Mike Malone: A True Pirate by Crash

I wrote this intro on the plane ride back from Chicago to Atlanta after spending four days with Mike Malone, Keith Underwood, and the rest of the crew at Taylor Street Tattoo. My mind was filled with grandiose thoughts of our history, our craft, and even some self-righteous beliefs about the state tattooing these days. I apologize in advance if some of it comes out preachy, (I’m known to be that way sometimes), or even hypocritical, (also guilty from time to time), but I think maybe it’s worth printing anyway, exactly as I wrote it then, with the experience still fresh and alive in my mind and the reality of my time there still weighing on me like an extra layer of clothing. It was hard to put the impact of that week into words, but it was very real for me and this is what I wrote…

“Where have the magic and mystery gone?”

Virtually every tattooer knows the names of Don Ed Hardy, Horiyoshi III, and, of course, Sailor Jerry Collins, (hell, even a good percentage of non-tattooers now recognize these names thanks to art shows, rum bottles, and even clothing lines and energy drinks), but I am shocked at how many of our own peers remain ignorant of Mike Malone, his history, and his contributions to all of us. If we were to make a list of important historical tattooers, all of those men would be included of course, and many more besides- Bert Grimm, Doc Webb, Thom Devita, Cliff Raven, Greg Irons, and countless others. These men, to many of us, were real heroes of legend and myth, and few were privy to the hushed stories that made them so or to the whispered secrets of the craft shared only with trusted initiates. We used to gather around a table at the convention like warriors gathered around a campfire and share 3rd or 4th hand tales of one of these giants, our heroes- passing rumor off as magic and swearing each other to secrecy. It was an age of wonder. But it’s just not the same anymore.

It isn’t that all those stories are widely available (though some of them are); it can’t be that the men have lost their importance, or even that we have grown out of it … yet somehow the magic of mystery is missing these days. Perhaps it’s that tattooing or, more specifically, the history of tattooing, isn’t as important as it once was to the people who are engaged in the craft. Maybe it’s the west’s weak sense of history in general. Maybe it’s the over-saturation and commonness of tattooing these days and the broad acceptance of the art form by society. Maybe it just comes down to the apathy Americans are so known for everywhere else in the world and so ignorant of here at home. Maybe it’s simply about a lack of respect for what we do and where we came from. I really can’t put my finger on it, but it seems something has been lost. I’m not saying I know what it is or even that I’m not part of the problem myself … but this much I do know: that fire of myth was rekindled when I sat and talked with Mike Malone.

Mike Malone is a hero to tattooers everywhere- though they might not know it! He’s a living legend, and you should all be beating down his door just for the chance to talk to him for a little while and give him some of your money. This is the man most responsible (along with Ed Hardy) for making sure we all know what our legacy is and how to live up to it:

*It is Malone who inherited Sailor Jerry’s China Sea Tattoo shop in Honolulu after his Jerry’s untimely passing in 1973, and the vault of artwork and history accompanied with that- (30 years worth of original flash, handmade stencils, drawings, machines, formulas and correspondences- a lifetime’s worth of work), all preserved from obscurity because of Mike’s great love and respect for tattooings’ history. And he chose to share it with the rest of us bums. But Mike’s importance extends way beyond this.

*He helped organize one of the first gallery shows in NYC that showcased tattoo flash artwork. 

*He was the first American in who-knows-how-long to see and photograph extensive works by Kuniyoshi, making them available and usable to select tattooers who went on to transform tattooing in the west (and elsewhere) years before the collected works would be available publicly.

*He revolutionized the tattoo flash market with his famous “Mr. Flash” flash sets. A first, and the model still used today for flash sales. In addition, under the “Rollo” signature, he would personally put out over 300 individual flash pages through the years, and we’re still counting.

*He helped convince Paul Rogers to make and sell tattoo machines to the younger generation of tattooers, making that legendary and innovative man accessible to more than the handful of guys who knew where to find him.

*He has mentored or directly taught Kandi Everett, Scott Sterling, Ed’s own son- Doug Hardy, Seth Ciferri, Scott Harrison, and countless others, including myself. In fact, if it were not for Rollo’s encouragement and willingness to be involved with some young punk’s crazy tattoo journal idea, I might never have had the courage to make a single issue of the magazine you are holding in your hands now. And it’s because of his endless critiques and complaints about it that I consistently strive to make each issue better than the last.

Mike Malone has seen and done it all and he’s shared every bit of it with those individuals smart enough to seek him out. He has always remained accessible to the next generation, a distinction that few other “important” tattooers are known for these days. It is still possible to buy original Sailor Jerry flash, stencils, and drawings from Mike’s collection. (And I really don’t know why that is. I am stunned that every tattooer in the world hasn’t thrust money into Mike’s hands to own something that valuable, that sacred.) If you are polite and persistent, (and if he happens to like you), you can even get a tattoo from Mike or a page of flash painted to order. How many other legends are available to us in these same ways?

Mike likes to say- “Tattooers are PIRATES!” And if you don’t know why he feels that way, it’s high time you put down your pencils for a season and did some REAL homework: read the books that are available: take the trips that will put you around the people who are responsible for what you do, while you still can, and get a tattoo from one of them. Study the emergence and growth of tattooing in the United States. We all owe it to tattooing to learn our history, internalize as much of it as we possibly can, and make damn sure we share it with those who come after us. The “style” of tattooing one chooses to pursue is irrelevant to this discourse.

I don’t know if there really is something sacred about tattooing or not. I do know that there should be some form of mystery or magic involved in what we do; something held dear that will be passed along, valued and respected. It seems that respect is the one thing everyone seems to forget to teach in this busted up field of craftsmen, and it just might be the most important thing of all. Respect for our craft. Respect for our patriarchs. Respect for our tools and how to make them, tune them, mix them, and apply them. Respect for our teachers, bosses, peers, and coworkers- even our competition. And, ultimately, respect for ourselves, which these are all expressions of.

I was reminded of the importance of all these things by Mike Malone. I felt the mystery and magic again. I hope the weight of it can be carried over in this interview.