Interview by gougetheeyes
Another older interview for you LST’ers, this time with Mike Rubendall. We did this one last year, same time as the Grez interview, before they opened up their location in Manhattan. The magazine in which the interview appeared only ran only a couple pages, so the rest of this is my gift –– and Mike’s –– to LST.
I haven’t been tattooed by Mike but he’s made a huge impression on me. He’s exceedingly humble, incredibly talented, and, to put it simply, just a really nice guy.
I think the best way to illustrate his character comes from a few months ago when I stopped by the King’s Ave opening party. It was already packed and I’d already run into a couple people I knew outside. I kind of dread these things, with the crowd, the glad-handing, the “industry” people, the agendas, the small-talk, the tattoos that are way nicer than my own. Anyway. I get my agoraphobia in check and wiggle my way into the party and realize I’m no longer with the folks I came in with. Suddenly, it all feels very middle school and I’m just standing around.
And then I get a touch on the arm, and it’s Mike. He shakes my hand, remembers my name from nearly a year ago and makes me feel instantly welcome.
“Hey, I texted you,” he says.
“Yeah, I figured it was kind of a mass text thing.”
“Well, it was, but I thought I should include you, seeing as how you did those interviews.”
Totally floored. Anyway, we had a nice quick chat before he was mobbed by about a thousand other people. That instance stuck with me though, that the guy cared enough to remember my name and say hello. And even remembered sending a text. I guess it’s the little things that make the biggest impact.
So, there you go.
A big thank you again to Mike for permission to use this and for being an all-around decent human being. Consider this a warm up to a rumored future interview I hear is in the works… Hopefully, Mike will feel a little more comfortable in front of the camera than times past. Though somehow I doubt it…
Let’s start with the initial draw, those first few years of getting into it at DaVinci Tattoo.
Well, when I first started, I wasn’t positive I wanted to tattoo. I was actually really apprehensive and nervous about the idea. I was interested in tattoos and was fascinated by tattoos but I wasn’t really sure things would turn out the way they did. I was real into metal and hardcore music growing up and all those guys in the scene were heavily tattooed, so obviously as a kid these guys were the ones I looked up to. I knew tattooing had this sort of magic allure for me but I didn’t know if I had what it took to be a tattoo artist or if I had the commitment to do it. I knew nothing about it.
So I went [to DaVinci Tattoo] and I remember my first day. I was so overwhelmed and intimidated with the atmosphere that I wasn’t sure I wanted tattoos anymore. I didn’t know if it was right for me, I was shook. But I was 17 years old and I figured at that point, I was so young that if it wasn’t the path I chose, there were plenty of other things to do. Shortly after I started hanging around the shop I really started to feel passionate about it, as weeks and months went on, and eventually years, I fell in love with it. It was more than just a job and I didn’t get into it with the thought that it would be a safe and secure job. Even back then, you didn’t make much money, or really do too well at all. It was the first thing that held my attention, the first thing I could not stop thinking about.
I did an apprenticeship for a year, year and a half, without making any money, working for free. Cleaning toilets, scrubbing tubes, doing whatever it took to learn how to tattoo. I was willing to do anything, so I went through a lot of abuse to get there but that’s part of the deal and a big part of the process in which realized in later years.
What was it that made you realize that you did want to tattoo? Or that you did have what it took?
I just loved the people I would meet. Frank [Romano], my co-workers and the guys who would hang around at the shop, they were all just such an interesting group of people, different from anybody I’d ever met before. That was the one thing about tattooing back then, it was a whole different world. Even the clients that would come in, they were just such different people, everybody was a little fucked up in a way, really unique individuals. I met some of the greatest and most genuine people through tattooing.
The dedication the artists had at the shop was something that really rubbed off on me. They breathed tattooing. Watching them, how serious they took it, showed me that you get out of it what you put in. Tattooing was all I could think about.
I would be there till three, four in the morning drawing some nights while the rest of my friends were out partying and experiencing life in a different way than I was. At times I felt like in a way I lost that childhood, that number of years between 17 through 21 when you’re boozin’ it up –– I mean, I did my fair share –– but I was so consumed with tattooing that I felt like I sacrificed a lot, almost missed out on some things. I didn’t go to college or away to college or any of that.
