Danny (PP): Dark Horse Gallery defines itself by passion, determination, upward movement, and development. So, how would you say that you develop your passions and your forward movement every day or by the week?
Dee Sanchez (Owner of Dark Horse Gallery): I would say by the hour. I don’t know if passion can be built on. I mean, it’s there or it’s not there, you know? I have a passion for what I do. I love art, I love creating things, [and] I think everybody likes to be praised for what [they] do.
It’s a combination of everything that pushes me in that direction, but ultimately I’ve been an artist since I was a kid. [I was] competing in different art competitions, drawing and things like that, so when the tattoo boom came and there was some sort of financial gain you could obviously see from doing it, [I thought], “Oh shit. I can finally do something I’ve done all my life and make a living off it.”
D: So, you’ve been drawing since you were a little kid?
Dee: Yeah, when I was seven or eight, I was getting my first award. So, I was already competing.
My step-pop was an iron worker by trade, but he was an amateur architect. He would draw blueprints and things like that, and he had this really grand, huge drafting desk in the house, I remember, and that’s where it started.
When he first met [my siblings and me], I think one of the first things he taught us to draw was a pirate or something like that, and that’s where it all took off. We all ended up artists under him and it just ended up fading for my brothers.
D: So, at what point did you decide, “I wanna be a tattoo artist. This is what I want my career to be.”
Dee: It was right around that tattoo boom, man, so you’re talking ten years ago or so. That was right around the time [the] fifth season of Miami Ink [was airing] because LA Ink [had] just started.
Right around that time, at least artists that I’ve spoken to and am in cahoots with [say] that was kind of like one of the greater times, or the golden years, if you will, because there was just so much acceptance to be getting tattoos. LA Ink displayed on a world platform a more refined style of art. Their first six seasons, they had animals, there were veterans on there, and people who could actually tattoo. And I started realizing maybe I could do art [as a career.]
I was a barber up until that point for I don’t know how many years. So, I was already successful in that career.
D: Do you still cut hair ever?
Dee: No, never. I hardly cut my own, man. But I can honestly say, even as a barber, my shit always looked like shit [laughs]. I never cared what my hair looked like. It’s like with tattooing; I don’t want to be tattooed.
D: Really? You tattoo yourself?
Dee: Oh, yeah. I got my job interview on my leg right here [indicates tattoos on leg]. That’s how I ended up getting an apprenticeship. But strangely enough, I’ve only been tattooed twice, on two separate occasions, since I started tattooing.
D: Just by close friends or artists you admire?
Dee: Friends and artists, yeah.
D: You specialize in black and gray realism and portraiture, right?
Dee: Anything that you can capture in a photo. So, anything from a person to an animal to an inanimate object. If you give me a landscape, if you give me a combination lock sitting on a surface [...] those are all what I excel at and enjoy doing.
D: Did you always know that was your specialty and gravitate toward that kind of style?
Dee: Yeah, I think that [style] was a natural transition. I think a lot of that has to do with fear in the beginning [of my tattoo career] and kind of being timid. Obviously, being an artist, you’re a fan of a broad spectrum of art, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be stuff that you do or stuff that you can do.
So, going into tattooing, I think [my style] had to do with being comfortable, being cautious, having a little bit of that fear, and saying, “Why would I start a new style of art that I’m not so good at or something I’ve never done before now?” I think it was natural to say, “I’m going to do what I’ve done best all my life.” That was black and gray portraiture.
In fact, I started just like everybody else, doing the little bullshit projects. I was working at one shop and I was getting the crowd that you’re supposed to get when you start tattooing. But my frustration was in the sense that I already knew what I could do, I just wasn’t getting the airplay. I wasn’t getting those types of clients. And most of all, I wasn’t getting any exposure on what I really did artistically, and it was frustrating. I was doing the five-letter names, the birds, and those well-wishing flower pieces that turn into birds. [laughs]
So, it was those types of projects [I was getting]. Financially, I was doing well, you know, I can’t complain about that. But I also knew what my worth was. I also knew that I could just go back to barbering [because] I was making just as good of money cutting hair.
D: But, it was worth pursuing your passion?
Dee: No, not at all.
I actually packed it all up and went back to my house. I tattooed out of my house for about a year and a half, two years, and built a portfolio with just solid stuff that was in the direction I wanted to go. It was all realism, photorealism, and portraiture, and all of a sudden people’s eyes were open, and they were like, “Oh, wow, there’s an artist around here that does realism!”
