Thinking about Inking? by Heather Shouse

“Tattooing today, 99 percent of that shit looks like an explosion in Baskin-Robbins—it’s Candyland crap.” Those are the words of Mike “Rollo” Malone, a tattoo legend who thinks he’s 64 but can’t remember. Malone started tattooing out of his New York apartment during the ’60s, when the craft was illegal there. Now, he “takes up space” at Taylor Street Tattoo, where he tattoos occasionally and mentors often.

Malone’s story—peppered with epithets and tales of ex-wives—gives a fascinating glimpse into American tattoo history. His connection with inking started when his sailor grandfather let him tag along to a shop while Gramps added to the anchors and ships that covered his arms. When Malone grew up, he became obsessed with photographing tattoos and started practicing his own work on “whoever would sit still.” Soon, he fell in with “big whips” like Ed Hardy and the late “Sailor Jerry” Collins, two pioneers who gave classic tattoos a shot in the arm by using better equipment and creating brilliant colors. When Collins died in ’73, Malone inherited his Honolulu tattoo parlor, changed the name to China Sea Tattoo Co., and tattooed “thousands of asses and just as many assholes” for nearly 20 years before closing up shop a few years ago.

Malone’s fabled past drew in Taylor Street’s owner Keith Underwood, who wanted to learn tattooing from a master. “I sought him out, started corresponding with him, buying machines and paintings from him,” Underwood says. “I’d send him my stuff, he’d say ‘I’m tired of all you young kids sending me this shit. It’s so bad you should just quit.’”

But Underwood didn’t. He packed up and went to work for Malone in ’99, honing his skills before opening Taylor Street last year, a place he describes as “a straight-up street shop where we tattoo panthers, roses, banners with sweetheart’s names.”

It’s the kind of shop where Malone felt like cooling his heels after years of runnin’ and gunnin’. “Keith and these other kids here, they’re genuine, no bullshit,” Malone coughs. “They can tattoo rings around me and do it in less time, but that’s just the way of things.”