by William Thidemann
Photos courtesy of Mike Malone
From the August 2005 issue of Prick Magazine.

I have heard the name Mike Malone since I first started tattooing. He's one of those legends that every tattooer should know of, and probably are already influenced by without even realizing it. A world renowned artist, he has worked with the likes of such legendary tattooers as Ed Hardy and Sailor Jerry, whose shop he eventually took over. There have been countless books, magazines and museum shows which have featured him and his work. Ask any tattooer worth two cents about Mike Malone and you can hear the obvious admiration for him. I was lucky enough to get to talk with him recently for this interview, and here is how it went...

William: When and how did you start tattooing? What got you started?

Mike: I had a childhood interest in it, like a lot of tattooers in my day. I had a grandfather that had a bunch of tattoos, and I can remember being taken into a tattoo shop when I was a tiny little kid. I watched when a guy tattooed my grandfather; they put me up on a rail so I could see. I fiddled with it a little bit as a teenager on the side. I liked tattooing, but all the tattoos I ever saw were crappy looking.

It wasn't until I was in my late 20s that I ran into Tom Devita in New York City. I was working as a magazine photographer, and one day Tom was sitting on a stoop and I saw that he had these stellar tattoos. It was just like a miracle. I said to the guy 'Geez, where did you get those.' You could tell that they were exactly [as the tattooer] intended them to be. It was like lightning to me. So I started hanging out with Tom, just shooting him photographically. He was a super interesting subject to shoot. I just slowly drifted into [tattooing]. When Tom found out I could draw, he had me drawing up designs for customers. While he was tattooing, I would be drawing up a design for the next one.

Did you have any formal art training at this point?

Oh, yeah. I mean ... I went to art school a little bit after high school, but I didn't stay with it.

Who was Tom Devita apprenticing under or learning to tattoo from?

Tom was sorta learning to tattoo from Huck Spaulding, mainly because in those days he had this supply business, Spaulding & Rogers. Tom was working out of the basement of his house in Albany, and Huck was sympathetic to young tattooers because he could sell them stuff, and he couldn't afford to be nasty. Back then there were a bunch of nasty old cusses and they didn't really help anybody, you know?

Pretty closed lipped?

Yeah, it was absolutely correct what they were doing. They were doing the right thing, not spreading it around.At any length, met Paul Rogers, who was tattooing out in Camden, NJ with Sailor Eddie Evans. Paul would share stuff with you. He was an alright guy, and if he thought that you had some talent or were really interested, polite, and a decent kind of person, then he helped you. From there I started falling into meeting people. I went to stay with Don Ed Hardy and he introduced me into that period ... Sailor Jerry, that is really the lineage that I am from ... the dawn of Sailor Jerry.

So, you eventually bought Sailor Jerry's shop?

Yeah, when Jerry died in '73 I guess it was, the shop came to me. It was the smartest thing I ever did. They told me I was crazy. I paid 20 grand for the shop and everyone went '$20,000 ... are you out of your god damned mind?'

At the time, that was a lot of money...

Well you know, I got a hell of a deal.

Things within the tattoo industry are so technical nowadays. What was it like before, back when you worked with Paul Rogers?

Paul was the same kind of machine builder that I am, intuitive. You stay with something - tattoo machines are basically common sense. I don't even think you can really classify a tattoo machine as a machine; it only really has one moving part. Christ, it might just be a device. I know at that time everybody had a different way that they wanted to build tattoo machines. From country to country they would be radically different. They were all basically an electromagnetic spring thing, but I would go some places and the machines would be set up to where you could chip concrete with them, or they would have machines that had to have collets stuck underneath them to keep them from burning your hands up. If a machine is so hot itís burning you, then something is wrong. As far as tattoo machines go, the ones that me and my partner Keith Underwood built are as respected as any in the business. I have made an awful lot of people happy with my tattoo machines. A lot of people come up to me and tell me that they love the machines they bought from me. That is nice to hear.

Yeah, I have one of your old ones, an old ďRollomatic.Ē

Did you get it from me?

I might have gotten it from Frank Mills. I don't remember.

A lot of them have been messed with; they go out there, and then people alter them thinking 'Oh I can make this better.' The main thing to get tattoo machines working is that it takes real common sense.

Right now in the tattoo industry there are so many suppliers that everything is much easier to access. How do you think this affects tattooing?

