Masters of Reality - Mike DeVries: Part One

Published: 22 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 194, November, 2010

Renowned for his stunning realism work and putting ink into the skin of Sylvester Stallone and Chris Daughtry, Mike DeVries is rightly ranked among the world’s best. With MD Tattoo Studio going from strength to strength in just a few short years, we thought it was high time we checked in to survey out the lay of the land. Mike – over to you:

"Well, I opened MD Tattoo Studio in July of 2008, so we’re a fairly new shop in the big scheme of things. Most tattoo artists have a goal of opening their own shop one day and of course, that was one goal of mine too, but opening and running a shop is not easy and at times I question if it’s worth it, but after some time, a lot of dedication and hard work, it has turned out to be a positive experience.”

That’s not a statement that everybody who owns and runs their own shop can attest to. With the public perception of tattoo shop management most likely being what they have picked up from LA Ink and suchlike shows – editing aside – is that how things pan out in the real world too?

“In the beginning, the shop went through a few artists that didn’t work out, but after spending some time sorting things out and learning as I went along, the shop is going well for us. I have a crew that I’m very thankful for – they’re not only people that I work with, but to me they are family: Jeff Johnson, Katelyn Crane, Josh Duffy, London, and my up-and-coming apprentice, Jamie Parker.

I love going to work not only to tattoo and create art, but also to hang out with my crew all day. We have a good time. MD Tattoos is an open environment where we are working together and having a blast doing so. We all feed artistically from each other, no one has an ego, and we all take tattooing very seriously while having fun doing it. 

The vibe in the shop is totally geared towards artistic creativity and all of the artists are encouraged to express themselves as such but I also feel that in order to run a successful shop, there needs to be a balance between being creative and being business-minded. Being creative in artwork and design, but also being business-minded in the sense of having a good work ethic, keeping things neat and organised and ultimately making sure the customer is satisfied.” 

So how do all of you individual cogs fit together here? You’ve already said it took a few goes to get it right - is that simply from a “fitting in” point of view - presumably you were looking for a crew that could offer as much variety as possible, bring things to the table that were different from your skills and even learn from yourself?

“I’m a true believer that everything happens for a reason. I had a few good guys early on that just didn’t work out for various reasons. As of now, the MD crew is definitely dialled in. I’ve always wanted a crew that has variety and that is diverse in style. It’s nice having a crew that can tattoo anyone who walks through the door - in any style. Everyone who works here dabbles in all styles, but each of us have a forte, at least in my eyes.

Jeff Johnson is our bio-organic guy, especially working in colour. He also does some really cool Japanese-style work, along with some traditional work. Josh Duffy loves black and grey, working with portraits and evil-type imagery, along with bio-mech designs. Over there, Katelyn’s style is diverse in its own right! She loves tattooing bugs, along with new skool, traditional and some realism. London has been doing some great realistic portraits in colour lately, along with his own cartoony, new skool, bright, colourful, bold work. Jamie likes to work with his evil-ish Japanese-style, but is willing to do anything to practice since he is new to the game as my apprentice. Then there’s me - I prefer colour realism, but love it when I have the chance to throw down some black and grey - I don’t get requests for it very often.” 

Apprenticeships seem to be hard to come by these days - what did you see in Jamie that convinced you to take him under your wing?

“Jamie was actually a client of mine and we were doing some tattoo work on his arm of a picture he created in Photoshop. I liked what he created, so we started this sleeve on him and mid-way through completing it, we talked about art, where he worked, and I started to learn things about him. He was at a job that he wasn’t in love with - creating Photoshop designs for a company that made toys. At one point, after seeing his initial design for his arm we talked about doing a collaborative set of flash. He worked on a couple sheets and I was impressed with what he did. 

We never did complete any flash set, but there was a day when I approached him to see if he wanted to learn how to tattoo and to be my apprentice. He thought about it for about a week and said ‘Yes’. I definitely saw potential in him. He was young, creative, and was willing to learn. When he first started with me he had never done a painting. I try to get him to focus on drawing, but his strong point is Photoshop, so I still let him create using that, but it’s been amazing to see some of the things he has accomplished in such a short period of time. I just can’t tell him that because he’s not supposed to get a big head. So don’t tell him!” 

