Santa Fe once had the smallest handful of tattoo shops. Good ones, anyway, or at least the type of places that had room for ethics and safety rather than a garage or flophouse from where some jamoke with a needle and a dream would scratch out infections for all comers. As shops now proliferate in greater numbers locally, however, tattoo artist Derek “Lefty” Mudry at Dawn’s Custom Tattoo (1100 Hickox St., (505) -986-0002) stands out with gorgeous work that takes advantage of simpler methods. But he’s doing so from a professional shop, making his mark with handpoke tattoos—created without the industry’s ubiquitous coil or rotary tattoo machines.
“When I started, I tried to give it more of an air of professionalism,” he tells SFR, noting that he’s self-taught and built up his expertise while playing in a touring band. “For me, it was because all my friends were dirty little punk rock kids who couldn’t afford to get tattoos.”
And sure, maybe Mudry’s first forays into the tattoo-o-sphere were less than pro, but his methods remain more or less unchanged even as he refines his practice in a professional setting: sterilized needles tied together with cotton thread, a bit of India ink and a keen passion for the more primal aspects of tattoo culture. Don’t forget—machines are relatively new, yet people have been getting inked up for eons.
Even a decade ago, a handpoke artist plying their trade in a reputable shop might have been unthinkable. Today, Mudry works out of Dawn’s Custom through an apprenticeship with longtime local artist Guide Baldini. Mudry can and does tattoo with machines, but, he says, most people seek him out for the handpoke work. Demand in Santa Fe has even become so large that the shop will host Colorado handpoke artist Melia Mariko in a guest spot on Friday, Nov. 17 and Saturday Nov. 18.
So why take this route when machine tattoos are so much quicker? In addition to the difference in sensations, handpoke is a more intimate and connective form of tattooing. It takes a little longer, stings a little differently than a machine-made tattoo—and it provides collectors with a different style and experience.
“Most people tend to enjoy it,” Mudry says, “even if they don’t think it’s better than machine tattooing. Not having the buzz of the machine is…I have a few neurodivergent clients, and the sound of the machine makes them so anxious.”
With handpoke, the anxiety melts away, he says, even as he posits the pieces are not for everyone.
“For certain areas [of the body], it has an advantage,” Mudry notes, “but it’s definitely a different feeling. I’m pretty quick now, though.”
And so his apprenticeship continues under Baldini, “so I can cross-train myself,” Mudry adds. Still, in a town like Santa Fe where new tattoo shops have popped up at an accelerated rate over the last 10 years, Mudry is one of the few dedicated handpoke artist working out of a storefront with safety protocols. Dawn’s Custom owner Dawn Purnell is, of course, a tattoo icon and learned under the legendary Four Star Tattoo progenitor Bill Wissman, while Baldini has decades in the biz. In other words, Mudry wouldn’t be there if he didn’t have the ability and dedication, so you can trust the process and the cleanliness.
“I always did sketches, but it was kind of funny because, for me, most of the stuff I drew was for graffiti reasons or, like, carving into a desk,” he says with a laugh. “It all led me to hand poke tattoo design—for punk rock reasons.”
Those are the best reasons, too!