The thing is that there is such a barrage of malarkey out there, too. I know of one outfit that puts out 18 different tattoo machines; in the shapes of a skull, an anchor, a pork chop, in the shape of, ya know ... a dildo, whatever. But the geometry on them is all the same, so basically it's the same machine. The math is all the same you know Ė just slicked up. I see young tattooers buying them, spending $400 dollars on a chrome-dragon-headed shaped tattoo machine. Tattoo machines are like cars. The ones people really play with are usually kinda pretty, but not special looking. Well I mean, it lies around until you use it and they usually look well worn. Basically I tattooed with the same pair of machines for a hell of a lot of years.

I have been tattooing for about 11 years or so I am probably in this crowd to some degree, but what do you think of the younger crop of tattooers, all the kids out there now?

Well, they are like anybody else Ė some of them are cool and most of them are jokers. I mean that is the way it is with anything, there are a few guys around who know their stuff and a whole bunch of ding-dongs. What is unusual today is there are a lot of young would-be art students that are out there tattooing. But instead of doing their bad art on canvas, they are doing it on people. They never stop to question what it is they are actually doing.

I don't think they appreciate everything that has led up to where we are at, all the opportunities we have ... I don't think they realize what a big deal it is to get someoneís whole arm or back.

What I am saying is that they don't understand that the basic premise of tattooing is pretty goofy. It's like, here you have this human body, like a beautiful piece of sculpture ... like somebody owns Michelangelo's David and goes 'I just bought this and I want to get some fire and devils and things on it.' I think that the biggest problem with tattooing is people are not thinking about what it is that they are doing before they do it. They don't see the subject that they are working on, to see the surface that they are working on and take a step back from it. In most cases they are basically jerking themselves off. Most of them are rock star tattooers. I mean, I don't want to spend too much time on them because that's just what there is out there; there are an awful lot of those guys.

It seems that when you and Don Ed Hardy started working together there were a lot more conceptual issues going on. I think you guys considered a lot of different subjects in your art and tattoos. I'm not sure the conceptual stuff exists so much today, what do you think?

Well, every once in a while I'll see something that rips my head-off. But most of the time I go through these tattoo books I see stuff that technically it's like wizardry. These kids can draw better than I can, they can tattoo better than I ever could, and their abilities are incredible. They've got a million dollar hand and a ten-cent brain. It's mostly because these kids have too much going on in their head about themselves, MTV, what can I tell ya? Once in a while you get a good one; it's truly rare.

You've been around long enough to watch lots of movements and styles fade in and out. What styles have persisted through times and what subject matter are people consistently drawn to?

I think one on the most important tattooers during my era of tattooing, and probably this whole time period, is Leo Zulueta. He is really important, and people don't understand that. He's never been given the credit he deserves. He introduced the whole thing about tribal stuff. But more importantly he also pointed out that we better start doing stuff with tattoos that makes sense, that works with the surface that it's on. Look at the influence his work has had on everything. I mean, not only on tattooing ... you go down the road and see cars, motorcycles, and clothing with tribal work on them. Tribal appears in advertising and movies, everywhere, ya know?

It seems that people are drawn to the graphic nature of that type of work.

Leo was the guy that really pointed that out. He's really an important tattooer. I don't think he's been given near the credit he deserves. He's really a remarkable tattooer and a really smart guy.

What have been the biggest influences on your work?

Well, ya know, [Sailor] Jerry because, if you're gonna do regular good freestyle American tattooing, Jerry was the guy that could do it. He could really put on those pin-ups. He was excellent at it. He was a great technician and a great artist and he understood the absurdity of the whole thing. And that's what made his stuff great too. He knew how absurd the whole thing was. He was an important guy. Jerry had a lot of influence on me.

Paul Rogers had a lot of influence on me technically, and Ed Hardy also influenced me a lot. More like a stable mate, you know what I mean? We put up with each other. We inspired each other. Ed could tell me about art, you know? He really understands art.

You've had such a long career, from tattooing to doing the Austin Chronicle newspaper covers, to having art in museums and your book. What ideas have you been working with? What keeps you fresh as far as subject matter? How do you keep figuring out new ideas?

I'm retired now so I haven't done but a few tattoos in the last few years... maybe half a dozen tattoos in the last two years. Iím pretty well burnt out. If there was some great project that I really wanted to do, I would do it. But Iíve pretty much run the gamut of things that I want to do. Occasionally I will think of something that I really want to work on, but mostly it manifests it's self in paintings.

