Sunday, September 14, 2008

Dave Smalley on the "True Till Death" tattoo

Dave Smalley circa DYS, Photo: Gail Rush

If I had a dollar for every hideous straight edge tattoo I've seen during my relatively short tenure in hardcore, I'd be able to quit my job and work on Double Cross full time. At the same time, there is also some great stuff out there, and perhaps my personal favorite is Dave Smalley's iconic piece of straight edge shoulder ink. The inspiration for who-knows-how-many other tattoos and pieces of art, Dave's is where it all began. Read and learn...

-Gordo DCXX

This is another one of those entries that really hits home for me. Dag Nasty has been a long time favorite band of mine and "Can I Say" is most definitely one of my top ten favorite records ever. From the moment I first heard "Can I Say", there was something special about Smalley's voice, it seemed to bleed sincerity and came off very genuine and heartfelt. Reading interviews with Dave only reinforced what I thought I was hearing in the music. Then digging deeper and discovering DYS only furthered my respect and admiration. Even on to his early involvement with ALL, I was a fan.

Fast forward some years down the line and my band Mouthpiece is opening for Dave's then current band, Down By Law, at Trenton, New Jersey's City Gardens. I was psyched to say the least to meet Dave and made it a point to bring a copy of the first Mouthpiece 7", which had a drawn depiction of of Dave's "True Till Death" X'ed fist tattoo, on our lyric sheet. I also gave Dave a copy of the Mouthpiece "What Was Said" record which had a cover of DYS's "Open Up" as a bonus track on the CD. Upon meeting Dave, he couldn't have been friendlier and more welcoming. He gave off a genuine sense of appreciation for what I was showing and giving him with the Mouthpiece records. We spent a good chunk of the show talking and hanging out. Then when Down By Law hit the stage, they tore through a great set and finished with two Dag Nasty songs. The club erupted and I found myself spending the majority of those two songs on top of the crowd.

After years and years of wanting my own version of Smalley's "True Till Death" tattoo, late summer 2000 I actually got my own. With Mouthpiece, we sort of adopted a re-drawn version of the tattoo as a logo. We went on to use the fist on a number of different t shirt designs. With the combination of the Mouthpiece connection, the Smalley connection and of course the meaning behind the design, it was an image I was happy to place on my body for life. -Tim DCXX

Dave Smalley and Tim DCXX comparing tattoos, Photo: Traci McMahon

One of the D.Y.S. songs is called "Brotherhood," and the chorus has the lyrics "brotherhood -- true till death" in there. I can't remember whether I came up with the lyric first or the tattoo line itself. But all I do know is that once it hit me, it was emblazoned into my soul. You know, the thing about that period of time, and I think like this still, is that loyalty is extremely important. I probably value loyalty to and from friends more than anything else. I expect a good friend to take a bullet for me and I'd likewise take one for them, you know? The Boston Crew was very loyal to one another – disagreements sometimes, to be sure, but it was unity once the fights with the jocks or in other cities started, or once we were out spraypainting or hanging out in Kenmore Square.

And even today, I value each one of those guys, and what that time frame meant to me as a person, and to music and hardcore especially. True Till Death. And straight edge was such a vital component of all of that – it was really the glue that helped make the crew unbreakable. And when you're living that kind of lifestyle, where ideals really do matter, then it's not done in half-measures – it was till death.

Tony, Choke, Dave and Steve, Photo: Gail Rush

The X on a fist originally came from early show days, when clubs would put a huge X with a thick black marker on your hands to show you were underage, you couldn't get a drink at the bar. Of course, we didn't want to get a drink anyway – so we started to put Xs on our hands voluntarily. From there it became the symbol of straight edge, and as part of that, esp. in D.C. and Boston, a symbol of independence from all the expectations to conform and get wasted that were so prevalent then. So it wasn't like I invented the X for SE, it's just that I was the first one, or one of the first, I don't know, to do it as a tattoo. It just seemed to me that the way I wanted to put the ideals of all of that on my body for the rest of my life was to put it just like we did it everyday. I mean, sometimes I would put the X on my fists for so many days in a row, I'd get dizzy and sick from all the ink seeping into my skin, and the smell of those huge, thick markers was intense.

A girl who was part of the early Boston scene, named Julie, who was an excellent artist, drew it for me – a fist with a big X behind it. She did a great job. I think it pretty much came out the way I envisioned it.

I believe it was done at a place called Jim's Tattoo in New Hampshire. We had to drive out of state in those days to get inked, because tattoo studios were not legal in Massachusetts. Which is odd since the Combat Zone area of Boston had intense porno clubs, but yet you couldn't get inked.

