Full interview with Darren McKeag, first appearing in Gnarly Magazine issue #3. Pick up a copy here.
"Born and raised in Iowa, I started drawing at a very young age. I grew up reading Cartoons magazine. I would always get lectured in school for handing in papers that had skulls, flames, motorbikes, and trucks drawn on the margins. I joined the Army when I was 17, finished high school, and put myself through art school. My memory goes back to growing up on my Dad's '65 Panhead. The images of David Mann's centerfolds have been embedded in my brain for life. Art, motorbikes, hot rods, blowing shit up after dark and running against the norm of society have been a part of my entire life.
Three years ago, my best friend and soulmate found me and saved my life. I have been sober for three years and my art and inner-self have blossomed. I have Missy to thank for everything. A normal day for me starts about 6:30 am, coffee, chores etc. I draw every morning and then make my way to the tattoo studio by 10:30. I'm usually out of the tattoo studio by 5 pm, where I make my way home and visit with my family. By 6 pm, I'm down in my home studio painting motorbikes, skate decks, helmets and surfboards and anything I can get my hands on. I have several commissioned projects going. I try to make my way back upstairs by 11 pm, where I'll knock out another drawing or two. Social media is a constant hustle for me and very good for my art."
GNARLY: Are you a self-taught artist or an art school guy?
DARREN: I'm a little of both. Even though I have art school diplomas, I have taught myself everything I know how to do. I received a certificate of completion from The Art Institute of Minneapolis when I was a young teenager. Back in the day, the TV Guides had a "Draw Skippy" or another character. The school liked my art, so they sent a representative down and enrolled me in classes. It was basic techniques, lighting, shading, perspective, etc. I have an AA Graphic Arts degree from Hawkeyes Community College, in Iowa. Oddly enough, the techniques I use today to create my own style of art, are techniques and factors that I didn't learn in school. I'm sure there are some basics that I use daily that I was taught, however, I taught myself how to draw bikes, cars, characters, flames, skulls, etc. My entire K through 12 schooling, I was lectured for handing in papers with skulls, flames and hot rods drawn in the margins. The teachers would lecture me, saying, you can't do this. I replied this is all I want to do.
Would you say you’re a tattooer who also paints or a painter who also tattoos?
Tattooing came into my life in my early twenties. I was drawing and painting long before my tattoo years.
Your style is very unique. Is that something you worked hard at doing or was it just one of those things where you got lucky in that your artwork was naturally a unique style?
The style I'm mostly known for was something I just happened upon and it became very popular. I would say that I'm mostly known for my black and white art. Collages of skulls, bikes, cars, etc. I couldn't begin to tell you how I came up with this style. I've been drawing and composing elements like this my entire life. I'm guessing social media has helped expose my art.
Who are your influences
My wife is the most influential person in my life. However, I believe you're being art specific, so I will tell you that David Mann, Kenneth Howard, George Trosley to name a few. I have several friends in the art world and they all have some sort of influence on me: Jeremy Pederson @Relic_kustoms, Scott Takes @scott_takes_underground, Paul Cox @paulcoxindustries, George Frizzell
@georgethepainter and Jimmy Frizzell @jimmy_suicide. These are people I know personally, who are amazing artists and even more amazing human beings.
Do you stay local or do you hop around and work/sell in different states?
From 2007 until 2015, I literally traveled the country and the world, promoting my art. Social media has allowed me to build my home studio, stay put in one spot and create art for clients all over the world, all while being at home with my family. I have displayed my art in Moscow Russia, at The TripOut in England, I have shown my art in Birmingham England, I have displayed my sketches and drawings at Mooneyes in Japan. My paintings, helmets, tanks, and surfboards have been on display from LA to New York in this country and lots of shows in between.
Tell me about your sobriety and how it’s helped you grow as an artist?
My sobriety came as a result of my wife finding me and saving me. Missy and I met in 2014 and about 3 months into our relationship, we both made the decision to become and stay sober. As a result, my art has literally blossomed into one of the most rewarding aspects of my life. Being sober has allowed me to focus on the important things in life, like family, art, being a good person and remembering the memories.
If you don’t mind getting personal, what were you struggling with and what words of wisdom can you give other artists who are struggling addiction?
As much as I would like to say I wasn't addicted to alcohol, it was a part of my everyday life. Some days it was what I focused on most. Looking back, it's most likely because I wasn't happy. As far as words of wisdom go, I'm no philosopher and different words work for different people. However, if you find yourself alone, thinking about your problem while messed up or questioning it the morning after, you probably should change your ways. If you need help doing that, definitely seek it. I was lucky enough to have someone find me. Be true to yourself and those around you and good things will happen in your life.
What are some of your most current and interesting projects?
Most recently, I finished up a coffin tank that was lined with velvet and displayed a tattooed pigs foot. I'm currently working on a surfboard for a very popular, upcoming art show. I'm also working on painting a Honda Trail 50 – it's going to be super wicked.
What is one project you’re especially proud of?
My David Mann surfboard is the one piece of art that comes to mind.
I created this board a few years back for the David Mann Chopperfest. They had asked me to recreate David's "Sunset Strip" painting in my style.
What is your thought process when determining a look for one of your tank/helmet/canvas paintings?
My thought process is mental and abnormal. Believe it or not, ideas come to me in my sleep. Most often I take my canvas – whether a tank, helmet or quarter panel – and leave it sitting around for weeks, just so I can stare at it daily. Often times, the canvas will tell me what will work best for it.
Do you find that you’re backed up with projects or are you one of those artists that have the ability to work very fast with a high-quality end result?
I'm definitely backed up with multiple projects. Which, in my opinion, is a good thing. I'm constantly taking on new projects and my list of commissioned art doesn't necessarily get done in the order I received them. It all depends on how my brain is working. My turnaround times on art can vary a lot. Typically I can turn around a tank or helmet in about 3 to 4 weeks. Entire motorbikes take much longer and commissioned paint jobs can take longer if I have sketches, logos, and t-shirt art to create for clients. A typical day for me starts anywhere from 5:30 am to 6:30 am. I usually make coffee and create a morning sketch. I'll work on commissioned drawings, while the sun comes up. From there, I'll go down to my studio and paint. Package any order that needs to go out. I will make my way to the tattoo shop and tattoo from 11 am until 4 or 5 pm. I return home to spend time with my family, do more drawing, return to the basement to paint and try to create a final drawing by 11 or 12.
How involved do you like a client to be with a commissioned piece?
I like a client to be involved as little as possible. The slightest details are all I prefer so that they are going to get the most original McKeag art piece possible; tattoo-wise, painting-wise and sketch-wise.
Do you have any horror stories about a client who maybe wanted to be overly involved in the creative?
Oh holy hell, I could write a book on my experiences with over-involved clients. Anymore, with email and messaging, I can usually get a feel for what people are wanting and how involved they are or what freedoms they are willing to give me. From here I can decide if I want to take the job.
What tips would you share with up and coming artists on creating the most visually impactful design and navigating the competitive field of art?
Draw every day. Eat, sleep and breathe your art. Be true to yourself and your art and most importantly, don't browse social media for influences.