Right now Iím working on developing a thing that I call 'Ghost Kanji'. Iím painting kanji that doesn't mean anything. Itís like just working with those beautiful shapes and the brushes and stuff. It looks kinda like Chinese but it isn't really anything. I don't know, it's like getting down to the essence of things... the beauty of the brushes. That is what I am doing right now. Usually I will do a job for somebody. I just finished a painting of Japanese style ghosts for a lady who commissioned me to do it for her husbandís birthday. So I will knock out a painting now and then, make a little dough. It's a pleasure to do that kind of stuff. I mean if I have the time. I enjoy painting, you know. I can do it by myself and I don't have to listen to the kids.

So do you make it out to any conventions any more? How do you spend your time?

Hardly any. I don't do conventions very much at all any more. My health isn't exactly what it should be. I have a few health problems that are real serious, so I am slowing down a little. Just trying to, you know. I don't see the point either. I guess if I needed the money, I'd be in there pitching... I mean it's not like I am rich, I am certainly not rich, you know. I am not broke either. I manage to kinda set myself up a little bit and I get royalties here and there from things. It keeps me in the things I need; I don't need a lot of stuff. I am not high maintenance.

Speaking of life stuff, I have met Keith Underwood once or twice. What is your relationship to him?

He is like a son.

Simply put.

He did work for me in Minnesota and he commissioned me to build a tattoo machine for him and he had me paint him a sheet of flash. I told him I was opening a shop in Minnesota and that if he knew anybody who was looking for a job to let me know. I was looking for a tattooer and he immediately up and quit the job he was on and went 'Whee ... I'll take it.' So he came out, and he is a remarkable kid. If they had a few more like him in tattooing, I'd still be in there pitching. It would be a lot more interesting. Keith is really an ok guy; he is a hundred percent guy. We are kinda the right age for a son father kinda age thing, you know. So it's been fun teaching him stuff. He is not the kind of guy to get puffed up. He goes about his work. He is just a real good guy. He is a great kid, you don't see that very often. I can trust him with anything.

There seems to be a bit of a shift in this country towards being more conservative. Do you think this will affect the number of people getting tattooed? Do you think that the popularity of tattooing goes up and down? Is it cyclical?

I don't think it is. I think that tattooing is unlike goofy shoes or funny pants or clothing styles or haircut styles. Tattoos are forever, so these guys have to take them into their next life. They have to make a concession for whatever their next trip is, it has to include their tattoos. So now that tattooing has gotten as big as it is, I don't see it fading away at all. I don't see it going on a cyclical thing.

Good to hear.

It's gotten enormous. On the other hand, you've got just millions of tattooers ...

Yeah, popularity is a double-edged sword.

In a way it makes me kinda sad that it isn't a venue for abandon anymore. It isn't a venue for the outlaw. It used to be ... it was a pirate job. Not anymore. People used to ask me what I did, and I'd say that I did tattoos for a living, and they would look at you with kinda like a pathetic look on their face, and they would look at you like 'Oh, oh ... it is a dying trade, isn't it' and that sort of thing. Now you say you are a tattooer and a little old lady on the bus will say, 'Yeah my nephew is a tattooer.'

Yeah it has changed a lot. I started tattooing 10 or 11 years ago, and I think I got to catch the tail end of when there was an edginess to it that definitely isn't there anymore.

Yeah, I mean when I started tattooing, I betcha there weren't more than 250 to 300 tattooers in the country.

God, I wish.

When I started tattooing there were two tattoo shops in New Jersey, one in San Francisco, maybe two or three in San Diego.The biggest place to tattoo was in San Diego. There were other major cities that had no tattooers. Now, I heard the other day that the San Diego area has close to 90 tattooers working. Not only does that make it hard to make a living, but it also kinda takes the fun out of it.

I think that through time, the number of tattoo shops will decrease. I think that people will start to expect a certain pedigree of tattooer. I think there will always be different levels of tattooing, there will always be the street shop and the custom shop, but maybe the crowd will get smarter and thin the herd out a little.

Yeah, I think that is happening now to some degree. It just depends on how the tattooers handle it, what they do, and how they deal with it. I mean, how they deal with tattooing, what they come up with. It is really hard, how often do you see something that really knocked your socks off?

Not as often as I would like.

Yeah, I mean it's you pick up these books and you go through them and they are like all these incredible barrages of color, but a lot of the stuff is so superficial.

I think that there is a lack of originality in designs, lately. There are the exceptions, the few, but you go through tattoo magazines and you can see hundreds of tattoos that look like badly done versions of the same tattoo month after month.