Dave, Pat, Tony and Jonathan, Photo: Gail Rush

I think I got this the same time Choke and Jon and the other guys all got theirs done. We all went together to those places, one was Ruby's in Rhode Island, the other was Jim's in NH, and Jonathan and I got inked together in NYC the day we picked up the release of "Brotherhood." We all went together because there was this unspoken, maybe even unrealized bond that existed – whether it was subconscious or not, we knew we were in a tiny minority of kids, of punk/skater/hardcore kids who were SE – not many of us back then at all. Punk rock alone was a rebellion then, and being SE was even a rebellion inside a rebellion. So we ended up doing a lot of stuff together.

My story I remember about getting the fist was that, it was my first tattoo and I was really nervous. The tattooist, Jim, clearly knew that. I wouldn't even look at my arm when it first started. The other guys were all watching. Jim then said "Ooops…" like he'd made a huge mistake, and it was like, the color must've drained from my face, because everyone, including Jim, burst out laughing at my horrified expression. There was no real oops, thank God. He did a really good job.

I had no idea that the artwork would end up being the inspiration for other artwork. I'm totally honored to have seen it in so many places – albums, other people's tattoos, art on the walls, everything. It's a powerful symbol, and it stands for good things, so I'm psyched. It means a lot to me. The joy of that whole period is that there was no talk of what the future would hold – it was about burning bright, burning the candle at both ends every day – the good and the bad, the shows, the fights, it all just happened, and not a lot of concern about the future at all, you know?

I think if anyone had said to any of us – to any of the kids in different scenes across the country -- "your tattoo/band/crew/scene/whatever will still be remembered in 2008" no one would have believed it. It was very in the moment, and very sincere and honest. And that honesty is why it is still remembered fondly, I think.

The tattoo itself has held up pretty darned well considering it's been roughly 26 years on. Damn I'm old. But even though some of my tattoos aren't sparkly and shiny, I guess that's sort of a picture of where I've been and all the chaos, and good times too, I've been through. I was thinking of getting some of them touched up, and Brian Baker, actually, said "no way, just leave them like that – it's who you are, shows where you've been. If some are fading, messed up and old, that just shows you've earned 'em" or something to that effect – in other words, the fade tells as much as the picture. And I agree with that.

The term "True Till Death" meant the world to me then for all the ideals of loyalty – not just to the edge, but to friends and the crew. And I still think it's a damn good ideal to have in life.

Dave with DYS in Boston, Photo: Gail Rush


Bill Raid said...

This is definitely one of the best things I've read on this blog. Smalley is one of the most genuinely nice guys around and a great story teller to boot.

Anonymous said...

"Punk rock alone was a rebellion then, and being SE was even a rebellion inside a rebellion."

Yes! Well said.

DennisCrivits said...

Dave Smalley, what can I say....for me, he is the best singer ever.He gave me so much inspiration, he did so many different things......I was fortunate enough to me him and hang out after a Down By Law show in Rotterdam....I was so nervous, I wanted to tell him so many things, but all I could say was that he inspired me as a singer and gave him a Crivits "Truth Hurts" cd. He seemed genuinely happy with it and we talked about scooters, minimalism, hardcore....he was and probably is such a nice person. I always say that meeting Dave was the final chapter of my hardcore adventures, I met so many great people and when I met Dave it couldn't get any better....

xroldx said...

Damn I'm going to get the YOT fist tattooed on my leg in a couple of weeks but here you have me rethinking that all because of this blog.

thefleX said...

A few years ago I scored a backstage-pass at some Belgian Warped tour type of festival where Down By Law were playing? Around that time the guys in Reflex Records (the Belgian one) re-released the Wolfpack record. They asked me, since they didn't get backstage-passes, to bring Smalley to their merchtable. I thought it was kinda awkward to walk up to him to ask if he wanted to come, but he was really nice. Asked him a couple of questions, like what was up with the Bad Brains mocking dub that's on Wolfpack and such. He ended up signing my freshly purchased copy of Reflex Wolfpack with the words: "remember DYS loves the Bad Brains" or something like that. Nice guy for sure.

Anonymous said...

Beyond his stature in the Straight Edge scene, Dave is really a God-Father of sorts for all of Punk. He was one of the few, if not the only person, who was able to seamlessly move between the scenses and be successful. Boston, DC, LA. He is a man among men, he is loyal to the core a true mensch and I am honored to call him a freind.

flight23 said...

That is my favorite edge tattoo. It's cool that Dave still respects and has good things to say about Hardcore and Straight-Edge. Some people have the tendency to bash it so they can justify why they're not involved in it anymore.

Anonymous said...

"I mean, sometimes I would put the X on my fists for so many days in a row, I'd get dizzy and sick from all the ink seeping into my skin, and the smell of those huge, thick markers was intense."

Tan said...

You may want to check out some new and your dream tattoo design at