Humble, experienced and gifted with valuable knowledge of the classic Oriental tattoo, Mike The Athens gave Heartbeatink an exclusive interview about his 24 year-old career and his presence in the international tattoo scene.
How did you come up with the name “Mike The Athens”?
It came from a typographical error, which occurred in the 90’s in Miki Vialetto’s article, on Tattoo Planet. Instead of “Mike from Athens”, he wrote “Mike The Athens” and the nickname stuck (laughs).
When was your first contact with tattoos?
Since I was very young, I thought tattoos were alluring. I was excited by the idea of tattoo from a very young age. I started as a collector. Around the age of sixteen, I used to visit Jimmys' studio, the only one that existed back then, once or twice a month, to decide which tattoo I wanted. At some point, I made my decision and just like that, I got my first tattoo. The next one I got was done by Bugs in Camden, who was then considered to be the best tattoo artist in Central London. We were a group of friends; one of them grew up to be the future Yorg. These were the days (the 80s’) of true originality. Back then the only ones who were getting tattoos done were the bikers, the rock ’n’ rollers and the greasers. No posers and new-school guys. It wasn’t a trend. Tattooing was quite underground, even misunderstood sometimes.
From then on, I really started getting into it. I got myself a tattoo machine and I “added” some elements on the first tattoos of my friends. Ever since I was a child I loved painting, my grandfather was a painter, plus I was interested in painting and designing as far as tattoos were concerned. Then, after that, I dropped everything. I quit my studies in English Literature at the University of Athens, where I studied and right afterwards I went to the army in order to complete my “duty” there. I met a guy who had a home–made tattoo machine. From the moment I took it in my hands, I improved it with a rotring rapidograph that existed back then in order to use it as a tube and also used a bending fork as a base for the motor. The ink I used was of course rotring. That’s how they used to do it in jail, but of course I wasn’t aware of that; I was just guided by intuition and I was good at mechanics.I covered this guy up with tattoos, outlines only. He gave me some as well and that’s when I really started taking an interest in it.
When did you become a professional tattoo artist?
In 1989, after being encouraged by friends who wanted me to give them tattoos. I never went after it on my own. However, in the end I was mesmerized by the tattoo itself… I started with large cover ups and tribals. It’s really important to say that, at the time, there was no access to information when it came to tattooing. Everything was done either by books, or by visiting a tattoo place yourself, and of course there were no tattoo suppliers. I found Alex Binnie in a book; I had no idea who he was, I liked his tattoos so I sent him a letter (there was no email back then) to get him to give me a tattoo.
So, that’s how I tentatively entered “Into You” for the first time to get a tattoo done by Binnie, my first serious tattoo. We met and there was some great chemistry between us, he saw my work of the past six years, he liked it and he offered me a job as a guest (tattooer). He was planning to go to New York for a while and I would fill in for him in a way. So I moved to London and I became the main guest artist of Into You for two years. Ever since, I belong to the Into You tattoo family. There is a strong bond among us;it’s not coincidental that Tas (Danazoglou) works there now. Every time I go to London, the only studio I work for is Into You, and all of my friends and my tattoo family works there as well.
How did you feel about this particular incident that later turned into something so important for your career in the tattoo field?
I felt extremely favoured when this whole thing with Binnie happened. From that point on, I started realizing a lot more about tattooing. I changed the way I used to solder my needles.
Do you still solder your own needles?
Yes, even today I solder my own needles, for the most part, because the quality is better and because most needles in the market nowadays are made in China and their quality is questionable. All the old–school tattooers of our time made their own needles for years and years, until the needle industry made its appearance and sells ready-to-use needles.
While you were working at “Into You”, did you keep your own studio in Greece?
In these two years I worked at Into You, Tas and Yorg were working at my studio here in Athens as apprentices. We were a strong team and I fully trusted them. I’ve had my own private studio in Palaio Faliro since 1990. It never functioned as a walk–in tattoo shop, despite the tremendous difficulties I faced to preserve it as a private one. During the first years, I used to sleep in the studio. Greece could never handle a private shop. Not even now. I do it, because that’s how I was taught to do it.
At that time, people here started getting bigger pieces. Our studio contributed to this. People started to understand what a “sleeve” or a back piece is etc. Still, we are not talking about a large number of people. However, there were some.
When did your trips to Asia start? From what I know, your relationship with the oriental culture is perpetual…
Before visiting Binnie, I travelled to Asia for the first time in 1994. This trip was significant to me, it changed my way of thinking. I stayed in Thailand for a long time. There, I was fascinated even more by this whole spiritual tattooing experience. I already belonged there, as I had already been involved in the Buddhist philosophy, however, that was when oriental culture possessed me for good.
