Even in a room full of people as diverse and unique as tattooers, Gavan Daly—better known as “Knarly Gav” in the tattoo world—still stands out. It might be the nest of dreadlocked hair resting atop his head that initially draws the attention of clients and other artists, but it’s Daly’s over-the-top personality that leaves a more lasting impression.
“My best friend was going through a pretty big life change and decided to go to massage therapy school, so I said ‘Okay, then I’m going to tattoo’ and just kind of picked it,” Daly recalls. “I was inspired by a really cool flash book [called Revisited - A Tribute to Flash from the Past]. There were a couple of gypsy heads from an unknown source that Chris Conn had repainted in there, and I just thought it was the coolest-looking art. I’d never really seen traditional tattoos done like that before, and it just changed something inside of me. After that, I’d tell people that I was going to be a tattoo artist, and they’d think I was crazy because I didn’t even know how to draw.”
It didn’t take long for Daly to call a friend of his who’d been tattooing for a while to figure out what his next steps should be. After learning that the best way to land an apprenticeship would be to have a sketchbook full of his best artwork, Gav realized he’d need to either spend years working on his drawing skills or take a slightly different approach to it. With a few dozen tattoo designs traced from other flash to beef up his portfolio and fool shop owners, Knarly Gav’s career as a tattooer began at a little tourist shop in South Carolina run by some veteran artists who’d recently made their way over from Savannah, Georgia.
“They knew I could bring some people in because they knew I was crazy and a little bit wild,” Daly says. “That’s kind of how my life has been. When skateboarding was big, they brought me and my brother into the skate shop to sell a lot of stuff. When bungee jumping was big, they put us out on the street to get people to come in. They all liked that I was a little bit crazy and knew a lot of people, so a lot of people would come in. It really helped me launch my career because not only did I tattoo on some of the locals, but also on so many tourists since Hilton Head Island is such a big tourist town.”
Within a few months of beginning his apprenticeship, Daly evolved from simply being a shop mascot and promoter to knocking out roughly a dozen tattoos per day on friends, locals, and tourists alike. Although he might not necessarily recommend the trial by fire method to others looking to follow in his footsteps, jumping into the industry so quickly forced the young artist to learn the business side of tattooing even more rapidly than his artistic skills could grow.
With the aspects of storytelling and customer service mastered, Knarly Gav made the leap from a walk-in shop in a small tourist town to a high-end studio in a huge city before he’d even really figured out what style of artwork he liked to do. Shortly after that move, Daly began creating the first handful of unique, perplexing, and often ridiculous designs that have since become his bread and butter both in the tattoo world as well as on canvas—without even beginning to mention the love he gets for them on social media.
“I was at a really fancy custom shop in New York City, so I was painting a lot because I wasn’t doing very many walk-ins,” Daly says. “That’s when I painted the eagle skateboarder, the wolf in wolf’s clothing, the cat, the gypsy head, and all that stuff. One day in the summer, it was so hot that I decided to put a watermelon in there because watermelon’s good for summer. The shape of it just fit the cat great, and that night I started telling people ‘Well, I do this really cool design of a cat eating a watermelon, and that’s kind of my thing.’ I started advertising that design, and people were getting it. I did two of them the first night, and my coworkers were astounded.”
To the uninitiated, many of Knarly Gav’s signature works — such as the tiger-like cat eating a slice of watermelon (although now often replaced by virtually any other food or object the client desires), the bald eagle with model-esque legs riding a skateboard, and the three-faced gypsy woman with four eyes — may not make a whole lot of sense. To even more, some of Daly’s work may seem rough around the edges or fall far outside of common tattoo styles. But those who are most familiar with the artist’s style realize that even while breaking a fundamental rule or two of American traditional tattoos, virtually everything Gav does can be traced back to the roots of Western tattooing.
“When I first started drawing to become a tattoo artist, I just drew all day long and didn’t have any training,” Daly says. “My drawings were really unique because I was so untrained, and when I started tattooing, they told me ‘You need to forget about this and learn anatomy and mechanical drawing and perspective and all that kind of stuff.’ I kind of did by studying old flash and ‘90s flash — I even did a bit of realistic stuff, which I sort of had a knack for somehow. But once I got the hang of tattooing, I went back to my loosely drawn stuff with a couple little funny sayings. I used some of my training to fine tune some of my ideas and the ideas that some of my clients would ask me to do. I’m the one who ends up holding the pencil and drawing it, but sometime I don’t know where it comes from. I just happen to be there when it does.”
Beyond worrying about what critics and tattoo elitists believe, the primary motivation of Knarly Gav has rarely strayed even since before his tattooing journey began. More than anything, Daly likes to make people smile and laugh as much as possible. Sometimes that means offering a goofy phrase or writing things like “3-D Butterfly W/ A Drop Shadow” in his childish lettering for a joke tattoo, and sometimes it’s just about experimenting with ideas and designs until he finds the right balance of his own artwork and the client’s ideal piece. Now with a following that many tattooers can only dream of gaining, Gav’s proven that not taking himself or his artwork too seriously can be the key to not only spreading joy, but also creating a successful career his own way.
“Art that can make people laugh is really a whole different level of art in itself, because if you can make someone laugh with your art, that’s a gift,” Daly says. “This style of really janky homemade tattoos has been really big, so when I started doing really simple lettering, people loved it. A lot of people are doing the prison tattoos and the Russian criminal tattoos, and they’re getting really tattooed up, and I think some of it is a little tongue in cheek. That’s one of the things I do a lot of, and it comes easy for me because it’s just my natural hand style. Some of them — like the triple face — are actually very strict line drawings that have to be done very clean to look cool. If it doesn’t look clean and well-done, it just falls short of that humor. It’ll just look like a bad tattoo instead of a good tattoo that’s maybe drawn a little bit poorly.”