Body Mod is a Painful Pleasures studio located in Annapolis, the capital of our Old Line State. It’s managed by our “In the Limelight” featured guest of December, Derek Entenmann, who is an incredibly talented tattoo artist. His life experiences and work reveal that he is a man of no borders, including but not limited to the insight he has gained from travelling and his avant-garde, contemporary style of tattooing. Having the chance to talk to him exposed the truly exceptional creative ability he has that doesn’t come naturally to the average person.
Meeseun: How did you get your start in the tattoo industry? Was this something you’ve always envisioned yourself doing?
Derek: I’ve been into tattoos for as long as I can remember, even just as a kid seeing them. At that time mostly bikers and military people had tattoos. It always interested me and I started getting tattooed when I was 18 or 19. Of course I really liked it so I kept getting more. It wasn’t until about 2008 that I got the chance to apprentice, which was kind of later in life for me to actually start tattooing.
Meeseun: That’s about what, six years in the industry now.
Derek: Yeah. I was always really into art as a kid. I did the extra art classes at school and summertime. When it got to be high school age, parents wanted you to focus on academics so I stopped working on art at that point. A big time for me was in college when I studied abroad for a year in Switzerland. I got to take vacations and go to the Louvre and the Vatican art museum, see a lot of H. R. Geiger work. I got to study a lot of art then and it was fun.
Meeseun: Which is a totally a different context. Looking through your portfolio, I see that you apply that inspiration from those artists to the work you do now.
Derek: Right. Even with my sketch work and stuff, I look at da Vinci’s sketches.
Meeseun: So from what I understand and from what I’ve seen in your portfolio, you specialize in a more particular style. Can you describe your style?
Derek: I think that kind of work isn’t really officially or properly named. I hear people call it avant-garde, modern, or contemporary tattooing. If I describe it to people, I’d say I do watercolor, geometric, and sketch. I think I have a lot of scientific themes to my work with the geometric elements.
Meeseun: Yeah, I remember seeing a DNA tattoo you’ve done. I’ve also seen the work you’ve done with text and it’s very abstract. I remember reading something about that style starting in Europe – is that a style that’s popular there?
Derek: Yeah. Volko and Simone in Germany from the BuenaVista Tattoo Club made it very popular, which is why you hear some people call it “Polka Trash”. That’s their particular name and trademark, so I don’t want to use that. I think this whole contemporary tattoo movement is bigger than just two people, because you have their style from Germany, which is the realistic black and grey with the brush strokes and mis-struck printing style. Then in France, you have things that are more watercolor based, more of the looser artwork. There’s also a variety over in Czech Republic and Greece has some really awesome sketch work coming out of there. I think as a whole, it’s just so much bigger than that one style.
Meeseun: That’s really cool. And what inspired you to go this direction? Is this what you were saying earlier about travelling?
Derek: Yes. One of my favorite artists has always been M.C. Escher, so geometric ideas like his are always floating around in my head. Science is also always interesting – insects and things like that always make their way into my designs.
Meeseun: That leads to my next question for you. Tattoo artists that can give suggestions and help visualize a concept in different ways, which I think you do a lot of… it’s really a respectable thing to do. People will come to you with an idea and it’s your responsibility as a tattoo artist to be like, “Well what if we try it this way?” or “Maybe this won’t work.” You have to be able to do that, right? With your style, some concepts require more of your input than others, right?
Derek: Yes. The more prep work you spend on it, the better it’s going to turn out to be. If you draw it, you’ll always find a few things to improve, so you draw it more times until you can eventually tattoo it. With every tattoo you see things you would do differently the next time.
Meeseun: So how extensively do you sit down and talk with your clients about a potential idea?
Derek: With the clients, you try to reach the point where they are coming to you because they like your existing work. My clients give me a very basic idea of what they want and they allow me to do my artwork on them, so there would be relatively little input from them. They could say, “I like this design that you did and I like this other tattoo.” You don’t want them in the driver’s seat of your car, because if they’re coming to you because they like your ideas…
Meeseun: ...then they’re giving you free reign.
Derek: Right. They’re letting you go with it and letting you express your ideas. Otherwise it’s not going to be your own tattoo idea.
Meeseun: Can you talk to us about your general process then? From consultation to the actual execution of the tattoo?
Derek: Yeah I mean... it’s in your head… the style with geometry work and stuff like that, it’s what feels natural and what flows. A lot of times I work on the geometric background after I do the main core of the piece. From past art projects, I know what works and what doesn’t. I make a basic geometric stencil and work off of that. I’m not going to just tattoo the stencil. I can do part of it negative and switch it to positive as I’m going along or switch colors within the stencil to have an effect because it hits something that’s already part of the tattoo. I can change the background by adding an element from black and gray to red or dot-work. A lot of it is intuitive and when you’re in the background or somewhere looser, you’ll be changing some of it on the fly. That’s what makes it fun. That’s what people love to see because if I’m at a convention, people will see that I have a simple tattoo, like just text stenciled out. But I’ll change it from positive to negative based on the brush stroke background or something. I won’t have all of that stenciled out, so people like to watch how the artwork progresses.