But I feel like tattooing taught me a whole lot of things you can’t learn in school and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I’ve come a long way but I still can’t put it into words, really, what the drive was then or now. I’ve always felt that tattooing has always challenged me. Tattooing has made me constantly stretch my self in many ways.
And you went to go see Filip Leu early on to get tattooed right?
I think it was ’97 I went over there to Switzerland. I communicated with him through letters because back then he didn’t have a telephone or anything so you really had to work to get tattooed by him. We corresponded through letters and it was a weird thing because I was very young and there were only a handful of good tattooers in New York at that time. I would look through tattoo magazines and see Filip’s work over and over and remember thinking, “Why can’t I just fly to Switzerland and get tattooed?” Seemed like a very simple concept.
Which I finally did. I started a sleeve in ’97 and then went back in ‘98, so by the age of 19 or 20, I had two full sleeves–– a sleeve and a half from fillip and I had the other half done by a tattooer from New York, Mike Ledger. I learned a great deal from watching my arms being tattooed at such an early stage of my career.
[h=1]How was that?[/h]
It was unbelievable. Much of it was a little too advanced for me at that time, because I wasn’t tattooing very long and didn’t really understand tattooing, as it was. I still feel tattooing is tremendously difficult. And [as a tattooer] you gotta be an artist, you gotta be a psychologist to deal with all the different people, you gotta be a doctor, in a way, with the practice of good cleanliness and hygiene. You need to know about machines, pigments, needles. Over all, it’s just a very difficult medium. Fillip seemed to have it all mastered. He was so far beyond everyone else and did things that people didn’t know were possible in tattooing. I couldn’t wrap my head around it at the time. But it did show me how tattoos could look, how tattooing could be, so it set a higher standard for my tattooing and gave me a goal to reach.
Basically, I knew the end result. I couldn’t articulate what he did, I just saw what I saw: bodysuit after bodysuit, drawings, painting, art everywhere. He’s another guy that lives and breathes it. And I’ve noticed something interesting through the years, that the people that would get tattooed by him, other tattooers, they picked up so much from him and their tattooing would take such a drastic turn for the better. He’s very influential. It’s hard for him not to rub off on people so I think he influenced the tattoo world all over. You look through magazines, and even nowadays, tattooers are so good you can’t really tell sometimes who did [the tattoo]. But I think he’s had a very big influence on me, and the industry, as a whole.
You stayed at DaVinci Tattoo for ten years before opening up King’s Avenue. That’s a lot of loyalty.
Yeah I was there ten years. I started in 1995 apprenticing with Frank. I think it’s proper conduct to give the person who gave you the tools to a craft more than a substantial amount of respect and loyalty. I’ve always felt that I owe a lot to Frank for giving me the start and for still being a relevant part of my career; he’s like a brother to me. We have a very close relationship and I am fortunate to have him in my life. At the time I left, it wasn’t for any other reason except that I wanted to grow artistically and I started feeling stagnant and limited with tattooing. I wanted to travel and be around other tattooers that motivated me, pushed me. Not to say that those guys didn’t motivate me, but it’s a big world out there and I wanted to experience it.
[h=1]How did your relationship with tattooer Henning Jorgensen develop?[/h]
He’s one of my best friends. We first met in ‘97 at a tattoo convention in Philadelphia and he noticed my Filip/Ledger sleeve and we got talking. I saw him again in ’98, I believe, just chitchat, nothing serious. And then in ’99, at another tattoo convention we really hit it off and I wound up doing a guest spot at Royal Tattoo in Denmark that year. And then ever since, I’ve been going twice a year. He’s been coming here two, three times a year and we’ve built an outstanding relationship. I’m the godfather to his youngest daughter and we own another tattoo company together, Tattoo Elite International, it’s an online flash and print company. It’s been a great experience knowing him. Again, back to what I was saying, I’ve met so many interesting, good-hearted people in this industry and he’s a prime example.
Is Henning someone you’ve been able to learn from, share ideas with?
