Mike Rubendall is the tattoo artist’s tattooer. More than half of his clientele are fellow artists from all over the world who come to “Rube” for his contemporary approach to traditional Japanese tattoo style. Each client, tattooer or not, receives a meticulously researched, dynamic work of art, and that’s why they’ve been making the trip out to Kings Avenue Tattoo in Massapequa, Long Island, NY, where Rubendall was born and raised. Now the tattoo commute has gotten much shorter, with the opening of a new Kings Avenue on The Bowery, once the gritty center of New York City’s tattoo scene. In this interview, Mike talks about the new shop, his grueling start in the business, and what it’s like to tattoo a dead body.
INKED: How did Kings Avenue Tattoo on the Bowery come to be?
Mike Rubendall: It’s something I’ve always dreamed of and wanted to do, to be in Manhattan. I felt that we missed out on a lot of opportunities being outside of the energy of the art world and tattooing in NYC. I’ve never been a fan of opening multiple shops, but Grez, who’s leading the [Bowery] shop, was pushing for it. He kept saying: “C’mon, let’s do it. There are a lot of great things going on now in Brooklyn and Manhattan, and we should be a part of it.” He kind of talked me into it, and I couldn’t do it without him. We opened in April, and he’s basically running the show there, while I come in part-time because I have to be in Massapequa; that’s my home and that shop needs more attention now that Grez is gone. We luckily hired a lot of new talent, and I feel like this is a new era for Kings Avenue. I think that all of us collectively—with our peers and friends in Manhattan and Brooklyn—could help redefine New York tattooing.
What do you mean by “redefine New York tattooing”?
There’s a lot of good art and ideas going on now that might be overlooked, and I think we might be able to fill the void and be the missing link to bring everyone together—to make it kind of like what San Francisco was back in the day with [Ed Hardy’s] Tattoo City and [Eddy Deutsche’s] 222 Tattoo—and have New York be one of the meccas of tattooing again. I feel like some of the magic has been lost—maybe not “lost,” but overlooked.
The Bowery was once the heart of tattooing in New York City. Do you ever feel the ghosts of tattooists past there?
That’s why we liked the whole idea of being on The Bowery. Our forefathers have done so much there. They lived and died on The Bowery. Hopefully we can resurrect it, make it more exciting again.
You talked about the magic of tattooing. What is that magic for you?
That’s a good question. I always felt that tattooing had a magic lure for me but I could never put my finger on it. I guess it was the rough-and-tumbleness, the whole mystique. When I got into it in 1995, it was more or less a closed trade and any information you got, you got on your own. There was no internet; there were only a few magazines. You really had to dig for tips and tricks, and good types of inks, needles, and machines. It was fun. It was special. Nowadays, it’s easily accessible via media, internet, different supply companies, and television. Even though television made it more accepted and has done some good, it kind of killed the whole mystique of tattooing. It lost its edge. So I’m thankful that I grew up in it during a time when it was still kind of shady and interesting.
When did you get started in the business?
I was 17 when I started. I apprenticed under Frank Romano [owner of Da Vinci Tattoo Studio] for a year and a half and then continued to tattoo there for about 10 years before I opened up Kings Avenue in 2005.
In an interview with the Long Island Press, you described your apprenticeship as “grueling, demeaning, and humiliating.” Could you tell us more about that?
[Laughs.] When I look back on it, it was one of the best experiences of my life, even though while it was happening it was the worst experience. I was young and naive, and I felt that at times I was going to have a nervous breakdown. But it was very intriguing to me and I wanted to do whatever it took to get my foot in the door. It’s like I was saying before about tattooers keeping their trade secrets close to the chest—well, Frank was a firm believer of that and felt that if you want it, you got to earn it. It also helped me to grow up, seeing how Frank handled himself and the business, dealing with clients—and at the time it wasn’t the best clientele to deal with. It was overall a great experience even though it was grueling.
What do you think is one of the most important lessons you’ve learned in tattooing?
There’s no substitute for hard work. I never felt like I had any type of natural talent or that I was gifted. I would get discouraged when I couldn’t portray my ideas on skin. It’s a tricky and tremendously hard medium. Tattooing is also different occupations simultaneously: You have to be an artist; you have to be a doctor in that you listen to people’s problems and practice good hygiene; your machine is acting up and so you have to be a mechanic. There are so many things into one. It’s a lot of hard work but anything worth doing usually is.
What do you think is the biggest mistake tattooers make today?
As for new tattooers, I would say the biggest mistake is getting ahead of themselves. I think the new generation is running before they are crawling. They are taking on these epic pieces, and they don’t really grasp the fundamentals. That can be a huge problem. For experienced tattooers, I’ve always been puzzled by the attitude thing. When I’d meet a guy who I always looked up to and admired his work, and then he was a complete asshole, I’d immediately dislike his work. I’ve always felt in the back of my head that I’d never want to be that guy. And it’s especially important to have a good attitude with clients. You want the overall experience to be outstanding. Tattooing is an intimidating process, and I always take that into consideration. People don’t know what they’re getting into and you have to explain it every time [to each new client], saying the same thing over and over, but you got to remember that people will remember this experience for the rest of their lives. It sounds corny and cliché, but you want to make it count and make it a good memory.
