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Mike Giant: Black and White

Legendary tattoo artist Mike Giant shares his thoughts on the current state of tattooing, art culture, and the city he loves.

A couple of weeks back, I got the distinct pleasure of meeting and interviewing legendary tattoo artist Mike Giant, for the first time. With his name popping up within countless fashion/art projects, it was the perfect time to catch up with the famed artist, on several topics that we’ve been curious about. As genuine as any person I’ve met, Mike was quickly stripped of any “cool guy” persona usually associated with successful artists, with a down-to-earth welcome into his home. Aside from his usual array of graphic works for his brand REBEL8, Mike gives us a scoop into future endeavors and a deeper insight into his inspirations, reflections, and thoughts on the current state of art and tattoo culture.

Interview: L. Ruano
Photography: Rickey Vinluan

An Interview with Mike Giant

Mike, when did the name Giant become associated with your artwork?

I started using it (Mike Giant) professionally once I already had a name for myself as Giant in the graffiti circles but using Giant as a tag started in 89’, when I started writing. It’s one of those things that when I decided to tattoo I could have gone by my real name but at that point I had already been known as Giant.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Albuquerque (New Mexico) and was born in New York, upstate NY. My family moved us to New Mexico in 1979 and I stayed there until 93’, that’s when I moved out here (San Francisco).

New Mexico/Latino cultural is attributed to a good portion of your works. Did growing up in Albuquerque inspire you artistically?

A lot of the things that I draw are kind of symbols that we all know, it gets passed around freely. Everything to me though still has a personal meaning. A lot of it, especially with the Catholic stuff, is very New Mexico oriented. I grew up Catholic. I think just the imagery that stuck with me from that faith system was the kind of with more of a New Mexico feel to it, more native Latino. It’s just one of those things, so it’s definitely an influence.

I know a good amount of successful artists begin in one artistic field and eventually find their calling later on, Tinker Hatfield comes in to mind immediately. Was tattooing always your ultimate goal?

As far doing it for a living, it kind of had to fall in my lap for someone to offer me a full time art job, to even think that was a possibility. I was going to architecture School and then dropped out. But even as a little kid, as soon as I could hold a pencil or a marker or crayon, I was drawing. There were times when I wouldn’t draw everyday, I would draw once in awhile. There’s a time when most of us kids, as soon as people begin to know you’re a good drawer, say you’re kind of a dork and you hide away. It’s funny like that, cause I did the same thing. I stopped drawing and making myself stand out, but was still kind of a closet illustrator. Later on though, it was all good.

Do you ever see yourself heading back into the field of architecture?

I think I still want to go in that direction. Architecture is something that really interests me. It’s just not something that’s part of my life right now. My life has taken me other directions and in many ways, way beyond any kind of fantasy or dream I would have had about the future. I don’t know if I would have had the same opportunities had I pursued architecture… I doubt it. If it would have happened, it would have happened later. I talked to my professors in college about leaving college and moving to CA to draw skateboard graphics for a living. At first, I thought that was gonna seem a little preposterous to them but they were actually really supportive and were like, “You obviously draw a lot of stuff in your free time that doesn’t cross over into your architecture work, which is academic and getting the grade. But your not really flexing your creative skills as much as we’re seeing in your graffiti”. At that point, they said architecture is a practice of old men. Some of the greatest architects in history didn’t make their world renowned pieces until they were really late in life, in their 60’s-70’s.

That seems like a valid point.

Definitely. They said just come back to architecture when you’re older and you’ll be more informed about the bigger picture of things and that will help your work regardless of what medium you’re working in.

It seems like tattoo art is still quite important in your life. Is there a reason why you choose to step away from it?

A lot of it was for physical reasons. It’s really hard on my back and my hands, every joint in my body aches after I tattoo. It’s just hard. It’s such a labor intensive medium, there’s nothing like it, you know? The stress of having to do it perfect, or as perfect as possible, is tough, it’s a tough business. It gets glamorized a lot and I think on a certain level it is kind of glamorous. Tattooing has that potential but I think for the people who really apply themselves artistically within the tattooing world, to maintain a real high level of professional quality requires spending a lot of time doing it and doing art work for tattooing and educating yourself, that’s when it becomes this big thing. I mean, you just can’t be happy doing street shop stuff your whole life and that can be real thrilling, you always have tons of cash and access to cute girls and all this. There’s definitely a contingent of people who are all about that. There’s another level to it, there’s a deeper thing then that, it’s heavy I think, you’re marking people, you’re making them bleed and hurt and a lot of the time you’re manifesting things that they feel so compelled in their heart to put into their skin and at the risk of all kinds of financial loss and pain and being judged by their family, all kinds of stupid shit. It’s a lot different than just drawing on paper, that’s for sure.

How long were you doing tattoo art professionally?

I think I did it professionally pretty much full time for 8-9 years and it’s just been the last year or two that I’ve been tattooing friends and old clients here and there, when it’s convenient for both of us and I feel up for it. Because it still is a struggle even more so now on some levels because I’m not in the habit, every time I jump into it, it’s been a week or two even, but I need to at least stay on it at that level. I think or I start to feel like shit because the quality really goes down and im tattooing my best friends in a lot of cases, they have some of my best work and at this point to do some half shit work just sucks.

Agreed. You must turn people down a lot.

I tell people no cause I’m way out of my league, I’m doing it as an amateur again.

It seems like it would just come natural, no?

It comes back, it’s habit energy. Something that we’re real good about as human beings is that we’re able to develop new habits, powerful ones. The problem comes when you cant drop the ones that are no longer helpful.

People seem to have a certain mentality that anything will translate well into tattoo form. Do you find that to be a true assessment?

Tattooing is sculptural, it’s 3-Dimensional. What works on paper is a 2-Dimensional surface. Tattooing is always 3D. There are so many different angles that tattoos need to fit into the body, that’s the main thing. The primary goal of a tattoo artist is that your trying to create things that move and work with the body to accentuate things, to make people look powerful and graceful. But at the same time it can work the other way of course. I certainly work with that crossover. I like that. I have so much love for tattoo imagery that I really proactively want to keep that stuff alive with those stories and symbols. I already can see that if the media or publishers don’t get on something and make it something real, then it just gets lost in history. All kinds of things get lost in history, people just destroy it all. As I’m getting older I’m seeing that I need to be someone who makes history though the media and try to bring some intelligence and some heart at the same time.

Why do you choose to work in black and white almost exclusively?

Mostly because I’m colorblind, I’m red/green colorblind. I see color but I don’t the subtleties and tones and hues that a normal human beings eyes can see. The black and white for me is what happened over the course of my life, it’s just what I gravitate towards naturally, I just fell really comfortable working in black and white. I don’t know what it is about it, it’s just what happened.

For certain projects, color can be an important element. Do you enjoy working with it at all?

I like working with color. In graffiti, colors are paramount, tattoos as well. Now that I’m tattooing kind of non-professionally I don’t have any colors, I don’t even bother with it anymore. I just like the black and white, I love how it reads from a distance. When you strip something down to it bare, simple essentials, there’s so little room for error and I think that’s when your craft can come through. I think that’s something that universally impresses people, when you can kinda dumbfound them with your craft. I worked really hard to make my original drawings look like they could be a vector graphic and even so, the original looked totally smooth and super black as kind of an experiment. I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can achieve that and now it’s kind of the other way around, where vector people are trying to replicate what I can do with the hand. But now as time goes on it’s like “OK, that’s a cool trick, I can make it look like a print”, but now I’m trying to infuse a little bit more hand into the originals at least. For reproduction, the black and white look, I think, still looks pretty rad. I’d like to do some kind of pencil drawings and get that printed onto t-shirts.

Speaking of vector images, is there a reason why you choose the Sharpie as your weapon of choice? Those things seem to bleed quite a bit, making it difficult to make such accurate lines like you produce.

Well it’s really an unruly drawing tool, it bleeds like crazy. Me and Sam Flores talk about controlled bleed, it’s like you gotta learn how to roll with it and sometimes you wanna just let it sit there and ooze out for different textures and all kinds of stuff. I think mostly, it was just readily available. When I was a graffiti writer and we were using them for black books, I was just racking boxes of them and it was the easiest thing, you could go to any store and rack up sharpies. When I was tattooing, kids would always bring me boxes of sharpies as tips. I had to use different markers in Amsterdam when I was there last Summer. I tried out all these different markers and I didn’t like any of them. Sharpies to me, run really fast for most of their life but die fast as well. For the most part, they’re pretty juicy and they can get a drawing done pretty quick. When you use pigment ink markers, which I think are more for drawing stuff, you gotta move a lot slower and I find that really frustrating. It’s the same thing with tattooing, there’s a certain amount of speed that feels good and if you go too slow it wrecks the skin. I like it when it just rips out of the marker, like “Lets do this!”

Haha. When did you start your REBEL8 clothing line?

We officially said we’d do the first REBEL8 shirts in 2003, but we did our first trade show the next year. Seems like a long time ago. I had been doing a lot of freelance work for a lot of different people and I was getting approached by bigger and better clients (better in some ways cause it was better money). Josh and I had gotten to become friends because I was tattooing him. We were hanging out and he just approached me with the idea of doing an exclusive Mike Giant line, cause it seemed like the fan base was there to support an exclusive thing. It sounded reasonable to me at the time since I’m always looking for some kind of way to simplify my life, so that I can just do this and that and go to sleep. It’s real simple and pretty much everyday the same, Ive found the routine to be of the most benefit, especially for me as a human being. We like routine.

Running a clothing line is a tough business. Do you find REBEL8 consuming most of your time, which in turn takes away from other projects?

We started it up and eventually got big enough that we started writing out contracts and figuring out long term goals. I slowly started saying no more and more to freelance jobs and explaining the situation. It’s to the point now where I don’t really have much time to do anything other than REBEL8. I have a seasonal list of things that I need to have taken care of and that really keeps me busy. As the company grows, my percentage of the company (the earnings), continues to increase, so it pretty cool cause we’ve all been on the same trip, it’s been growing nice and steady. Now we’re starting to see that it has potential to get much bigger in the next few years and it’s exciting to see, it’s like this organic thing that’s growing and we just want to keep feeding it as much as it wants to eat. It’s like “Wow, it’s getting hungry!”, haha, so it getting hard to keep up with.

Do you run most of the operations at REBEL8?

All that business stuff, I’ve never been able to involve myself in it too much. I have to draw, it requires a lot of time for me to maintain the level of quality that I want. With REBEL8, I have such a great team of people behind me and behind the work that are real dedicated to getting it out there. It’s really cool yet different for me at the same time because it has allowed me to step back from things like tattooing, and most recently fine art. I can really just pull back from that and say that this is really not necessary so much now. I can relax a little more and focus on something else, that feels better and isn’t so harmful.

The city of San Francisco has been hotbed for budding and established artists, is that why you love this city so much?

I think it’s got the most interest for me. It’s got a particular art scene that’s really different from NY or LA, or anywhere else as a matter of fact. But for the things that I’m into, there’s really no place better. I cant think of any other city that has more talented tattoo artists in one spot, anywhere. It’s insane how many of them there are here which in itself is super inspiring. The graffiti scene here has always been really interesting because this is a real walking city and there’s not too many of those in America, so street level graffiti is going to get seen. The styles that have kind of evolved from San Francisco are super inspirational, you get to see the full range of graffiti here, from tag ups to wild style pieces, done illegally at night. For me, that’s a real treat. There’s graffiti everywhere for sure, don’t get me wrong, but it ain’t like it was in the early 90’s, of course. I remember everything was wrecked, the whole country was totaled, it was awesome. The law came down and changed things, but that’s how it goes.

San Francisco is about as open minded as a city can get.

Yes, this city just rules. It’s just so beautiful. Every single day that I’m here I go walking around, I see some Victorian house that I’ve never seen before with details that I just love. Something that definitely made me keep going back to Europe was just being around such amazing architecture and history. I feel like in America, it’s just strip malls and apartment buildings and 6 lane main roads, it’s depressing. This city has got so much life with a lot of character. It’s San Francisco, it’s open, it’s all good, you can be whoever you wanna be and no ones tripping. I think that’s really an oasis in America. Ive been to a lot of places where people are really close minded about basics that we really take for granted being here. I can light up a joint on the street here and it’s not like the regular people on the street are gonna trip out, in fact they may be helpful and be like “Yo bud, just keep an eye out for the cops”. It’s like nobody cares, I don’t even think they care. I can’t do that everywhere. Like if I do that back in Albuquerque, people are like “Damn bro”, haha. There’s a lot of things about this city, the food, best food options I’ve ever found anywhere in America.

Everytime I met with someone from the industry for grub, we seem to go to a different “hole-in-the-wall” spot. It’s become a ritual for creatives, almost.

It seems like people who work in the industry here really love it and really have a lot of creative freedom because there are so many people here who support restaurants. It’s a good place for creative people to sort of just flex, people wanna try that new thing. If it sucks, it sucks… try again.

You speak highly of other artists in San Francisco, do you have any favorites at all?

I kind of live an insulated life because I have to draw so much and be in my studio so much, that even though I am here and around a lot of artists, I don’t have much time to check them out. I do have a lot of favorite particular people around though, it’s more like a general feeling of inspiration. There’s just so much good stuff around that I honestly feel like my influences are coming from places in my past, it’s like trying to bring back some of that, especially with the Cholo kind of stuff. I don’t see it around anymore, which is kind of hard for me, since I don’t see the living embodiment of that Cholo culture that I remember from the 70’s as a kid. It’s hard for me to find that because the times have changed. But it’s important to me and I want to keep that stuff around.

