On canvas and on skin - Albuquerque Journal

On canvas and on skin

“Natures Nest” by Dion Terry.

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Dion Terry slipped into a palette and brush after drawing with a needle on epidermis.

The tattoo artist creates a menagerie of anthropomorphic animals – mainly birds in top hats and bowlers, some sprouting antlers – he conjures in a fantasy world of eerie surrealism.

Born on the Navajo Nation in Fort Defiance, Arizona, the San Diego resident had always been fascinated by tattoos, despite a fear of needles.

“I got my first tattoo when I was 16,” he said. “It was graffiti on my back.”

He began an apprenticeship with a local artist, but left due to lack of funds.

“San Diego’s expensive,” he explained. “When you’re going through an apprenticeship, you have to pay them and you’re not making any money.”

He turned to painting, encouraged by his friends.

“I was like, ‘I need something to paint,’ ” he said, “and they said, ‘Paint birds.’ ”

At first, the self-taught artist depicted his flocks in Victorian clothing.

“I just had fun with it,” he said. “I think because I was painting them a little dark, they kind of took on a personality.”

Terry began selling his work at a local farmer’s market, hoping to make dinner money. In the meantime, he completed his tattoo apprenticeship. He still practices his needle art at San Diego’s Even Keel Tattoo on Pacific Beach. He shows his fine art work at Santa Fe’s Keep Contemporary.

“I paint, I make art, I’ve done graphic design,” he said. “To me, it’s just another medium to explore.”

A visit to San Francisco proved a turning point. He went to what he calls an “obscurity store,” where he spotted stuffed pigeons and doves in prom dresses. It was an “Aha” moment. He approached the manager.

“I said, ‘I want to paint birds in outfits and I want your permission,’ ” he said. “She said, ‘People have been painting animals in outfits for 400 years.’ ”

The tradition lives on through one click of the internet.

Today, Terry has enlarged his canvasses by up to four-by-four feet, mixing elements of the Earth and nature. He calls his approach “a Neo-Native American take on Native American spiritual art.”

“I keep religion out of it,” he said. “I keep God and the devil out of my art. It’s more of a nature thing. There’s no good and no evil; it’s just what animals do.”

A glance at his Instagram account reveals a variety of tattoos: the expected skulls and devil heads mixed with portraits of otters, moths, koi and lions.

Next year, he will be showing his work in Stockholm. In the meantime, he juggles his dual passions.

“I’ll paint and not want to do anything else,” he said. “I’ll tattoo and not want to do anything but tattoos. It’s a different beat. You’ve got to turn off one switch and turn on the other.”

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