Oh, absolutely. He’s been tattooing for thirty years and I still look up to him. He’s never too old to learn, this guy. Even guys that don’t tattoo very well, he’ll ask questions like, “What’re you using,” and it’s good to see that he’s not too snobby or too good to learn from anybody. It’s very refreshing. He’s always telling me, “You’re never too old to learn, you’re never too good to learn.” I’ve learned a lot from him by just the way he talks to people and carries himself. He’s a great guy, a true gentleman.
[h=1]Let’s talk about your work. Is there something you always try to achieve in a tattoo?[/h]
There are so many aspects to tattoos. I feel as tattoo artists we are almost like a filter, like camera in a sense, we’re trying to translate [the client’s] ideas into pictures as we see them. I try to get as many ideas from the client, combine them with my own ideas and translate them into a tattoo. Essentially, I try to give them what they want but strongly encourage them to get what I think will look best. There’s composition, color, detail, there’s a lot involved. But first and foremost I try to make the client happy and hopefully get a nice tattoo for my portfolio.
How do you handle design process?
I’ll have a consultation with the person that’s usually between ten minutes if it goes well and thirty minutes and up if it doesn’t. You know right away how the tattoo is going to go through the conversation with the client. You hear the craziest things; people like to throw in every idea they’ve ever thought of. It’s like a yard sale sometimes. They want way too much in one tattoo (laughs).
[h=1]So how do you boil all those ideas down into one tattoo?[/h]
It’s difficult sometimes. They give you all these ideas and you know a lot of them aren’t going to work because you’ve been doing it long enough to know better. The trick is convincing the client that their ideas are not always the best for a tattoo. And I’m not always the right guy for the job. If people come in and I don’t feel like I can do 100%, then I’ll refer them to another tattoo artist I think can do a better job, so I’m pretty selective on what I do. I’ll do things that I can do well, things I’m confident in and that will make –– what I think –– is a good tattoo.
There’s a lot of homework that goes into larger tattoos and that’s the killer with this job. You want to research it and do the right thing. Especially these days, I try to find a story that relates to a clients idea, find the correct way to do it to respect the tradition and the aesthetics of it. I want to do it the correct way. But the thing with Japanese mythology, a lot of the books we have are all written in Japanese so its difficult to know all the stories and all the details involved in each story.
But, back to what we’re saying. It is a big process, it takes a tremendous amount of time. I try to study it and then I’ll spend hours upon hours drawing and that’s what the hard part is in this business for me. We’ll be at the shop for nine or ten hours and then the homework could be two, three hours a day and it really adds up. Everything gets sacrificed: your family life, your social life, everything around you is sacrificed, but that’s what we asked for, in a way. And it’s something I really love and I feel fortunate to do what I love to do.
[h=1]Do you get really specific on Japanese pieces, with patterns, etc?[/h]
That stuff I’m a little looser with. I do things to the best of my knowledge. The clients don’t always agree with the specifics. They want patterns on the fabric because it might represent their child, or symbolize something significant to them and not the pattern that might not go with a specific character or era. That’s stuff that I’m not overly concerned with but I do try to stay true to the tradition when possible.
[h=1]Following that tradition, you went to Japan to work with Shige a little while back, right?[/h]
Yeah, Henning and I, I think in 2003, we went to Osaka and Yokohama and we worked for three weeks and met Shige. We worked at his shop, Yellow Blaze. Luckily, the guy that organized the trip set us up with a translator so it was somewhat easier [to communicate with Shige].
He’s a workhorse, that guy. We would work until two, three in the morning and wouldn’t have breaks to eat, so Henning and I weren’t used to that and would feel like we were going to die. We work long days but Shige really works long days. They smoke in the shop so it was a very different atmosphere from what we’re used to. But overall, the experience was great. We got to do all the stuff we wanted to do, [the tattoos] fit our style. Shige and his crew were very hospitable, they really took care of us. They took us out drinking, eating and to see the sites.
He lined us up with a few appointments and that was where the language barrier really interfered because we like to prepare our drawings ahead of time. We would show up and they would tell us, “Oh, you have a half sleeve to do in three hours,” so we weren’t used to that pressure.
