Acid Math strings together experiences as Densley has seen them from within his hallucinogenic consciousness, starting from his initial, non-drug hallucinations as a child. Photo: Jesse Anderson
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.
“Part of the reason I left San Diego was because that band was done,” says Densley. “I think that was keeping me there for a long time.” The belligerent screamer found that he had become a caricature of himself onstage, which scared him into moving to Salt Lake about a year and a half ago. Once he arrived back to his home state, he hit what he textually refers to as a “(s)low point.” He says, “Not being an established tattooer here made it so I wasn’t busy. I honestly don’t know what to do with my time if I’m not tattooing all day.” Densley resorted to superfluous day-drinking and marijuana-smoking in order to pass the time. He recalls searching for ways to get himself to fall asleep at night, being generally restless all the while. Through this slump of artistic inertia, however, is where Densley paradoxically rediscovered his stride. Rather than being constantly dictated what his art would depict from tattoo clients, he reformed his stasis into a canvas onto which he reproduced his inner, acid-stained eye. He says, “It was [also] good because I was drawing a lot and I was painting more, and it allowed me to explore more aspects of my illustration side—and do things for myself. It had been a very long time [since] I could sit down and just draw and paint for myself.” Upon signing on with Cathedral, Densley soon found that his Salt Lake clientele would allow him to ink their skin with work that was uniquely his own. As somebody who feeds off a client’s trust in his vision as a tattooer, this was a perfect predicament for Densley. Though Densley is not above putting what a client wants on their own skin, he feels that he creates the best product when the client allows him to exercise his expertise as a seasoned tattooer and impart his knowledge unto them. He says, “If I’m not putting everything into each tattoo, then I don’t feel like I’m doing justice to myself as a tattooer or the client.”
Since Densley’s creative reawakening, he has ventured to recreate what he sees in his hallucinogenic experiences through various visual media. His upcoming zine strings together experiences as Densley has seen them from within his hallucinogenic consciousness, starting from his initial, non-drug hallucinations as a child: Densley calls it Acid Math (LSD > LDS). The inequality equation of “LSD > LDS” indicates the spirituality that Densley unearthed within himself via hallucinogens, which was never supplied to him through the LDS church. He says, “Religion was just a whole lot of guilt, and hallucinogens have made me get rid of a lot of that guilt … You kind of realize your place in the universe—you’re nothing. It took me feeling that way to [be] … OK with certain aspects in my life. Acid has brought me to a state [that] I don’t think I could’ve got to with a sober, conscious mind.” Densley’s covenant to this sense of inner being has been this experiment to translate his subconscious through the loopholes of a hallucination as it comes out through his drawings, paintings and writing. “The things that I think about while hallucinating are very linear, and it kind of comes out,” he says. “I don’t like to have any preconceived notions of what I’m writing or drawing … Later—it could be months later—I can look at it and dissect my subconscious.”
One example to draw from as to what to expect from Densley’s visual musings may well be the use of mouths in his work. He externalizes his preconscious disgust with his own mouth by illustrating foul, rotting mouths with bumpy tongues in his tattoo work. He says, “I actually hate my mouth … That’s my fucking gross fractal.” A similar dynamic comes to play with Acid Math—preliminary sketches display Densley’s cartoon work (e.g. a dog using a giraffe as a chair) with an enigmatic morbidity: “There’s some innocence to it, but I don’t feel like I’m that innocent, so when it comes out, it has aspects of other things,” he says. Additionally, Densley’s visual fixation on graphemes will shine through as he incorporates snippets of language in these pieces: “I love letters and have fallen in love with everything that you can do with lettering … It’s writing, but not. The writing is incorporated [into] the drawing.” Densley has undertaken this work in order to satiate his need to constantly be creating and making for himself, but also to share his final product. “Even though I never go into it with the idea that I hope people identify with it, in some regard, I hope that they do,” he says.
Upon Acid Math’s release, Densley will take a break from acid. “This whole experience has been an experiment to see the limits of myself, but I don’t want to be caught up in it. I realize I’m glorifying it to a certain degree,” he says. He will unleash his zine on Nov. 11 at Copper Palate Press (coincidentally, 11 is a number with which Densley obsesses). It will consist of visual work such as screen printing, letter-press, black-and-white photo copy, color photo copy and transparency—as mixed-media as he can get it, but with little “tattoo-y stuff.” As far as the price goes, the final cost will be just as much a surprise to him as it will to us—“I don’t know, fuckin’ 10 bucks? 20 bucks? We’ll see,” he says. For more information, contact Densley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not only should you pick up Acid Math (LSD > LDS)—because it’s sure to be aesthetically engrossing—but also, look into Densley’s paintings and his tattoo work to get the all-around experience of his hallucinatory perceptions. He’s ardent in what he’s doing—“A day that I’m not creating is not really a day,” he says.