It was just me knowing that I had to do enough of [realism tattooing] to know how to do it well, but if I’m not getting enough of it through the shop door, then I’m not doing this shit.
D: So, without the platform of that one shop, you were a self-starter. You built your own portfolio by yourself and made a name for yourself.
Dee: Yeah, and I kind of had to reinvent myself, too, in a sense, because I’d already been exposed to the tattoo community.
I was known for doing these cleaner, simplistic designs and styles that were all walk-ins, but that was working against me more than anything. When I decided to launch what I really do, people would remember me [and say], “Wait, aren’t you the guy that did sixty dollar names back then?”
D: And you were like, “Yeah, but that’s not what I wanna do!”
Dee: Yeah, I was like, “That’s not what I do, bro!”
D: So, what was your first job as a tattoo artist? Where did you start?
Dee: I moved from Wilmington, Delaware down here [to Maryland] about eight years ago now. I started my apprenticeship up there [in Delaware].
My apprenticeship was formal. I did about four months under a very, very good mentor. His name is Jimmy Mackey out of Monster Tattoo in Newport, Delaware. He was the only person who really [was valuable as a mentor].
See, back then, there was a lot of that “shop hazing,” where [artists would tell apprentices], “Make the coffee. Ah, that coffee tastes like shit. Make it again.” You know? It was that type of deal.
And me, being older coming into this — I was approaching 30 years old — there was no way some grown man was going to tell me what to do. And most importantly, I was going into these shops, seeing this art, seeing their work before I met the [artist], and thinking, “You might be able to teach me how to tattoo; but artistically, my man, we’re on two different planes. So, for you to attack me, and attempt to get me to do whatever you want me to do at your bidding for whatever sadistic reason you have in your head”... I just wasn’t flying with it. I was never that kind of guy. I’m not into that.
I tried getting an apprenticeship. There were a few people who just said, “Nah.” In fact, I remember one guy telling me that I just wasn’t good, that my art wasn’t tattooable and would never be tattooed. And, uh, “Ha, ha!”
Dee: But, eventually, I walked into Jimmy’s place and he made it very clear; he just had a lot of sticking points. I came in with a tattoo portfolio, and he was like, “Nah, I don’t want that. Just come back with your art portfolio tomorrow.” I was confused about that, of course. I came back in with my art portfolio, he looked through a few pieces, and he was like, “Man, I can teach you how to tattoo. You’re more than capable of tattooing and your art is phenomenal.”
I was asking him about the tattoos the day prior and why he decided not to look at the [tattoo] portfolio, and he said, “Well, I didn’t want any preconceived notions on your work, and most importantly, you can teach a chimpanzee how to tattoo, but you can’t teach art. You can’t teach [a chimpanzee] how to draw, you can’t teach it how to create. Those things are very difficult. So, as long as you have that foundation, I can teach you how to use a machine, and that’s where we’re going to start. I don’t need you cleaning my toilet, I don’t need you scrubbing my floors, you know, I know how to do all these things; and yes, we all contribute to these chores, but that’s as far as [those menial tasks] go. I need you making money, so you can put money in your pocket for your family and so that you can make money for the shop as fast as possible.” And it was like, “Bam. Wow. I’m sold. That’s where I really wanna be.”
I was already business-oriented and minded. I was just sort of like, “Man, I just need to find somebody that thinks like me,” and that was him. He was just like, “Man, f*** all that extra shit, we don’t need to learn how to make coffee around here. We’re here to tattoo and tattoo well.”
He took me under [as his apprentice] and maybe two or three months later, I did my first portrait and only portrait until I went on to the next shop. I remember it being really good, I was proud of it and everybody was like, “Wow, this is what you’re supposed to be doing.”
So, [through my apprenticeship] I already had a taste of what I could do. I already knew I could do portraits. Just, again, I needed more canvases. I needed people to believe that I could do [realism] so I could learn. And that can be difficult.
D: Right. Do you think that negative attitude [and practice] of shop hazing has diminished a little bit over the years, or do you think that attitude still exists?
Dee: Aw, shit, I love that question. You know... I think it’s geographical. You’ll never get away with some shit like that right here in Baltimore city. Now, that’s not me shaming anybody outside of Baltimore, but I think in Baltimore city, we’ve just got a different kind of mentality, man. We gotta get things done, we don’t got time to be f***ing around.
