Mike Ledger - From New York to Hawaii

Published: 01 September, 2007 - Featured in Skin Deep 151, October, 2007

From NY to Hawaii, legendary tattoo artist Mike Ledger explores the possibilities of tattoo art with exquisite artistic sensibilities, and a respect for the culture of tattooing, as a craft and trade, as created and passed on by the pioneers. Nothing short of a genius, each resultant piece is a showcase of the ultimate in what this art form offers. 


Hawaii is in an idyllic Pacific paradise-boasting breathtaking natural beauty, that can be both fierce and gentle, home to a cosmopolitan population, stellar waves, gorgeous wildlife… and of course, a rich cultural heritage of Polynesian tattooing.   

The locals are hospitable, and laid back, guided by a system where seemingly peoples relationships rule over economics, the pace of life here is a little too easy to get used to. Hawaii is the kind of place where “get a tattoo” is on the list of things to do in tourist guides, next to kayaking, seeing a hula show and catching waves. Walking along the beach, every second sun kissed body is adorned, there appears to be tattoo shops on every street corner in Waikiki, with around 50 shops in Oahu alone.   

Given this, it’s a fortunate fact for the locals, that they are housing one of the world’s top tattoo artists, Mike Ledger, who has inspired countless numbers of professionals after him. Deft at everything from photo-realism, to Japanese body suits, his work is simply exquisite.   

Ledger is known for his larger pieces, which show off his mastery of different art forms, and understanding of various cultural aesthetics, and philosophies - predominantly Japanese, with influences from a mix of various oriental and ethnic sources.   

Like the pioneering legends that came before him in Hawaii, who created a legacy of traditional American Tattoos, Sailor Jerry through to Ed Hardy, and Mike Malone, Ledger’s work is testimony to a life spent traveling and studying.  His tattoos are innovative, but instead of looking experimental, they look entirely timely.   

However, having made a name for himself in NY, to the degree that he was one of the vanguard artists helping shape the tattoo scene of NY as it is now; starting before the prohibition days, and then working at legendary shop - NY Adorned, many people may wonder what he is doing outside of the urban grit of the Big Apple, and in the sunshiney tropics of Oahu.   

Skin Deep went under the needle at his studio - finding an artist of frenetic energy, yet an utterly humble and approachable demeanor, with portfolios utterly jam packed with painfully beautiful masterpieces, it was an afternoon of inspiration, and education from one of the masters of this art form.

How has the industry changed over the years?

When I started out there wasn’t that many shops at all, it was good, it was still very much underground, there was only one, or two magazines going, so you did your research. It was weird to see it get so popular, on TV, I never thought tattooing would be a reality TV show, like they are my friends and everything, I do respect them… I’m not saying they aren’t talented, but you have these house wives, come in here and talk to me like they know what tattooing is, cos they watch the show every week… Like, you don’t know what tattooing
is, honey!   

I kind of liked it when it was a little bit more underground, and I think it will get bigger… you get more of the magazines, more of the conventions, and more TV shows, it gets flooded, it gets saturated, and watered down, and the true love, the people that truly love it, are backing up a lot, and then its going to die down again. And then the people who got into it for the glitz and glam, the rock star status, when it’s not that big anymore, and they aren’t making any money, they are going to move on.   

Those who really had a love of tattooing, who went underground when it all went big, and come back out cos they have always been doing it, cos they loved it. It wasn’t about the money they were making. In real life there are amazing, amazing tattoo artists out there. And those are the ones I respect, that are in small little towns, in the middle of nowhere, and they aren’t doing it for the glitz and glamour.

What kind of advice do you give to people who want to get into tattooing?

Don’t. I think it’s completely saturated, I just did an interview with Honolulu Weekly and I think what the industry needs is a good flushing. Get rid of all the shit, and let it start all over again.

At least back in the day, when I started, it was really hard to get an apprenticeship, when you went through an apprenticeship, it was hard. You were doing a lot of the grunt work, but it gave you a lot of respect for what you were doing. You learned to bow to the path to the people that founded the industry, from the machines, to artists like Greg Irons.   

They just want to be a tattooist for the glitz and glam, cos they saw it on TV, people buying a Rolex and an Escalade truck on the same day, in cash, they think, “I want to get into this, I want to get involved”, not for the love of the art.   

They don’t give a shit about their clients, like they are above them, or something. A true tattoo is about the client, them walking out happy, giving them a beautiful experience, and being happy with it. Looking at them not like a canvas, but as a person. No one is going through any formal apprenticeships. They just pick up their equipment, and just start tattooing, and it’s just like, the respect, and honour of it is going out the window.   

