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Mike Ness Interview: Tattoo Artist Magazine Issue #23

Mike Ness Interview: Tattoo Artist Magazine Issue #23

“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.

Exactly.

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, talking about 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. But 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.

Yeah, and it’s really weird because bands like Bad Religion, and other bands that started around the same time period as us, they’ve been going over there for a long time, but we just weren’t very, I don’t know if prolific is the right word, but we just didn’t do a whole lot of touring until the late-eighties, really. From ’79 to ’85 was just a party, and I couldn’t really leave the county. And then in ’85 I got my shit together, and I started really getting serious, and I started putting the band back together—I mean we’d never really broken up but…

Did you do anything on the recording or on the writing for the new record, ‘Hard Times & Nursery Rhymes’, that was any different than what you’d done in the past? Different producing style, different song-writing approach, anything like that? That was different than the last couple of records?

Yeah, I mean, I think a lot hasn’t changed, but because I was producing this one myself, there was a little additional pressure. I wasn’t crazy about the production of our last record, so this way, there would be no one to blame, except me; y’know, it’s all on my shoulders. And by being the producer, it really just gave me a focus. In the past I would just trust that the guy knew what he was doing, you know, like, “You can master it, go ahead,” and then all of a sudden you hear it and it’s like, “What happened?”

It’s funny that you say that. I went and had coffee with Jonny [Wickersham] the other night, and he was saying the same thing. That previously, the way you guys would go about it was, you’d go in and do your thing and record, and with this one, there was a lot more direction, and you had a much tighter vision for how you wanted the tones, and the structure…

It was everything. Wanting to go to analog, wanting it old school—I wanted it to sound like a seventies LP. I just wanted that warmth. I’m just not someone that subscribes to that whole thing of making a record in the living room. I think it’s great for when you got an idea and you want to keep it, for the future, but I mean, it was everything, from that, to tones, to grooves; I played with some new grooves on this, and then lyrically—I didn’t want to just write autobiographically, I wanted to write fictionally and non-fictionally; I wanted to write heavy songs and light songs; I didn’t want to get pigeon-holed into any one style.

And one thing that I’ve noticed, watching the set, there’s a track you guys play live, a track called “Bakersfield,” and I talked to you about it on this tour, but it’s much more of a slower, kind of a mid-tempo song, but the crowd seems to dig it, and you bring it in at a really good point in the set, where it kind of let’s more of like a singer-songwriter style come through, versus just, you know balls-out, rock and roll attack. What other songs in the set are from the new record?

We’ve been playing “Still Alive,” and also “Alone And Forsaken,” by Hank Williams.  We’ll probably bring back “Machine Gun Blues” any day now. We’ve kind of been playing “Bakersfield” for a few years already, and we were playing “Can’t Take It With You,” which is an album track, for a few years. That kind of always seemed to work for us, and it’s really probably not the best marketing, but I get impatient, I get excited when I have a new song—I just want to start playing it. Even if the lyrics aren’t done, I’ll just make something up, you know?

Are any of those newer tracks available on iTunes this early? 

I think “Machine Gun Blues” is, yeah.

And you’ve got a new label. Epitaph.

Yeah… Stoked.

Everyone is. I think we feel like you guys are kind of back where you should be. And I wanted to actually talk to you about Epitaph as a label, because some people don’t know, but they’re kind of a two-part animal. They’re a straight-up punk rock label, as well as the Anti header, with guys like Tom Waits and Nick Cave; I’m sure you feel a kinship to those guys as well as to the label.

You know, we had a couple of choices to go with on this record, and these guys signed us without hearing one song. I mean, they didn’t hear it until the last month.

They would call it a no-brainer. [Laughs]

That really made me feel validated. Like, “Wow, these guys have a lot of faith in us.” And the other thing was, we ran a little late, we were missing some of our deadlines to get it out by Thanksgiving, and I still had some vocals to do, and the vocals and the mixing were gonna get rushed and it was like, man…

Yeah, it was supposed to be out for the tour that we’re on right now, and I guess technically, at least in the eyes of your fans, this is the record release tour, even though the record isn’t out yet. Now, are there plans for a full-on record release tour?

Oh yeah, yeah. Once the record comes out, and we’ve been in circulation, we’ll be doing a tour where we’ll be highlighting the album, but this is more, I guess, you could call it a set-up, setting it up a little bit, getting people pumped for it.

And the official release date is?

