The Horror Tattoos of Dan Henk

Published: 24 September, 2009 - Featured in Skin Deep 150, September, 2007

The tattoo style of the American artist Dan Henk is inspired by images from horror movies. He has used several designs of Jack Nicholson from the film The Shining and they look more eerie than in the movie itself.

When Dan was 19 years old, he was a fanatic punk rocker. For him punk and horror are closely related. He also loves extreme tattoos. By the good use of perspective Dan reaches an optimum effect in his tattoos. He bides his time in two studios in New York: Lone Wolf Tattoo in Bellmore and Pure Body Art in Brooklyn. Just after he finished high school, a tattooist offered him an apprenticeship but he refused the offer because he saw that the tattoos of this artist were only panthers and hearts and Dan wanted to make art!


“I went to art school 14 years ago, I was 19 and I am 33 now,” he tells me. “I met people there who were tattooed and saw that tattoos could be a form of art. When I was 27, one of my brothers who had been tattooed for 8 years and saw my paintings. He painted as well, and he said to me: ‘you should tattoo’. He bought me my first tattoo machine (Time Machines) and Starbright Inks. So I practiced a lot, and that’s where my love of tattooing started.”

Dan is a multi-faceted artist. He is not only a tattoo artist and a painter but he also writes novels. And before he went to art school, he wanted to write and draw comic books. “I basically went to art school for illustration purposes. There I got more into painting and found that I liked that a lot more, I found it more free and open. I did loads of controversial paintings at that time. My teacher was very cool, he was a black artist in Washington DC in the sixties and was very controversial at the time. The more controversial work I did the better, as far as my teacher was concerned.” Dan still paints and doesn’t exhibit his paintings but he does sell prints to many willing customers. And many hang on the walls of the studio where he is working. 


The freedom Dan found in painting, he also discovered on the punk scene of New York. “I often visited punk shows as many friends of mine are members of hardcore bands. I have tattooed many of these musicians. The thing I like about punk rock is freedom, freedom in its extreme. I want to go to the depths of stuff. The same as I do with horror images. I used those for several album sleeves including an album by the death metal band Obituary; I tattooed a horror style eye. Benjamin Moss (Apocalypse Tattoo - Seattle) tattooed this also. That was his first tattoo. Ben has tattooed me and It’s funny because everything he tattoos on me, I end up tattooing six months later.”


Dan works four days a week in the studio ‘Lone Wolf Tattoo’ and one day at ‘Pure Body Art’. The fact that he can tattoo for two different studios in New York is a consequence of the way tattooing has progressed in his country. “In the USA in almost every shop you have an individual contract with the owners,” Dan tells me. “This means technically that they can’t tell you when you have to be there and when you have to leave. It means basically that you are doing everything for yourself and that you pay the boss a percentage because you are using his place.”

Before he started to work in these two studios, Dan wandered from shop to shop. “I have worked in 14 shops so far. It was one shop after another and they were mostly street-shop oriented. When people came in, the owner said: ask them “how much money they have in their pocket, for that you tattoo, get them in and out as quick as possible”. I didn’t like that attitude, I wanted to tattoo a piece of living art, I don’t just want to make money, if I did, then I would be working on Wall Street! I am very happy with the shops I am working in now so when a customer asks for a tattoo which is not my style, I always refer him to another artist.”


Dan’s style is lugubrious, horror-based with skeletons. “But horror doesn’t just mean skulls,” Dan says. “What I like about horror is that it tells a story. That is the attractive power of the style. You look at it and you know: there is lot more going on than you see on the surface, there’s a lot of intrigue, a lot of mystery in the piece.  I like pretty much anything realistic too, I do flowers, fairies, and they have to be big and realistic. But I like to do horror mostly because I can loose myself in the subject.” Dan uses a lot of tricks he learnt at art school. “Tricks I picked up while painting for example,” he says about this. “I take photographs of the images, so I can see the light source and the angle. I use lamps and any other light source. Sometimes I get references from books and the Internet. I use that as a background so that it looks as real as possible. One customer liked the image of Jack Nicholson from The Shining very much, me too. And it is a great movie. He wanted it as tattoo, so I created it. Now he has seven tattoos by me and they are all horror inspired.”


Another movie that inspires Dan when making tattoo designs, is the movie Evil Dead, directed by Sam Raimi. “This movie has a lot of tattoo images in it. It’s horror but also comedy. There are scenes with zombies that are quite funny. I’ve done more tattoos from that movie than anything else. If you look at my portfolio half of it is from Evil Dead. There is a customer on whose fingers I have tattooed the letters Evil Dead. Another guy had a whole leg with Evil Dead images from me. He even has the Evil Dead skull that was on the poster of Evil Dead 2. It’s a very popular image, I have done it many times.” Another inspiring movie is Opera, directed by the Italian director Dario Argento. Dan mentions an example of a design of a face that looks like a mummy. The guy on who I tattooed the design is a huge fan of this movie, he loves horror B-movies,” Dan mentions. “Another image is that of a girl with needles in her skin and pins under her eyes, so that she can’t close them.”


Dan has also tattooed designs from movies like Nosferatu and Dracula and the Japanese horror movie The Grudge. And he is inspired by the paintings of Boris Vallejo. This Peruvian painter is well known for his images of gods, monsters, and well-muscled male or female barbarians engaged in battle. This source of inspiration can be seen in some of Dan’s paintings like Bayou and Early Morning. Dan: “It’s an image of an early morning on the bayou in Louisiana with misty swampy water around. I painted my ex-wife Monica Henk. It’s taken from a photograph I took of her but I changed the background. She is originally from Colombia. She is also a very good tattoo artist in her own right.”


Dan likes to draw or to tattoo from a photograph and then adapts the background to fit the tattoo. He did this with his tattoo - Old School Vampire. “I had a lot of fun making this tattoo,” he says. “I took lots and lots of photographs, I did the under lighting and from there I drew the atmosphere behind it. In this tattoo I used a lot of black. I use different colours to make the image look mean, creepy and morbid. Other colours included were green, brown, ochre and yellow. These are my favourite colours and I use them a lot in paintings as well as in tattoos.”


Many of his customers know Dan’s specific style. They visit him especially because of his lugubrious style. One of them came all the way from Taiwan. Yet not every customer knows exactly what he wants. Dan: “It’s actually a little bit frustrating sometimes when customers say to me: just do something sick. Then I ask: like what? They say: I don’t care, I like your stuff, I just want something sick.”

Dan adds to this: “A lot more people come to me, just for my style. Sometimes I ask them for more information, for example: do you want a zombie or do you mean exorcism, they say: no, not that sick! In this way I try to get some direction from my customers. Because I don’t just want to tattoo superficial horror designs. There must be a story behind the work. I show them not only examples of my tattoos but also my paintings. In this way I try to give them some direction and I hope they choose a design with some depth in it.”


Text: Rik Van Boeckel Photography: Dan Henk


Skin Deep 150 1 September 2007 150