By Adriana de Barros
Starting his tattoo career in 1993, Mike Cole was surprisingly using only black-and-gray inks and not the bright colors that we have become accustomed to seeing in his current work. From tattooing to painting to 3D printed furniture, Cole is producing mind-blowing alternate-reality (computerized, maze-looking) compositions. Perhaps he is connecting to the isometric universes of aliens. Or possibly looking back to Leonardo da Vinci’s advanced studies or even further back to the mysterious pyramids of Egypt. If Cole was gifted with immorality there is so much he would explore beyond tattooing—mechanical engineering, architecture and, of course, some research uncovering many of the world’s enigmas. You’ve seen his tattoos plenty of times, but do you know much about the person behind the art? Probably not. There isn’t a lot of information about Cole out in the world, so we tracked him down at the 2020 California Golden State Tattoo Expo to find out a little more.
Inked: Can you walk us through a typical day in the life of Mike Cole?
Mike Cole: A day in the life of me, that can vary depending on what mood I’m in. Sometimes, I’ll paint non-stop for 18 hours a day until a painting is finished, or I’ll be completely focused on my health, fasting and riding my bike. On average, I’m an obsessive person with everything I do. So if I want to do something, I’m very obsessive with it. I think it speaks in the work.
Are you a private person, introvert and/or shy?
Yeah, I’m an introvert. Mostly introverted, sometimes I can be social but it’s very draining. I like to be private, the world’s a scary place. People are a bit scary to me at times because everybody’s trying to find their way and nobody has got it figured out, so it gets a little scary. I also like to stay focused with my work and my family, therefore I keep to myself.
So other than being here at a busy event, you prefer quiet time to recharge.
Yeah, to focus my mind. It’s hard in this kind of environment; everything is coming at you a million miles an hour. So when you quiet things down (and you’re at home), it’s easier to focus.
You had previously stated that your father was responsible for pushing your curiosity about how to build things through toys and tools from a young age.
Yeah, aptitude can be genetic. My father was an engineer. I think certain brains have an aptitude for mechanical things, and certain brains are poets, and others are this or that. But my art is definitely very engineered based, I think it has a lot to do with him. I would watch the way he built and designed things—the schematics and the tools that I was given when I was a little kid—because he was often busy doing something in his little “mad scientist lab.” He’d be enthralled in his work and that action probably influenced me to be the same way. He would give me tools to play with as he was busy with his [own] stuff.
What did your mother do professionally and how did she impact you?
My mom was a numbers lady, she worked for a bank. She was a "her way or the highway” type of woman. Disciplined and critical, she gave me my inner critic. I have got to give her credit for that! I have that harsh inner voice that is constantly criticizing myself: “You can do it better, you can do it better, you can do it better, yeah.” It’s not always a good thing because then you can get a bit too obsessed that it affects you, requiring you to bring oneself back [to the realization] that “this is good enough.” Give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve got to give yourself... what’s the word?
Yes, a little positive reinforcement. Or else that stuff can drive you crazy. One has to learn how to relax and shut off the mind. That’s my biggest struggle. Shutting my mind down has been one of my life-long struggles, especially after a car accident.
A lot of creative people have trouble shutting off.
Yeah. I had actual visuals and hallucinations after that [accident], it took a long time to come back down to earth.
What helped to cope with the accident?
I began using Psychedelics about 10 years after the accident, and that was what helped me see that I am not my mind. That is the thing that really cracked the egg and showed me that I’m not the chatter-in-the-thoughts, I’m the watcher. That’s what psychedelics helped me with.
Doctors were sticking me on Paxil when I had this injury, and my body was sick and I didn’t know how to eat correctly. I was all over the place with Paxil. Psychedelics brought me back to the center. Like, “Oh, it’s a completely true medicine.” It really changed my life!
As fast as society is, you’ve got all these legal chemicals that are “Starbucks,” but all the legal addictive stimulants: salts, sugars... They’re designed to keep your mind going. Food is drugs. The more pollutants you give it, the more ramped up it is, and the more chatter. Also, exercise has been a huge thing for me.
What type of exercise?
Lots of cardio, keeping the body moving, stretching, getting the heart rate up—peaceful stuff. You don’t have to lift 600 pounds to be up [active].
As you made lifestyle changes after the accident, they must have altered and affected your art.