I’m not saying I’m not proud of it, but there was a day when I really held my head up high to say that I am a tattooist. Nowadays everyone, and their mother is a tattoo artist, it’s a lot different going through that apprenticeship, learning to have that honor behind it all. What you learnt is a trade, not like, ‘Yeah I picked up my machine, and started tattooing out of my house, and now I’m working and traveling.’ You know what? You jumped on the bandwagon, way too late, everyone is a tattoo artist these days. How many of them really went through an apprenticeship? Really know the history? Who is anybody, the machines, the people who founded it? They don’t know, and they don’t care to know. It’s more of a status to them, like they are in a rock band or something. 
What is tattooing to you?

This is what it comes down to, what tattooing is. That one on one, all that matters now is this moment with my client, I’ll give him the effort that I’ll give to my next one, but I’m not thinking about the next one. I’m thinking about him right now, leaving satisfied, and doing the best job I can on him, and taking each one like that. And that’s all you care about, that’s what tattooing is.   

If it’s a body suit, or if it’s a small cheery blossom, everyone is a prima-donna, like they have been tattooing one year, and they are like, “No! I don’t do that”, its like, you know what? You have that satisfaction with everybody, a tattoo is a tattoo, and you are a tattooist. You chose that. That one cherry blossom could give that person that feeling as that person getting that back piece, walking out of here, and that one on one connection with the artist, and you know what? I felt comfortable with him, I’m walking away with a very good memory. You know, we have that power. You can make it a negative experience, or a very positive experience for the rest of their life, and this is what I choose to do.   

I really respected Ed hardy back in the day, where here was this guy booked up, and he was this legend, he had his studio upstairs, with no neon light, and no advertising, but he was booked. And those are the guys that I really admire, that are being booked, not really exploiting themselves, in the public eye every month, that’s all they are caring about, their clientele, doing good tattoos and their clients leaving happy.   

That’s what art is, all these artists saying, I don’t want anyone getting better than me, you know what? There are. They are out there. There are in small little towns, and you might not know. Like in Europe or whatever, and its very humbling to know that they didn’t have the urge to be in the magazines, and conventions, I’m very satisfied doing good work with my clientele, I’m here with my simple life, and that’s beautiful.
What were the early days in NY like?

You know when I was younger, and I was in NY, and tattooing was getting legalized, that’s when I went underground again, working in my apartment, and I kind of liked it when it was underground. I kind of knew what was going to happen, it was going to get flooded. And someone is making a lot of money from it, not the artists.    

In NY it’s like, let’s legalize tattooing, and who was fighting to legalize it? It wasn’t the tattoo artists, it was the people who were on it to open up a street supply store. When I was starting to tattoo, at National, you had to have a license or work in a shop to get any supplies - I respected that.   

Now these guys open up a supply store, street level, where anybody, and their mother could go in and buy a whole tattoo set up. Now those are the guys that are fighting to legalize tattooing in NYC. If they legalize it, it brings them money. It’s all about gold, they don’t care about what’s going out on the street, the people buying the equipment, and tattooing.   

At least back when it was more underground, there was a little bit more pride in who they were selling to, like there could be junkies buying tattoo set ups, who cares? Lets legalize it, lets make money on this, and that’s really what it was.   

Back then, at least there was honor with artists where we didn’t always get along, but there was a common lore with each other, there were things you just didn’t do, like you don’t open up right next door to another tattoo artist. No one gives a shit about those morals anymore, that the old timers had. A lot of kids who get involved in tattooing, don’t know that side of tattooing. They don’t know that respect side, the honor, or I’m going to respect this guy cos he has been tattooing for 30 years. I don’t care if he is a good tattooist or a bad tattooist, I’m going to give him respect cos he has been around longer than me. They don’t have that respect, a lot of it is lost. 

Now that you are in Hawaii and out of the scene, do you think that your tattooing has changed a lot?

I think about that often… in good and bad ways, like I actually wanted to do it where, after a while in NY, it started getting so fluctuated, where everyone is working up against each other, I really felt that if I separated myself from everybody, I could really just get back to me and my art.   

Coming to Hawaii, I don’t want to learn how to do Polynesian work, but I studied Japanese, and this and that, but what I got into was Polynesian style, not wanting to do it, but I felt that it was my responsibility as a tattoo artist, that I had to go learn it. So, if I see a design, I should know what it means. It was like coming here was humbling myself. In NY, we were booked 3 or 4 years, and they are like, “You’re the man”, I didn’t care anymore. I wanted to get away from it all. Come here and it was like going to school again, when I came here I was nobody. Nobody in Hawaii knew who I was, I started on the bottom again. I was in a street shop, and people asking, can you do that kanji? But it’s also humbling, by having no outside influence, it made me study myself again.   

