Tattooing is really bold and kind of severe. All these images are life and death and love and all the big existential stuff boiled down into these bold strong images.
As a high school upperclassman going through the standard life crisis of what to do with the rest of his life, Dan Paul Wysuph stepped into his first tattoo parlor. As he walked through that door, he was struck by the visceral images rendered on flash sheets all along the walls. “Tattooing is really bold and kind of severe,” Wysuph explains. “All these images are life and death and love and all the big existential stuff boiled down into these bold strong images.”
Already the “designated drawer” in his group of friends, Wysuph determined to pursue an apprenticeship and learn the art of needles and ink from the pros. “I attached myself like a barnacle to these guys,” he says, expressing special gratitude to Klem (owner at his current shop, Samuel O‘Reilly’s Tattoo Parlour) as well as Taki (owner of Japanese shop, State of Grace Tattoo).
Though Wysuph’s appreciation of all the intense classic tattoos has remained over the years, he started asking what those symbols would look like if they were translated into images from his own region. Soon, Wysuph’s panthers morphed into mountain lions; his tigers became bobcats. “My skulls didn’t have roses around them anymore, they had poppies or blackberry bushes,” he says. “My snakes turned from cobra snakes to rattlesnakes.”
The decision to prominently feature Northern California and Santa Cruz nature in his work infused it with a deeper authenticity. It’s a subject he has an obvious heart for. “As long as we get outside and take advantage of the unbelievable natural beauty of where we live, it all makes sense again why we do what we have to do to live here!” Wysuph enthuses. His favorite activities to enjoy with his three young kids are hiking, exploring tide pools, and playing in the ocean. “They’ve all had wetsuits since they were 10 months old,” he says.
As his children undergo their picture book years, Wysuph has rediscovered a love for the stories his mom used to read to him. It led him to expand into illustration. In 2014, he hosted his first solo art show, “Oh California,” inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg (one of his childhood favorites). In Allsburg’s story, he depicts a series of illustrations along with a title and the first sentence of a story—leaving the reader to fill in the rest. For Wysuph’s show, he portrayed paintings of California history and folklore as well as his own personal history—and accompanied each with a title and a tiny image in a crest that acted as another clue to the story. This encouraged viewers to expand on the narration through their own imagination.
For a while, Wysuph’s work at Samuel O‘Reilly’s Tattoo Parlour exclusively informed his illustrative style. “It looked like a tattoo on paper,” Wysuph notes. However, as he grew more confident in this new medium, he began communicating ideas a little differently. “There’s stuff that works really well on paper that would look so awkward or muddy in a tattoo,” he mentions. As an example, he notes one way to portray loneliness in an illustration could be by depicting a tiny person surrounded by dark colors and a looming forest landscape. “In a tattoo, that would just look like a big blue mess.”
“I don’t want people to have to fight with the image or wrestle with the image to figure out what [the tattoo] is,” he says, but adds that his illustrations have begun impacting his tattoos in subtle ways. “I’ve started to see where I could be a little bit more painterly in the approach to coloring some things that wouldn’t compromise the readability or the legibility of the tattoo.”
Besides making prints and a number of commissioned folksy band posters, Wysuph has brought his illustrations to a number of other surfaces. These include book bags, bookmarks, and even a Santa Cruz marine life themed deck of Go Fish cards. “My kids, and all my nieces and nephews, and all my friends’ kids will just get bookbags and bookmarks and Go Fish cards for their birthday and Christmas for the next five years if nobody else wants them,” Wysuph notes cheerfully.
Written by Johanna Hickle
Photography by Daniel Garcia