D: Right. You need to be getting your job done and doing what you love.
Dee: We understand we’re in demand out here and there’s a job to get to. There’s no time to really—
D: —Treat people like shit.
Dee: Yeah. And, most importantly, if you’re treating someone like shit, they’re gonna get to the point where they’re good enough to leave, or they’re going to get fed up with your shit one way or another. You’ve gotta be prepared for that.
I feel like some of these shops in the more secluded areas, [shop hazing] absolutely still goes on. In fact, I know it still goes on. I think those [more secluded shop opportunities] are deals where you have no [other] option. [If] there’s only one or two shops [in your area], what are you gonna do? Drive 45 minutes or an hour to Baltimore City and work?
Well, I’m here to tell you, for the record, come to Baltimore City and work for Dark Horse Gallery. We’ll take you!
But, I just think that that’s the scenario with the [other, more secluded locations]. They know they can still get away with it in some areas, and they absolutely will. As long as you got bad people in this world, they’ll have ill intentions for others.
D: You’re right! Did you always know you wanted to have your own shop?
Dee: Aw yeah, man! I’m a businessman, baby! That was the part of the discussion I wanted to get to!
D: Awesome, so tell me a little about how you got started and your overall trajectory [as a businessman].
Dee: I never had a standard job. I think I did rug installation. That worked out for about two weeks for the first paycheck, and I was outta there. I was very young, I think I was about 18 or 19 years old. But, I came up in a pretty rough area, and, you know, there was just not a lot of options, and I just speak from my community, the hispanic community.
The majority of the guys that were comin’ up, you either did the obvious [job] that was going on around you and got involved with that, and, you know, I kind of went that route for a little while.
It was unique where we were from — and I still thank God, man, [that] Puerto Ricans are pretty — it seemed like in the Puerto Rican community especially, there were many young barbers at the time learning how to cut hair, because everybody was really vain. Everybody wanted their hair fresh, everybody wanted the freshest fade, the cleanest cut. You had to look good, your sneakers had to be clean, and I think through poverty and not being able to afford the small luxuries, like getting your hair cut or having parents that would take you to go get a haircut, we learned on ourselves.
We cut each other’s hair and kept each other fresh; and as for the clothing and material aspects, you know, it’s the same sad song everywhere. I think we just got involved with things that we shouldn’t have been involved with to pay for and make up for the things that other kids had that we didn’t have. So, to answer your question, I always had a hustler’s mentality. [I’m an] entrepreneur type. I’m not working for anybody, I’m gonna breathe something into this world on my own; I don’t really need anybody else.
D: And that’s an admirable attitude to have.
Dee: Yeah, I’m certainly not ashamed of it and I’m proud of it. Tattooing fell in line with that [business mentality]. So did barbering. Barbering is kind of like an independent deal or a singular sport, if you would. You build your clientele off your brand, your image, your name, and off of what work you put in. Not necessarily the shop. [With barbering], you’re already going into an entrepreneurial atmosphere pretty young. I mean, we were 14 and 15 years old working at barber shops. So, you learn real fast, especially in a bigger city, what a hustle is. You know what I mean? Like, how to make an end here and there, and then bring it all together for a master plan.
D: And also just dealing with the general public and tough clients who probably talked down to you.
Dee: Yeah, customer service, how to talk, how to read people, body language, you know, all these things you learn in a barber shop and later on when I became a tattoo artist, there were just stark similarities [to barbering]. [Tattooing and barbering] were just so parallel to each other, even down to the stations. I mean, you cut hair on something similar to this [points to tattoo chair] and you tattoo off something similar to these stations, minus the mirror, and even down to the same height. So, there were a lot of similarities and parallels there, even the art aspect.
[Starting as a tattoo artist] just seemed perfect. It fit right [into my life]. Everything finally came together. Everything I learned and experienced as a young kid and [working in] barber shops, learning how to work and create my own money, learning how to deal with people, but still maintaining art as a strong foundation in my entire life. It all just culminated into one perfect scenario. So now, I think this is what I was cut out to do for the rest of my life.
D: For sure. What was your first location?
Dee: Mt. Vernon, Baltimore.
D: Oh, okay. I got tattooed by a guest artist there [two years ago]. And did you tattoo at PainfulPleasures in the Studio for a while?
Dee: Yeah! I was an artist there for a while. I was tattooing and doing my “thang”...
Let’s talk about PainfulPleasures.
