Mike Devries MD Tattoo Studio

Published: 02 April, 2010 - Featured in Skin Deep 175, August, 2009

It is quandary as to how some tattooists can uncover their niche so early in their career. Mike DeVries fell in love with colour portraiture from the off and took to it like the proverbial duck to water, producing dermal décor that is phenomenal both in its prolificacy and excellence. Seminars, books and instructional DVDs have all added to Mike’s exhausting workload over the past two years and he exhibits no indication of slowing down at all, so when you consider that he is yet to pass the marking of three decades of his life, you cannot help but ponder what else is to come from one of California’s foremost pioneers of colour realism…


My earliest memories are tattoos that my grandpa has on his arms from back in the war days of course they were awesome, old pin-ups and whatnot. When I was a teen, about 16, I got my first and it was by a guy named Rusty; he was a big tattoo artist for the San Fernando Valley at that time, and it was cool. He was real laidback and so we used to hang out and get tattooed all the time. That was the day that I had started thinking about doing tattoos - I just thought it would never happen. I was about 23 when I met Jim Hayek and he offered me an apprenticeship; I jumped all over it and did it, and that was the beginning of 2003.


How did your apprenticeship pan out with Jim?

It was good. When I look back of course, it panned out real nice. We don’t see each other too much anymore but I’ll love that guy till the day I die for giving me the guidance and the direction that I have. I wouldn’t have changed anything about it.


Do you think an apprenticeship is the best way to learn the business?

I think it is. If not, you’re going to struggle for a long time trying to learn these things.


Where did your passion for tattoos originate?

It definitely came from a good buddy of mine that came home with a little evil moon tattoo; we were young, so that was the coolest thing ever! Of course I had to go and get one, and I was hooked. My first tattoo was a sun on my back with an evil face in it, all in colour. It has been covered since then with a back piece by Carson Hill, a huge portrait of Jesus from The Passion Of The Christ. Once I did get my first tattoo…that was it man, I got tattooed at least twice a week maybe more for the following 8 years and got pretty covered. I still get tattooed a lot but it’s a little more spaced out, at least once every few months. I’m starting to run out of room so I’ve been lasering a lot of older stuff that I’ve never been super stoked on just to make room for more tattoos, mostly so I can collect more from some of my favourite tattoo artists.


How did comic books influence your early drawings?

First it was baseball cards I collected but then I got into comics. It wasn’t so much for the stories inside but for the kick-ass artwork. It started when the whole Spawn craze was happening; just awesome art and it inspired me all the time when I would look at them. When I was that age that is all I would draw, evil-type images, so having that art as inspiration was really cool.


Does the cinema have a great impact on the way you paint? 

Not really, I’m just a big movie buff…that’s probably my biggest pastime. I watch a new movie almost every night; instead of TV shows, it’s movies. I have the Apple TV, which is great, so just being a fan of movies, I love to tattoo and paint images from the great movies.


Did you find tattooing came naturally to you?

I’m going to have to answer yes to this question. I was getting tattooed so often and I paid attention to the whole process for many years so that when I finally started, it came pretty naturally. Of course my first pieces weren’t as good as what I’m doing nowadays but I was able to do good, solid tattoos, which helped get more clientele to practice on. It’s all in the practice. I feel even these days it’s still practice to a certain extent, I still feel there’s a lot to learn and room to get better.


Have you always worked with the Neuma machine? Have you worked with any other more traditional machines?

I started with the Neuma 2s, because my mentor used them so that’s what he taught me with. Since then there was a time or two I dabbled with coils just to see what they were all about but always went back to the Neuma till recently, maybe a few months ago. I decided to stop using the Neuma 2 to really learn about other machines, so I used a lot of different coil machines and a couple other type rotaries. A couple of weeks ago, Carson Hill finally got the Neuma Hybrids and so I started using those and I have to say they are awesome - you don’t have to travel with a compressor anymore and they run close to a coil but more consistent; you can run it with air or an attachment that has a motor, it’s pretty cool.


What’s the atmosphere and ambience like in your studio?

