(A double-header: Che Underground: The Blog talks to two of our scene’s pre-eminent tattoo artists. If you’d like your story told, e-mail email@example.com!)
Mike Stobbe: I’ve been at Avalon Tattoo for almost 23 years now. I started tattooing in 1987, a few years after I graduated high school. My technique is just sort of a mix of my personal style, lots of comic/cinema influence, punk-rock childhood images, lots of different mish-mashed stuff. I like to think that I don’t have a particular style even though people have told me they could tell I did a tattoo. I guess that’s an evident style, but I like to be good at any kind of tattoo anyone might want me to do. It keeps my options open as far as what kind of work I get to do, as opposed to being “this guy” or “that guy.” It makes my job different all day long. That keeps me interested, I guess.
Bobby Lane: I learned little by little, I picked up what little information I could gather and started by experimenting on myself, basically. Not the best way, but many of us have taken this route. I don’t suggest it, but then again, I don’t suggest anyone become a tattoo artist. I got good enough to get a job, which is where the learning process really began.
I got my first job by working construction on the shop for a month with no pay, stripping and refinishing floors and getting the place ready to open. That was downtown in about ‘95.
Since we were young, common wisdom says, tattoos have grown much more accepted in the general culture. Have you noticed a change in your clientele over the years?
Mike Stobbe: There’s a small, odd portion of people who come into the shop these days who seem a little more entitled because of all the tattoo TV shows and magazines and information out there regarding tattoos and getting tattooed. I generally don’t look at many tattoo magazines or watch those shows, so I can’t really say if they’re good or bad by themselves, but I can tell you that more people are getting tattooed now than ever before, and if that type of media has anything to do with it, then I’m okay with it.
The flip side of that is that sense of entitlement or thinking that you know more about what you’re doing that we do. That’s frustrating. People will approach you differently and act as if they can call the shots with their designs, and generally they’re completely off the mark and are trying to do shit that can’t be done, or at least be done the way they’re asking me to accommodate. That being said, I love my clientele. Our shop has a certain reputation that brings a certain type of person to get tattooed. That and I’ve been tattooing in town here for long enough that I have a pretty good group of people tossing my name around. I get to stay pretty busy doing tattoos that I really enjoy doing.
Bobby Lane: Honestly, since the mid ‘90s when I started tattooing in shops, I have noticed pretty much the same cross-section of society getting tattooed then as now, just a lot more of them. Whereas the tattooed person used to be the exception in any group of people, they now seem to be somewhat the norm, at least in this part of Southern California. I must say I am always thankful for the military clientele in San Diego; they make it much more feasible to do what we do than if things were otherwise.
What’s the relationship between rock-’n'-roll and tattoo art?
Mike Stobbe: I grew up in an upper-middle-class, mostly white/Navy neighborhood in the early ‘70s and ended up with a bad case of unfocused suburban teen angst at an early age. That led to all kinds of great social anxiety dealing with normal people who didn’t get my weird artist nerd kid point of view on life. All of this led to me discovering punk rock in junior high, and that of course created the adult that I eventually became.
There’s a huge amount of creative shit going on in that world and as I was already an artist of sorts and grew up seeing the world through a different set of eyes, it was a natural thing for me. Tattoos were always a part of music, rock & roll specifically and punk rock especially. Punk is way more aggressive and radical than your standard Molly Hatchet or REO Speedwagon (don’t get me wrong …), and the imagery and the type of tattoos you would see on street kids who were at punk shows was next level for me. It was the kind of stuff that was right there and in your face and very accessible. Not super artistic at the time, but very intense and very meaningful. I just related instantly, and the vibe and creative energy that was a part of punk rock at that time, for me at least, was a very driving force artistically.
Bobby Lane: They’re both based on a good beat and having a solid rhythm section!
Did growing up in San Diego — with its military presence and historic tattoo parlors — influence your aesthetic?
Mike Stobbe: I’m sure it did on some level. When I started out in downtown off State St. and Broadway, there were a lot of military dudes. Once I left that shop I really didn’t do a lot of those types of tattoos. There was a point actually when I tried to distance myself from that kind of imagery because it seemed really mundane and almost typical as far as tattoo imagery. Obviously it is a huge part of my craft and I owe everything to the merchant marines and sailors who gave up their arms & torsos to be decorated in my painful artistic vision… at the time though I just want to be a fancy pants tattoo guy trying to reinvent that wheel. Now, 25 years later I really enjoy doing that type of stuff. I’ve grown a lot in my work and I really do like making those old images come to live with a new energy or intensity. It’s sort of come full circle in that regard. It was such a huge part of tattooing that it ran me off, only to pull me back in when I least expected it.
Bobby Lane: Definitely. I love the traditional way of tattooing and the associated style of design that goes with it, especially the maritime-based designs. Coming from Sailor Town, I couldn’t help but be influenced by it. I had three grandfathers and one grandmother in the Navy during WWII, and one of my grandfathers worked in the shipyards after the war and into the ‘80s.
When I was about 12, I went into Doc Webb’s downtown studio on 4th Ave., and that made a lifelong impression on me. My uncle had a small tattoo done by him in about ‘71.
Who are your heroes in the tattoo world?
Mike Stobbe: I don’t really have a lot of heroes in that sense. I’m not easily star struck, and it takes a lot to really make me think highly of other people in this business. I really do look up to certain old-timers for all the hard work they did to further this craft. People who forged the path that I get to relax on now. People who fought uphill to make things happen so I can stand up on that same hill and look around and think about how awesome everything is.
There are the standard names that are now unfortunately associated with rum or “high fashion” pants and hats nowadays. There’s also a whole world of tattooers that no one’s ever heard of that are the people I really admire. I respect anyone who takes the time to really learn this craft and put in the time to understand how it affects the people they interact with and tattoo on. The real heroes are the street shop guys who do the names and flowers and little one timer tattoos that change people forever. People who don’t take this thing too seriously and realize that it’s not some rock star TV show bullshit. I love the crew I work with; they influence me on a daily basis to be a little better or a little more this or that. My heroes are the people who man up at the end of the day and get a fucking tattoo. I’d have to say those are my real heroes.
Bobby Lane: The pioneers, the upsetters, the originators and innovators. Just a few of those would be Paul Rogers, Sailor Jerry, Ed Hardy, Horiyoshi III, Filip Leu, Claus Fuhrmann and Mike Roper. There are many more, and just like in music, everyone plays their part. Lots of unsung heroes I’ve never even heard of, I’m sure.
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