Dave DeVries - The Monster in the Closet

Published: 28 May, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 212, May, 2012

Ever feel like you should have been born somewhere else? I’ve always adored New York and all it has to offer – it’s kind of like a home from home. On this particular day in history, I just so happened to cross paths with a certain Mr Dave DeVries, someone I have previously had to admire only from afar…

Sacred Gallery is one of the most authentic and hardest working ‘satellites’ of the tattoo art world, and it’s here that I bump into Dave DeVries who is currently exhibiting his Monster Engine project. Everybody is familiar with Monster Engine, right?

The Monster Engine began back in 1998 when Dave DeVries – perhaps better known to the world as one of the premier illustrators for Marvel and Universal Studios of the rather high-profile characters like Spiderman and Wolverine – left his stuff lying around the house…

“It all kind of started when… well, I should probably give you the back-story first. I had been doing all these monsters and characters for different comic book companies and Universal; I’m nearly always working from a line drawing, moving on to colouring it, and a lot of the time that’s without a point of reference. Anyway, one day, my niece grabs my sketch book and starts drawing in there…

“You know how artists are with their sketch books – it’s like somebody writing in your diary – but when I looked at her drawings, I kind of figured ‘how would it be if I took this drawing and painted it green like the Hulk?’ That’s how it all began, and if you take a look at some of the others, that’s what happened afterwards too in many different ways.

“Normally, when you do a drawing or an illustration, you have a reasonable sort of understanding of what you want to get out of it. Sometimes, I’ll look at the drawings that I use and think nothing here is inspiring. So I’ll throw it down, put it on the board and start working on it, and all of a sudden it comes alive because it does things I don’t expect. It’s a wild ride, you just hang on to whatever happens – that’s what I love about it.

“So when I got into this, it was always an experiment. I’ve had people who have been negative about it from the point of view that they look at my work, then look at the kid’s drawings and they say things like, ‘I think I prefer the kid’s drawings!’ Well so do I, because I’m never going to draw as well as them, but I’m not competing with them. It’s a hybrid… a whole different beast, and you have to give the beast respect. The way kids draw and think – it’s superior to how we do as adults, but it’s just an experiment and it boggles my mind that people get offended that I’m doing this. I’m not destroying their minds – it’s just ridiculous. There are no losers in
this situation!”

You started out with your niece, but what happened next? Do kids and parents actively hunt you down now to get involved in the project?

“In the beginning, they were relatives, but what tends to happen now is that I strike up a relationship with the parents online – I also do some ‘shows’ at schools too where I might pick a drawing someone has done and then paint it live.

"With the parents onside, it’s easy. We get to know each other and all they’re interested in is their kid’s drawing and there’s no big deal about it. Nobody is expecting a piece of fine art or anything. There’s permission forms and all that sort of thing, but generally, working with young kids is great. So long as everybody is in agreement, there’s no problem. I sell prints of the work online and we split the fees 50/50 between me and the kid, so it’s all fair. I simply wanted to do something cool that nobody had seen before. Another great thing is that because I usually work digitally all the time now, I get to paint. For the commercial stuff, it doesn’t make sense to do it any other way and I love it, digital does things that paint can’t do. But when it comes to The Monster Engine, I pretty much only work traditionally.”
I’m curious as to how far the world is keen to embrace such a project. What started out as something for a few laughs seems to have had a ripple effect amongst those people who can appreciate the finer points of what you’re actually doing here.

“A while back, I did a gallery show in Burbank and had a freebie to promote the show, but it has gotten to the point now where people email me and we’re talking about putting on shows in Texas, New Jersey… I’ll go anywhere, even England! As long as people can pay my way and some expenses, I’m quite happy to do it anywhere.

“Here’s the bottom line. When I do these live painting shows, I just want to inspire the kids with art. When I was young, I was inspired by a guy who came to our school, but this guy was the trainer and caretaker of Mister Jiggs, a full-grown chimpanzee. Mr Jiggs rode a motorcycle through this crowd of kids that I was part of. He comes through high fiving everyone… it was like a religious event and so incredible for me as a kid. Now I know I’ll never attain the high drama and comedy of a chimp on a motorcycle driving though a crowd of children, but I do my best!”

I don’t think I can top that as a source of inspiration to be honest, but there must be others who have tweaked your imagination in some form or other?

“For sure – Simon Bisley, Glenn Fabry – Glen quite a lot actually, as he did a lot of the DC Hellblazer covers, I love his work. Him, and Bill Sienkiewicz a hell of a lot.”

We lose ourselves for a moment in a deconstruction on Bill Sienkiewicz’s work on the graphic novel, Stray Toasters, which I freely admit I didn’t understand then and still don’t know. Neither does Dave, but we agree that sometimes when things looks as great as that, you don’t always need to understand them – which kind of brings us back full circle to The Monster Engine.

“What’s funny is that when people look at the material in The Monster Engine, a lot of them will say ‘Ah, I see Tim Burton’ but Tim has absolutely nothing to do with it. They will swear it and accuse me of playing in Tim’s world, but I’m not. It just so happens that when Tim creates, he creates with a childlike mind, and when I apply that dark palette to it, I think it naturally looks similar.”

I posit that when people are confined by their own experiences, that’s the only point of reference that they are able to draw on. It’s a very small percentage of the people that are getting to see The Monster Engine that know who people like Bill Sienkiewicz and Simon Bisley are, but everybody and their dog knows who Tim Burton, which enables them to use that to place it in their world. But let’s move on. How did you end up at Sacred?

“I started doing this in 1998 and it took about seven years to get the book published. My wife and I spent half of our savings to get the book done. We put off buying a house and we chose not to have kids in order to get the book finished and then booked ourselves into this big trade show. We did the show and I found that I couldn’t sell any books at the show because it was all trade. I was heartbroken – I had no idea how we were going to make the money back after we had just spent half of our savings launching it. I put my wife through hell. But the day after the show, the book started selling like crazy. In the first month after the launch, the site had 17 million hits on it – it was great to have that validation in this ‘viral wave’.

“Over the years, a viral spike has happened a couple of times each year. This past December we had a similar huge spike – I don’t know why – and that attracted the attention of Kevin at Sacred Gallery. I didn’t even miss a beat when they asked me if I wanted to do a show. The space looks great and I love it because it’s in New York and I can just put the paintings in my truck and drive it there instead of shipping them.

“The show is on for about a month – I’ll drop in and out of it probably, especially if there’s a buyer that wants to discuss an original piece. I can always be there if I need to. But you know, I love the tattoo world – it’s a world that’s just so appreciative of things that are different. People who put art on their skin for life tend to understand and really love what’s going down with art. The tattoo world people – in a good way – are outlaws, and so are kids. When kids are drawing they will basically tell the world to ‘fuck off – this is what it means to me and you can’t tell me what it means’, and that’s the same spirit of tattoo.”

Who is Mr Jiggs?

There appear to have been many Mr Jiggs’ across the years. Without dwelling on chimp trivia too much, the ‘original’ Jiggs played the character of Cheetah in the first two Weismuller Tarzan films and also appeared in the Laurel and Hardy classic, Dirty Work.

When you start researching his background, you will find wildly differing facts on him, such as he may have been born in 1932 or as late as 1960. We’re not sure of the lifespan of a chimp, but that sounds a little nefarious to us…

Any tattooed zookeepers specializing in chimps, please feel free to get in touch.

If you are reading this before the article, maybe you shouldn’t…




Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Dave DeVries & Sacred Gallery