Mike Brown—So Long and Fare Thee Well
REMEMBERING A LEGEND
Mike Brown passed away a few days ago. About the only reference I could find was a post on the Internet stating that Mike, along with Jack Rudy, had influenced Corey Miller. And there was an anecdote about Brown by the late Mike “Rollo” Malone, penned several years ago, in Tattoo Artist magazine. Peggy Sucher sent it to me. And no photos of Brown. None on Google. What I do know about the man is the great respect he garnered from those who knew or worked with him and how excited and honored I felt, when I shook his hand, back when I lived in Los Angeles. It was at a get-together, a “hey, how ya doin’?” at Vintage Tattoo in Highland Park. Mike, if I remember correctly, was in town for a short guest spot with Baba Austin, and Baba was kind enough to call me to come down and say hello.
I remember what a classy, old-school guy he was. Very cordial, full of stories and happy that I drove the freeways to see him. Of course, his conversation included many of the big names: Sailor Jerry Collins, Rollo, Jack, Ed, Zeke. Although we did a short, question-and-answer for the magazine, we lost contact after that. But I do know one thing: I was in the presence of royalty. Old-school royalty.
Perhaps some of you can send along a few words or photos, so we can pay a small tribute to Mike’s place in the history of things. Perhaps someone can explain why a seminal artist, who so many have such reverence for, slipped under the radar. How long did Mike tattoo: thirty, forty, fifty years? And not even a snapshot on a Google search? Makes you wonder about this business. Makes you wonder, when someone who was so clearly respected and important just faded away. Like Capt. Don Leslie, lying in a silk robe in Chico, California, eating candy bars and withering away from throat cancer. A few young artists and Mr. G and Chinchilla his only audience.
The tattoo business is home to many different kinds of people. Some good and worth respecting. Some full of themselves. Some who take all they can and don’t give back. Others who simply go to work every day and struggle to pay the bills. How many fundraisers have I attended where folks are trying to generate immediate cash for an operation to save some old tattoo artist who spent all his money on sushi and the pirate lifestyle? Seventy years old, an elbow that won’t bend anymore and not a dime. How many times has that happened? I remember one who, during the ’60s, used to traffic smoke. There was a centerfold photo of him with bales, I said bales, of weed on a forklift, in High Times magazine. I also remember, years later, bidding on some paintings to raise money for the same guy, so he could buy a rickety old used car to get around. What happened to the money? What happened?
It isn’t easy growing old. Sure, there’s lots of available advice, but it’s pretty much about making it up as you go along. Finding out what that dark spot on an x-ray means. Discovering why it’s not so easy to get out of a chair anymore. I wonder if Mike Brown was going through those things. I wonder if he had friends around him. I wonder if he slipped away… or died kicking and screaming. It’s a shame. It really is. Our heroes, our pioneers vanish into the sunset and we can’t even find traces of them. Just some stories passed back and forth over a beer. Or pieced together, like this, from a few scant memories and nothing more.
I almost forgot. Here’s the interview I did with Mike, for the April 2005 issue of Skin&Ink. I climbed up in my attice and found a copy, in a box of hot-off-the-press issues.
MIKE BROWN AND HIS LIFE OF RENOWN
Mike Brown is one of those legendary artists that refuses to seek the limelight. Instead, he aims the limelight at others. His pedigree is first rate and the list of people he’s worked for and influenced are a veritable who’s who of tattooing. Working away from the mainstream, Brown began his career in Hawaii, buzzing around the tattoo scene that Sailor Jerry Collins built, almost single-handedly, in Honolulu. Sailor Jerry’s Tattoo Joint was the ink spot for sailors on leave. Collins died in ’72, leaving Mike Malone to carry the flame. Brown entered the scene a few years after.
Bob Baxter: You started out with Rollo, right?
Mike Brown: Yeah, Mike Malone, back in 1977. He broke me in.
BB: How did you hook up with him?
