the pictures in your head or the real life in front of your eyes and put in on a flat canvas with some kind of instrument. Really learn how to draw because once you do that, you relearn how to see. It teaches the world how to see and also increases the value of human culture non-monetarily. Learning how to bring out those illusions and how to render things is super important no matter what kind of visual art you’re going to be making. It will make your life a lot easier. When it comes down to it, with as much pageantry and romanticism we want to put around tattooing, it’s poking needles into the skin to leave a pigment behind. Painting is moving a bunch of dirt around on wood with a stick, just like pencil is literally grinding something off onto a piece of paper to leave a mark. They are all essentially the same thing. So if you learn the fundamentals of how to create an image, you can then switch to whatever medium you want and then you just have to figure out the learning curve of the technical application of the actual machine or tool you are using. Learning the base fundamentals of drawing is the most valuable thing that anybody could do and I wish I had done that because the way I got into tattooing, I was doing flash. I was doing stuff on the wall that hundreds, if not thousands of people had gotten already and that kind of laid down the base fundamentals for what I thought a tattoo should look like. That was a lot of stuff that I had to unlearn. It’s so much easier to figure out a style once you find out that you can actually draw.
That’s really good to hear because I can’t tell you how many artists I’ve encountered that have told me “if you have the chance to do it, don’t do it.” That just seems silly because you should always love what you do and if you don’t, you’re not necessarily putting max effort into it.
If you fall in love with it, you’re going to be a huge success. You always want to be on your A game. Don’t do it if you can’t be 100% obsessed with it and realize how crazy it is that you’re going to have strangers that want you to mark their bodies for life and that you need to take that really seriously. If you can do those things and you can learn some fundamentals you can become a tattoo artist.
Well, that’s about all the questions I have. It’s been great chatting with you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think if there’s anything I’d like to add it’s that if there are any people out there who want information or a second pair of eyes to either look at their work or have a discussion on their artwork, I am always open. I by no means have all the answers. It’s just always nice to have a conversation. I learn just as much, if not more, than they do. And all of this is just my opinion. I can’t tell you that this is what this person thinks or this is only what I think.
Well I appreciate your opinion and insight. You’ve definitely opened my eyes to a few things and I’m gonna have to check out this Geonese work. Sounds amazing!
It’s interesting! It’s a lot different from the rest of my body of work and I kind of like that a lot. Like I said, out of everything that I’ve done, I really enjoy doing portraiture and realism stuff but the Geonese stuff seems more personal. It’s also because it is brand new and it has so much potential to grow it and make it into something completely different because I have less experience with it.
I can’t wait to see what you create! Safe travels.