We had the good fortune of connecting with Dennis (Dizzy) Doan and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Dennis (Dizzy), how has your work-life balance changed over time?
In the early days of my tattoo career, tattoos were still somewhat perceived as being taboo. The craft had just started to gain popularity and began to take off towards the path to acceptance thanks to TV shows like Miami Ink. When I dropped out of SDSU and forfeited my academic scholarship, ultimately giving up my goal of becoming a plastic surgeon- I would have to admit that it was indeed an irrational decision due to the high risk factor of NOT succeeding in turning my craft of passion into a career. There were those around me who had told me I wouldn’t get anywhere with this “hobby” of mine. Being from a Vietnamese family that highly frowned upon tattoos and having an older brother who is a doctor did not help the situation much either.. But I was young, careless, and stubborn. So I told myself I wouldn’t turn back and got my neck tattooed the same day I withdrew from college. The early years consisted of working 18-20 hours a day almost every day. I wasn’t making much money- having to sacrifice my pride to make an impact in the tattoo world. I did free tattoos, I even picked up clients from their homes to bring them to their appointments. I tattooed myself if there were no clients on any given day. I lived mainly off of tips, as most of the income I made off of tattooing went into paying for the new business itself. Lucky for me- although at the time it was difficult to get INTO the tattoo industry, it was easier to stand out because tattoo artists were scarcer. Being an Asian-American tattoo artist also put me in a totally separate category. There weren’t many of us in San Diego at the time. I was also one of the youngest registered tattoo artists in San Diego history (San Diego Department of Environmental Health said so). This proved to be both a curse and a blessing. Clients associated skill with age in those days. Regarding work life, simply speaking- I had no life. I was 18 when I started what is now known as BLVCK LOTVS TATTOO with my former business partner so I did not get to enjoy the pleasantries or luxuries of youth. My relationships with friends and family had to be sacrificed. I wasn’t always sure that it would be worth it- but I knew I had the will to force myself to succeed. Coming from a poor family of first generation immigrants from Vietnam pushed me to strive and excel at all costs, I felt the overbearing pressure of not taking my parents’ sacrifices for granted. I would tattoo people at 2AM or 7AM- it didn’t matter to me. Beggars can’t be choosers. To this day, I still have the same mentality- except I feel that I have now undoubtedly earned the luxury of having clients wait years for my work rather than me waiting and begging for their business. The days of passing out business cards and going to parties to promote myself are over. Nowadays, I cringe when I have to talk about tattoos outside of my work environment. Haha. It wasn’t until I met my wife about 10 years after my business had launched that I began to focus on my physical and mental health. She helped me change my perception and work smarter, not harder. It is still difficult for me to delegate work- but I am getting better each day. I now force myself to take a few days off every month and strictly work only 12 hours a day tattooing. However, I admit I am guilty for also working about 4 hours at home every night as well. I also occupy myself with graphic design, business consulting, my clothing company BLVCK LOTVS THREADS and occasional philanthropic collaborations to try and give back to the community in my capacity. I still deal with each individual client personally rather than trusting any random assistant to do so for me. A “workaholic” will forever be an understatement to describe who I am, but it’s all habitual to me at this point.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I’ve studied a lot of artists over the years that are worthy of admiration, whether it be tattoo artists of contemporary artists. I’ve studied different forms of art and the history behind the creations themselves. But apart from fine and historic art, there is also street art. I grew up in a rough neighborhood, surrounded by rough individuals. So at the beginning of my journey- I actually specialized in prison style art. I later refined this black & grey realistic style to intertwine with my ever-growing background in Asian art. So you can say that I am known for this style. However, when it comes to tattooing- I honestly like doing everything and trying everything. You have to keep an open mind to succeed in this ever-changing world. Do not misconstrue your success and think that you do not have to keep the momentum going. In this day and age- the moment you fall off will be the moment you fail. I taught myself how to tattoo at a young aged, so it took me longer to reach my goals- but I wouldn’t have it other way because the mistakes I have made and sacrifices I have made are now embedded in me and my work ethic. Don’t ever let your ego get too big. Your customers from Day 0 are the ones who made you and should always be treated like royalty. Keep up with the times, educate yourself, and stay humble. There should be no excuse to do otherwise with all of this accessible knowledge at your fingertips and a new kind of social fabric to assist you on your journey. When I started my journey, there were no YouTube videos that taught you how to tattoo, no Instagram tattoo artists you can follow and study. There were only books and magazines. Today’s generation is beyond blessed to have these avenues. Know that there is no end. It took me years to become an overnight success. In conclusion- the most impactful lesson that this journey has taught me is that you have to go about your career with this goal in mind – “Work to live. Not live to work.” Sometimes you get so caught up in the momentum and you are afraid to lose whatever success you have gained.. but those gains will dilute if you burn yourself out and have no more passion left to give at the end of the day. So get to know yourself, discipline yourself, and balance yourself. Diversify if you have to do so to keep your flame of entrepreneurship strong, but only do so if you have an equal amount of energy to give those businesses with your own life in mind.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If a friend was visiting the area, the first stop would definitely be to go grab a cigar and a drink at Churchill Cigar Lounge in Old Town. Haha. Then of course the night would have to end with dinner at maybe Born & Raised in Little Italy. I am undoubtedly a foodie, so I am just going to name a few of my favorite restaurants- Bleu Boheme in Kensington, Truluck’s in La Jolla, Little Sheep hot pot in Clairemont, Taegugki Korean BBQ in Clairemont, or simply any WingStops or Lolita’s Mexican food! Any visitor to San Diego should definitely visit the Zoo, Seaworld, the beaches, and the hiking trails. Honestly, with the weather we have here, an individual can enjoy simply walking around the Gaslamp, Balboa Park, or Del Mar. We are very blessed.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I would like to thank my artists at BLVCK LOTVS TATTOO for staying loyal to the shop and dedicating just as much effort and passion into this craft and this business as I do. They have allowed me to comfortably delegate the burdens of running a business onto them with no complaints. When you have people by your side that can read your mind and help you without you needing to ask- you consider those people family. I see these guys every single day. And although at times we have our disagreements, at the end of the day we are always laughing again. I would give my life for any of these stand-up individuals. I’d especially like to thank all my clients, who I consider friends, for constantly supporting not only my tattoo journey, but any journey for the matter. You have helped carry my business to unforeseen heights and you give me the energy to wake up and do this each and every day. Thank you for the love, the stories, the wisdom, and your trust.