And the last night we were there… So Shige kept saying he wanted to get tattooed the whole time. So I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” kept pushing it off. This night we tattooed until like one in the morning, then he took us out to eat, and it was the last night we were there, so I thought I was off the hook, I didn’t think I’d have the time to tattoo him at that point. So then he tells us, “Ok, now I want my tattoo.” And it’s like three o’clock in the morning, I’m stressing, I still need to draw this thing. I just ended up doing an outline on him and we kinda both tapped out. And this year in San Jose I finished it, so it was about seven years later.
[h=1]What was the tattoo?[/h]
I did a two-headed mask, a Tengu and Oni mask. It was about the whole inside of his calf, knee to ankle.
How important do you think it is to travel to Japan for those tattooers working in Japanese style?
I don’t think its necessarily that important because there’s a lot of tattooers that do great Japanese work that have never been to Japan. I think there’s enough information that’s available in bookstores and the Internet that you don’t really need to travel anywhere. But I wanted to go there and see the culture and see where what I was doing originated. To see the different architecture, temples, statues was amazing. It gives you a whole new perspective. To me it was important but I don’t think, necessarily, that you have to go to Japan to do Japanese work.
You worked at another very influential shop, New York Adorned. What was your experience like there?
I think I started in 2002-ish. The reason I started was just, obviously, the caliber of artists that were there. Chris O’Donnell was there and at the time and we were really tight, we were traveling together, we hung out on a daily basis. Through the years we’d always exchanged photos and exchanged ideas, critique each other. So it was the perfect opportunity when he moved to New York. He worked at Adorned for a few years and we became even closer. The opportunity was there to work together but at the time I was still at DaVinci full-time. You know, I loved DaVinci, I loved working for Frank and I didn’t want to leave there, that was home for me. I ended up working two days a week at Adorned, I believe it was Tuesdays and Thursdays. And four days at DaVinci.
At the time Shinji was there, Kaz, Troy Denning and I think Chris Garver was coming in and out. I think he was there for a couple months full-time and then maybe that’s when he moved to Miami. I was doing a couple days a week there and I guess in 2004 I dropped to one day a month and shortly after that stopped completely. It all had gotten too difficult for me to manage. The commute was difficult for me and I felt like being in Manhattan there were a ton of distractions. Going out a lot, a lot of socializing, obviously, there’s a big nightlife there. I felt like I was losing focus as to why I wanted to work in NYC. I just didn’t have the discipline for it all.
Yeah, a little bit of distraction?
Yeah there was a lot a bit of distraction (laughs).
Was Timothy Hoyer working there yet?
No, I think Hoyer just came on last year, but Timothy and I always corresponded through mail. We also traded photos back and forth for a number of years. He just moved there, I believe, not much more than a year ago.
Do you find there’s a big difference working with somebody side-by-side as opposed to just corresponding?
Yeah, there’s still a connection [when you correspond] and it’s very inspirational to see what the work that artists that I admire are doing. But, of course, it’s not the same as when you work right on top of them and see their approach or their technique, color studies and color theory and you’re constantly exchanging ideas. You see every piece they do.
When you trade photos it’s only a selective handful of photos that they want to show. There are things that Chris and Timothy would do that they might not be super psyched on but they would be tattoos that I’d never see if I didn’t work next to him. Most of the time they were tattoos that I love and I can learn from and see what they had done different, but those are the tattoos you’d never see from just corresponding.
On to Tattoo Wars. It’s a subject I had planned to avoid but can you tell me a bit about your experience on the show?
They approached Bugs to do this version of Biker Build-Off with tattooers. Basically, Bugs contacted me to do the show. There was this list of artists that they wanted on and I happened to be on it, and Bugs said that he would like to compete against me. Not because he thought he thought I was a slam dunk, but just that he felt like he ‘‘wanted to go against a professional and wanted the show to be represented in a positive light.”
I’m usually very against doing reality television but this project sounded great at the time and it was a good idea. There wasn’t too much drama and they focused on the tattoos, tattooers, and the whole process –– which I felt was smart and I liked the idea. I’m not built for television, I’m terrible at it. If anybody saw the show, I was kind of a mess and I couldn’t think clearly and I just got real nervous. I agreed to do the one episode. It took about a week to film and I guess it was, what, like 45 minutes or an hour-long show? It was an okay experience but real nerve-wracking and for some reason when it came out, it was short lived, it kind of got buried.