In 1999, I went to India and stayed for a year and a half in Goa, at Himalaya and the mountains nearby. When I got back, I was given the opportunity to visit Ibiza and meet up with some friends, both tattooers, Neil from Inkadelic and Claudio. I ended up staying there for five years. During those five years, I found Tas again in Barcelona, and as a result, I started working for LTW tattoo studio as well. In a way, I had left Greece behind… I used to come back only to see my family and to tattoo some people. I had distanced myself from the Greek tattoo scene…
How come you didn’t move to Ibiza permanently?
Ibiza was too disorientating for me to be able to focus on tattooing. There were many temptations around me. On the other hand, I met some really interesting people and I really got involved with yoga. That’s when I started meditating more than I could have in India. It was more necessary for me. I learned lots of things in Ibiza – how to stay away from things and how to let myself go. It’s a tough place with an extremely intense energy. It either gets you in the game, or it kicks you out.
When I moved back to Greece in 2008, I realized that my folks had grown older and that I had missed out lot of things due to my constant travelling. The fact that I stayed here in Greece was beneficial to me, because I managed to upgrade my studio a lot. I got more apprentices. One of them was Thanos who is still in my studio and with whom I am very pleased, concerning his work.
How did your numerous journeys form you as a person and as a tattoo artist?
I made a lot of friends abroad. The friendships I made through tattooing were and still are very real. Those are the ones that have defined me as an individual and also defined my way of life. My magical meeting with Jondix in Barcelona happened like that. Tas had discovered him before he became a tattooer. Jondix came to me to get a tattoo done and the chemistry was instant. We became very good friends. We are like Siamese twins. In the beginning, I discouraged him from becoming a tattooer, because he had too many crazy ideas. That changed along the way and soon enough, I told him that if he wanted to accelerate his learning process, he should come with me. That’s when he started visiting me in Greece and he became my apprentice.
So Jondix has been tattooing for less than a decade?
Yes. Theoretically speaking, nine years in the tattoo field are considered few. You are just getting to know yourself, who you are. After that, you really start to learn.
Does that mean that Jondix is a genius?
Exactly. He cannot be held back. He is unstoppable when it comes to both production and ideas. He is amazing. I am particularly happy, because I’ve channeled all of my knowledge into him, having already been an experienced tattooer back then. The same happened with Tas too, only Tas cut the umbilical cord himself sooner. Now I am in this phase, where I get to learn from Jondix. According to Socrates, the teacher and the student are two connecting pots.
Where are you now in 2013?
I split my time between Athens and Goa. Things are much different in Goa now, compared to how it was fourteen years ago, when it comes to tattooing. Around 150 walk-in studios have opened and two or three private ones. Nowadays, not only tourists get tattooed, but also locals. Goa is a very advanced place. Besides the great energy it possesses, you can meet really interesting people too. Plus, you don’t need to convince anyone about who you are. Most of them don’t have a clue about who I am, if I’m a renowned tattoo artist or not. The relationships formed in India follow totally different patterns from the Western ones. Everything is still original to a certain point. As the years go by, things are slightly changing, but the people living there, including me, aspire to keep the originality factor alive.
Can you describe your everyday life as a tattoo artist in Goa?
I feel sort of cut off from the international tattoo scene, since I live so far away from the rest of the world. I have time to paint, create tattoos and painting collections. I would like India to be my base in the future, as far as tattooing is concerned, and people who want to get a tattoo from me to travel all the way there to get it. Some people are already combining it. All these, whilst guest artists and my senior apprentice, Thanos, will be working in my studio in Athens.
The only sour note is that I can’t relocate my whole collection of books in Goa. I’ve never trusted the internet to inform me about tattoos. I choose books and sketches, personal photographs and e-mails from other tattoo artists. Google is something that I have never used!
Plus, I never work seven days a week; only three or four times and only work on one tattoo per day. Not more than one, never.
Do you do that in order to inspire your creativity?
Yes, plus I believe there is no need to work more than that. The opposite would make me a money grabber. I wouldn’t want to become that guy through tattooing. This doesn’t mean that I’m financially stable, though. I just want to make the best out of every moment of my life. For instance, I could make no money in a day, but create a small tattoo for a friend as a gift, instead. I’d still spend a whole day doing it. Of course, I rarely do small tattoos. It seems that all these years I’ve been giving off a vibe which makes customers come to me to get something big. I like small pieces, though, that’s why Jondix and I published the book “108 Marks”. However I prefer it when they appear in rather visible parts, like on the face, neck and hands. Despite what other tattoo artists might say, I’m not against getting your arms or your face tattooed.