January 18th.  And another thing about this label, when I was getting really stressed about meeting deadlines, I just called Brett right up, and I said, “Look, we don’t want to rush this part. We’ve done everything right up to this point. And now, the vocals and the mixing, which are the most important parts, are getting compromised.” And I said, “Brett, you know, I figured I’d just call the boss of the company.” And do you know what he said? He said, “Mike, you’re the boss of this project. If we have to put this record out next year, we’ll put it out next year.” And for me, you know, I think we’ve put out some decent records, but I’ve always resented that time thing, that’s put on you, because you’re—just imagine you’re doing a custom tattoo. Just drawing it and going along, and you spend four hours, and then the guy’s old lady comes in and says, “We gotta leave in thirty minutes—hurry the fuck up!” I mean, what would you fucking do?

[Laughs] That tattoo would not be looking good.

You’d be like, I’m not gonna rush this now! I’m getting ready to put the best things on it!

So I kind of wanted to talk a little bit about the tour we’re currently on. I kind of just want to open up a little about this, and get your opinion on it. From what I’ve seen, this tour has been a slam-dunk. Do you feel that taking the time and hand-picking the bands, the openers, kind of turns the entire night into a show, rather than just a series of bands and people waiting for the headliner?

Absolutely. And I’ve done that. Not intentionally, but I’ve done it in the past where management has submitted me an artist, and of course it sounds great on the CD. But then you just end up not really caring, or not paying attention, because your mind’s on other things, or whatever.

And there’s a time-crunch in picking those bands, too.

Absolutely. And it’s like, if I’m busy doing something else, and it’s like- “Oh you gotta go to MySpace to hear this band!” Well I don’t do that! You know? I don’t do that. I don’t do MySpace, I don’t look at other people’s MySpace, and it’s just not a part of my life. So that made it really frustrating. But you hear me talk about this tour every night on stage, and I don’t just say shit, unless I really mean it. I was not familiar with Lucero, and I was only turned on to Frank Turner last summer. My kid—my younger kid—turned me on to Frank Turner. We were at Epitaph, and they gave us a bunch of stuff, and my younger kid went home and listened to it, and then we were in the car, listening, and I fell in love with his album, and I thought he was a really crafty and very incredible singer-songwriter, with raw talent. And I guess I’d heard a little bit of Lucero before—and it was management, they said it was a great fit—but then I started talking with the fans, on a tour, and I’d say, you know, “We’re coming back with Lucero,” and they were really stoked. So I thought, maybe there’s something to these guys. So now we have three entirely different acts, but there’s got to be some similarity—because I love them all. And that’s a rare thing. I compare this to that train tour in the sixties that those guys did, Joplin and all of them. [The Festival Express]. It’s a rare thing, where there’s that chemistry, thirty guys on the road who all just love music and leave the egos at the door. And it will be with me for a long time, as a highlight, or as a milestone in my career. Because it doesn’t happen very often. And very rarely will you hear me cheer on my opening acts. If I don’t like them, I won’t say anything.

[Laughs] Let’s go back to the record and to Epitaph. We’ve all seen the pitfalls and follies of certain labels in the way they distribute their records around the world. Epitaph is actually one of the few labels that I’ve noticed—you go everywhere, anywhere, and there are Epitaph records. You go to Malaysia, China, Japan, they are everywhere. Now, is that something that you haven’t had in the past that you think Epitaph is going to provide?

Definitely. I mean, it’s not stuff that I really pay a lot of attention to, I trust management to do that, but at the same time, you can’t help but wonder, when you get to someplace in Europe or South America, and it’s like, “What do you mean our records were never released here?” And they’re like, “Well, Sony never released your records here.” And I’m like, “Why the fuck not?” And maybe it’s gotten to that point in my life, where I really need to take more control, and pay more attention to these [laughs] “minor details.”

Speaking of “minor details” I don’t know if we’ve mentioned the title of the record yet, so I’ll yet you take that one…

Hard Times and Nursery Rhymes. The main metaphor for that title came from the effect on kids that a nursery rhyme or a book has, how, it not only entertains them, but also allows them to escape, and to use their imaginations, and maybe even get them through something. I felt that music did the same thing.

It did it for you.

Absolutely. It’s the weirdest thing, people come up to me all the time and say, “Your music got me through some hard times.” And I go, “Me too, man.” You know?

That actually leads me to something I was going to bring up, which is that there’s this weird phenomenon- everywhere I go— and I go all over the world, to see tattooers—there are three bands that are in every tattoo shop: Johnny Cash, Social Distortion, and Tom Waits.  Does that surprise you?

