Volume 75, Number 39 | February 15 -21 2006

Art and ink link couple at gallery and tattoo studio

By Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke

Jesse Lee Denning
runs the art gallery at Invisible NYC on Orchard St.
As Jesse Lee Denning sat at the front desk in a pleasant, brightly lit art gallery on Orchard St., the whir of a tattoo machine could be heard in the background. Troy Denning, Jesse’s husband and business partner, was overseeing an employee as he inked a design that covered the area from a customer’s shoulder blade to mid-thigh.

Invisible NYC, which opened in April of last year, is a place where serious art meets serious tattooing.

Jesse Lee, who got her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art history from New York University, runs the gallery section, where she showcases young, urban artists.

Troy, who is a respected tattoo artist with 15 years of experience and a waiting list of half a year, runs the Tattoo Studio.

Both Jesse Lee and Troy had been working in their respective fields, but were tired of working for other people and disillusioned with the “snobbery” that they say is present in both worlds.

“We decided that if we were going to be that stressed out, it shouldn’t be for other people,” said Troy.

Jesse says that her dream was to create a serious, professional gallery, but keep it accessible to everyone.

“Art should be for everyone and not have an elitist attitude,” she said. “As much as I like boundary-pushing, contemporary art, I want to show art that is accessible to everyone but still cutting edge.”

Troy Denning runs Invisible NYC’s tattoo studio
Invisible NYC is on Orchard St. between Stanton and Rivington Sts. on the Lower East Side, a location that Troy and Jesse say landed in their lap through a stroke of good luck. Jesse’s mom, Nancy Stein, was at a party when a couple who are parents at Little Red Schoolhouse, where Stein works, mentioned that they had a Lower East Side storefront that they wanted to rent. Taking the fortuitous space as an omen, Troy and Jesse left their jobs and “jumped in head first,” as they put it.

Although an increasing number of tattoo studios are featuring art, Jesse says that what sets Invisible NYC apart is that it is a full-fledged gallery, as professional as any she has worked in and the art isn’t just there to decorate the space.

Troy is considered a pro and has many high-end clients, including professionals and “behind the scenes” people in the entertainment industry, people, he says, who one would never think would have tattoos. Troy hasn’t done an “impulse tattoo” in five years, a fact he notes with pride, explaining that it is very important to him that thought go into every tattoo.

When people think of tattoo studios, they often envision St. Mark’s Pl. and Sixth Ave., places where, according to the Dennings, tattoos are easy to come by but hard to respect. It is important to both Jesse and Troy that people know the difference between what they do and the mass-market, unskilled quality of tattoo parlors that also “sell dildos.” Troy explains that when he walks on either of those streets, he pulls his sleeves down to hide his colorful arms because he doesn’t want to be associated with what goes on there.

“Besides, people find it embarrassing when they see somebody wearing the same clothes as them. Imagine what it would be like for two people standing next to each other to discover that they have the same tattoo,” said Troy.

Invisible NYC has a small staff. Jesse recently hired an assistant to help her with the gallery, and Troy has five guys helping him in the studio.

“The crew is really amazing. I wanted people who had not been trained yet, who were like lumps of clay,” said Troy. “They have gotten so much better and I am so proud when people say that they came for me but I was busy and then they start getting their tattoos from one of the other guys.” Troy and Jesse note that they have a very international staff, with tattoo artists from Vietnam, Portugal, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Jamaica and England.

Troy, who is originally from San Francisco, began experimenting with tattooing at the age of 12 and was very impressed by Japanese techniques but found local tattoos to be uninspired.

“Where I grew up, people were very into gang tattoos,” said Troy. “But even then I knew that that was too limiting. It was a small-world mindset, limiting everything to ‘my block, my neighborhood.’ I knew then that I wanted to travel and see different things.”

It wasn’t until he was in his mid-20s that he got his first professional tattoo, as the early 1990s brought a “tattoo renaissance” to San Francisco. All of a sudden, said Troy, thought went into what people were doing with body art.

Troy became well known in the San Francisco tattoo world, but moved to New York seven years ago because he “wanted to challenge himself.” He also moved because he liked New York on his many visits and said, “The only thing I miss about California is the magical feeling I used to get when I came to New York.”

Jesse Lee, a lifelong New Yorker and self-described “Village kid,” grew up on W. 11th St., where her parents still live and where she and Troy recently moved and are currently renovating the brownstone into two duplexes to accommodate themselves and Jesse’s parents. After living Uptown for a short while, Jesse is glad to be back below 14th St., and thrilled that she and Troy were able to open their business Downtown.

“Before Troy and I got married, I made sure that Troy knew that I was planning on living in New York forever,” said Jesse.

Jesse says that despite having a few tattoos, she wasn’t too interested in them before she met Troy. Yet, the couple met when Jesse was getting a tattoo in NY Adorned, a tattoo studio where Troy worked. Their 2004 wedding was profiled in The Villager because their choice of location, the Jefferson Market Garden, started a trend when a location scout for “Sex and the City” was inspired by the Dennings to stage a character’s wedding in the picturesque spot.

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