Dan Smith - The Long & Winding Road

Published: 23 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 196, March, 2011

Trying to concisely summarize the world travels of Dan Smith is a dizzying task. Really, he’s like a modern day Gulliver. Born in England, he grew up in New Zealand, spending most of his time hanging out at a tattoo shop, then moved to Australia for music, traveled the world with a band, ended up homeless in California and is now a part of the hit TV show, LA Ink. Confused yet? Okay, let’s back up to the beginning…

For some, the road to tattooing begins with mere doodling; for others, it starts with the influence of friends; for Dan Smith, it stemmed from a completely different source. “Looking back, I think music was the reason I was exposed to tattoos,” says Smith. “I mean, there were gang members and bikers in New Zealand that I remember seeing and thinking that their tattoos were cool, but my real love of tattoos came from seeing them on the bands I grew up listening to.” 

Surrounded by the rich tattoo history and culture of New Zealand, Dan Smith was drawn to the art form from an early age. “Captain Cook who founded New Zealand came from the same town I was born in, Middlesbrough, England, so seeing these pictures of the English settlers with full facial Moko after they arrived in New Zealand really just stuck in my mind,” recalls Smith. “I’ve always been super intrigued by the history of tattooing.” 

In his mid teens, Smith began going into Auckland’s Sacred Tattoo at least once a week and continued to do so over several years. “Sacred was everything. I would work my shitty job delivering rags and overalls and try and get finished as soon as I could, or start before the sun came up, in order to hang out at the tattoo shop after work,” says Smith. Soaking up his environment, he tried to learn as much as he could from Dean Parkin and Dan Andersen. “It wasn’t a busy street shop, so I think the benefit of it being a private studio was that it was concentrated learning for me.” 

Spending a great deal of time in the shop, Smith soon devised a very committed and sneaky way in which to get the most out of his time there: “I would get tattooed every Friday because my day would finish early, and this was my almost secret plan of learning as much as I could from the guys.” 

However, even with all that he was taking in, there was a lot of self-restraint before Smith finally decided to pick up a machine. “I’m very hard on myself and always held back from really jumping into it the way I wanted to; out of pure respect for tattooing and the people involved,” admits Smith. “I never thought I was good enough and always thought what Dean Parkin and the other artists I looked up to so much were all doing was so awesome, I’d almost have to lock myself in a basement for a few years and try and get myself to a level I could just somewhat stomach before trying to do anything more with it.” 

But being “mentally and physically in love” with tattooing since he was 16, it’s no surprise Smith eventually caved in. “I bought my first machine off Adam Craft and remember holding it my hands like I had discovered the key to the universe,” he remembers. “I guess there came a point that I just let it take over 100 percent ... I knew what I had been taught was the right way, and the work ethic I was exposed to would shape the artist I was to become for the better, if I was always conscious of it. I always said to myself that everything I would do, I would always give it my best to try and make Dean proud, basically. That’s something I still think about.” 

Other than being an unimaginable inspiration, Dean Parkin was also involved in the first tattoo Smith ever got, which took place in “the kitchen of a house a local hardcore band lived in.” Parkin tattooed the Descendents’ logo on Smith’s leg. “It was the biggest deal to me; my favorite band done by a guy who I idolized,” says Smith.    

His other role model from Sacred Tattoo, on the other hand, was involved in the first tattoo Smith did. “I was getting a cobweb on my knee and Dan Andersen let me color some sections of the web. It was weird as it was on myself; handling the machine was awkward while dealing with the pain. But the fact that I was finally doing what I had dreamed of in front of someone I really looked up to was all I was really thinking about.”  

In 2001, Smith was asked to move out to Adelaide, Australia to join a band. “From touring there with my previous band, I knew Adelaide had a huge music scene full of kids that wanted to get tattooed, but had no one they trusted to do it,” says Smith. “It was a small town run by bikers mostly, and there was only one or two shops that weren’t associated with a club.” 

Smith spent a year tattooing from his house until he joined The Body Art Shop after befriending a local artist with a great reputation, Shep. “He was the bridge from what I had been around in New Zealand to actually getting into a busy street shop and making what I wanted so bad a reality. If I hadn’t met him I don’t know what would have happened because looking back, the decision to move there was a little naïve, as far as thinking there was more for me there than New Zealand.”

Three years later, the United States enticed Smith and reeled him in; “I was young and, as cheesy as it sounds, I had to live my dream.” Once again, it was music that drove him to make the change. As his band was offered “visas and what we thought was a solid record deal,” they sold everything and moved, only to be let down. “We didn’t have a place to live, morale was slowly dying and with money rapidly decreasing, it was me being able to tattoo and make money that really kept us all afloat,” says Smith. “I’m pretty surprised something worse didn’t happen, as we had some very hard times in the first couple of years. I owe my life to tattooing, and that’s no exaggeration.” 