Meeseun: I was at the New Jersey Inked Out convention and I remember seeing you at our Painful Pleasures booth. I didn’t get a chance to actually watch you tattoo, but I remember there being a crowd while you worked. I was going to ask how you know when and where to end with geometric tattoos and where to pick it back up. It’s all intuitive.
Derek: Yeah, and that’s the awesome part. It just comes out of my head. It just flows. I guess some people can’t see that or come up with the idea on their own, but to me it’s like, what else is there? It’s a lot of fun. I like doing black and gray realism and new school designs, but what comes most to my mind are geometric sketch designs.
Meeseun: And you said you do dot-work, too. That’s pretty awesome.
Derek: Yes, and that kind of goes with geometric stuff where instead of doing a black solid fill, you can do a gradient based on dot-work.
Meeseun: Right. I haven’t found too many dot-work tattoo artists around here.
Derek: It’s getting more popular. Maybe not around here, but in the world.
Meeseun: Yeah, I forget which artist I found out about in South America because I was writing something up on them, and he had some really amazing dot-work designs. I mean, I can’t even imagine sitting for the duration of a tattoo like that.
Derek: You can actually do it pretty fast. If you check out this artist in Pittsburg, Nathan Mould – he does the dot-work sleeves and he’ll do it all in like a 10 hour sitting or so.
Meeseun: Oh wow. So let’s talk about how you got here. How did you come to be a resident tattoo artist and shop manager with Body Mod?
Derek: That all happened relatively recently. I had already been travelling to this area and picking up regular clients. I just got tired of the same old thing at my shop in West Virginia. It was going great money-wise and I had a decent clientele-base, but there wasn’t a big art scene there. There weren’t many other tattoo artists there that I could relate to or work with. There wasn’t anyone really trying to improve their career, travel, and just make a better art career out of tattooing, so I was getting burnt out being there. I was already doing guest spots up here in Baltimore/Annapolis, so I talked to Marc about managing the shop since I have a strong business management background.
Meeseun: You’re very well-rounded!
Meeseun: But I agree – you’re only as good as the people you surround yourself with, you want to be constantly inspired.
Derek: Yeah and you know, I traveled so much – like I was travelling once a month, sometimes twice a month for shows and it was so far from where I was. Being here, I can be in Brooklyn in about two and a half hours or something. Otherwise it was an eight or nine hour drive from West Virginia.
Derek: No I’m from Philadelphia/South Jersey. About 11 or 12 years ago, I bought a vacation house out in the mountains in the middle of nowhere and I ended up moving out there full time in 2008. Later that year was when I started to apprentice tattooing. I had to go down to Blacksburg, VA for that because there weren’t any shops nearby at the time. I would live there, except that with small towns and all, there are a lot of drugs, a lot of corruption. It’s not very exciting.
Meeseun: That’s understandable. So with the type of tattooing that you do, do you find that specific tools work better to your advantage?
Derek: Oh definitely. I have the Cheyenne Hawk. I’d say you have to use a rotary for that style if you want to move fast. I like the Hawk. It’s simple and it allows me to just focus on the art. I’m tattooing on skin but the machine is efficient, effective, and easy to use. It’s like using a marker on the wall.
Meeseun: How about types of ink? Do you find that certain ones are better?
Derek: I don’t know, I find that I’m always changing a little bit. I like the thinner inks that will go on a little bit faster and easier.
Meeseun: Which makes sense, because you want it to look fluid – like brush strokes.
Derek: Yeah, I try to get the stuff done as quickly and efficiently as possible. I usually try to attempt pretty large pieces in a single sitting so I try to work as fast as I can. Sometimes you can be tattooing somebody’s ribs so of course you want to be quick.
Meeseun: So are most of the pieces that you do on a larger scale?
Derek: Yeah, you’ll see it in my portfolio. There's one with the ants crawling up a band around the leg – that was done in a single six hour session and maybe another two hours later on to finish it up. But especially at conventions, I get pretty ambitious about getting everything done at once.
With tattoos becoming a more widely accepted visual representation of self, we get to have genuine artists that literally and figuratively leave a lasting impression with their work. A true artist thoroughly knows his medium and can expertly work it to create a visually aesthetic piece and Derek is certainly one among them. He has the ability to take a design that would look great on a canvas and apply it to the skin to a tee. See more of Derek’s work on his Artist’s Page at Body Mod, Instagram, and personal website. He works out of our Painful Pleasures studio, Body Mod, in Annapolis, MD and also travels to Brooklyn and Philadelphia often for guest spots. Fellow tattoo artists can shop for a tattoo machine like the Cheyenne Derek uses right here. Join me next month to catch up on my time with Ashley Reynolds, another talented tattoo artist from Body Mod and our first female featured guest!