Dane Nicklas is a Portland-based tattooist currently working at Good Stuff Tattoos. Nicklas, who has now been tattooing for two years, is developing a visual language that opts for the impact of minimal, graphical designs with a fidelity towards surrealism. He discusses his thoughts on the future of tattooing and his time training in an “atypical apprenticeship.”
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
Dane Nicklas. I was born in Powell, Wyoming, in 1984.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
My mom moved us from Wyoming to Southern California when I was really little. My mom was a special education teacher and my stepdad was an electrician. I grew up in an extremely conservative Mormon household. I began to distance myself from all of that when I was a teenager and moved to Seattle in 2005, as soon as I was old enough to get out of my parents’ house.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I currently work at Good Stuff Tattoos in Portland, Oregon. Before that I worked at Daydream Tattoo. I apprenticed at a shop in Vancouver, Washington called Columbia Tattoo and Piercing.
How long have you been tattooing?
Just under two years.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I had been working in coffee shops in Seattle and Portland for about ten years and was feeling burned out. I had just graduated from college with a degree in Sociology and wanted to get back into making art, which was something I had always loved to do but stopped doing all together during college. The idea of tattooing always appealed to me but I didn’t see it as a possibility, considering the style of art I made. Once Instagram came around, I began to see styles of tattooing that I didn’t know existed; that made the career seem more attainable to me.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I apprenticed at a small walk-in shop in Vancouver, Washington. It was kind of an atypical apprenticeship because the arrangement was that you would pay $3500 for a year-long apprenticeship, and, since you had to pay for it, there was no expectation that you would work at the shop once you completed it. I live in Oregon which, I believe, is the only state in the US that requires you to go to tattoo school to get licensed. Tattoo school usually ranges from $8000 to $12 000 for about five to seven months of training. I couldn’t afford tattoo school and the apprenticeship program in Washington allowed me to make monthly payments, so I made the decision to bus up there on my days off rather than go to tattoo school. I ended up having to go back to tattoo school after the apprenticeship anyways so I could get licensed in Oregon, but at least that got my foot in the door. It was nice learning in a walk-in shop and being exposed to a side of tattooing that I was rather ignorant of. It gave me an appreciation of their versatility and work ethic. I was kind of surprised by how supportive they were of me doing the kind of work that I was doing—but I think a part of that was due to the fact that I was paying for the apprenticeship.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I’m mostly a self-taught artist, but I did take about a year’s worth of entry-level art classes at a community college in Seattle.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
It definitely helped with my drawing, which is crucial for learning how to tattoo. Much of the mechanics of tattooing were not intuitive for me at all—even with an art background—so the apprenticeship was definitely necessary for me.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
My style has definitely evolved over the years and continues to change based on my skill and comfort level. I would describe most of what I do as surrealism with a playful sense of nostalgia to it. I’m heavily influenced by Magritte, Frida, Dali, Toyen, Moscoso, as well as Memphis Group designs.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I definitely don’t feel that I would be ready to take on an apprentice at this stage, maybe after I’ve been tattooing for about five years. I would like to eventually, just because I get really excited about all of the unique styles that are emerging in tattooing and it could be rewarding to help someone who might have a harder time getting an apprenticeship at most shops. I feel very privileged for being allowed to tattoo and I try to use my platform to help other artists gain exposure whenever I can. The licensing laws in Oregon are so restrictive though; they would first have to go through tattoo school before they could even begin an apprenticeship.
"The idea of tattooing always appealed to me but I didn’t see it as a possibility, considering the style of art I made. Once Instagram came around, I began to see styles of tattooing that I didn’t know existed; that made the career seem more attainable to me."
What do you look for in a shop?
It’s important that you click with the other artists on a personal level. On top of that, I think it’s nice for me when there is a general aesthetic to a shop. All of the artists at Good Stuff have their own thing for sure, but there are enough similarities that it feels like a cohesive unit. We all work with pretty vibrant colors, for example.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Skateboarding. I’ve been doing it since I was in seventh grade. I wasn’t really ever attracted to organized sports. Skateboarding is such a creative and individualistic activity and that’s why it has always appealed to me—that said, I’m not sure how I feel about skateboarding being in the 2020 Olympics!
What inspires you generally?
All of the unique styles of tattooing that are out there right now inspire me. I think tattooing is in a really interesting place right now with countless artists challenging convention and pushing boundaries.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
Album art, ‘60s and ‘70s hippie comix, antiques, architecture, vintage fashion ads, and film to name a few.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling has always been something I’d longed for but was never really financially feasible for me. Since I began tattooing, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to Portugal, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, and Spain. I went to a tattoo convention in Portugal called “The Unconvention” that was so wild and different from any tattoo convention I’d ever been to. I met so many great artists. Even though I didn’t tattoo much I had a blast. I definitely want to do more traveling in the near future.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
Having a style of tattooing that sets you apart from the rest is a constant challenge. There are so many talented artists out there and social media has made it easier for tattoo consumers to connect with these artists, which means you have to work harder to stand out.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
Now that tattooing is evolving and growing so rapidly, artists from very different walks of life and with very different artistic philosophies are interacting with one another more. This creates tension but I feel that it’s ultimately going to be a good thing. For example, I see a lot of animosity in the tattoo community, especially here in the US, directed towards the more abstract, minimalistic, or naive styles of tattooing that are now gaining visibility and recognition. I see so many artists chastising tattoo consumers for supporting artists that they don’t see as worthy of recognition, or chastising other tattooers for not having the same approaches that they do. Everyone’s entitled to have their own taste, but you usually see these kinds of comments directed toward artists who are rejecting the established norms. I think that eventually those people will either have to learn to embrace the artform’s diversity, or risk becoming irrelevant, out of touch, and jaded. That said, the tattoo community as a whole has been overwhelmingly supportive, positive, and nurturing. I think that, realistically, we are only going to continue to see more diversity both in the types of tattoos that are being made and in the types of people who want tattoos, and I look forward to that.