It’s great. [Laughs] It means I made it to the American singer-songwriter storyteller club!  I think this record is going to help. It started when I did the solo stuff, where it really cast a different light on me, as not just being Mike Ness, front man of Social Distortion, been together 25 years, it’s kind of an old story, et cetera. When I wrote that record, it was a huge leap of faith, and it really did help cast a light on me as an American singer-songwriter too, and to be in the same magazines as Bob Dylan, or Tom Waits, or Wilco, it was really refreshing, and I think that that’s only gotten better as time has gone on. And I think this record is really going to establish it even more.  Same influences, you know, The Ramones, Hank Williams, Johnny Thunders, and The Rolling Stones, but I pushed it in each direction a little farther, and people are going to be blown away, I think. I mean there’s definitely some tricks up my sleeve that nobody expected.

And I think you putting out that solo record too, that first record, in the early nineties, when that album came out, a lot of punk rock kids had never heard Hank Williams. Or Dylan. In fact, a lot of punk rock kids were turned off by Dylan, because of the way he sang, or because of his association with hippies, or even their parents. But you came out and did that song in a way that they could say, “All right, here is a song by an artist that I normally wouldn’t back at all, but done in a way that I really like.”  So just to open kids’ eyes to artists that opened your eyes, you know, that’s a powerful thing to do.

I remember when we first covered Ring of Fire, man, we got so much flak—in the, like, punk rock communities.  But you can’t put rules on punk rock, bro!

That’s the ONLY rule…

Yeah, that’s the rule. [Laughs] And if you do, I’m going to be the first one to break it! Because I just hated that, you know. I hated stereotypical boundaries that were just so confining.  And in my opinion, that’s why all these bands in the mid-eighties, like Pearl Jam, and The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Jane’s Addiction, felt the need to just carve out there own sound and get away from this awful constraining thing. And part of that was, you know, the image, the look. You know, as a kid, I’d look at The Clash, all dressed up as American gangsters, and I’d think, Hey, we’re American! I want to dress like that! [Laughs] You know what I mean? And I’m an American!

You never followed the rules though anyway. Like, I remember Mommy’s Little Monster when it came out; it was great, it was skater-punk, and then when the next Social D album came out, we were like, “What’s this sound?”

Yeah, Prison Bound…I probably lost about 50 percent of our fans. [Laughs]

But think about what you gained, man! Your own thing…

Yeah, you know, we got radio, and it was that period of time where, I had already done punk rock, I had grown up with The Beatles and the Stones and Creedence, and then I had like, Lou Reed’s Transformer in the seventh grade. I drew a Ziggy Stardust shirt and wore it to school, and all the kids were calling me a fag, and I’m all, “You’re wearing an Elton John shirt.”

[Laughs]

You know?

If you would have just done a Mommy’s part II, you would have continued being only a punk rock band. So it’s smarter, what you did.

Exactly. I mean I was looking at bands like X, and Jason and the Scorchers, and The Blasters, and bands like The Gears, and you know, just bands that had the attitude and the energy of punk, but—and you gotta go back to the first wave of punk anyways; it was all blues-based rock and roll, punk-style. You know? Johnny Thunders, The Ramones, the Pistols are laced with Chuck Berry, and it was people like that who were making connotations to early Americana, so for me it was very easy to just connect the dots.

Johnny Cash too.

Johnny Cash. My father had his records around the house. And it probably started for me in 2nd grade, with Rolling Stones, and Creedence records, and my mom had like, the Smithsonian folk set, which had everything, from Leadbelly, to the Carter Family. You know what I mean? And I was hearing Creole, Cajun, French—everything.  And that music resonated with me. It was something about the honesty of that music, and the heartfelt-ness. And then yeah, my dad had Johnny Cash, and The Dillards around. So I really feel like it’s all connected, and I was so lucky to have had uncles giving me records. And when other kids were doing their thing, that’s what I was doing. I was just sitting there absorbing albums. Absorbing and absorbing them. And that’s why I think that a lot of bands, especially the tattooed punk rock thing, a lot of bands don’t understand that if you don’t have roots, if you don’t establish a groove, you’re just bashing through chords. And I learned that from touring with like, Neil Young. You know, I watched Crazy Horse turn their backs on 15,000 people and just get in there and start playing with the drummer and the bass, just finding that groove, and then they wondered out to the crowd. But you know, it’s just so important. And all the music I grew up with, it’s all the same, it’s: ‘If it doesn’t have that swing, it doesn’t mean a thing’.

Let me ask you, Mike, you may or may not want to rap about this, it’s not a touchy subject, I don’t think, but I was just wondering, as one of the most recognized band tattoo images—where did the skeleton come from?

