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Long Island Tattoo Artist Mike Rubendall

Tattoo culture on L.I. and the Massapequa tattooer who became one of the world's best

Billy Jordan is on vacation.

He’s up from Mobile, Alabama, with his girlfriend, Jessica Tran, staying at a hotel in Manhattan. Billy and Jessica make a cute couple. Billy is 31—though he could pass for 19—white, with a chinstrap beard and burly frame, wearing a black Yankees cap and a sleeveless heather-gray T-shirt. Jessica is pretty, curvy, Asian, with long dark hair and thick black-framed glasses. They both have soft Southern accents and warm demeanors. They are sweet, quiet. They’ll be in New York for three days, through the weekend. They may get a chance to do some sightseeing, Billy thinks, but not today. Because for the next six, seven hours, they will be on Long Island, in Massapequa, on North Broadway: a faceless four-lane street populated by nail salons, aluminum-sided houses, Laundromats, a tattoo shop.


[popup url=""]Click here to view more photos of Mike Rubendall’s tattoo work[/popup]

The tattoo shop stands next to a tanning salon and a deli. It doesn’t have a parking lot. When you go there, you park around the corner, on residential North Nassau Avenue, in front of a house—any house—a sprinkler, a storm drain, a curb, a fine patch of green lawn.

Mike Rubendall sits in front of his awards and artwork at Kings Avenue Tattoo.

Billy and Jessica are inside that tattoo shop. Kings Avenue Tattoo. Jessica is snapping pictures of Billy, as tourists do, and Billy is sitting in a chair, his right hand clutching his cell phone, his left arm by his side, limp, being positioned, bent and cradled by Mike Rubendall, 32, the owner of Kings Avenue and the reason Billy and Jessica are here. Rubendall sits crouched, coiled, intense, all deep-set brown eyes and blue rubber gloves, a buzzing tattoo gun in his right hand. As Billy sits and Jessica takes pictures, Rubendall continues to work on the Japanese-style water dragon he has been inking on Billy’s left arm for more than a year now. Billy’s face is stoic, his eyes distant, but his skin shows signs of the trauma being inflicted: blood, sweat and ink slowly drip down his arm, as Rubendall works patiently, occasionally wiping away the combination of fluids. From a stereo in another room, the dolorous sound of Ryan Adams’ voice, like Blue Mountain mist, fills the space beneath the buzzing, the chatter, the laughter.

Today, Rubendall says, they will finish the arm—the sleeve—the result of some 30 total hours of work, six trips from Mobile to Massapequa.

This is how Billy Jordan and Jessica Tran will spend their vacation in New York.

They will come back, of course. They have this whole thing planned, scheduled, booked. They will be back three or four times a year for the next four years, at least. Rubendall is doing a body suit for Billy—a tattoo that will eventually cover virtually every inch of Billy’s torso, arms and legs. The water dragon on Billy’s left arm is only the first step. Next, they will do a wind dragon on his right arm; then Billy’s back, then his front and legs.

[popup url=""] Click here to view more photos of Mike Rubendall’s shop[/popup]

All this comes at a cost. Numerous costs. Getting a tattoo from Mike Rubendall is expensive even if you’re not traveling across the country. And, yes, it hurts. A lot. Getting a tattoo from anyone hurts a lot, the same way taking a blowtorch or a bandsaw to one’s soft flesh might hurt a lot. And if you’re getting any sort of substantial ink—a sleeve or a back piece or, like Billy, a body suit—yeah, it’s going to take a long time. Skin demands patience; the gun cannot be rushed. Today, Billy is 31; he will be 35, 36 years old when he and Rubendall are done working together.

Billy is a collector of tattoos and a tattooer himself. He works in a shop called The Tattoo Zone, in Mobile. Rubendall estimates 60 percent of his clientele is other tattooers. He further estimates at least 50 percent of his clientele comes from somewhere other than Long Island.

If you call Kings Avenue Tattoo to make an appointment with Rubendall, this is what will happen. You will talk to the shop’s manager, Eric Hald, a magnetic, affable 34-year-old man whose own wiry body is covered in tattoos done by Rubendall and several other Kings Avenue tattooers. Hald will tell you to call back on Sept. 11, 2010, when Rubendall’s book next opens—or better yet, come by the shop sometime the morning of the 11th. You’ll have to wait in line, of course; that day, people will start lining up a few hours before noon, when the shop opens. But when you get in, you’ll be prioritized over everyone who will be calling in—and they will be calling from around the world: Japan, Europe, California, Alabama. Sept. 11 is the next time Rubendall’s book opens. Assuming everything works out, on Sept. 11, you will make an appointment to see Rubendall sometime in late 2011. If you miss the Sept. 11 opening, you will have to call back, or stop by, in March 2011, at which point, you can make an appointment for 2012.

A tattoo is a lifelong commitment, so you have to be willing to wait, right? (Continued…)

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