Gavan Daly was just a young boy when he first learned the value of hard work—and the importance of having fun while doing it. His parents, both of whom had full-time jobs but hustled at their music careers on the side, were his prime examples. Following in their footsteps, the now 46-year-old New York based tattooer (he’s originally from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina) who’s better known as “Knarly Gav,” almost never stops working, and he loves every second of it.
Daly has an open-door policy. He doesn’t have set studio hours and instead will work until the work is done and every client gets tattooed (sometimes that means he’s tattooing until late into the night). He didn’t always dream of being a big-time tattoo artist, though. Instead, he began his professional career as a musician, too. Decades before he found his footing as a tattoo artist in the Big Apple, he was touring across the country in a band he fronted with his brother.
It was around that same time—in the 1980s and ‘90s—that Daly became interested in tattoos and began getting some of his own. Still, he traveled and toured for over two more decades as a musician (during which time he moved to New York where he regularly busked in Times Square and did a one-time stint playing for the New York Philharmonic) before finally deciding to pursue tattooing as a career; a decision he made on a whim.
“My best friend from the music industry had been going through a hard time in the mid-2000s,” he recalls. “He was really into drugs and got into some trouble and ended up going to jail. I talked to him while he was away and he decided that when he got out he was going to become a massage therapist; the jail would pay for his training. So I was like, ‘Oh okay, well then I’m gonna be a tattoo artist.’ He laughed and told me I was crazy because at the time I couldn’t draw at all. But I decided I was going to learn.”
Realizing the first step of the process would be to find an apprenticeship, Daly began reaching out to tattoo shops. However, because his drawing ability was so weak, every studio turned him away (even when he tried to sweeten the deal by baking them cookies). Unemployed and desperate for an apprenticing gig, he decided to cheat and forged his entire portfolio.
He was putting in 10 hours of work a day to improve his drawing skills, but in the meantime he also compiled a book of flash designs that he had stolen. The designs were of American Traditional style staples—think: eagles, wolves, and pin-up girls—lifted from photos of tattoos he saw in books and online. His lie worked. Soon enough, he had secured a spot as an apprentice at a shop run by acquaintances in South Carolina, so he packed up his New York life and headed back home.
“In 2008 I started working as an apprentice in South Carolina to build up my gumption,” he explains. “I knew I wasn’t planning to stay there forever, but it was a decent gig. The folks from the shop there knew that I knew a ton of people in the area [it was located in Hilton Head Island, where Daly grew up] and that I could bring clients in, so they sort of let me loose. Soon, I was doing as many as a dozen tattoos a day, but I wasn’t doing my own designs. My pieces were all kind of weird and funny [much like the designs he tattoos now] and the shop owner wanted me to do the classics instead—like the eagle, rose, panther, and grim reaper.”
“Once I was more comfortable tattooing, I decided to move to California because I figured there would be more opportunity there. I got a job at a really fancy tattoo shop, but I’m not exactly a fancy guy—I would skateboard to the studio everyday and I had long hair. So it wasn’t exactly my vibe.” It didn’t take long for him to make his way back to his forever home on east coast, settling in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. This was five years into his career, in 2013. “I did a bunch of guest spots here and would just talk to people around town about tattoos as a way of finding clients and making myself more known. When clients came in, I’d tattoo any idea they threw at me, which really helped me learn.”
His willingness to experiment with designs and his unorthodox approach to attracting clients (he would sometimes stand outside whatever tattoo shop he was guesting at and ask every passerby if they wanted a tattoo until someone agreed), helped him gain traction as an artist and hone his signature style. “Primitive, funny American Traditional” is how Daly describes the designs for which he’s come to be known. Some of his most popular recurring flash pieces include a three-headed woman, a dinosaur wearing roller skates, and—the most famous of all his designs—a cat eating a slice of watermelon. His humorous takes on the traditional style have led him to amass a large fan base over the past decade.
One of those fans is the rapper Lil Debbie. After she got tattooed by Daly in 2014, his career exploded. “The Lil Debbie piece put me on the map,” he says. “When she posted my tattoo, it sent me from like 1,000 followers to 3,000 followers, and back then that was a big deal.” Shortly afterwards he tattooed the (now Golden Globe winning) actor Awkwafina, who got one of his cat designs on her left arm; one of her most visible tattoos.
When asked about the origins of his most popular cat design, the watermelon cat, Daly recalls a time shortly after moving back to New York. When he wasn’t tattooing, he would paint. “That’s when I first painted a bunch of my popular flash pieces like the eagle skateboarder, the cat, and the triple head lady. I’m not sure why exactly I painted the watermelon cat, but one day it was hot out and I just decided putting a watermelon in the cat’s mouth was a good idea. Maybe it’s South Carolina in me, since watermelons grow there. I realized that if I didn’t outline the top of the watermelon with black, it gave it a watercolor look which I thought was really cool. I decided that was my signature design. The day I drew it for the first time I ended up tattooing it on two different walk-ins.”
Now, over a decade into his career, Daly shows no signs of slowing down. “I started tattooing to make money, but it became a love,” he says. He regularly spends half the year traveling across the U.S. doing guest spots, and his books always fill up quickly. “I’m already almost fully booked for my travels this spring,” he reveals. “I’m truly blessed by the clients. I put out the word that I’m traveling and the next day I’ll have 25 booked appointments. It’s a real blessing.”