Having landed in California, Smith found work at Inflictions in Arcadia, alongside Daniel Albrigo, Kat Von D and Colin Dowling, thanks to Jim Miner, who he had met on a previous tour. “I had only been tattooing a year or two before I met him and he was so cool to me. He loved my tattoos and said if I ever wanted a place to work, he would always make sure I had one. To a kid from New Zealand, that was huge.”

A switch to Classic Tattoo in Orange County followed -“A real American tattoo shop like I always dreamed of. It was always full of amazing tattooers; I definitely felt less than zero in there more days than not.” – and then, in 2008, Smith took up an offer at High Voltage. “We would run into each other mainly at shows and ended up tattooing a lot of the same people,” says Smith of Kat Von D. “Whenever I was in LA I would call into the shop and see what was going on and how she was. She always said the door was open and I think it never really sunk in that she was offering me a job.” 

When it finally did register, “it really came at a crazy time in my life. I felt like up until this point everything I had been working for was for a group of people striving for the same goals, [then] I realized that I was really the only one with these goals and dreams and that I should probably, after years of struggling, start doing something for myself.”

Being thrown into a scenario as bizarre as getting filmed while trying to do your job can surely be unsettling and Smith admits, “I’d love to say its enjoyable; I’d love to say it’s all real; I’d love to say the people behind the scenes care about what they’re filming - but it’s not the case. It’s me doing something I love and handing it over to someone who has no idea about what it means to me, or other people who live tattooing once the cameras turn off.” Which is why the talented artist tries to use his exposure to “educate people about the things I feel are important, or the artists who deserve it,” and follow Corey Miller’s advice to “just be yourself, then you don’t need to worry.”  

Always creating work that’s unique and just so darn cool (he jokingly admits himself, “I still find it hard to really classify what I do exactly”), Smith says the best tattoos are those “that look like they were earned; that tell a story; that have the qualities of everything that’s true to style. Bold and strong; honest and eye catching.” As for the best clients, it’s all about balance. “I deal with people all the time who have thought way too much about an idea,” says Smith. “On one hand, I like that they know what they want, because there’s nothing worse than having someone come in saying ‘Just do whatever you want,’ [but] on the other hand, people can be so overwhelmed by their idea that they start drifting away from what looks good and adding every single thing they can think of that also might relate.”  

In addition to tattooing, Smith will soon be releasing With The Light Of Truth, a book profiling 55 straight edge tattoo artists, as well as a new album with his band, The Dear & Departed. So anyone wanting some stellar ink from Dan Smith in the near future may have to wait up to six months, “depending on band tours,” or try and catch him at a convention. “[They] definitely aren’t what they used to be, but I love doing conventions none the less. I just love the community and pirate mentality to tattooing,” says Smith. “Some conventions are definitely more like a swap meet than somewhere you can experience great tattooers doing what they do best, but to me they have always provided so much inspiration, as well as me being able to catch up with friends and meet new ones. I love meeting people, especially those who are there because they like what they do. We are in the service industry, after all. I’m a man of the people!” 

With the Light of Truth

As if he wasn’t busy enough, Dan Smith is currently halfway through putting together With the Light of Truth, which he hopes to release this summer. “I’m SO excited about it,” says Smith. “It’s a book profiling 55 straight edge tattoo artists. It’s the first of its kind, and I really just wanted to put something out that myself and everyone involved could be really proud of, while giving something back to tattooing and a lifestyle choice that we all care about so much. Each profile has a collection of the artist’s work, a page of flash/art designed specifically for the book and insight into their life.”

More info: www.WithTheLightOfTruth.com  


The Dear & Departed

Smith’s current musical project, The Dear & Departed, put out its debut album, Something Quite Peculiar, in 2007. That same year, the band shared the stage with AFI, Alexisonfire and Avenged Sevenfold, to name just a few. In 2010 they released an EP and their second album drops later this year.

“Music is so different that it gives a release that tattooing couldn’t,” says Smith, but adds the two will always compliment each other. Just don’t expect to hear a word about tattooing in his music. “I had a line of a song that said something about a ‘tattooed memory’ and I remember my friend Biggie ragging on me for it, [saying] ‘Oh, you have to sing about it too?’” laughs Smith.


California Dreamin’

No one ever said being a rocker was glamorous. Wait, they say that all the time, don’t they? Anyway – after moving to Orange County with his band to crash at a friend’s place, Smith soon discovered the true meaning of ‘overcrowded.’

“We stayed at a house in Corona del Mar with most of the band Bleeding Through. I think there were 12 of us in a two-bedroom [apartment]. Pretty funny to have no money, not much of anything, but be literally a stone’s throw from an amazing Southern California beach, just like we saw on TV.”


High Voltage Tattoo
1259 N. La Brea Avenue
W. Hollywood,
CA 90038 



Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Dan Smith