I don’t know if they didn’t do any advertising, I don’t know the logistics of it, if something happened with the network or the producers. It only aired once or twice in the States and that was it. I think there were six episodes total but from what I heard the reviews were good, a lot of the tattooers I know had a positive response to it. I do think there were some cheesy aspects to it but overall it had a lot of potential.
There’s a funny story from it all. I was in London for a convention maybe a year ago. I think Tattoo Wars was off the air probably three years now. On occasion I’ll sign prints or the convention banner or t-shirts, little autographs here and there. But this particular convention, it was strange because people would ask, “Can you sign this?” and they’re giving me napkins or papers they’re finding around, I’m signing tits and new born babies, just joking. So I’m like, “Yeah sure, but what is this all about?” I’m thinking, “This is strange.”
So towards the end of the, there were two separate circumstances, where parents are passing and they’re like, “Can my son take a picture with you?” and they’re these groups of little kids, so I’m like “All right!” And Henning was next to me and he’s laughing and I’m saying, “Wait, what’s going on?” I say, “I don’t know what it is, I think maybe they think I’m Ami from Miami Ink or something!” (Laughs.)
Anyway, long story short, I’m tattooing this kid from Ireland. Super cool kid, I’m tattooing his hand and he’s like “So, how’s the show going for you?” I go, “What show?” And he says, “Tattoo Wars!” I say, “I did that two or three years ago and they buried it. They aired it one time in the states and it was a wrap, nobody saw that shit.” And he goes, “Oh my God, it’s huge here! They play it throughout the week and every weekend, like a marathon every Sunday!” It was like, “No way!” He’s says, “People go fucking crazy over that show!”
I thought it was probably the best thing to come out of the whole Tattoo TV thing. You think it was too short-lived?
Yeah, maybe it was. I think it needed some fine-tuning and maybe the ratings weren’t as good as the network hoped. Maybe there wasn’t enough nonsense or crying going on. I don’t know what it was. It seemed like it didn’t even get off the ground. Like they didn’t even give it a chance, it ended before it even began. I’m almost relieved that it flopped in a way because I felt kind of silly being on TV, which is unfair because the other artists I thought did awesome. I had a lot of mixed emotions. I wasn’t sure if I should be doing it, but it was okay, I don’t think it was a terrible thing.
Let’s talk about success for a minute. You’re the kind of successful that not many tattooers achieve. What kind of impact do you think that’s had on you and your work?
I don’t think much about that because that’s not what I got into it for. I’ve always created tattoos out of the love for the art. It’s one of those things where I’ve just kept my head down, worked as hard as I could and enjoyed it, had a lot of fun with it. The rest just fell into place, luckily. Filip said at one point, “You become good at whatever you’re interested in. And if you really love what you’re doing, then the success comes naturally.” That was good advice.
Once I got more well known, it felt like I was under a microscope, like everybody’s watching. It pushed me try to do good work and work harder at what I was doing. At times I didn’t feel like [my work] was good enough. Some of the pieces I’ve struggled with and wasn’t happy with, [those tattoos] got a lot of recognition and a lot of attention. Sometimes I feel like maybe I’m not seeing it. I’m flattered with it all but I don’t know, I could do better. It’s a crazy feeling, there are higher expectations all around I don’t want to disappoint anyone or put a shitter out there. It’s a lot of pressure but I just try to focus on my work and give my best.
[h=1]Is it hard to step back and be objective about your work?[/h]
It is difficult because of the workload every day is very demanding. I’ll do three appointments a day, between two and three hours on each one. I don’t hardly ever draw for myself, I always draw for clients. It’s such a grind every day and it’s such a hectic routine. I’m busy with running the business part of it all and trying to provide opportunities for the shop as a whole, keep the team happy. I’m booked out for over a year so there is pressure from clients… It’s something I have yet to stop to really think about.