MB: I met him in Honolulu. I moved there in ’73 and just started hanging out in tattoo shops. Back then, white people were definitely in the minority, so we hit it off pretty good. You know, one white guy to another. This was Sailor Jerry’s shop. Yeah, we became good friends and then I started from the ground up. My first job was doing the floors. I used to mop and wax and get the floors real clean. Then I became the shop gofer. That was my whole life. I worked during the days in a cardboard box factory. That was my profession, during the day, and I hung out at the shop at night. It was the old-style apprenticeship, the way it should be done today, which nobody seems to even do. The fucking kids are just spoiled today―I can’t believe it―thanks to Huck Spaulding selling everything to everybody in the damn world. Anyway, Malone just started showing me things. I don’t think he had any idea that I was going to become a tattoo artist. I helped him; I made shaders for him. We’d make 20 set-ups every two weeks. He’d make 20 shaders and 20 liners, because military paydays were every two weeks. And we’d use the needles over again. Back then, you used them again. We’d clean ’em. We sterilized everything.
BB: It was a teeny shop, wasn’t it?
MB: Yeah, a real small shop in China Town. It was New Years Eve 1976. He handed me his machine and told me to write Good Luck 1977 on his leg. You know, we were having a few beers. It was closing time, so I wrote Good Luck 1977 on his leg and that was the very first tattoo I ever did. He said, “Maybe I better teach you how to tattoo.” I thought he was just kidding. He and I were sharing a house, and I was baking for a living during the day. I told him that “Baking just wasn’t making it; why don’t you teach me how to tattoo?”
BB: How old were you then?
MB: Oh, 25, 26. Anyway, he said okay. About that time or right after, he met Kandi Everett and fell in love with her. She was an art student and started giving us art lessons in exchange for her apprenticeship. She’d teach us how to draw and we’d teach her how to tattoo.
BB: Does she tattoo anymore?
MB: No, she doesn’t work out of a shop anymore, but I think she works on call. Sometimes she works with Wando. So she started working with me. We had this one guy we called the Village Idiot. He was a deaf mute and had all this crap on him that was homemade. So, we started working on him and doing cover-ups and clean-ups on all the junk he had. I did about four or five tattoos and a couple tattoos on another guy. So I had done four, five, six tattoos and a customer walked into the shop on payday and wanted a heart, and Malone said to me, “You do it.” From then on, it has been making money ever since.
BB: You also worked for one of the fathers of black and gray―
MB: Yeah, Jack Rudy. I went to work with them when Ed Hardy owned the shop, Tattooland in East L.A.
BB: They told me you taught them how to letter.
MB: I taught them how to letter? Nooooo! Actually, a lot of my style I picked up from Freddy Negrete. Jack will say different. He’ll say he taught me everything. I admired Freddy’s style much better. I learned little things from Freddy by just looking at his work.
BB: Jack is a consummate letterer.
MB: He’s one of the greats. He can just make up a style. He’ll do Old English style on some guy’s stomach without stenciling it on, just writing it right on his skin with an ink pen. And do it all beautifully. He is one of the best letterers in the business.
BB: Black-and-gray, is that your strong point?
MB: I can do anything. I can do color. But I prefer black-and-gray, mainly because you don’t have to wash out your machine hundred times. That way, it’s not an adventure anymore, it’s a job. Of course, I love making people happy. That’s the best part about this job. The best part is when you finish the tattoo and they look at it and they say, “Damn, it looks great!” It really makes you feel good inside that you made somebody’s day. You’re not just on an assembly line punching out a part that six other people got to work on. Nobody ever pats you on the back or anything. It’s like, “Here’s your check, see you next week.”
BB: Do you think there has been improvement in equipment?
MB: I thought pre-disbursed ink was a great idea, but I know now that it’s not. There is a lot of plastic in it. You end up hitting that stuff with a laser and it turns black, melting the plastic. There’s no way to get it out of there. Not all the pre-disbursed are like that, but a lot of it is plastic.
