Mike Rubendall has been tattooing professionally for 18 years. He currently tattoos out of Kings Avenue Tattoo in New York, which he also owns.
Read Mike's interview below, then check out some of his work at the bottom.
How did you get your start?
My whole life, or as far back as I can remember, I've always been creative and have been really interested in art. I became very interested in tattooing around the age of 15. I remember going to a local record store and thumbing through the tattoo magazines over and over, I was hooked. It wasn't until my senior year of high school, at 17, that I decided to pursue tattooing.
I was taught by a man named Frank Romano. It wasn't easy for me to persuade Frank to teach me how to tattoo. It took many attempts and several tests until he agreed. At that time, tattooing was a closed trade and artists back then held information very close to their chest. They cherished tattooing; they protected it and weren’t interested in sharing it with just anybody. Most of the time, if you were receiving any type of information or tips of the trade from a fellow artist, it was most likely misinformation — a tactic used to set you back and slow down your progress.
What's your tattoo style of choice?
Today I would say my style is more of a contemporary approach to traditional Japanese tattooing. I follow the tradition to the best of my ability; however, not being born in the culture is a major disadvantage. I enjoy doing Asian influenced tattoos because it lends itself so well to tattooing. The imagery is really interesting and has a lot of deep symbolism. Tattooing in this style of work really stands the test of time. The tattoos will look beautiful and powerful for years to come.
I’ve spent time in both Japan and China. Studying woodblock prints and the mythology from that culture had a tremendous influence on my style. Japanese tattoo art is based on woodblock prints and other Edo period art, therefore it follows a tradition, and there are rules. I liked that about the style. There is structure.
Before I start a new tattoo, and after I've met with the client to discuss their ideas, I typically research the idea or subject matter to find if there is any type of mythological story or symbolism that best suits the client's vision.
What do you think makes tattoos special?
It's a beautiful form of self-expression. For many, it's a rite of passage. Essentially, it is a permanent diary, a memory that you will have forever. It represents where you are at that particular time of your life. It shows that you're not scared of public opinion and would love to let the world know what you believe in.
Tattoos seem very mainstream now. Is that good or bad?
As with anything, there are pros and cons that come with popularity. These days, tattoos are way more accepted as opposed to a few years back. All walks of people are getting tattooed, from doctors, lawyers, celebrities, and professional athletes, to even your everyday soccer mom. The tattoo industry has gained tremendous momentum and it's nice to see that tattoos are not frowned upon by most anymore. In fact it's respected — as it should be — as a serious art form.
The problem I see with the popularity of tattoos is that the craft is less cherished and disrespected by some. There was a certain mystique that tattooing possessed that has, in my opinion, disappeared. There are no more secrets.
Tattoo culture is all over television and media and, more often than not, is misrepresented and unauthentic. Tattoos and the whole process of tattooing is a magical experience, however not everyone feels this way about tattoos. The industry is over-saturated with new tattooers that have possibly never picked up a pencil in all their life, but saw this as a good opportunity to make a quick buck. These are the tattooers that clients have to be aware of. It's important for potential clients to do their research to find a good artist, a reputable shop, and make sure that both are practicing proper hygiene and following Board of Health regulations.
Do you see a current trend in the industry?
One major trend I see in tattooing is the scale of the work is getting bigger. These days, I'll have a client starting off with getting a full sleeve, back piece or even bodysuit for their first tattoo. Clients tend to be more educated and patient. They do the research, study artists portfolios, get comfortable with their tattoo concepts — and jump in headfirst.
Do you have any funny tattoo stories? What about horror stories?
This is definitely an odd story. Over the years I've done an extensive amount of work for this funeral director. So one day, out of the blue, he gives me a call and has a rather strange request. He asked if I would be comfortable with tattooing a deceased person.
I was really unsure about the idea at first, and to be honest I wasn't sure how the skin would react to a tattoo. It was a sad story: It was a younger gentleman who passed away and had four children. He had three of the four children's names tattooed on his arm. His wife did not want to bury him without the fourth name and asked the funeral director if there was some way possible to get the last name tattooed on him. I knew it meant a lot to this woman and her family, so I agreed. I have to say it was an extremely heavy experience.
The process went as smooth as possible, and it wasn't more or less difficult than tattooing at any other time. It was a success and the family was overwhelmed. At the funeral, they displayed a picture of the tattoo with four children's names. Some months later, the wife stopped into the tattoo shop. She expressed her gratitude and talked about getting the children's names tattooed on her as well, sometime in the future.
Which piece of work has been your favorite?
That has always been a really difficult question for me to answer. It's kind of like asking me which one of my children is my favorite. Before I even applied the tattoo to skin, I've already invested a tremendous amount of time, energy and emotion into the design. So for me, creating tattoos is almost like I'm creating a timeline for my life. For instance, I could look back at a tattoo I've done five years ago and it'll spark an emotion.
Check out some of Mike's work below: