After six or seven months of copying drawings, Rubendall was offered a genuine apprenticeship at Da Vinci: This involved mopping the floors, cleaning the toilets, cleaning up the tattooers’ stations, running coffee and lunch orders, picking up laundry, taking abuse. Full time, overtime, sans any form of financial compensation, naturally. After some nine or so months of this, he was allowed to tattoo his friends, also gratis. After six months of giving free tattoos, he was allowed to charge half-price. During this time, he was working 70, 80 hours a week at Da Vinci. Finally—finally—after endless frustrations and freebies, he graduated: He was no longer an apprentice. He was a tattooer.
Rubendall worked at Da Vinci for 10 years, total. For the last three of those years, he was also doing two days a week at New York Adorned, possibly the most revered tattoo shop in Manhattan. Looking at it from the outside, Rubendall’s ascent might appear almost instantaneous. But he doesn’t remember it that way.
“When I was 17, 18, 19 years old, I wouldn’t go out partying, I didn’t go away to college or anything,” he says. “I would stay home and draw till 2, 3 o’clock in the morning. My career is a result of all my hard work and devotion, the time I sacrificed.”
Rubendall is 32, but he sounds like a man two, three times that age. He knows this. He laughs about it. Part of this is his character, his nature; part is simply a reflection of his accomplishments, as well as the long hours he has put in to get to this place. He is 32, but he has already worked as many hours as men who’ve been around twice as long.
“It doesn’t come easy,” he says. “Great performance doesn’t come easy. It wouldn’t be rare if it came easy. That’s always the mindset I had: ‘If I put work into this, I’m going to get results.’”
Rubendall is a worker by nature—there’s an intensity and purpose even in his body language. He’s lithe, compact, muscled, with attenuated limbs and expressive hands; his bald pate and shadow beard give him a slight resemblance to Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia. He’s recently taken up boxing. He seems like he’d be good at it. He seems like he’d be good at pretty much anything he decided was worth his time.
“I never thought, ‘I want to be the best in Massapequa, or Wantagh, or on Long Island, even,’” he says of his ambitions as a tattooer in his teens. “I wanted to be one of the best in the world.”
Today, the walls of Kings Avenue are lined with plaques trumpeting the honors bestowed upon Rubendall at conventions—Best Black-and-Grey Tattoo; Best Color Tattoo; Best Overall Tattoo—and at home, Rubendall has what Hald calls a “garage full” of trophies and awards. It’s safe to say Rubendall reached his “one of the best in the world” marker a few miles back. An entire generation of tattooers who have been influenced by his style will say as much.
Terry Ribera is 33; he lives in California. An accomplished tattooer who has worked at some of the most respected shops in San Diego, Los Angeles and New York City (including the venerable Dare Devil Tattoo in Manhattan’s Lower East Side), he has never even met Mike Rubendall. But like any tattooer who knows anything, he knows Rubendall’s work.
“He was such a household name when I started tattooing,” says Ribera. “He was one of the first people on the scene doing really large Japanese work—particularly here in the U.S.”
In Ribera’s mind, Rubendall, along with fellow artist and peer Chris O’Donnell, defines New York tattooing. And the style they started—with deep roots in traditional Japanese tattooing and influences ranging from horror tattoos to old-school American tattoos to graffiti—has revolutionized the form.
“It looks like a Japanese tattoo,” says Ribera, “but it has a lot of the things that you’ll typically see in American tattooing. It’s a little bit looser, a little bit more organic in the way it’s drawn. It has certain aesthetics that you’ll see in traditional American tattooing… I think his stuff is more dynamic, just how well it’s rendered. I think [Rubendall and O’Donnell] were very true to the traditions of tattooing, but they didn’t really want to bastardize the art they were borrowing from. It was just enough to give it their own twist—to make it ultimately look more American.”
It’s more than just difference; it’s diligence. Rubendall tells the story of one recent client who asked for a tattoo of a snake-woman. Nothing more than that: a snake-woman. So, searching for inspiration, imagery, something on which to base this tattoo, Rubendall looked at books of Japanese mythology for something related to a snake-woman. There, he found the ancient story of Kiyohime, wherein a young woman, whose advances are spurned by a handsome priest, turns into a snake. Fearing for his safety, the priest hides under a prayer bell at a temple, but the woman-snake tracks him down, and—despondent, enraged—she wraps herself around the prayer bell, breathes a gust of fire on the bell, and reduces the priest to ash.
To Rubendall, that level of involvement and commitment is essential to the creative process. Furthermore, he notes, the story of Kiyohime takes place in the spring—so he incorporates into the tattoo cherry blossoms, a spring flower, instead of, say, chrysanthemums, which are an autumn flower.
“I feel like the client is getting an extra something,” says Rubendall. “They’re not just getting an ordinary image off the wall.”
