At Dark Horse Gallery Tattoo and Art LLC, a studio in the Fells Point neighborhood of Baltimore city, the virtues of a dark horse take artistic precedence. We were happy to spend a morning at Dark Horse Gallery to chat with owner Dee Sanchez, learn about his own journey as a dark horse, and find out what motivates his shop to keep moving forward.
Stepping into Dark Horse Gallery, a few things catch your eye. If it isn’t Dee Sanchez’s friendly pit bull, Dabs, bounding toward you, it’s the display of framed wall art, which speaks volumes for Dee’s support of artists who prioritize their work.
“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.”
Dee has been making plays happen in Baltimore city for approximately six years now, all the while developing a name for himself as a tattooist and custom designer of Adidas shoes.
Before its current location on Fleet Street, Dark Horse Gallery began as a studio in Mt. Vernon, another popular and energetic Baltimore location. Dee’s change of location means new beginnings, plenty of possibilities, and a stride forward in Charm City. Dee has always been an entrepreneur at heart, hustling to make his goals into concrete realities:
“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.”
Dark Horse Gallery defines itself on its website as a shop motivated by passion and forward movement. Indeed, the beginning of Dee’s artistic career began with a passion that he developed almost entirely on his own, following a formal apprenticeship with artist Jimmy Mackey from Monster Tattoo in Newport, Delaware.
“In fact, I started just like everybody else, doing the little bullshit projects [...] I wasn’t getting any exposure on what I really did artistically, and it was frustrating [...] 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!”
Dee assures us he builds on his passion by the hour, rather than by the week or even merely by the day. This passion informs the atmosphere he creates at Dark Horse Gallery, both for clients and tattoo artists he hires. When it comes to his studio environment, Dee refuses to partake in “shop hazing,” a common practice still employed in tattoo studios to this day. He prioritizes hard work from his artists, excellent tattoos for valued clients, and, overall, getting things done:
“You’ll never get away with [shop hazing] 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.”
Baltimore city makes an ideal home for Dee Sanchez and his dark horse-inspired establishment. The city’s no-nonsense, no-frills mentality is one he’s had all his life. Growing up in an environment where there were few opportunities available to him, Dee drew, tattooed, and even razored his way to success. He began his career as a barber and learned a lot about hustling from the daily grind:
“[Tattooing and barbering] were just so parallel to each other, even down to the stations.[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.”
After barbering and his tattoo apprenticeship with Mackey, Dee moved to Maryland and tattooed at a few shops, one of them being our very own PainfulPleasures facilities, when we operated a studio with tattooing and laser removal services. There, Dee learned even more about himself and his trade.
“I was an artist there for a while [...] 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]. 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 [PainfulPleasures CEO] was very encouraging, he was very warm about that. Marc was very pivotal in my career because of that. He gave me that confidence I needed [...] So, PainfulPleasures, just as a whole, it changed everything.”
Of course, it wasn’t just Dee’s passionate drive to make his own way in life that helped bring his artistic dreams to fruition. His supportive step-pop was there along the way, a figure who gave him just the right approach he needed to better his work and advance forward:
“[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.”
At the end of our visit, we asked Dee what distinguishes his tattoo studio from others, both local and afar. His answer reminds us that a dark horse, while often in the shadows, covers a lot of ground outside the limelight.
“A dark horse is a force on the playing field that you did not factor in [...] 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 and what kind of an impact you made there.”
The world of tattooing is full of underdogs and unsung heroes — often passionate, hard-working, and elusive. Dee Sanchez, a charismatic dark horse himself, had a lot more to say about artistic integrity, growing up with a supportive step pop, and what it means to be a dark horse. Read our full interview with Dee Sanchez below.