I’ll try my best – maybe you could get some stickers made up and drop them over that last paragraph when the magazine comes out. Talking of flash - I see an increasing move away from the old school rule of displaying a lot of flash on the walls, to ones that feature art and are genuinely comfortable places to be tattooed in which is giving those shops a sense of individuality - what’s your take on this? Is there still work to do here with regards to expansion?

"Well as you can see, we don’t have any flash on the walls. We recently just put together a little flash book portfolio just for the client that wants ideas, but once they decide what direction to go in, then most of the work we do is custom. In my early days I walked into shops and picked out things off the wall for tattoos on myself, and my take on this is that I wish the artist would have at least put his interpretation into the flash and not just copied it exactly - just to make it a little different than the one he did yesterday or earlier that morning – at least some small changes would have been nice. 

I recently ran into someone the other day that had the exact same tattoo I have on my forearm and it looked like my arm looked before I had it changed a little bit, but there’s a lot of people out there who don’t really care if they have the same tattoo as someone else, and they just want it - period. As long as they understand that other people do have it, then it’s all good. If they want it, then do it. If I were to do flash or a realistic portrait that I know has been done a million times, I would try my best to talk them into another picture of the same subject or at least change it a little bit to make it more custom. 

Most of us here are booked out, so most walk-ins need to make an appointment and come back and get it another day. Although, on occasion, we have clients that have to reschedule and a spot opens up here and there for a walk-in. It’s usually best to call or email first if you’re thinking about it, especially if you’re coming from a long distance and trying to get in that day. As far as expansion goes for us, we are good at this point. Like I said earlier, it’s not easy running a shop and I don’t think I would want to open another one. But who knows what the future holds.” 


Cranial Visions

“Cranial Visions was an idea I had a couple years back when skull artwork was popping up everywhere. I really wanted to document a moment of time that featured a bundle of artists who where creating incredible art, that all had something in common - which was the skull. I asked Jeff Johnson to help and be a part of the project. Without his help and hard work it wouldn’t have been possible to complete it is such a short amount of time. It was definitely a fun project for Jeff and I!

Cranial Visions features 258 artists, 240 full-colour pages with over 800 photos. It’s really a great collection of work. I’m very excited about it and even more excited to share it with everyone. As soon as we’re done with this interview I’m going to start packing up books to send out to some of the artists that participated – so this is a good time to say thanks again to everyone who submitted artwork. It’s much appreciated!”


The Future of the Art

“We are not even close to the peak yet. Not even touching the surface. There are some amazing artists tattooing right now and I get blown away all the time when checking out some of their work. In another 5-10 years, these artists are going to be even better and I think we are going to see some new guys or girls coming out that are extremely talented as artists and are going to get crazier with it. It’s going to be very exciting to see it happen! I am saving some room on my own body for a few of these artists. It’s going to happen - somebody will come out and show us all up. Well, at least show me up!”


Comic Art & Collecting Stuff

“I really got into comic books right after I was into collecting baseball cards. I was more into the art that was in the comics than the actual stories. I would be more concerned with keeping the comic in perfect condition in plastic and hanging it on the walls of my bedroom as pictures for decoration rather than reading them, I know that’s not being a die-hard comic book fan, but that’s what I did!

I love collecting things. When I was about 17 or 18, I needed money so I sold my whole collection. It bums me out to this day that they are gone. A couple years back, I bought some of my favourites again just to get them back. They were the Spawn comics - so awesome! Now that I’m older, I still love collecting things and I’m now hooked on buying straight-up art and original paintings. The shop and house are full of paintings from artists that I love and respect.”

Mike and I had such a lot to talk about that we’ve split this feature into two parts - catch part two next issue when we hear more from the Masters of Reality.


MD Tattoo Studio 

9545 Reseda Blvd
#2 Northridge
CA 91324 
Tel: 818 700 2818


Text: Sion Smith; Photography: MD Tattoo Studio & Tyler Clinton