October 2020

Zen and the Art of Knarly Gav

Author: Barry Kaufman

Photography by Steven Diaz

His tattoos adorn the likes of world-famous celebrities and local-famous islanders alike. But don’t let the smiling cat with the watermelon mouth fool you. The art of Knarly Gav is far more than skin deep.

To speak with Gavan Daly is to leap feet-first into a whirlwind. Sometimes it’s all you can do to stay upright and fly with the wild swirl of the current. His is a cyclically churning train of thought on love, life, spirituality, veganism (he hasn’t touched red meat since 1992), winning the very public fitness challenge against his brother Jevon (“I beat him on stage presence”), and even the odd annoyances that manage to penetrate his tranquility (among them, smokers, pollution, and alcohol), while remaining centered on a single constant. Like a whirlwind, there is an eye to the storm, and at its center, you’ll find the soul of the man they call Knarly Gav.

And in that soul at the center of the whirlwind, you’ll find a love of expression and the unique ability it has to change lives. “That’s the magic of art. It reaches you on a spiritual level. But there’s always music. Music is what reaches people,” he said, while being interviewed over the phone in an abundance of COVID-related caution. “The person who taught me that is my mom. That’s what she was, and that’s what she instilled in me, and that’s where I’m coming from.”

If you look hard enough at the soul in the middle of that whirlwind, you’ll notice a sizable hole in the shape of his mom, Marilyn. Diagnosed with brain cancer in 1998, the matriarch of the family passed when Daly was in his early 20s.

“My mom was one of my biggest and is the biggest influence in my life … I miss her so much. She was a light, not only in my life, but on this island,” he said. “She would shine a light into people’s soul with her music. That affected me so deeply.”

At her performing peak, Marilyn was the heart and soul of the musical family, belting out tunes at venues all over the island with the entire family backing her up. “We have a fun, musical family,” Daly said. “But the thing she put in us—the music and the love and spirit, her singing—she was a mom of four, and it would reach people on such a deep level. She had that gift.”

In her final years, Daly was touring the country playing music with his brothers, and it was the only life he could see for himself. When she passed, the whole family was in the room. His brother Kieran was the first to pick up an instrument, a mandolin, to play her off. “Her spirit was leaving her body. It was obvious,” he said. “I grabbed my instrument. We all grabbed instruments.”

Photography by Liam Mangino

Daly doesn’t remember what exactly they played as his mother passed. But he knew something had changed in that moment. “When she left, I still toured for a little while, but I just couldn’t deal with it.”

He may have stepped away from music, but all that would do was reveal the true art of Gavan Daly as he would begin the transformation into the world-famous tattoo artist known as Knarly Gav. Not that you would ever hear the modifier “world-famous” come out of his mouth.

“I’m just a normal cat. I got into tattooing later in life and became very passionate about it,” he said. “It’s funny that you can have that kind of dream and it can become a reality. Now I tattoo celebrities and musicians.”

These days, you’ll find Knarly Gav’s trademark designs (e.g. the watermelon cat and the three-faced gypsy woman) on the skin of Instagram’s biggest influencers as well as celebrities like Awkwafina, whose Knarly Gav tattoo was front and center in her Vanity Fair shoot.

Daly’s second act was not something that happened overnight. Starting out with zero experience at Island Tattoo, he paid his dues handling grunt work and soaking up knowledge. “The first tattoo they sent me was a memorial, just RIP and some initials,” he said. “I didn’t know that much about tattoos, so I started putting on my show. I was a lot of smoke and mirrors, lot of acting, lot of posturing.”

Eventually, his wife Selina King beckoned him to follow her to New York City where she was launching her jewelry empire, and Knarly Gav opened his own shop in Brooklyn. “That’s how love is … it takes control of your whole trajectory,” Daly said. “I moved up there and I thought, I’m not gonna like this. I’m a country boy.”

Instead, he flourished, with his unique designs making their way onto the epidermises of the rich and famous. And while it’s nice to put some celebrities on the wall, that’s not at all why he does it.

“As far as the art, what I do, that’s great and I’m proud of it. But my thing is to help people reach their soul and remember that they have their soul,” he said. “I can reach them and say, ‘Put a little spirit in your life. Do you connect with your spirit? Do you pray or meditate?’ People are scared if you talk about God or Jesus, but put them in touch with spirit—that’s where your dreams come from.”

That spiritual journey has come full circle, with Daly and King back on Hilton Head Island for the duration of the COVID-19 outbreak in New York. He still has his shop in Brooklyn, but for now he’s happy to sling ink at Sugar Shack and refocus on his spirit.

“I really love this island because you can be whatever you want to be and immerse yourself in whatever you want,” he said. “There definitely is a certain magic here that exists under the surface.”

And under the surface is where Daly’s art truly resides. Not just in a physical sense etched into the skin of so many, but in a spiritual sense. Whether it’s playing with his family or laying down a fresh tattoo, it’s about the art and that art’s ability to change lives.

“People are interested in that feeling. That’s where I’m coming from, and that’s what I’m going to continue to try to obtain,” he said. In fact, as the whirlwind of our conversation touched down on the subject of helping people, he asked that I share his email with readers. It’s knarlygav@knarlygav.com, “if anyone wants to ask me how to get in touch with their creative side or if they just want to talk. Honestly, what are we if we’re not a community that has that kind of relationship with each other? If you can’t reach out to people and help each other, that’s not a community.”

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