24 Apr Dead Lee: Tattooing with Lee Dennis
Tattoos and BMX are nothing new. Many riders are covered head to toe in them, and professional names like John ‘Luc-E’ Englebert, Mike ‘Big Island’ Castillo, and even Canada’s Greg Nicholson have turned their professional career from BMX to the craft of tattooing. I’ve been seeing Lee Dennis, who counts himself on the pro teams of Sunday Bikes and Primo Products, tattoo his friends and himself for a while now, and recently make the jump from garages and his living room to a professional studio. My interactions with Lee in the past had been slim, and I had simply known him as a soft spoken rider that let his riding do most of the talking. One Saturday I took the trip down to St. Catharine’s to meet up with him and speak openly about tattooing, being self taught, balancing it with his responsibilities as a pro rider, and more. Click below to read the interview as we get tattooed with Lee Dennis.
Let’s start with the standard questions. Name, age, where are you from, and where do you currently reside?
Lee Dennis, 28. From Niagara Falls but live in St. Catharines nowadays.
How long have you been riding, and when did you first start getting tattooed yourself?
Been grinding half my life. I’ve had a BMX all growing up but did my first feeble like 14 years ago and got my first real tattoo when I was 17.
And what point after that did you start tattooing, and how did you get in to it?
As for doing tattoos I’d say two and a half years that I’ve been really in to it but I did make a little DIY machine when I was 13 and also bought an online kit when I was 18 but never really got into it.
You mostly just tattooed your friends to start? The name ‘Dead Lee’ seems pretty fitting.
Ya pretty much I’d just tattoo myself and friends. The name came about in Vancouver when I think (Eric) Marshall called a tattoo I had done a Deadly tattoo, and with that came the name Dead Lee.
How many BMXFU tattoos have you done to date?
7 that I can think of at the moment but I’m sure I missed one or two.
You’ve been working at a legit tattoo shop now (Downtown Saint, 21 King Street, St. Catherine’s, ON). Tell me about that. How’s that been going?
Ya I’ve been at this shop for like a month now and I think it’s been awesome. It a great environment to work at.
Speaking personally, I know back when I was in school I was always interested in visual art. Art class in high school was the most engaging thing for me, until BMX hit me and art fell on the back burner. It was only after 4 or 5 years of riding that I fell in love with drawing and painting again and picked up pens and brushes. Did you have a similar experience, or have you always had a side interest in this?
All growing I’ve been into drawing, or anything art related and then when I started riding I just wanted to ride all day so the art definitely went on the back burner. Then when I got another tattoo kit I started drawing more and more now it takes up most of my off the bike time.
Your work is filled with bold lines and echoes of traditional American tattoo flash. How would you describe your style?
I definitely would say that I love bold American traditional tattoos so it has gotta come out in my work aleast a little. I’d say I’m more of a Canadian traditional tattoo style kinda guy, haha.
Tattoos have long since tipped in to the popular culture, and what was once a symbol of the counter culture has become commonplace. Do you see any parallels between tattooing and BMX, or do you regard them as completely separate?
Tattoos are very acceptable nowadays which I don’t mind. More the merrier. Real bikers have been tattooed long before the mainstream people have been so it’s in our blood to love tattoos I think.
Tattooing is obviously a large time commitment for both mastering the craft and just the daily schedule of working in a shop now. How do you juggle and balance that with the responsibilities and obligations you have as a professional BMX rider?
It’s probably the perfect job for a professional BMX rider. I get to pick the days I want to work around the weather pretty much which allows me to ride on the nice days or travel whenever I need to.
Do you find your sponsors are supportive of this endeavor, or do you treat them as two separate worlds?
Ya all my sponsors have no problems with what I’m doing.
Any paid professional rider at some point thinks of their life past pro riding. Do you view this as a long-term career you’re developing, or is this just what you’re in to at the moment?
I’m a day-by-day kinda guy so I’m not too concerned about planning anything too set in stone, but I’ve got plenty of endeavours I’d like to do. I plan on kicking ass on a bike for many more years.
What influences did you have when you first started, or who’s work influences you now?
Riding or tattooing? Riding, back in the day the first pro I met was JC (Jim Cienlencki) so I’ve always looked up to his riding. And I was a Criminal Mischief kid, so dudes like Jason Enns, Van Homan, and Kris Bennet were huge influences. Tattoo wise the internet is my influence whether it’s lurking tattoo blogs for hours or watching Youtube videos on tattooing. That’s where I get motivated to draw and tattoo.
Traditionally someone would apprentice under a skilled tattoo artist to learn and practice before they could call themselves one. You mentioned that you were self taught and just dove in to it. Why did you choose this route, and how exactly did you learn?
I was given a tattoo kit and started just by doing small tattoos on my leg, got the hang of it pretty fast and then I had a line up of friends that wanted something so I had lot of skin to practice on. I didn’t fuck too many up so thats good, haha.
How do you look back on those early pieces you may have given (either on yourself or to other people)?
Lucky for me I haven’t really done any real bad tattoos and few that I would have done a little different nowadays, but hey, you live and you learn.
Do you have any advice for someone trying to get in to the craft?
I’d say start with small tattoos and don’t get ahead of yourself. Buy good inks, it’ll help. Stare at every tattoo you see and break it down in your head.
If someone wants to get a tattoo from you, how should they go about it?
Any last words or things you wanted to mention?
Nope that is all
Thanks Lee. If you are in St. Catharine’s, ON and want to get tattooed make sure you hit up Lee at Downtown Saints located at 21 King Street.