Yes, I could show the pre-accident and pre-psychedelic period. I have three different distinguishing phases of my work [pre-accident, post-accident and psychedelics]. I analyze myself constantly. If I look back it’s like, “Whoa, that’s a big, big jump and I owe it to psychedelics and the accident.” When you get slingshot out of your body like that, when you hit a windshield going 50-miles-an-hour and remember seeing your head poke through it and the glass cracking out of the corner of your eye and your shoulder coming out of the socket and hearing all the crunch and crash, and not losing consciousness and then going to sleep for 15 minutes with a major concussion (which seems like four hours). You’re waking up, you’re tripping, you’re tripping without drugs. Your brain is scrambled.
It is like you are in slow motion.
Yeah, it’s crazy! We went off the side of a mountain. I was looking up into the sky. My truck was sitting on a tree pointing straight up in the air. My kid’s screaming and crying because he was in the car with me. And then I’m kicking doors open trying to get him out of there. Yelling at the guy, “What the F are you doing man? Why are you driving so fast in the snow?” And then somebody yelling that, “Oh, settle down sir, it was just an accident.” I’m like, “Well, you know this guy.” It was his fault, he caused all that pain, which took me 10 years since that day to recover. I had an opioid addiction, most people that are close to me know and I’m sure a lot of people in the industry know it, too. And the psychedelics squashed that, because you’re trying to medicate, you’re trying to... you don’t how to function, relationships and things are crumbling around you, your brain is scrambled from this trauma and you’re trying to find anything that will ease it: psychologists, psychotherapists and Paxil. I was getting anxiety attacks in public and throwing up. It was rough.
When I decided to try mushrooms, it was one of the most terrifying and freeing experiences I have ever had. It made me realize my ego and the control on my mind; the chaotic state from all that trauma (PTSD), the mind trying to hold on like it’s almost stuck in a survival phase. Like, “Holy crap, we just got hit by a car!” It’s always in defense mode and it never lets go until you take one of those compounds and it goes, “Oh, I’m not my mind.”
Triggering your adrenaline and fight-or-flight response.
You’re constantly in that state.
Explain some of the connections and how they have influenced your art.
They’re connected to the Isometric stuff. Like I see that stuff in everything still. When I look at a surface, I see it. It’s almost like I am in a computer-generated reality and I have to say, “Well, okay, so if I’ve taken these compounds and things look pixelated and I’m seeing these graphs and grids and formulas written over top of everything, [i.e.] I am seeing the projection of things and other people see the same kind of stuff, but not all the time.” Then, everything is based on Isometric graphs and Fibonacci sequences, and you can see it.
I can’t see it like you.
Leonardo da Vinci had it figured out. M.C. Escher had it figured out. The Egyptians had it figured out. Those pyramids are power stations, [Laughing] they’re not dunes. Those little channels running under the water like the Tesla tower. Tesla’s electricity is dependent on water veins in the ground to create that crazy generation of power, and the Egyptians were doing the same thing. The Nile used to run way closer and it was—I’m probably quoting a documentary here—it makes engineering sense! It makes complete sense. We know how to do free power. We shouldn’t be using nuclear stuff and ruining the ozone and creating a crazy climate. The Earth naturally swings, climate change is normal, but we’re making it worse. We would probably be able to handle that swing, but the way we’re burning things and wrecking shit, it’s going to be too hot.
Indeed it is getting hotter.
Tattooing — how long did it take to produce the work on your client Josh?
Josh was coming to me for a few years, probably a good three to four years. I worked on him and all his stuff was drawn on, using some stencils that I would draw over the graph, but a lot of it was free-flowing, freehanded with a marker onto his muscles. Josh is into fitness and has distinct anatomy with a defined stomach and nice serratus-lateral muscle, which I could use to just sculpt my separate to it. I love, love, love doing people that are carved up or whatever. If the human body is beautiful in general, like the anatomy is, that’s what you want to construct a tattoo around. I think the human body is an amazing piece of work.
Your client now looks like a superhero.
I’ve heard the Iron Man thing.
I didn’t say Iron Man.
Very robotic! He’s getting a suit, a superhuman, alien intelligence suit that’s being mapped over his body. I’m a nerd! I love all the “Aliens” movies, “Avatar.” I love all sci-fi stuff. So that’s definitely influenced my work for sure.