Masters of Reality - Mike DeVries: Part Two

Published: 22 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 195, February, 2011

Last issue we hooked up with Mike DeVries to talk about his studio and well, whatever else happened to come along. This issue, we wrap it all up as we get a further view on the world through the eyes of The Master of Reality.

Sometimes it’s not easy to get everything you need to talk about into a handy single issue feature - fortunately, Mike DeVries had more than enough to talk about for it to span a couple of issues and we have no qualms whatsoever about featuring more of his studios work. Thus, here comes part two of Masters of Reality:

When you look at your crew and the work they produce, do you see in them what they don’t? In that, I mean, do you see where the potential is headed and how good they will be in a few years time and is that something that is really open and encouraged amongst yourselves?

"My favourite game that has ever been created is chess, and everyone who knows this game knows that you have to look several moves ahead or else you will lose. I kind of live my life that way and when I hire someone to work with me, I definitely look a few moves ahead and that is all about the potential that I see in that person. Knowing if they do certain things or stick with something they will achieve great things. For example, look at Cecil Porter - not to toot my own horn, but nobody knew of him or had ever seen his work - he came to me at a Hell City convention asking me to critique his portfolio and then he took my seminar. 

He only had a handful of tattoos in his portfolio that were decent and lived in Ohio - he emailed me after the convention seeing if I would hire him. Just within those few decent tattoos, I saw that this guy could be good if he was in the right place and given the chance. So I gave him a chance and he moved to California. While he worked with me, I would constantly help him in the direction he wanted to go in and although he doesn’t work with me anymore, nobody can say that he is not a great realistic tattoo artist these days. 

Every artist that I hire, I have to see something in that person, whether they are already good at what they do, or show some potential. Even more importantly, I need to make sure they are capable of staying humble and that they are hungry to get better at what they do. Josh came to me with a great portfolio and now it’s 10 times better. London is on his way - I have been sitting down with him getting him going. And Jeff and Katelyn are stepping up to the plate too. It’s not because of me just standing and saying “Do better work!”. It’s the shop as a whole feeding off of everyone’s energy and bringing out the best in each and everyone of us. I am a better tattoo artist today because of my co-workers. I constantly ask them questions regarding art and tattoos, just like they ask me. It goes full circle. We’re happy and stoked to feed off of each other and that’s what will make us all better in the end."

I can’t walk out of here without quizzing Mike about himself at least a little – there are far too many questions to ask – so I must ask the obvious:

And that is do you find the realism tag you’ve got attached to your name sits comfortably and how did you get to that point? It must be one of the toughest genres to work in. And the killer part of the question must be, are good realism tattooists born or made? I would say it’s a natural talent that becomes refined over time, but I do know some people that have learned it. Although in those instances, I think there’s sometimes a little bit of soul missing - sometimes the “spark” is missing. 

"I was always intrigued with art throughout my life and love what I do today and have no plans of changing it. Portraiture always caught my eye growing up, but going into tattooing, I didn’t know that would become my forte. 

The realism tag that’s attached to my name sits just fine with me, but when I look back to when I started tattooing, I was doing all sorts of different styles, just to learn how to tattoo and trying to figure out my niche. My mentor Jim Hayek did a lot of amazing new skool, bright, colourful work with solid outlines. He also dabbled in pin-ups and realism himself, so early on in my career I tried the same type of work and ended up tattooing some pin-ups as well - and then a couple of animals and portraits of people, and it just started to escalate. More and more people wanted portraits from me and I wasn’t complaining because I loved doing it! I remember tattooing a couple of lions in colour that people saw and liked and those were a couple of pieces that helped get the ball rolling. 

I think realism tattooists can be both born and made, but these days I think that more often than not, they are made. Some tattoo artists that are doing a different style, see the attention that a realism artist gets, and then want to try it and learn it. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing, but that’s where a lot of these guys are “made” portrait artists and not “born”. Sometimes, they may not even know they had the talent and maybe they were born with it and never knew it. It really could go either way. 

As far as ‘spark’ or ‘soul’ being missing from someone that jumps into it, that just depends on the individual - everyone is different and everyone has a different eye for things. Some will pick it up faster and some take a bit longer to get it. Realism is not easy though and even though that’s what I do, I’m still learning and trying to figure things out too."

You work a lot with animal art - is there a deep-rooted love of nature inside of you that allows you be as creative as you are with it?

"I love animals and have always had all different sorts of pets growing up as a kid. I had fish, lizards, snakes, hamsters, mice, squirrels, dogs, cats…you name it. I am a huge dog and cat lover! As of now, I have a beautiful Bullmastiff named Daisy; and my son has a little frog. We recently lost a little lizard that we had.

I grew up in a family of outdoorsmen. My Dad, Grandpa, all my uncles all loved the outdoors. A lot of fishing and camping occurred while I was growing up. So there is love for the animals from just being outdoors my whole childhood, but these days I don’t get out very often - I’m just too tied up with work. Nowadays, with my wife and son, we do different things outdoors, such as snowboarding and riding dirt bikes. I loved going to the zoo while growing up and I still do. I love photographing the animals when I go. 

I believe just having animals growing up and loving them as pets has influenced my tattoo work, but like I said earlier, when I went into tattooing I didn’t know I was going to be a wildlife animal portraiture artist, I kind of fell into it while viewing some of Tom Renshaw’s work during my apprenticeship. I asked my mentor, ‘How the heck is he doing this? These animal portraits are amazing!’ That had a lot of influence on me as well. I love all sorts of art and even though I have a name in the realism tattoo world, that isn’t all I appreciate. I love it all!"

Is it hard juggling all of your multiple projects successfully and being a family man at the same time - particularly when it comes to conventions and road trips? We should probably assume that TV is the enemy in a life with so many disciplines handled successfully, yes? 

"Yes, it is hard to juggle a few different businesses, with projects within all of them and be the family man. I just try my best! I have taken a step back from travelling and attending conventions, because it takes up too much time and energy. The time being away from home kills me. I will still attend conventions, but it will just be a select few a year – a couple overseas and a couple in the States and that’s it. My focus is always on the priorities and then go from there - that’s what I do on a daily basis. Finding time for my family is becoming more and more important to me, so I make sure I find the time for them. I don’t spend too much time watching TV - for many years I only watched one or two shows here and there, I wasn’t one of those guys that sat in front of a TV all day. Nowadays, I have been enjoying some time in front of the TV just to help get my mind off of things and relax for a bit!"  

I need to let Mike get back to work – but can’t leave without asking him about the laser removals he’s had recently:

"I have been going laser-happy lately. I have cover-ups on every part of my body and over time they just seem to show through no matter how good the cover-up was done. So now if I want to cover something that I have on me that I’m not stoked on, I’m going to at least have a few laser treatments to lighten it first, instead of just going straight in for the cover up. In the long run it will look better and you end up getting what you want rather than something that will just work. Lasering is very painful, but goes extremely fast so it makes it bearable. I’m trying to get my neck tattoos completely off and possibly one day, if I get bored, I’ll put something back on. I didn’t laser my neck because it was bad art, I just want something different!"


Tattoo Prodigies

Never content with simply promoting his own work, Mike has a genuine love of the art which he shows by regularly working with other respected artists and producing some fine products. On that very subject, fans of art books should really be checking out Tattoo Prodigies - a monster coffee table book at 10” x 13” with 256 full colour pages.

Suffice to say, Prodigies will probably never leave your coffee table once you’ve got your paws on it...


MD Tattoo Studio 

9545 Reseda Blvd. 
#2 Northridge
CA 91324 

Tel: 818 700 2818


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