The skeleton was designed by a friend of mine, this girl, this graphic artist, and she had done it for like an invitation to a New Year’s Eve party or something. And so it was kind of like on a postcard, red on black, in her house, and I just saw it and I was like, “I want that. Can I have that?”

[Laughs] When you got it from her, was your intention that it was going to be Social Distortion’s image and logo?

Yeah. Because I had one that I wasn’t crazy about. I had drawn this happy face with the crossed-out eyes and the fedora, and that was like the drunk punk. There was this club in Hollywood called the Hong Kong Café, and we didn’t have ID, so we couldn’t get in, but my little brother figured out a way to go around to the alley, scale the building, and there was a vent that you could squeeze through, into the men’s room. So we would come out at the end of the night, and this old Chinese guy would go, “Oh, how you get in? Drunk punk, no good!”

[Laughs] Drunk Punk, no good!

But when I saw the skeleton logo, I thought, that’s cool. That’s festive. It’s kind of life, it’s kind of death, it’s kind of everything in between.

You’ve definitely been tattooed by a lot of historic as well as fantastic tattooers, and we’ve talked about Eric Maaske. Eric was an unfortunate loss to the tattoo community, and a lot of us knew him, some more than others. Is there anybody—and I know you probably aren’t interested in getting a ton more tattoos—but is there anyone out there that you feel like, Hey, I really would like to get a tattoo from this cat?

Yeah. I just don’t know their names! It’s kind of like, people ask me all the time, “What bands are up-and-coming?” And then I just draw a complete blank, I’m all, “Duhhhhh…” But, you know, there’s a lot of them out there. I live in Orange County now, and one of my favorite shops is Gold Rush. Because Let’s face it, a lot of these tattoo shops, there’s so much ego, and you know, it’s like, I’ve been in some hair salons with little gray-haired old ladies that didn’t gossip as much!

[Laughter] Got that right!

They’re like little bitches, you know what I mean? And it’s like, “This ain’t cool, man.” You know? Or I started seeing tattoo artists acting like rock stars, and it was like “Hmmmmm.” You know what, you’re a great artist, you’re a great tattooer, but if you want to do that, just go get into the rock star thing. So I liked Gold Rush because it had a great vibe, with Tim Hendricks, Eric Jones, Lindsey Carmichael and Bucky Crispin…

That shop is fantastic.

Yeah. And it’s right by my pad. And I was telling you, I was trying to finish this shirt before we went out, but I had to wait until the summer was over, because I wanted to jump in the ocean now and then, if I could, but then that was tough because we were making the record. So… I’ll be seeing Oliver Peck on our stop in Austin, Texas.

A week ago we were in Asbury Park, and you and I had talked about going and getting an Asbury Park-style tattoo, and I think that at least for me I look at tattoos as like the Kansas sticker on the suitcase, when you’re traveling and you’re on tour, and you have the capability of getting tattooed just on the fly. Do you think that on this upcoming tour, that that might be something you would approach, like, “Hey, I’m in wherever, I think I’m gonna go get tattooed?” Is that a direction you would go in?

I’ve only done that once. I was in Tokyo a couple of years ago, and I don’t know why, but I dated it, I wrote, Tokyo 2006, or something like that, and it was really weird, because then all these Japan guys, it was like four of them, and one girl, they were all like “Okay, you tattoo on me now.” And I was all, “Noooooo, you don’t want me to do that, dude.” And they were like, “Yeah, yeah, tattoo your name.” And I swear to god, I scratched this fucking thing on them—I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing.

So you’ve done tattoos!

I have!

I think toward the end of this tour we’re gonna get you to do some more. We’re all just gonna tattoo each other one night. [Laughs]

I’ll do something on your face.

The only other question I had was: What’s the next tattoo you’re going to get?

Well we talked a little bit about that, about my wanting to finish this shirt. And it was pointed out to me that it might be a good idea to finish my center, which I have a great start on, a Jesus that Chris Garver did.

And when did he start that?

He did it in probably ’95, or ’96. It started out as just a chest piece, but it was me, recently, looking in the mirror, like, visualizing, because I’ve got a chopped ’50 Merc on my stomach, that Maaske did, and thinking it might be cool to kind of bring the Jesus down into that, so it becomes a chest and a stomach piece, and then that’ll dictate what my ribcage does. And then my back is primarily traditional pin-ups, just like a bunch of pin-ups, and I don’t only want pin-ups on the back, so I need to put the rear-end of a car on like two corners, or something like that, and then try and blend other things in there, like cars, guitars, bikes, motors, or something—so it’s not only pin-up girls.