In many ways, not just in art, but I’m going to do that soul searching again. Go back to what it is, with no outside influence, the other way is that you really are separated, you feel isolated in a way. I don’t know what is going on in the tattoo world, and you know what? It might be my responsibility that I should, then again, you know what I just worry about my client, myself, do some good work, and my clients coming out here are happy that I’m doing a good job and being a dad, and stuff like that. In a way I do miss seeing Filip and Tin Tin, and having the interaction with artists like that in a way. But then again, it’s nice to be alone and learning again.

How has being in an urban environment like NY to going to, basically the tropics been?

It was a change, but in a way I was prepared for it. From 13 years up I was going to CBGB’s everyday, I had a very non stop lifestyle for a long time, I enjoyed it, I had the opportunity to travel the world, at a young age, and be treated very well wherever I was. From Europe, to Japan and everywhere, I definitely enjoyed myself, but it was time to take it to the next level. Maybe the older generation can understand what I’m saying, and maybe the younger kids wont, but it was time to take it to another level, and that level had nothing to do with tattooing anymore. That level was myself, and am I going to keep going out, partying and all this, living this shallow life of who is the best in the tattoo world, that didn’t matter to me.   

What mattered to me was I wanted to start a family, that next chapter in life where I was ready for that, and moving to Hawaii was that. That was what my dream was, when I came here in 89, and I thought this is where ill be when I turn 30 to start my family, I knew that I wanted to offer something to Hawaii, I didn’t want to come to Hawaii and have nothing to offer and just take. I thought if I travel the world and learn as much as I can before I come to Hawaii, I had something to offer, and then it was the time in my life to settle down. I wanted to get back into my Buddhist studies again. More humbling, where it’s not that outside influence anymore. Where it’s you. And what better place, with all the amazing nature? 

Where else do you get influence from?

Buddhism, I think that’s a big part. The images of Buddhism, Tibetan Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism, to me, my meditation is tattooing, it’s that patience, that focus, that flow, that patience, that’s part of meditating. Both in the imagery and within myself now. Keeping a humble mind, never getting big headed, I’ll always have something to learn, there will always be someone better. 

With the locals, what is your clientele like?

A lot of Asian, Chinese, Japanese, basically everyone from doctors, to teachers, Honolulu police officers, everyone from pro surfers to pro skaters, but it’s within the style that I do, like the portraits to the Japanese body suits. Hawaii was a harder place to come in and make it. A lot of people’s misconception is that they think, “small island”, really easy for me to make it. I think it’s the exact opposite, I’ve seen so many people try here. It is a small island, so it’s a tight knit community, I would say the first year I was here, it was a really watching kind of scene. Figure out what kind of person he is. Accept him or not? and once I did get accepted it was with open arms, but it wasn’t as easy as you think, like ‘Oh yeah, I’m going to be the man’.   

Being here, away from friends, family, start all over. It’s a different culture. Starting from nothing, nobody knew who I was, I was doing a tattoo a week when I first got here, I had to overcome that, I was following that little voice in my head that said, ‘this is where I wanted to be, this was my dream’, and there would be times I would question that little voice, like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But this was my dream, when I fulfill it, it will be more satisfying than money or anything. I have my son here, and we are living on a beach, I don’t have my family here, but my friends have become my family, my extended family, but there were so many days when I wanted to give up and go back home.

What would you say are some events in your life that are monumental to who
you are now?

I don’t know, everything from watching my grandfather fully tattooed, and I always had a love for it, I wanted to be like him. My father supporting me so much in my art, I think that support, and always making me strive to be an artist, I had the support of my art, getting tattoos my first time, getting that apprenticeship at Peter Tat-2, actually meeting the artists that I admired a lot, and then seeing that they were actually a fan of my work, and they were learning off me. It was humbling and very amazing.   

When my father passed away, that was another chapter in my life, I realized I wanted to be a father, I realized what he gave me in life was that knowledge to be a good dad. It wasn’t so much tattooing, and traveling anymore, it was more that I wanted a family, a lot of things like that. Me being here, and being accepted here, and looked around and saw all my friends in my life, a lot of the support that I’ve had of my clientele. Everyday being alive, and looking after my beautiful son. 

So basically what is the best thing about being a tattoo artist?

Having that ability to change somebody, they have this idea and they come in. Giving them what they want and them looking in the mirror with a smile on their face knowing that you did your job, and they are going to leave here with a great memory. If I never see them again, or even if I do, they are always going to look down on that tattoo and be reminded of a good experience.

How important is it to continue the legacy of tradition to you?

