“If you don’t have roots, you don’t have shit…” -Mike Ness
By Crash and Jimmy Perlman.
Photos by Rose Riot.
Crash: All right Mike- You’ve been getting tattooed for a long time, so this isn’t a fad thing for you…and one thing I’ve noticed about younger bands is that they tend to just pop up fully tattooed- it’s like ‘instant street cred’ or something…
Mike Ness: That’s commonly referred to as a “Visa Sleeve.”
[Laughs] Right. Yeah. It’s kind of a strange thing to see. But tattoos have been a real part of your life for a long time, and I’m sure you’ve documented many important events in your life through them.
I think it’s more just, you know, things that I like and things that inspire me, more than historic things, I think. For me personally, it’s been more like things that are reflections of me, or things that are in my life.
Right. Can you tell me about the first tattoo you ever got? And if you remember who did it, and what it was, et cetera?
I remember the first tattoo. I don’t remember the artist. But it was at Bert Grimm’s, at the Pike. I was 17, you know, and I drank five beers before I went in [laughs]…and I got this heart right here, and this banner—which I designed myself—and like a typical teenager, I wrote Heartbreaker across it. [Laughs] Like, yeah, beware girls—I’m a heartbreaker. You know what I mean? And back then it was kind of like, I’m 17, I’m looking at a Stray Cats album, and I’m going, “Okay, I just want four”, here, and here, [Mike gestures to both forearms and both biceps] But you can’t just get four, you know? Ha-ha. But it was different back then. That’s part of the reason I’m reluctant to talk about tattoos anymore- it’s that syndrome where, after something cool gets discovered, it can tend to get un-cool. And correct me if I’m wrong, but back then, and throughout history, it seems to that tattooing was for anti-social reasons, an anti-social statement. And now it’s become social. So that’s kind of where I have a problem with it. It’s like, “You mean, because you’re sleeved, you and I have something in common?” To me, that’s the same as just living in the same city as me. That’s not really enough for me to want to bro-down, you know what I mean? Not unless it’s the right situation. And “no, I don’t really want to see your tats, nor do I really want to show you mine”. So, with all that said, I had to take my son, who’s 17, I had to take him over to Gold Rush Tattoo, because he called me up, getting ready to get tattooed in a house by I-don’t-even-know-who, and I was like “Bro, c’mon; I’ll come get you right now.” And I took him to Gold Rush, and Eric Jones did a tat on him. I was like, “Trust me, son.” Because there is some amount of preparation that I wish I would have done with my tats, of course. So you know, there’s a certain aspect to going and getting fresh flash tattoos, and having it all be uniform—like I didn’t know that you were supposed to get big pieces first, and all that.
Jimmy Perlman: It hurts a lot less when you’re younger.
Exactly. I’m not looking forward to finishing my chest and stomach. Or my ribcage. Which I saved for last, and which I wish I had done earlier.
That’s interesting about your son, man. That, even having a father who was so heavily tattooed, he would still approach his first tattoo in that sort of environment. Do you think it was because he was so young?
It could have been. But I think, more than anything, it was probably just like me, just that he was impatient. And you know, I’ve gotten plenty of tats in hotel rooms.
Yup. Some of my favorite ones.
Yeah, like, “Let’s just do it now!”
Or homemade, or however.
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Let me ask you this. Was there anything in particular going on at the time of your first tattoo? That was like the final kicker to go get it done? Or was it just a spur-of-the-moment thing?
I just finally had the money. [Laughter]- You know? Growing up in Southern California, you saw it on cholos, you saw it on sailors at the Pike. I mean, it was just something that even as a kid, I always thought was cool; so when I was 17 I went to Bert Grimm’s shop and I was just like, “Maybe he won’t ask for ID. Maybe I can pull this off.”
Growing up in Southern California, you’re inundated by Latino and gang-style tattooing on people that you see everyday. Was that an impetus for you? Did you think, you know, I’d like to get some tattoos like that; I’d like to get some black and gray imagery, some Latino imagery? You have a lot of tattoos that are in that style—was that your intention, when you knew you wanted to get tattooed?
Well, you know, I got clean of heroin in ’85, and I went and got these spider-webs, and my friends were all like, “Those are prison-tats.” And I was like, “Well…” And it was almost like…I still wanted to look like a dope-fiend. You know?
Yeah. For sure.
And I love black & gray. And not even necessarily only fine-line. I think some of the traditional old outline stuff just looks good with blacks and grays and browns and reds…
Living where you live, man, you’ve got some of the best, fine-line, Latino, black & gray—you’ve got some of the best of that style of tattooing in the world.
And you know, I’ve gotten work done by some of the best guys. Mike Brown, Mark Mahoney, Eric Maaske, Chris Garver, Oliver Peck and Leo Zulueta. Leo Zulueta did the skellie on me. It was probably my second or third tat. Maybe my 19th birthday, or my 20th. I woke up from the tat out of a nod and it was done.
And Leo was the man back then.
Yeah. You want black, no one’s black is blacker than Leo’s.
That’s right. And I think you hit on something interesting — how in the eighties and nineties, tattooing was an anti-social statement, and now, it’s almost just a fashion statement.
I have friends that never got a tat, and I can’t help but just go, “God…that’s so cool dude—you don’t have any tats. ” Now that seems almost like it’s more of a statement. I mean, it’s crazy. All these pro athletes are getting tats, going right to the neck…it takes a little bit of the fun out of it. But whatever. You can’t spend a lot of time thinking about it.
At least in the musical scene, it’s true, being tattooed is the standard.
Johnny Winter—I remember seeing him and going, “God damn.”
Oh yeah. He got tattooed by Mike Malone. By Rollo, yeah.
He was probably one of the first guys. And then it was the Stray Cats. Or, what’s his name, from Levi and the Rockats, Smutty. It was the first time I saw somebody all tattooed-up, to the hands.
I was going to say, you know, if Social Distortion hadn’t worked out, you might have become a tattoo artist—because that’s what happened to a whole lot of us from that era.
[Laughs] Yeah, well I’ve always been into graphic art, so, for sure. Definitely.
So I wanted to rap with you, if I could, about the length of time you took between the last record and this new record. Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll came out in 2004. From then until now, what were the changes in the writing, recording and producing process, or were you just taking the right amount of time for the songs, and for the record that you wanted to record?
Well, I’ll start with the really big gap between White Light, White Heat, White Trash and Sex, Love and Rock ‘n’ Roll—which I said would never happen again. You know, I wasn’t writing for eight fucking years. But I’d just gotten back together with my oldest son’s mom, and started raising a family, and started restoring a house to move into—just a lot of normal, everyday life things. And we were also touring, and then I think I did the Mike Ness solo record first. So I was busy, doing life stuff. But I told myself that I would never let eight years go by again without a record, but before you know it, there were six. So we’ve just been touring, and we’re a hard-touring band.
We did some shows overseas with you guys in Europe, which was my first time seeing you guys overseas at a couple of festivals, and in Italy, in Milan in particular, at that festival inside that hangar that we did last year—I couldn’t believe the way that fans were so ravenous for you guys over there as well. It’s pretty impressive.
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