It is a mellow custom tattoo shop. I work with really cool people and we try and push each other artistically to expand our skills the best we can. No one has egos here, we just love to tattoo and keep trying to push the limits.


How about the crew working there: what are they like and what kind of tattoos do they enjoy putting down?

I knew Jeff Johnson for a while before he came here so it’s cool having him here, he loves the bio. Josh Duffy is new to MD Tattoos and he his super cool too, he loves black and grey and particularly evil tattoos.


Do you enjoy working conventions, and do you have any particular favourite shows?

I recently just did the New York City convention and I think it’s a toss up with the Hell City shows. As far as working them goes, it’s really nice to get out of the shop every now and then and travel around. I got to go to France; it was the first time ever leaving the country and it was awesome because I worked half the time and chilled for the other half in the French Riviera.


You’re working at Tattoo Jam in August; have you worked in the UK before? Are you looking forward to coming over here?

This will be the second time going overseas and first time attending this show. I’m really looking forward to going to the UK and looking forward to working the Tattoo Jam - I have only heard good things about it.


Do you think that formal art training is beneficial to a tattooist?

The more training the better! There’s always more to learn and if you think you know it all or you think you’re good enough that is the day you should probably quit.


Who are your main influences, including both tattooists and the more traditional artists?

There are so many awesome tattoo artists especially these days - everyone is getting so good - but it’s good because it keeps pushing us to get better. To name a few… Nick Baxter, Bob Tyrrell, and of course, Carson Hill and Mike De Masi, who I learned a lot from. In the art world I’ve always liked Michael Godard’s art a lot, and of course Dalí and Escher.

What made you want to specialise in colour portraiture?

When Jim Hayek was teaching me, he did colour portraits here and there and mostly pin-ups, so that was the type of art that always caught my eye. That was what I focused on, plus at that time I remember seeing Tom Renshaw’s work in a magazine and my jaw dropped, so I started to do the animals but in colour.


Are there any particular characteristics of colour portraits that keep you hooked on them?

I think it mostly has to do with that it’s easy to understand and easily recognisable by your average viewer; whether you’re an artist or not, you can relate to portraits and realistic elements because we live in it and when it’s on skin, done right, it’s intriguing. If it’s a portrait of someone you know and recognise, if it looks real, it’s just cool and that’s what impressed me the most. up and do my neck. Other than that, I’d like to get a piece by Robert Hernandez.


Does your painting work ever influence the way you tattoo?

I really enjoy painting when I find the time, and yes, it reflects back into tattooing…they work hand in hand.


What’s your favourite part of being an artist?

It’s what I love so I get to do what I love every day.


What was it like to tattoo Sylvester Stallone? How well did he sit for it?

He sat well when he was in the chair, he takes it great. The pain in the butt part was working on the design; he has strong opinions and so do I so we butted heads a lot, but all in all it was rad.


Can you tell us a little about your book, Let’s Be Realistic?

It covers everything from set up, stencils, and steps to colour theory and technique for what I do. It also covers photography and presentation tools, has a section on milestones in tattoo history and a gallery of my work. You can order it at mdtattoos.com or if you want to check it out and you see me at a convention you can take a look.


Do you have any grand plans for the future?

I just want to keep focusing on the art and try and get better and better.


Have you seen any changes in the tattoo industry that worry or concern you? 

I wish there weren’t so many tattoo conventions nowadays. It’s not such a special event anymore - there is at least one, maybe more, every single weekend somewhere so it seems that the crowds are getting less and less.


Is there anybody you would like to thank for helping you over the years?

My wife Serena and my son Kyle.


Is there any other information that you would like to add?

I have a new DVD called Get Real, which is out now. I filmed a tattoo I did from start to finish that goes over a lot of things I do, mostly thought processes, some techniques, stencilling, placement, and some colour theory. It won’t teach you how to tattoo but helps how you should approach a realistic tattoo and the thoughts behind it. If you liked my book, you’ll like the DVD! It’s available on my website www.mdtattoos.com



Reseda Blvd. Unit 2 Northridge,

CA 91324 USA




Photography: Mike DeVries, neil interview: alex


Skin Deep 175 1 August 2009 175