You said it all right there. Cars, guitars, bikes, and motors…around ladies.

Right. So one more thing. You guys have touched on it a couple of times, but were you very close with Eric?

I was. I met Eric and this other kid, and they were just two little rockabilly kids down on Orange Circle one day, and they recognized me and came over and started talking to me, and Eric said he was from Reno, and I knew people in Reno, and then we started talking about old cars, and then he said he was a tattooer. And it was one of those, “Really? All right, let’s go!” kind of things, and he went and did a Sick Boy on my stomach, and it was probably one of the first tats that he’d ever done. And then it was funny, because years later he went over it and made it real refined. But he was a great guy, and we were really close for many years. We collected a lot of the same stuff, we loved the same music, we loved old cars, and customizing them, and you know, I was already clean, and it was just one of those things where, for a couple of years there was some distance between us, and you know, we weren’t mad at each other, but we both kind of knew that we needed to give each some distance, for whatever reasons, and we each respected that. And I didn’t go to the funeral- because it was turning into a circus. It was like everyone who ever got tattooed by him wanted to go to the service. Probably because he left a good impression on them—he was a sweet guy—but I could see him very easily doing the same thing at my funeral, crumbing on everybody, being like, “I don’t want to see that guy,” or, “He’s going? I’m not going.” [Laughs]

Something that I think a lot of people in the tattoo community don’t know, and I’m sure you’re aware of, is, you know for years there’s been a giant resurgence of American traditional tattooing, and Eric, man, he was on top of that as a young tattooer, before there were even books of flash out. He hooked up with Leroy Minugh, who worked with Owen Jensen, and so he had a lineage to some of the greatest traditional American tattooing ever done, West Coast or otherwise, and he really should be viewed as a pioneer in American tattooing. And I wonder if, down the road, years after his passing, people will start to revisit Eric’s importance in American tattooing.

I think Eric really felt the need to explore the soul of tattooing. The old soul history of it, the tradition of it. And once again, “if you don’t have roots, you don’t have shit!” And what I really liked about what he was doing, when he started drawing his own flash, was taking traditional Sailor Jerry-style flash with a little more of a soul thing added to it. For a good tattoo artist, like Eric Maaske, or Mark Mahoney, or Bob Roberts, or Jack Rudy, or Joe Vegas, or Juan Puente, or those guys—it’s not a fad for them. It’s not a fashion thing. They really took the time to understand what tattoos meant. And these people today— when I see a guy with fresh flash tattoos, to me that’s like a pretty boy, almost. I admire how uniform it is, and how colorful, and how fresh it looks on his white skin, but at the same time it’s kind of like, you know, it doesn’t have that edge. It seems like some of the danger is gone. I remember, punk rock used to be dangerous! Now it’s cute. These people are just getting these tats and you’re like, do you know…do you know that this is forever? [Laughs]

END

Crash: Well, there you have it folks, TAM’s very first music interview! I hope you’re all as stoked as I am to have Mike Ness in the magazine. This guy is the real deal. Get the new record (it’s fuckin’ great!) come to the shows and show your support!

Thanks to Mike Ness for taking the time to do this with us, to Jimmy for such an awesome experience, and to my friend Brook Hewitt for dropping everything to come shoot pictures for us.

(This article was previously featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine #23.)

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Mike Ness: Tattoo Artist Magazine Interview from Social Distortion, Lucero and Frank Turner Fall Tour (Photos)

13 comments

  1. GREAT interview – among the best interviews of Mike Ness I’ve ever read. I posted a link to it on the retrokustomhonkytonk.com blog. I hope lots of Social D fans read it.

  2. I think Eric really felt the need to explore the soul of tattooing.

    • indeed.
      We have great hopes, thanks to Oliver Peck and Shane Trulin, to eventually put together a nice article on Eric’s life and work. It’ll take some time, but it’s on the ‘to-do’ list.

  3. I’m 18 years old, and I loved SD by the first time I listen to Ball and Chain when I was 16, I’ve been search about they for 2 years and now I realize that SD is my faith, Mike has grown so far just not like when I watching their tour on Another State of Mind DVD.. I loved a sick part of your lyrics, keep moving! or we’ll kick ur ass!

  4. Great interview, Mike doesn’t always speak that much. Great great job !

  5. Great interview!!!

  6. Fantastic interview. So glad I stumbled upon it. I waited until I was 34 to get my first tattoo, and it is of Skelli :)