In the world of tattooing, Mike Rubendall is an influence, a visionary, a household name, a legend. He has been featured in New York Magazine, and on TLC’s Tattoo Wars. He’s one of the very best on the planet—his clientele alone is testament to that, to say nothing of the countless awards that have been bestowed upon his work. Or, if you need further proof, just look at the work itself. Mike Rubendall is one of the most revered and influential practitioners of one of the most accessible and popular visual art forms in the world. And he’s not in Manhattan or Brooklyn, where the rock stars and the movie stars and the cool kids live; he’s not in Tokyo or San Francisco or London or Paris: He is in the middle of Massapequa, the middle of Long Island. In the world of tattooing, Mike Rubendall is in the middle of nowhere.
Long Island is home to many tattoo shops, of course. Tattooing everywhere has seen impressive growth over the last two decades. The explosion began in the early ’90s, a byproduct of grunge, the coming-of-age of Generation X and the mainstreaming of alternative culture. It saw another growth spurt in the early aughts, when custom tattooing and larger pieces came into fashion among hipsters, gym rats, college kids. Today, tattoo shops are nearly as common a suburban outpost as sports bars and hair salons. They are in strip malls, on main streets, in downtowns.Yellowbook.com lists 137 tattoo shops on Long Island, though that seems a low estimate. Spend time on any Long Island beach, or in any Long Island gym, and the evidence is stark: Most bare bodies under the age of 45—and, yes, many in the 45-and-over category—sport some ink, somewhere. Tribal bands, butterflies, skulls. The disembodied head of Jimi Hendrix. The symbols from the cover of Led Zep 4. The Tasmanian Devil.
They are everywhere.
They are not always very good.
Mike Rubendall knows this better than anyone. At 32, he’s young by most any standard, but he’s been in the business now for literally half his life—since the age of 16—and he has witnessed firsthand the transformation of the Island and the industry. He’s an old soul. He’s seen it all. He tells one story, about a client who came in to get his arms tattooed, and revealed to Rubendall a back piece that was, ah, something less than superb. The client knew this, and admitted as much, and Rubendall agreed the tattoo was indeed quite bad. But, it was obviously a work that had taken numerous sessions—the back is a big stretch of real estate, after all—which left Rubendall incredulous. Why, Rubendall asked his client, would you do that to yourself? Why would you keep going back, knowing you were getting a bad tattoo?
“He said, ‘Well, it was cheap. And it’s on my back, so I don’t really have to look at it.’”
Mike Rubendall was born and raised in Massapequa. He graduated, in 1995, from Plainedge High School—seven blocks away from the storefront where Kings Avenue Tattoo now stands (the name is borrowed from one of the cross streets on which the shop is situated). It was at Plainedge that Rubendall started drawing seriously. His ability, he says, was neither innate nor immediate.
“I never felt like I had a God-given talent,” he says. “But I had a drive.”
Today, Rubendall is sitting in the small, fenced-in concrete patio behind Kings Avenue, at a hard plastic picnic table. (This is the week following Billy Jordan’s visit: Billy’s back in Mobile; by now, his sleeve has probably healed enough so that his wounds are no worse than patches of dry, flaking, scabbed-over skin.) Rubendall is remembering, reminiscing, leaning back on a deck chair in a black Kings Avenue T-shirt, his bare forearms displaying elaborate, colorful ink. Rubendall has a concrete-thick South Shore accent, linguistic patterns that twirl and spin and slip like spaghetti on a fork.
Before he was a tattooer, back when he was a student at Plainedge, Rubendall worked at a Massapequa pizza shop, Pappalardo’s Pizza Cove, listening to local hardcore bands like Vision of Disorder and faraway metal bands like Sepultura—all of whose members’ bodies were covered in tats. Rubendall liked the look, and when tattooed patrons walked into Pappalardo’s, Rubendall asked them about their ink. He was 16, looking for a career, a path, a direction. One day, he was told he could get a tattooing apprenticeship with Frank Romano, at Da Vinci Tattoo Studio.
“I’d heard it was a pretty brutal upbringing,” he says. “And it was the type of industry that the artists kept the secrets very close to their chests. They didn’t really share information.”
Indeed, at that time, tattooing was mysterious, elitist, almost something of a secret society—not like today, says Rubendall, thanks to TV shows like Miami Ink and Tattoo Wars and Tattoo Highway, not to mention the Internet, where every tattooer’s work is readily available. Now, he says some shops are even offering classes on how to tattoo.
“People aren’t getting tattooed in back of a dimly lit tattoo shop, with beer bottles laying around and switch blades…it’s not like that anymore,” he laments. “I feel like the magic is gone. It’s missing something now. I was just fortunate to be involved in it when it really had some magic.”
Rubendall describes his apprenticeship as grueling, demeaning, humiliating. In other words: exactly like any good apprenticeship anywhere. Before he could even begin, Romano handed the 16-year-old Rubendall a tattoo magazine, and said, “Here. Copy 10 pictures from this.” Not trace them. Copy them. Freehand. Rubendall went home, copied 10 pictures—between schoolwork and sports, this took maybe a month—brought them back to Romano, who looked at them, put them down, then picked up another magazine. “Here,” he said. “Now copy 20 from this one.”
This went on. And on. (Continued.)