Sayville resident Nick Guidice is one of Rubendall’s clients at Kings Avenue; Rubendall has tattooed more than half Guidice’s body, and eventually he will do the rest, a process they started some four years ago and which may stretch out another six years going forward. Guidice is a graphic designer—someone with a strong visual bent—and he believes Rubendall’s use of color and his approach to tattooing puts him on a higher level than anyone else he’s seen.
“A lot of Mike’s artwork seems to be more intuitive,” says Guidice. “He’s got a general plan, but as he goes along, things change a lot. But they always come out phenomenal. He has that vision. He can bring you where you want to be, and you might not even realize it.”
That’s only part of what makes Rubendall who he is, says Guidice.
“He’s such a down-to-earth, humble guy. Even where Mike is, he’s still as humble as he was the day I met him. And that speaks volumes, for me, as an artist.”
That humility comes from long hours spent learning, sweating, working—always working—with roots that run deep in Nassau County.
Da Vinci Tattoo Studio stands on the busy north side of Sunrise Highway in Wantagh, blended in next to a Sleepy’s, an Edible Arrangements, Mr. Vac & Mrs. Sew. It has been on that same stretch for 19 years, since the end of the first Bush Administration, 1991, six years before tattooing was even legal in New York City. (Between 1961 and 1997, tattooing was outlawed in the Big Apple, when the City Health Department discovered what it claimed was a series of blood-borne hepatitis cases coming from NYC tattoo parlors.) The essential layout of Da Vinci is almost identical to that of Kings Avenue: a long hallway with flash art on the left; tattooers’ rooms—individual rooms, like offices or operatories—on the right.
Inside one of those rooms at Da Vinci sits Frank Romano. At 44, Romano is only a generation removed from his protégé, but with his thick gray sideburns, his wide forearms covered in old, indecipherable black ink, he could be from another era. In many senses, he is. Romano is not just a proprietor of one of the Island’s longest-standing tattoo studios; he is one of the Island’s most direct connections to the very roots of tattooing.
Frank’s father, Larry, was the partner of Peter Poulos, and together, in the early ’70s, the pair created what Frank refers to as “the largest chain of tattoo studios in world; the first of its kind.” Building on what was originally called LI Tattoo Studios, in Elmont, Poulos and the elder Romano created Peter Tat-2, which would go on to have locations in Long Island, Denver, Chicago, Arizona and Wyoming. It was an empire of sorts. For his part, however, Frank had no interest in going into the family business.
“I didn’t want to be a tattoo artist,” says Romano. “I wanted to be a chiropractor.”
The fates, though, saw things differently. In 1983, through a series of tumultuous, unrelated, almost Shakespearian events (Poulos was killed by gunshot; Frank got into an argument with his father, which led to him leaving Long Island and heading to Denver, where he crashed with Poulos’ widow, Diane, who had inherited the Peter Tat-2 empire), Frank Romano fell into that world, a world he describes as “like living in a story, [filled with] motorcycles and hot rods [and] nicknames. It was glorious times for tattooing.”
It was also, as Romano notes, the end of a time. At the urging of Diane Poulos, Romano became a tattooer, just as the form itself was becoming more accepted, as the old styles—anchors and hearts and sparrows and nautical stars, forever linked to tattooing gods like Sailor Jerry—gave way to more detailed work, more elaborate work. Romano learned the trade on the job, sometimes doing 10 tattoos a day, seven days a week—and eventually made his way back to Long Island, where he opened Da Vinci.
Romano notes he has had many apprentices over the years, but Rubendall was his best.
“He reached a little higher,” says Romano. “He did everything he was asked to do, and he didn’t complain.”
A few notes on that apprenticeship, for those inclined to look into such a career. The first thing to remember is: persistence; accepting rejection. Because, as Romano tells it, if you ask him for an apprenticeship, the first thing he will tell you—and the second thing, third thing, fourth thing, etc.—is no.
“I’ll send you away,” he says. “Immediately. Come back again, I’ll send you away again. And I’ll keep doing that till I think maybe you’re not going to go away. And right there I see something I need to see.”
Romano remembers Rubendall as being especially tenacious. Not only would the young man not be turned away, but once he was in—once he had been given “the privilege of working his ass off for no money”—he continued to exceed Romano’s demands. There was the drawing, of course, and the scrubbing and the mopping and the cleaning. Rubendall was even “physically and verbally assaulted,” says Romano, to the point that he was “probably ready to have a nervous breakdown—in fact, I think he maybe even actually started to.”
(Incidentally, Rubendall has never taken on an apprentice, and Romano says he will never take on another—both say they refuse to be responsible for springing more young scratchers on an already overpopulated tattoo community. Though given Romano’s tactic of initially turning away all comers, it’s hard to say whether this claim is genuine or just a pre-emptive psychological test of aspiring tattooers.) (Continued.)