Absolutely, everyone is copying everyone else, like they always have, but on such a massive scale now. It's because a lot of them don't bother to do any kind of real research. They only look as far as tattoo magazines Ė that's where they get their research. They don't know about art history, or about what's going on in art currently... I mean outside of tattooing. It's crazy they don't want to get away from tattooing. You gotta go look at Peter Paul Reubens and Francis Bacon, and at other painters, sculpture and stuff. See how that can apply, you know.

I think a lot of younger tattoo artists feel pressured to give a certain effect that people have seen from certain artists. I don't think they want to take a lot of risk in their artwork. I think that they definitely could benefit from it, try a different line weight, a different texture, you know pull in something from painting. I don't know if it is that easy to convince young artists to not pursue the easy way out. If they see a mustard yellow skull with green in it they automatically all have the same color scheme because they can get an effect that is more guaranteed, and the customers by and large don't seem to realize where these ideas come from.

The other day we had a guy come in and get a pair of big bold scissors and a needle and thread tattooed on the inside of his forearm. It was just a knockout - it literally was a tattoo that anybody could do, but I really loved it because it really worked and it obviously meant something to somebody. I don't see enough of that kind of work, because I mean ... what are tattoos supposed to do, what is their function? That is the weird thing you have to deal with at the front.

The purpose of tattoos is "look at me." That is what it is about; it's about plumage. The female birds are attracted to the male bird with the most beautiful feathers. Now if everybody's plumage is the same, how are you gonna get her eye?

I remember one time when I was first starting out, I was tattooing in San Diego with Zeke Owens, and I had a lot of ideas about tattooing from my days in New York and my exposure to modern art. So I was doing stuff like painting flash with life-sized foods, with no joke drawings, no cartoons, and no punch line. I did a life-sized ice cream cone on this kid that worked for us, and Zeke walked in saying 'What the fuck are you doing? What are you doing that for? That's so stupid. Why don't you write something around it?' And I replied 'No, it doesn't call for a slogan, that's all it is.' The next morning the kid walked in and he said 'Wow, there were like so many people hittin' on me about this tattoo and you shoulda seen it. This chick came up to me asking about it and everything.' The tattoo had served its purpose. He got access to what he wanted, you know what I mean?

Sometimes people have a hard time realizing the simple functions of things.

You know if itís just the same old stuff and everyone is just like cool about it, then it is not working. Here is a black and white scissors with and a needle and thread tattoo and it works because it is doing what it is supposed to do. It is unexpected, it is unusual and it came from a strange place and titillates peoples' curiosity. Most of the tattooists I see today, the message is all the same, the message is look how good I can tattoo. That is the message. If the message is look how good I can tattoo, then it has already failed.

Artists need to be able to step back and dissolve, go away, you know, disappear. It is not a stage for him to come out and tap dance on. He is making up the actors for the play. Get in, do a great job and get out. Think about the surface you are working on, how can you enhance this surface, how can you violate this surface and make something worthwhile happen. I mean, that is the basic big question to me. I often wonder why somebody hasn't ever done something like bought a mannequin and sprayed it with blackboard paint. Then you would have a surface to draw on and erase, and you could work things out on it, because most people just don't care what they are tattooing on.

What about the relationship between tattooer and client?

The clients are guilty too; they let tattooists get away with it.They are buying in to that rock star bullshit.They are intimidated by it, ya know. He is the tattooer, he is the big king, he is the guy with the cool haircut and dice on his shirt. They should be questioning it more, thinking 'Hey these tattoos ... how do they look on me?' The tattooers sell that look. The tattooer that really cares and wants to do something that works will be the one that hangs in there because people will recognize that eventually.

I think so, too.

Just put on your panther and do it real nice. As far as I am concerned that is perfectly honorable. I find that a whole lot more honorable than a skeleton with purple, yellow and such ...

A lot of the process in tattooing has disappeared too. I was thinking about this the other day. You used to have to work on your own machines, make needles, and cut stencils. There were all these disciplines that had to be learned. And now all of these are disappearing. Nobody makes their own needles anymore, not like I blame them. It's a miserable chore. I think that stuff like that builds character, though; to take care of your stuff and understand it, to know your equipment and know how to work your stuff.

The love of your craft and your tools, too.

Yeah... to take care of your stuff and understand it, to know your equipment and know how to work your stuff. Not just get it all from 'Acme' tattoo supply.

I have to admit, I buy pre-made needles at this point.

Oh hey, I would too. I would probably not make my own... but I know how.

Thanks again to Mike Malone for allowing me to interview him; it was a real pleasure.

For more info on William Thidemann visit www.thidemann.com.

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