“Even though he’s incredible, one of the top guys in the world right now, he was nothing special at first,” Romano says of his apprentice. “And that’s what separates the men from the boys. It’s about work. A lot of guys see the glory [of being a tattoo artist], but they don’t see the energy that needs to be put in.”
Romano also knows Rubendall’s reputation has inspired some envy, some ugliness, in his colleagues.
“Over the years I’ve heard people, their tongues are barbed with jealousy,” he says. “I’ve heard them say things, like, ‘Fuckin’ Rubendall…’ I hear the jealousy in their tone, and what they don’t realize is, the guy worked for everything he has. He took the same things that I taught everyone and just worked harder than everybody else. When everybody else was out drinking beer and chasing girls, he was here, tattooing for free, or at home drawing. He earned everything he has. He took what I gave him and took it the furthest.”
Furthermore, Romano sees Rubendall’s choice to work on Long Island to be representative of his character, his seriousness, his heart.
“The fact that he is where he is, geographically, is a testament to what he’s about,” says Romano. “He’s from Massapequa. He’s from there and he’s still there. He’s an unassuming person in an unassuming place.”
It was in November, 2005, that Rubendall opened Kings Avenue. Today, alongside Rubendall, the shop employs four regular tattooers—Grez, Matt Beckerich, Justin Weatherholtz and Brian Paul—alongside an occasional guest tattooer. Of all Kings Avenue’s staff, only Rubendall and Hald, the shop’s manager, are from Long Island. Everyone else was recruited by Rubendall, brought here from somewhere else, brought here because they have something that impresses Rubendall, something that inspires him, something he needs around him: talent that challenges his own.
He had that working in the city, at Adorned—working alongside, among others, Chris O’Donnell, who is still one of Rubendall’s closest friends—but he felt distracted by the city, and those distractions kept him from what mattered most: the work. Rubendall is a private person; he likes to devote at least nine hours a day to his art. He had considered opening a studio in the city, but chose instead to put himself in a place where he could work without distraction.
“I said, ‘Let me stick to where I came from,’” says Rubendall. He pauses, thoughtfully. “I’m doing good out here.” He pauses again. “It’s my home.” Then, finally: “Best choice I ever made.”
Even hidden away as he is on Long Island, Rubendall can’t help attracting a New York City clientele. He tells one story about being hired by Damon Dash—the entrepreneur executive who co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records with Jay-Z—to tattoo an image of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi on Dash’s arm. Every other week for almost a year, Dash would send a driver to pick up Rubendall on his day off, drive him to Tribeca, to Dash’s office, where there would be a personal chef and a parade of A-listers.
“I met Jay-Z,” Rubendall remembers. “I was talking to Naomi Campbell for, like, a good three hours. She was sitting right next to me: ‘You’re great, it’s great to meet you, what’s your name?’ I’m like, ‘It’s Mike.’ And she’s like, ‘It’s nice to meet you, Mark, I’m Naomi.’ The whole time. I didn’t correct her; she just kept calling me Mark. She would ask me a question, ‘So, Mark…how do you apply the ink?’”
He laughs, a soft laugh, a sincere laugh, a laugh that both questions and celebrates the absurdity of the situation.
“Yeah,” he says, “that was a good experience.”
However, for Rubendall, not every celebrity encounter has been so positive. For instance, actress Evan Rachel Wood—of The Wrestler and True Blood—presented little more than frustration for the artist. She came to Kings Avenue, Rubendall says, and spent three hours having him draw for her, then changing her mind about what he should be drawing.
“I wasn’t sure she really wanted a tattoo,” Rubendall recalls. “I said, ‘You should really think about this. ’Cause this is permanent, and might not be for you. You seem real indecisive.’”
But, says Rubendall, the actress was firm in at least her demand to be tattooed. (Continued.)