What is the tattoo that you’ve done that sticks out most in your memory?
I had a crazy experience that I’ve never spoken of before. It happened about two years ago. Over the years, I’ve tattooed a funeral director. When I first started tattooing, I wanted to get good as fast as possible so, as an apprentice, I would do free tattoos on him. Since he worked at a funeral home, we always talked about tattooing dead people. “Was it possible?” and this and that. We never did it, but flirted with the idea. Then he calls me out of nowhere and says, “Listen to this: Unfortunately, this gentleman passed away. He’s got four children and he’s only got three tattooed on his arm, so his wife wants him to be buried with [the name of] the fourth child, who is only about 20 months old. Will you do it?” I said I’d do it. I felt it would be a good experience, and I’d be helping the family out and give the wife some closure. It was creepy when I got into the funeral home. The guy was all prepped on the table, naked. It was a creepy, quiet feeling almost like the movie The Shining where everything is really silent. I was really freaked out at first. I didn’t know how the skin would react and if the ink would take, but after a few minutes, it just felt like I was doing a regular tattoo. By the end, I was so comfortable that I helped with his other tattoos. He had gotten into an accident and had road rash where some of his tattoos had scraped off. They were putting makeup on the tattoos but they were doing it all wrong so I offered to help. It was an amazing experience. That’s what stands out as one of the moments that, in a million years, you’d never imagine you’d be doing.
What was the skin like on a dead body?
It was super rubbery. He was half embalmed already, and I didn’t know if fluid would come out since he didn’t have any blood in him. I had no idea what was going to happen. I asked [the director] if I would tear this guy open and he just said, “I don’t know.” So I took the legal route and had releases signed. I guess I couldn’t make him any worse than he already was, but it went in fine. The skin was tougher than normal, and you couldn’t go over and over; you had to make one pass and that was it, and whatever was there, it had to be.
Let’s talk about the type of tattooing you’re renowned for, which is a modern take on Japanese work. How did you develop your style and make it your own?
I think it occurred indirectly from me being interested in other styles like Tibetan, Chinese, and then the other spectrum, like black-and-gray realistic and horror stuff. I just take bits and pieces of different aspects I like from different art and I do my own interpretation of it. That’s what comes out. Thinking back to the beginning when I worked for Frank, because it was a street shop, I would do anything that walked in the door, whether I liked it or not. It was a good way of becoming familiar with what I was good at, what I could draw well, what would look good over time and all that.
Do you like to do styles other than Japanese?
I have a couple of guys who come in from Europe for black-and-gray, religious, Catholic-style stuff, which I’m super into because I did a lot of that in the beginning of my career and I don’t get to do much of it anymore. They know my work, but I’m happy that they let me explore an area that I’m not used to today.
For those traveling from all over to get work from you, how do you manage all the appointments?
I open my [appointment] book twice a year, basically every six months. Throughout the year, we tell people to wait until a specific day to call and show up. On that day, I normally have two people who take appointments, which can book up to 10 or 11 months in advance. That’s really the only way to monitor the volume of people. To book more than a year and a half in advance is difficult. You have people coming in from all over the world who book their life around this appointment, and then I go and have a couple of kids and fuck everybody’s schedule up, so I really can’t plan a year and a half in advance. [Laughs.]
Especially because you’re having kids almost once a year now!
That’s it. I’m done. Three is perfect. I have a 3-year-old girl, a 13-month-old girl, and now a newborn boy.
How has being a father impacted your work life?
It’s incredible, but there’s not enough time in the day to do everything you want, so something has to suffer. I rarely go out and socialize, and I don’t get to see my friends as much. On the flip side, I really enjoy my family and kids. I’m also eating healthy and exercising regularly and taking care of myself to keep up with them because they have a ton of energy. And that’s given me more energy and strength for my tattooing.
Do you ever feel you’re going to burn out?
Frank asked me that recently because he’s always been concerned that I would burn out at this pace, but I’ve always had a different mentality about it. If you think you’re going to burn out, you’ll absolutely burn out. But when you feel down and things aren’t exactly going your way, just work through it and it always gets better. You can’t think about failure.
Is there a particular goal you’re striving for?
I don’t really have a major goal. I just want to be happy. Tattooing makes me happy. I want a good life for my family. I want to keep challenging myself. Just when I think I can’t take on something else, I stretch myself and do it. I think that’s how we grow. You can’t sit back and wait for shit to happen, you have to make it happen.
So that’s your personal philosophy?
Yeah, I’m into motivational speaking tapes.
Nah. [Laughs.] But I am a firm believer in positive thinking. Plant good seeds. Do right by people. And it comes back to you even if you’re not looking for it.