BB: Do you mix your own?
MB: No, I’ve used pre-disbursed for years, but I’m going back to buying the powder and mixing it all. It is a lot of hard work, a real pain in the ass, but I think it gives you the safest and best looking tattoo. Although the pre-disbursed colors, when they first came out, jumped out of the skin. They were some of the best looking colors I’d ever seen.
BB: When you started there was blue and red and green―
MB: Oh, we had purple. I started in ’77. We had yellow and purples. Purples weren’t really that common. Not that many people had a good purple.
BB: What about machines or needles? Any improvements there?
MB: Needles―finally they’re making them porous. Before, they used to have to use embroidery needles from England. Eventually, someone got smart and made needles for tattooing.
BB: What about the tremendous number of shops today; what do you think about that?
MB: In ’77,’78, there were probably 300 shops in the United States, maybe only 200. Now there are 300 alone in California.
BB: There are nearer 900.
MB: Holy shit. I mean, they’re like 7-Elevens, and people keep thinking that, since it’s so trendy, they can make money. They think there’s enough to go around, but there really is not. You keep taking that pie and cutting those pieces smaller and smaller. Eventually, everybody ends up with just a sliver. The good guys are the only ones that are going to last, but the trouble is that a lot of these kids are 18 and don’t know anything about tattooing. We get ’em on the phone all the time: “How much is your Old English? How much for a tribal arm band?” All they are interested in is price. They don’t want quality.
BB: Any new young artists coming up?
MB: Oh, yeah, there’s a lot of those. There’s this kid, Tim Hendricks. I tattooed with him these last few days in Balboa. He’s great, he can do anything. His portraits are as good as Brian Everett. He can do color work, he can draw. He’s going to be one of the greats, if he isn’t already. I don’t know how he did it. Nobody apprentices anymore. You get these idiots that want to charge you 20K for an apprenticeship. It shouldn’t be that way. You take them from the bottom up.
BB: The problem is when you do that they finish their apprenticeship and then go and open a shop.
MB: That’s just it, you don’t take on just anyone. You gotta know the person. The way Malone did with me. While I worked for Malone, I could have had all his Sailor Jerry stuff. I could have ripped him off. I never took one piece of flash or anything from Malone. I just loved this business so much and don’t think it’s right to do stuff like that. Even though Malone fired me, because I was doing drugs, he had every reason in the world to fire me. I could have been real vindictive and ripped him off, but I didn’t.
BB: How do you keep yourself up and in it everyday?
MB: The money, the money. And you get to work on a piece every once in a while where it’s fun. But you know, I work in a shop where it’s tourists. It’s mostly flash work. But I enjoy doing flash. They’re happy, I get paid, I go home and I’m happy.
BB: What would you do if you weren’t a tattoo artist?
MB: I wouldn’t be a baker. I love tattooing. The years I spent doing drugs, being a drug addict, that was really the only bad thing I’ve done. I just love the business. It has been real good to me and I try to be real good to it.
BB: Describe the ideal customer.
MB: Somebody with great skin who knows exactly what they want. I don’t like it when people say, “Do what ever you want to do.”
BB: Really? I talk to lots of artists who like it when a customer tells them to do whatever.
MB: I don’t. What if they don’t like what I have in mind? You got to give me some idea what you want. I like doing black-and-gray with a 5 bold. I like that bold look. I used to just do single needle stuff with Jack Rudy. That’s all we did.
BB: So, your style has evolved somewhat?
MB: Yeah, just like everything, you start out one way and then you find something different. That single-needle stuff takes so long to do. I don’t have anything against all this fine detail. I just don’t like it for myself. I like to work on designs that you can recognize from across the room.
BB: What is best thing you have learned from being a tattooist all these years?
MB: The feeling that I’ve done everything right that day and done my best.
Skin Deep Tattoo-Waikiki Beach, Honolulu, Hawaii http://tattooroadtrip.com/blog/mike-...are-thee-well/