Why do you think some tattoo artists are against it?
I don’t really know… I find it kind of conservative, having artists say that they won’t tattoo these parts of the body. Since the customer can pull off the look, why not do it?
How do you think the tattoo scene has evolved through the 80's, when you first started, until today?
I’m very happy with it. I’m pleasantly surprised with the progress and the quality of the tattoos, but the thing that’s missing today is the factor of mysticism, which tattoo once had. There’s a massive amount of repetition and copying amongst the creations of the artists. The quality is there for sure, but that’s not enough for the real progress, in my opinion. You need as well to have aesthetics.
Do only artists need to have aesthetics or is this needed for customers as well?
Certainly both, but the customers are not obliged to know. I consider the tattoo artist primarily responsible for the outcome. The customer always walks in in good spirits and offers you a part of his body. The artist has to take everything else into consideration; age, body part, everything. The collector gives you the inspiration. The artist takes on the responsibility to judge what’s going to work or not, according to who is in front of him, and consult or even discourage them.
Having no money at all and saying no to a bad tattoo; that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. For a number of years, I didn’t get much work, because I was trying to achieve a quality outcome. I said no to a lot of tattoos: portraits of Indians, wolves under moons etc. Even though they may sound romantic, I would never do that to someone. I still say no to stuff I don’t like, to a tattoo that won’t work or if I think the customer is not ready for it.
A tattoo is like a jewel. It can’t be mediocre. I’m not saying that every artist has to be “elite”. But still, they can be decent. Your tattoos mirror your personality, your identity, and your behavioral code when you are completely naked. Well, why would you have something tacky, when it’s your artist’s fault and not your own? It’s not you who’s tacky. You just went to an artist who has tacky taste.
So a tattoo artist needs to have a conscience?
He definitely needs to have a conscience, be sure of himself, knowing what he is doing. Practice and experience is an important factor here. If you’re not experienced, you can’t do big tattoos, nor work on difficult parts of the body. You don’t take that risk. There is a way to tattoo safely, and that is by not chasing the jaw-dropping tattoo. When you feel ready and like you can trust yourself, you can move on to that.
These days, most people want to become recognizable very quickly via (social) media and they think that they will attract more clients, or they will feel more successful. Cause we all live for a feeling. If you feel acclaimed, just because you have many likes on Facebook and Instagram, that says nothing about the History of Tattooing or about whether you contributed to the creation of a special piece that will make history as a “unique” work of art, and not just a repetition of someone else’s aesthetic or work. I don’t demand every artist to significantly contribute to the art of tattooing, but at least set it as a desirable goal.
Until an artist feels ready to create his own patterns without copying others, he can perform flash tattoos. I do that sometimes, especially when it comes to designs made by Horiyoshi, because I don’t think there is anything to change in his designs. Flash tattoos are not considered copying, because that’s exactly what they are supposed to be.
How would you describe your style?
Even though I am progressive, I think of myself as a quite traditional individual. My tattoos are traditional with a slight “twist”. I consider myself mostly committed to the Oriental Art which is what I have ended up doing and which consists of Tibetan and Himalayan Art, Japanese tattooing – Irezumi, from its primary to the most evolved form, which is headed towards Japanese style tattooing, Thainland Sak Yant, Sacred Scriptures and Mantras, such as Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Khmer.
I believe that Oriental tattooing is the most difficult of all and it presents the greatest challenge, because in order to be good at it, you need everything. So placing it at the top, I simultaneously put all the rest after it. I am inspired by the Oriental Art that is being born in Switzerland by Filip Leu and from Japan by Horiyoshi. The Old-School gets influenced by the Oriental and the opposite. This is not something bad. Also, as ‘offensive’ as it may sound, I believe that the European tattoos possess more class than the American ones. On the other hand, the American tattoos are original and they have an attitude.
Do you have more male or female clients?
The percentage is around 60% – 40%. In Greece I ‘ve got particularly impressed by the women tattoo collectors. I consider them to be more hardcore than the men. I like what I see on Heartbeatink, women with tattoos below the wrist and on the neck. I am fascinated. I believe they are more serious collectors than some 35 year-old male tattoo artists. Every tattoo artist has to be a serious tattoo collector. It’s not about the way it looks. It’s the knowledge you acquire by getting a tattoo.
Are you performing a lot of “cover ups”?
I think of them as a challenge, due to the fact that I can cover them up. It’s like a calling, since a person who is in a dramatic situation is going to be “saved”. Cover ups constitute a certain magic, because you can take risks and something really good may come out. I like cover ups, but it’s a love-hate relationship.