D: Yeah, sure! Let’s talk about PainfulPleasures. How did you [first] encounter PainfulPleasures?
Dee: PainfulPleasures, the first time I’d heard of them was early in my career. I remember it was very special to have this place where you can go and pick up your stuff, right? You didn’t have to order it. So, I remember hearing this guy had a huge tattoo supply place and that if you had his number, you were the man! He was probably a superhero in my head at that point.
So, there was an artist that used to work there and I had some sort of affiliation with this guy on Facebook, and I remember reaching out to him when he said that he worked at the Studio. I remember messaging him, like, I think the first thing I asked him was, “Dude, is it f***in’ true that you can fold the glass in that bitch?” I was just so amazed. And he was like, “Yeah, man, this shit is f***in’ rad! You should work here.”
He knew of my work and everything and my name was really buzzin’ at the time, so, I was like, yeah, put in a word for me, man, if you can, I’d love to tour [the PainfulPleasures facilities]. Well, the next day I was tourin’ it.
I met Marc [PainfulPleasures CEO] that day. I remember he didn’t have tattoos at the time, he just had gauges. He had dreads. He was this skinny guy, got Vans on and shit. Obviously, you walk into this grand place and you already know financially where this guy is, and here comes this guy... I was like, “What the f***? What the hell is going on here?” I was just, wow, I was amazed.
D: He’s so down to Earth!
Dee: I was like, “Is this [Marc’s] assistant or something?”
From day one, he was just so humble, like borderline flattering. Every day.
He reminded me so much of my step-pop. My stepfather came into the picture when [my siblings and I] were very young. There were cultural differences there — he was a white guy. But I remember being different in school because I had a supporting parent that would be there every day and tell me how great I was. [My step-pop would say things about my drawings] like, “That pirate ship is looking better.” But he also knew I had pride problems, so he would say things like, “You know that ship looks great, Dee” and wait until I take the praise, then say, “But can I just show you a little thing right here that will change things?” And then that’s how I learned. I was like, “Ok, I know this guy ain’t tryin to tear me down like these people at school.”
D: It was about the approach.
Dee: Yeah, he was comin’ at me different. I attribute my artistic skill to my step-pop because of him being very encouraging. You know, a seven-year-old me and a seven-year-old you sit down to draw a snowman and it looks the same. There is no difference. It was just the support system there that was different. That’s all. [My stepfather] told me that my snowman looked better, and that’s all I needed.
So, Marc reminded me very much of my step-pop. I was coming into a field that I was very confident in what I did, but I was very fearful about what I was about to get into [with the Studio] because I knew this was a lot bigger than what I was just involved with. I knew what was on the line here. I knew that this was probably gonna change my life, and there were some things that I needed to learn in order to adjust and become bigger than what I was. And Marc was very encouraging, he was very warm about that. He just coached me into that. He was like, “Dude, your art and your tattoos are world-class. We’re never gonna have to worry about that. We just gotta teach you how to be a presence, how to build a brand, how to have a name, and stand singular.” And that’s kind of where Dark Horse was born.
It’s just bein’ that lone person, that lone dark horse in the field that stands confident in his decisions and stays grounded to what he knows. Marc was very pivotal in my career because of that. He gave me that confidence I needed to say, “Hey, you can do this. I’m gonna show you every step of the way how you can do that.”
So, PainfulPleasures, just as a whole, it changed everything. Michelle [and] Melissa both were very big in [encouraging my career] also. Still to this day.
I got a phone call last month [from PainfulPleasures letting me know] I was featured in some magazine with my tattoo work. You know, these types of things I don’t reach out for, or ask for — I just got sketchbooks for Christ’s sake with my f***in’ art on it, you know? I don’t ask for these things, you know. PainfulPleasures has been that [supporter] for me. They still believe that I can do some things that I’m even questioning. So, PainfulPleasures has definitely, definitely, definitely changed a lot of things for me.
D: And you’re exactly right. Marc is such a great, encouraging, humble presence.
Dee: It’s pretty amazing to watch, man. You wanna hope you’re that humble one day in whatever you do, but man... I’ll probably be a dick.
D: You don’t strike me as a dick, Dee.
Dee: I don’t know, man. From the outside looking in, a lot of people that don’t know me will perceive me that way— there are a lot of people who do, I mean, I hear [about it]—
D: —You’re just proud of what you do.
Dee: Yeah! I enjoy being the bad boy of this shit though. Somebody’s gotta be it.