Its very important cos if its not the right people doing it, as far as you have all these people starting to tattoo, right? And you have all these amazing people doing books, from Ed hardy at Hardy publications, people like Sailor Jerry writing, writing about tattooing history to machines, that it’s up to the next generation, to continue that. Where, if the right people aren’t gong to step up to that responsibility, and write about it and put the books out, and continue that knowledge of tattooing, from now until the future, then it’s going to be lost. We need these people, like the next Ed Hardys, the next Mike Malone’s, and Jerry’s to continue the writing, and the literature. You ‘gotta know where you want to go, and in order to do that, you need to know where you came form. 


Can you tell us about your apprenticeship, what kind of experience that was?

That one was a bit rough, they were very hardcore guys. At the time, they were like, yeah we are going to teach you how to tattoo, but you can never leave. If you ever leave, you might have some broken limbs. I was definitely doing all the grunt work, and I hated that, but it gave me such respect. 

At what point were you comfortable calling yourself a tattoo artist though?

Definitely not for the first couple of years. And definitely not around the guys that taught me, like Erik Desmond would’ve been like, “Yeah, you’re not a tattoo artist, you’re still an apprentice”, so its definitely takes a while to be comfortable in saying that but it was right. If I couldn’t a clean rose or put that color in right, how can I call myself a tattoo artist? Cos I work in a shop?...no.

How exactly did you start anyway?

Well I was getting tattooed a lot, and a lot of my friends were in the NY hardcore scene, a lot were in bands and we were all getting tattooed. Everyone was telling me man, you should be a tattoo artist, and I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’, but I wanted to go to college. I graduated high school, and I got an apprenticeship, at Peter Tat-2, I was already getting tattooed by them and I kind of liked them. 

Seeing you were one of the pioneers of the NY scene, what would you say are the major changes in what the clientele want?

It started out that they wanted a lot of the fantasy stuff. Single needle flat six, you were the man if you could do a portrait. Artists such as Jack Rudy, Kari Barber, amazing photo realism work, that was the shit, then you had people like Eddy Deutsche that had the Japanese, bold line, coloured work. I remember he was doing Sorayama chrome girls, then it was this Giger work, then it was tribal arm bands, stuff like that, then Giger tribal!   

Then the growth of the larger work that I started doing, you had to study Japanese, cos American style was a lot of patch work, tattoos patched all over, and maybe joined together with stars, and dots to connect them. And then you started to see larger work where you were I’m going to study the flow of this body, I’m going to study Japanese body suits, and the more and more I study body suits, the story becomes more appealing.   

Then I was still all over the place, I was still young, like I was 20, so I started studying different religions, like Hinduism, Buddhism on a lot of the imagery I was drawn to. From Ganesh to Hanuman, then that’s when I started to really putting those together, using the flow of the Japanese body suits, with different imagery - Hinduism, Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism.

The Japanese style really started blowing up, you started seeing much more the Japanese stuff. Like with Elio (Esapana) over at Flyrite, it just started changing a lot, more sleeves and body suits, and actually done right. 

How about the locals here? How open are they to the idea of larger pieces?

I don’t wan to toot my own horn, but I had a lot of influence on what was going on. The last time anyone was doing large-scale colour work was Hardy and Malone. When I first started coming here ‘89 on, we saw a lot of street shops, doing this small work and anyone doing large work was doing large scale all back Polynesian work. People were very afraid of getting colour work. After a while and doing large scale Japanese work and sleeves on them, it started to open more eyes, and people started getting Japanese sleeves and body suits, backpeices, and not just Polynesian, more Japanese art. Before I got here I didn’t see a lot of it, and the ones I did see were from Malone or Hardy back in the day. 

What other projects are you involved in at the moment?

I’m doing work for Element skateboards, designs for surfboards, doing more books now, and concentrating more on doing more gallery shows, and a clothing line. 

Future plans?

Continuing on my body suits, get more time out of the tattoo shop and focus more on my paintings, gallery shows, with that I want to stay home and paint with my son more. I want to paint with my son, that’s what I have to offer him, if I can pass it on to him, like my father passed it on to me, that would be a major goal in my life.   

Somewhere down the road to make a retreat in Hawaii in the mountains, away form everywhere, like the high end of tattooing where you can come, get away from everybody, masseuse, have a week package, a relaxed meditative state to get tattooed, you can have a lot of work done, in beautiful nature, have a beautiful experience. A little up the road I’ll have my art studio, paint, concentrate on that, being a dad, growing as an artist, a tattoo artist. 


I thank all my clients and all the artists that I’ve worked with along the way who have inspired me and supported me. That keeps me going. It’s a rollercoaster ride, you want to give up, but these are the people that keep you going. And I think they have more faith in me than I do sometimes. 


Text: Maki Photography: Cory Lum