I always enjoy the cultural approach to art. Estevan Oriol and Mr. Cartoon have kept that (Cholo) culture quite relevant in their work, which I can definitely respect.

I’ve talked to them (Estevan and Cartoon) about that subject too, about proactively keeping this stuff alive. It’s one of those things, where I’m like a white boy from New Mexico that is all about this Cholo stuff and for a lot of people, I’m kinda coming from an outsiders perspective on a lot of levels. But at the same time, I’ve got in plenty of dirt lot fist fights… I’ve participated, I know the deal, haha. It’s of those things when I can level with Estevan and Cartoon about this stuff and it feels like we’re all on the same page. It makes me feel not so bad coming that perspective and they can see that what I got out of it was a lot of love, respect, and honor for that stuff. I’m not coming out of it like I’m frontin’. I’ll be the first one to call someone on some bullshit if they are frontin’ but it’ll take a lot for me to really get on you.

Getting a bit off topic… What’s your favorite place to travel to?

I gotta say Paris, I love Paris, It’s just one of those amazing places to me. As a kid growing up, I was thought that an example of perfect fine art, was European art, and there was a lot of hype surrounding Paris. I definitely felt that when I had a big solo show there, at Mag Gallery.

I heard about your most recent incident with Mag, regarding the show with Dalek.

That’s reality. When I think back to some of the best experiences I’ve had, one of the best ones was the solo show at that gallery and sure enough, of the worst experiences I’ve had at that same gallery. I mean that’s just the nature of the game. It’s definitely one of those wake up calls, where I think to myself that maybe I shouldn’t be involved in fine art circles so much anymore. Maybe kind of just sell my drawings myself and keep it a lot more low key. I’m always trying to simplify, so I think that’s the next level of simplification, if in fact it’s simpler. It might, in fact, be way more complicated and then I don’t know what the hell I’d do. I don’t know, we’ll see.

What’s your take on collaborations?

I just had lunch with Nate and Josh of REBEL8 and we were laughing about that. When we think of a project that we want to do, we just have to ask these other art collaborators if they’re down and so many of them are just like “Hell yea!”. It’s cool, we’re getting what we want, crazy levels and really crazy details. It’s super rad that we’re able to do that.

Any special projects in the works?

Next month we’re doing an event at The Fast Life store in LA which should be bananas. I’ve never done anything for them (Famous), it’s all been collaborative through REBEL8. It’s just because, personally, we really get along with those guys. We really felt like we had a great success when we did a store event in Roseville (Northern California) and in thinking about doing something in Southern California as well. Shit, lets just blow the doors off and do it big style. If we’re gonna go down there, lets party, lets have some fun. Im hoping I can take my bicycle down there and cruise around. Los Angeles is great for cycling, it’s too bad nobody does it down there. I think that Dickies project is finally gonna hit the streets in the Fall, as well as some cut-and-sew through REBEL8.

We’ve been hearing about that project for sometime now. Seeing as Dickies Europe initiated the collaboration, will it just be a UK release?

I know from the start, it was only suppose to be a Dickies Europe release, because that’s who we were working through. Dickies is one big company, they’re also licensed, so I do know is we’re gonna get a certain amount of garments ourselves. As far as how many units will hit the States, I really have no idea. I can’t imagine it being that high though, it’s more like a promotional thing for both of us and a little collaborative project. It looks real straight forward and nice, but it has got crazy details, which are special. I haven’t worn Dickies in forever, those were like my graffiti pants for 10 years. Our whole thing has been that we just want to make stuff that we’re gonna use, so now it’s getting real fun with collaborations. It’s like, “I need a new bike”, lets figure it out, haha. Let’s get the angle, “I need a new tattoo machine”, what’s the angle?… haha. It’s cool like that because it keeps it in the family and it’s legit, I love that, it’s really fun.

Whats in store for Mike Giant and REBEL8 for the rest of 2009?

The big thing I really see in our immediate future is that we’re starting to do exclusive online releases now, it’s kind of a no brainer. I think every other week we’re going to release something, real random and in low quantities. I’m excited about that, cause we can kinda do whatever. There’s a lot of companies that come at us to back bullshit products, but we’re just like “Nah”. At least we’re not going there.

Mike, thanks so much for your time. Any closing words?

Honestly, thanks for all the support. For real.

- REBEL8 Website

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