I don’t like the bullshit, know what I mean? Ultimately, I work hard. The people that know me and interact with me, my clients, my friends that come in here, they all know that I’m grindin’. I don’t bullshit. There’s stuff that needs to be gotten to and I want it, so that’s what we’re out here to get.
D: So, when you were in the studio, and you touched on this a little bit — you said that’s kind of where Dark Horse was born — how would you say Dark Horse distinguishes itself both from other tattoo studios in the area and abroad?
Dee: Man, we don’t fit a cookie-cutter. Dark Horse is like I stated earlier: it’s a lone force. I’ve never been a person that follows shit, you know? I never followed a mold. I’ve always been a loner. I’ve always been an introvert slash extrovert slash socialite slash, you know, turtle. It’s like, I can play all the rules on my own and I love myself that much. I don’t really need a presence around me to make myself happy.
D: That’s great.
Dee: Because of that, I fell in love with my art that much more. And because of that, it allowed me to develop a little bit more advanced than others, because I guess I see [things] on a different plane in that sense.
And Dark Horse is that. A dark horse is a force on the playing field that you did not factor in, but you’ll feel that presence that I’m on that field. That’s what Dark Horse is — we’re not here to take any kind of spotlights. We wanna stand in the dark side, we wanna stand in the shadows. But, you know, the people that make the play happen are the people in the dark, behind the curtain.
D: Right. Wholly invested in their work.
Dee: And they’re passionate. They wanna bring you the best possible story [or] play that there is to convey what’s about to happen. We’re here to create very good tattoos, to create and instill a strong work ethic, and say the most important thing about this game is the results on your client, what kind of an impact you made there and in that realm.
So, being a dark horse, I guess, is being a person that’s selfless, that really is just there for the betterment of other people.
D: I really love that whole answer because you were just ready with that whole thing. That was really good. When you started at Dark Horse, is that when you picked up designing Adidas shoes?
Dee: Aw, shit, man shout-out to Adidas! You guys gotta sponsor the kid..
Nah, I’ve always been involved with sneakers and fashion ever since I was a kid. I kind of just liked looking good as a kid. You know, we didn’t have much, but you took care of that stuff. You pressed it in the morning, you made sure the lint was off o’ that mo-fo, because if you went to school and you looked like shit, you got cracked on, man.
D: [laughs] Do you ever have to struggle to find a balance between your tattooing and your shoe art?
Dee: I think [starting to customize Adidas shoes] was a gift and a curse, man. I announced that I was doing sneaker customizations, and the waiting list on that is now f***in’ unbearable. I’m grateful and thankful for everybody who has come forward and asked for a customization.
The direction that I wanna go in with Dark Horse Gallery is not so much [about hiring] more artists, but more diversity under our roof.
D: That’s exciting. A lot of stuff on the horizon.
Dee: I think the future of tattooing is not in these big mega shops. I honestly don’t think that. I don’t think that the future is having 8, 9, to 10 artists and continuing to build those artists. I think what’s gonna be effective in the future is smaller, more private studios that focus on the quality of their work that is going out the door and on these clients for years to come. I think it’s just gonna become more refined as time goes.
And a lot of these guys that think that they can trace onto people’s skin and stuff, you know, these guys are filtering out, now. I’ve been seeing it for years. They’re gonna filter out. So, it’s an exciting time for people that stay true to art—
D: —Who are actually passionate about it.
Dee: Yeah, it’s a very exciting time because all the bullshit projects are starting to filter out. All the people that have stayed are more refined collectors, people that know what they want, you know, very directly, they just know. That makes for a better working atmosphere.
D: Yeah, I agree.
Dee: It definitely helps with the project.
D: Alright, well, I just have one final question for you.
D: As a Peak pro-team artist, do you have any favorite Peak products or a preferred Peak cartridge needle?
Dee: Aw shit, yeah, for sure. I love my Blood cartridges. But Quartz, man... there’s just something about them Quartz!
Quartz cartridges are precise. The guiding system inside of those cartridges are something unique that I’ve never used before. Are there other similar products? Maybe. But, as they say, once something works, you don’t really change it. And I’ve been using Quartz cartridges for over two years now and the result has always been the same. The tattoos look great, the job is easier, and [Peak] is a very effective brand and tool. I love my cartridges.
D: Well, awesome! Thank you so much, Dee.
Dee: You’re welcome.