On two occasions, a pre-adolescent Tyler James Densley fell asleep to a rerun of a movie on the USA network, where a high school teenager drinks magic prune juice and gains telekinetic powers. Both times, Densley subsequently awoke in a dream-like state that he simultaneously hated and loved: Time slowed down, his vision blurred and he would stumble to the bathroom, dry heaving. He somehow figured out that, in order for the dry heaving to cease, he had to concoct nonsensical math problems in his head, and then speak these formulas aloud. Densley, now an LSD shock troop, retrospectively refers to these twin experiences as his “first hallucinations.” Growing up as a straight edge, guilt-wrecked Mormon boy from Midway, Utah, Densley was certainly a backward letter in a spell-checked town.
Maybe these spontaneous hallucinations make more sense since Densley discovered that he is dyslexic about a year ago. Looking back on these strange childhood occurrences, he smirks and says, “I like the letters.” Densley still finds solace in producing odd grapheme combinations, which now accompany psychedelic images of repeating, grimy mouths and early 20th-century-styled cartoons within his work as a visual artist and tattooer at Cathedral Tattoo. In regard to his artistic style, Densley’s approach has formed as a composite of various factors in his development into an adult and onward. “Growing up Mormon and being straight edge most of my life, I had these weird inklings to do hallucinogens,” says Densley. “I always, in the back of my mind, thought that I would like to hallucinate—be able to see outside of what I know, be able to see a cartoon in my head.” Densley followed this desire and began taking hallucinogens. What he found were commonalities between what he liked about American traditional tattooing, his fondness for cartoons and his psychedelic experiences. He says, “I like things that have a nice initial graphic sense, but it’s not until looking at it for hours on end or in a completely altered mindset that you really appreciate it and you see everything.” Densley has acted on mixing his tastes in tattooing with a cogent style that is all his own—one might notice the hallucinogenic influence after looking at one of his skulls, whose eyes project stars with translucent, red tails, which appear three-dimensional. “I’m kind of shocked that people haven’t tried to put that into tattooing … [Psychedelia and tattooing are] very closely knit. It’s like being incredibly intentional and making the most effective product by simplifying as much as you can.” In light of an upcoming zine that he is releasing, Densley will use his altered mind states and the medium of tattooing to expose Salt Lake City to a dose of his own glorious hallucination.
Densley witnessed his older siblings’ friends getting tattoos when they came of age, and knew that he wanted to be a tattoo artist when he was 12. “I’d always drawn. It was like a compulsive thing to do when I was younger … When I found something that I really liked, and wanted to work toward, that thing was Americana tattooing,” he says. Additionally, he hated Midway as a child. When he ventured out to California a couple of times to see hardcore shows, he fell in love with it as a mecca of everything that wasn’t his hometown. After graduating at 16 by “cheating his way through a Mormon high school,” he initially settled in Santa Monica, managed health food stores and began tattooing when he was 19. Densley ended up in a shop in San Diego, the city in which he would cultivate his tattooing skills and use as a home base to periodically visit Tijuana, Mexico to perform amateur dentistry. In 2004, San Diego gave birth to hardcore band Lewd Acts, with Densley on vocals. Once he found that he could control people and direct their attention as the vocalist of an aggressive band, he took advantage of the limelight and “would do insane, self-destructive things,” he says. “I had 12 staples in my head after trying to break a champagne bottle over my head because I was playing a show drunk and on acid, and thought it was a beer bottle.” After attempting to break the glass over his cranium twice, his “vision went hot … My face was caked in blood,” he says.