Which artists have visited your tattoo studio?
In a friendly level, while influencing each other, Tas, Yorg, Jondix, Christ, Thomas Hooper, Taki Tsan, Alex Binnie and Curlie.
In an international level, Alex Reinke (Horiyoshi3 Family), Rinzing, Chad Koeplinger, Rudy Fritch, Xed le Head, Steve Herring and many more have made a passing as visitors.
Which artists have tattooed you?
Jimmys – Pavlos, Bugs, Alex Binnie, Yorg, Tas, Horiyoshi3, Mick from Zurich, Ichibay, Jondix, Tomas Tomas, Curly, Zed le Head, Lola and Thomas Garcia, Lobo (shamanic tattooing Ibiza), David Castro, Andy Goa, Mayur Goa, Danae Goa, Thanos and me.
Which artists do you admire the most, or to put it more correctly, which ones do you consider as role models?
Ed Hardy, Horiyoshi3, Horikitsune, Alex Binnie, Filip Leu, Mick, Ichibay, all my tattoo family, Xed le Head, Tomas Tomas, Thomas Hooper, Jondix, Gotch and Gakkin, Wido de Marval, Rinzing, Freddy Corbin, Chad Koeplinger, Theo Jack and forgive me if I missed someone, but…I am getting old..!
Plus, many Tribal artists such as Pili Μoo, Chime, Paulo Suluape, Jeroen Franken, Lobo from Ibiza and Cliff Raven.
Moreover, I have been greatly influenced by Sak Yant, Thai monks’ tattooing, Ancient Tribal and old-school prison tattooing. That’s the reason why I want neat, solid lines in my tattoos, because of my prison tattoo aesthetics.
So basically you are self-taught, right?
That’s right. However, thanks to my perpetual travelling, I have met older artists, and this provided me with confidence and inspiration. In a way, I believe I was learning while I was tattooing. I haven’t done any apprenticeship, and I never asked a single question. I was just taking everything in like a sponge. I’ve worked hard and I experimented a lot to perfect my techniques. I started step by step, with very hard work. I did a lot of cover-ups and Tribals. I believe that Tribal can teach you a lot. It will help you learn how to tattoo.
What would you advise the younger artists as well as someone that wishes to get involved with tattooing?
I would advise them to try everything and experiment, before they settle on a certain style and move slowly, but steadily. That’s what I learnt from tattooing. Running fast and taking shortcuts won’t lead you anywhere and in the end, you will end up losing, instead of gaining. Also, they can ask for professional help, in order to succeed faster. Otherwise, it will take them a lot of time and they will find themselves in a constant dead-end. They have to be humble and feel like they are constantly learning something new; until they are old and grey.
When it comes to the underground and the more “mainstream” artists, is there a balance between the two and how does each side treat the other?
It is certain that the underground artists will treat all the newcomers, that are not underground, with a snobbish attitude whether they are tattooers or not. But I don’t believe that tattooing is underground anymore, when for example a vegan high-school graduate who has never experienced any substance abuse, but still be listening to black metal can be covered in tattoos all the way up to his neck. This is more like a rebellious act against society. To be posing like an underground, but not being one in the true sense of the word.
When something is not considered to be a taboo, it automatically stops being underground. Suddenly the society accepts it as something normal and doesn’t alienate its supporters anymore. Because of its growth and repetition, underground has, in a way, educated people to accept it. It’s not necessarily something bad. Underground is not expressed only with tattoos; it’s the whole attitude towards life.
However, I believe that the neck and the face tattoos have remained underground and I hope that is how it will always be. I don’t want the tattooers to be wearing a tie. I am against that. There still is in a certain level a “dress code”. If this fades away, and everything falls apart, I will stop tattooing! It’s my last fortress…
How do you feel about “celebrity” tattoo artists?
Since legendary tattooers, such as Ed Hardy, aren’t celebrity tattooers, how is it possible to be on another level and still be perceived as a “celebrity”? Also, how is it possible to believe you are special just because you are recognizable? I don’t know if some are good tattooers, but they are definitely good at public relations (laughs).
Is the tattoo a way of life for you or is it a livelihood ?
It’s my life. However I work to make a living. I don’t live to work. I separated those things a long time ago. I am trying to be good on the level I wanna be, and I am not letting all this dominate my whole life and free time. Meaning I am not constantly tattooing. My life comes first; which is devoted to tattooing.
This season Mike The Athens will be tattooing at his private studio in Athens until November 2013.
Photos & interview by Ino Mei.
Jondix, Mr Horikoi, Mike The Athens, Masa 3Tides.
Mike The Athens tattoos' photos on black background by Danae Geroulakou.