Quick Fire Questions - D Grrr

Published: 13 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

Working out of Carnevil – his very own ‘Cabinet de Tatouage’ – D-GRRR is one of the hottest tattoo artists working in France today, but to say his talent extends way beyond the needles is an understatement.

So Denis, why GRRR?

"It came from a comic book onomatopoeia. I’m a big grouch; nothing ever goes right, everything irritates me. At the start, there were two ‘Rs’, then I added one because it’s a bit like the three stars."
Before you were a tattooer you were an illustrator, how did you start?

"In 1985 with the cover for the first 45rpm vinyl by MST, a French group. At that time, I was hanging out and drawing in a squat. I met a guy with a skull and Indian details tattooed on his shoulder. It wasn’t too bad; the guy set us up with Christian in Belleville.

Still at the squat, a biker came to show us some machines. I kept illustrating while working on the side; I doubted being able to make a living right away. What’s more, I had a rather distinct line, but it caught on, especially in the universe of role-playing games, and sustained me. I thank those people because it shaped my artistic direction and encouraged me in my choices.

In 1986, I returned to see Christian as he was opening his shop. I drew flash for him and he gave me my first tattoo. Then I designed his shop front, still under the exchange principle – a good method with a twist when there’s artistic value. It was a good time with a different ambiance from today."
And then?

"I made T-shirts, album covers, notably for a damn good Belgian rock ‘n’ roll band called La Muerte. Then I did murals; I’ve been an all-surface illustrator since 1990, more specifically an all-surface, pagan illustrator. I also got up to no good with a brush for a comic book company in Angoulême.

I wasn’t a tattoo artist at that time, but I drew designs for people who would then have them tattooed. One day I was asked why I wasn’t tattooing but I wasn’t really motivated; I had to rethink my technique entirely.

At the same time, I spoke a lot with Christian. He explained the rigour, hygiene – I trod slowly for a little while before really throwing myself in. The issue was to feel the work and in 2002, I dived in."
How did you make the technical transition?

"When I paint, I paint a black background and then I trace an outline in blue before adding colors – I go from darkness to light. Tattooing is the reverse. That’s why it’s difficult; I had to turn my brain around.

For me it was a real fucking challenge. At 37, I learned to sweep and reset the meters back to zero. I wanted to confront this discipline, in regards to my work and also relationships with people. Tattooing is an exciting adventure. People are the only judges, and for now they’re coming back. It’s a rather good sign."
What are your influences?

"I really like the 19th century and the so-called firefighter painters, the symbolists… it goes back to medieval etchings. I like everything that is 16th and 17th century; it’s magnificently prolific, especially starting from the 14th century. All that is Dürer is, by contrast, very small so you have to enlarge it.

There are depictions of angels and demons, especially demons who have a crazy energy. I really like florals as I love art nouveau; girls are clearly a part of my clientele. I try to take things from the source. There is a big influence of art nouveau, art deco for my biomechanical, I’ll see floral, insect, bone – there is a lot of observation work."

There was a time when the Catholic religion really interested you… What differences do you see with your past as an illustrator?

"It’s an evolution. I keep the spirit of illustration and I re-adapt, but I love free hand. It’s really in that technique that you realize the relief, the configuration of the surface on which you work. I work more and more like that than on paper. Sticking as close to the body as possible while developing a design is what interests me. Of course, complete confidence from the client is needed, and it’s that symbiosis that I search for."
Is there anything you refuse?

"People who come and ask me for a ‘Filip Leu’ or ‘Hernandez’ do not interest me. Shit, these guys have worked for years to develop their style! I am my own student and my own master. My style is GRRR. I make GRRRméca… GRRRold-school… I like this phrase from Félicien Robbes, an iconoclastic, erotic painter from the end of the 19th century: “Robbes I am, another I cannot be.” I am this expression. GRRR I am, another I cannot be."
The shop you work in is very unique – can you tell us about it?

"I have an interest in everything that is bone, human anatomy. You create your own shit around you."
What do you think of tattooing today?

"Tattooing is evolving, especially in artistic quality in Europe, the US, Japan, and guys are emerging in China, Peru, in surprising places. In any case, it’s a popular culture and therefore global. Tattooing must remain a little bit ‘apart’ but at the same time accessible. We cannot stop at a few styles. Tattooing is vast. It’s a fully-fledged artform."