New York-based tattoo artist Gavan Daly, 42, has developed a significant following for his identifiable and edgy, surreal art. Daly, who goes by the artist name Knarly Gav, has also faced criticism from some who call his tattoos simple.
“Last week, this kid said I was just fooling everyone and doing this for attention,” Daly told Wanderer News. “My stuff is not drawn well and quite frankly that’s what people like about it. But my art has character and feeling and playfulness to it.”
Daly travels both coasts to guest-tattoo in America’s biggest cities, but considers home base both New York and Hilton Head Island in South Carolina, where he works at a shop called The Sugar Shack.
“I love New York because people come from all over the world to get tattooed by me and it makes me feel really special,” Daly said.
But Daly said that despite his successes and significant following, he has trouble keeping jobs. He recently left one at an unnamed Brooklyn parlor.
“I have a reputation of wearing out my welcome. Maybe I need some therapy or something,” Daly said. “I come on like a ton of bricks and I don’t give a fuck, but deep down I actually want everyone to like me.”
Daly, who apprenticed under an artist named Roger Dunbar, likened his work to both Picasso and elite jazz musicians: fundamentals and good form are crucial, and his learning and experimentation never stops. He also said that the artistry, for him, is about creating work he can be proud of and celebrating those successes.
“I used to skateboard and played music my whole life. But when you do a really sick move when skateboarding, it’s normal to say, ‘Dude, I went high and I thought I had wings and I can’t believe I landed that,’” Knarly Gav said. “That’s the school I come from; but celebrating your art work, even tattooing, creates animosity with others.”
He might be off-putting to some artists, Daly said, because he has a hard time hiding the joy he feels each time he finishes a good design.
“It’s frustrating for a lot of tattoo artists to work for me and I really enjoy what I do and I can’t hide the fact that it looks great and I really love it,” Daly said. “I stand by my tattoos as being quality art. I would never do anything that I would think is harmful to somebody’s spirit or soul or career.”
Solid lines, perfect shapes and shading characterize Knarly Gav’s often-humorous tattoos. He’s also identifiable by his repeated use of particular characters, including his most-famous design of a cat eating watermelon or pizza.
Daly recently did work for the clean bacon campaign for chain restaurant Panera Bread, using his iconic cat — that was eating bacon instead of watermelon. The campaign included a live Twitter event in which Daly created tattoo designs off users’ confessional tweets. He then sent them temporary tattoos of the designs. Daly said he hopes to continue setting trends in commercial pop art and tattoo design.
“Many people can’t draw that way because their ego or their training or won’t allow them to,” Daly said. “Other artists are threatened by my style, but maybe that’s my ego saying that. The stuff that I do is pretty out of the ordinary.”
When looking at a Knarly Gav tattoo, one first notices the use of shapes in the designs, which are all inspired from American Traditional and Japanese Traditional tattooing styles. Daly also chooses not to use stencils, free handing each creation — sometimes with his eyes closed.
Coloring is also crucial to some of Knarly Gav’s best designs, he said. He selects them carefully as the choice has to be pleasant to look at but still age well with the subject’s skin.
“One of my favorite artists, Filip Leu, said that good tattoos need a certain amount of color for balance,” Daly said. That color can also include the person’s natural skin tone. “Skin tones is very important in my work.”
Most of Knarly Gav’s tattoos use black, red, green and pink — because of the watermelon-eating cat.
“Pink doesn’t make sense. It’s not traditional. Most artists don’t even use pink,” Daly said. “I also sometimes do color outlines, which is also very untraditional.”
Daly said that one of his first jobs as a tattoo artist was with James Lemons at a Georgia shop called Stranded Tattoo.
“I wasn’t qualified to tattoo there but we were friends and so he gave me a shot. That’s where I learned how to be a true professional, from booking clients to making good art,” Daly said. “It’s also where I came up with some of my most memorable designs: the wolf, the skateboard eagle and the wolf in wolf’s clothing.”
Lemons still has 10-year-old Knarly Gav paintings hanging in his studio, Daly said.
“He was a big supporter of my style but he always just wanted me to be the best tattoo artist I can be,” Daly said. “He was the first person to tell me my stuff was great. Hearing that from someone just motivates you to do an even better one next time.”