I set goals or create projects for myself and when I reach a specific goal it’s onto another project. To me, in a sense, what’s next is more important than what just happened. It’s probably not the most healthy way to think but having a feeling of achievement or accomplishment in what I’m doing is very important to me.
Frank has, in the past, said that I need to sit back and smell the roses more often, that I’ve accomplished a lot at a young age. And I do agree and believe there should be a priority of living a quality life. But I aIso feel that I still enjoy working hard, I’m still hungry to do big things, I’m still really driven and while I have the momentum I’ll continue at this pace. I really enjoy working next to the group of guys I work with today. I want to lead by example for them, too. They’re in here working just as hard or even harder, and I don’t want to ask them to do anything that I don’t do myself. I want to drive them like they have driven me.
[h=1]Do you have plans on cutting back or slowing down?[/h]
I don’t have any plans as of now. If I feel like my work is suffering or that I don’t have the energy for it then I’ll take a step back. But as of now, I still feel like I’m growing. I’m not exactly where I want to be yet, artistically, and the guys here really push me to get to that next level. They’re all expert tattooers. They carry a very high standard of tattooing so I just want to keep up with them. I feel like there’s always room for improvement and you can never be too content with your progress.
[h=1]What’s missing from tattooing? That’s kind of a big question.[/h]
That is a big question, it’s a huge question! It just seems like the whole industry changed quite a bit. I haven’t been tattooing forever but I would even say in the last ten years it’s changed drastically, the lack of integrity of a lot of tattooers and just people in general. I don’t know, I don’t feel like they build men the way they used to–– or humans, the way they used to. I think overall, the whole world has changed and not for the better, in my opinion. The quality of people is different. Today its easy for people to be rotten and forget how to treat one another. It’s rare for a person to do the right thing.
I feel like the new generation is like a generation of entitlement. Like they’re entitled to certain things and they don’t need to work for things. In some ways I guess they don’t have to work for things because things are handed to them. With tattooing, everything is easily accessible, via Internet, books, magazines or TV. Information is offered all the time and there are not many trade secrets left. There are still things I hold close my chest that was given to me over the years that I’m sure aren’t secrets anymore, but I still want to stay true to myself as well as tattooing. But a lot of newer tattooers don’t see why you should respect the lineage of that.
I’m just carrying the torch from Frank. He taught me a certain way: don’t give yourself away, don’t share with the whole world everything you worked for, everything you learned through taking risks, trying new techniques, traveling, researching, communicating with other tattooers. You get little bits and pieces you accumulate over years, and years, and years and you cherish that you don’t just give it away. Treasures tend to be less special when you don’t have to dig for them.
[h=1]What still challenges you?[/h]
I tattoo a lot of tattooers nowadays, that in itself is very challenging. I feel like I want to make them a tattoo that we are both proud of, they’re my peers and their opinions mean a lot. They’re watching what I’m doing, and I’m trying not to fuck anything up. It’s also challenging when a client comes in with exceptional work from other tattooers that I admire and they want a tattoo from me. That raises the bar, I work to one-up them in a sense.
Even the guys I’m working with now are super motivating. They are really doing some outstanding things. Working with them drives me to work harder and improve the things I’m doing.
[h=1]What effect do you think you’re having on tattooing?[/h]
You might have better luck asking someone other than me that question. It’s crazy to think that I have had an effect on tattooing. I honestly don’t think I’m having any effect. Because I don’t see that I’m doing anything different than the guys before me have already done. I think I do good, quality tattoos that are clean and hopefully they’ll withstand the test of time. I think I’ve just taken what others before me have accomplished, learn from it, try to improve it and include some of my own personality into it. I’m very confident in what I do and I put everything into tattooing with hopes of having a positive effect on it.
Here’s the epic question now. What’s the one biggest thing you’ve learned from tattooing?
I wish I could think of something for this one! I’ve learned tons of life lessons. I met some of the greatest people I could ever imagine meeting. People I consider my family, being able to travel around the world and experience different cultures. I cherish the art, the trade. There’s no substitute for hard work and the consistency of working hard is crucial in anything you do. What you put in is what you get out.
Mike Rubendall Tattoo Artist Interview
Interview by gougetheeyes