Lost Prophet - Mike Moses

Published: 30 April, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 211, May, 2012

Spending years immersed in the tattoo industry can put anyone in danger of monotony and it takes a special someone to restore faith. Tattoo prophet, anyone? Equipped with crazy talent and uncanny entertainment value, Mike Moses is the man for the job, but don’t take my word for it…

There was an instance in kindergarten around Halloween where we were in recess and instead of playing with the blocks, eating paste or setting other children on fire, I decided I was going to draw a bunch of Halloween-related stuff,” says Moses of his artistic beginnings while setting the scene for the kind of shenanigans one can quickly learn to expect from the New York-based tattooer.

 “Some kid in class was blown away by my Grim Reaper and said I “must be an artist”. I was young and impressionable… I totally bought it. Been faking it ever since.”
Good ol’ brotherly rivalry and motherly support didn’t hurt Moses’ efforts either. “After my brother drew a killer rendition of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – which totally pissed me off because he didn’t even like them – I set about the task of kicking his ass at drawing. My mom noticed my interest and enrolled me in afterschool art classes. It was also a good way to make sure I was out of trouble; she was a single parent and got off work many hours after I got out of school.

“I kept going year after year, teachers noticed my effort and kept suggesting programs and it became part of my identity. I took every art class my school system offered and ended up going to Governor’s School for the Arts, state-funded specialized schooling for ‘gifted’ persons [in Virginia] and eventually went to college for art as well.

“Once [there], I decided that most ‘artists’ were complete self-righteous assholes, my ‘education’ was a fucking joke and I hated it. I dropped out and was already working as a desk hand at a tattoo shop up the street so I was given the chance to apprentice under my good friend, Fred Pinckard.”

Starting with a rose on his own ankle, which took about four-and-a-half hours to execute, Moses continued earning his stripes as an apprentice for a year-and-a-half, tattooing exhilarating designs, from Kanji to names, when an unforeseen obstacle appeared.   

“I started having a really tough time with anxiety, which was really odd for me. I had always been totally fucking fearless before that point; it really threw me. I didn't know how to react to what my body was doing to me. Fred noticed I was taking it really hard, so he pulled me aside one day and said, “Look, all this time you’re worried about messing up these people, but at the end of the day, you’re going to go home and life is going to go on, so you know what? Fuck ’em.” Best advice I ever got. I stopped screwing people up too badly, I calmed down, it was just what I needed.”

Anxiety conquered, Moses now gifts anyone who sits in his chair with top-level work, including attention-grabbing head tattoos.

“I only started doing them recently – they certainly take some extra care so you don’t either strangle or blind your client, but I love doing them. The skin is like butter. It’s a nice open area and they just look too damn cool. I’ve been thinking about getting one myself, but I doubt I’ll be shaving my head anytime soon. I’m very much against cutting my dirty long-ass hippy hair, it’s the source of all my unholy powers!”

Although, he’d have no problem branding yours truly – “Barbara, if you get over here, I would love to tattoo the side of your head, let’s do it!”– so there may be an interesting follow-up story a few issues down the line.

Tales of Travel

Moving from Richmond, VA, to Brooklyn, NY, last year, Moses now calls Thicker Than Water Tattoo home. A feat that was a lot harder than it sounds.

“A little more than a year ago I had made the decision to move to New York. I didn’t have any contacts there – it was just where I was headed. I went up there for a weekend and had a list of every shop I could think of that was well respected, along with some recommendations from friends. I walked into each one of them with my portfolio, which was a fucking living nightmare, and asked for a job. Thicker Than Water was the first place that really gave me a shot, even though the owner, Nate, who is one of my best friends now, was a total dick to me until he saw my work,” laughs Moses.

“He walked off with my book and started talking to the guys tattooing there, which I perceived to be a good thing. As it turns out, he thought I had stolen all the work in it and was trying to figure out where he had seen it all before. Luckily, they had a copy of a magazine I had a few pages in right there in the shop and that was the confusion. As soon as I pointed that out to him, his whole demeanor changed and he welcomed me in and started showing me around. What a guy! Loooooove you, Nate, you dick!”

Tattooing for nearly nine years, Moses says it hasn’t gotten old yet, although clients don’t always make the gig an easy one.  

“I'm inclined to agree with those tattooers that say people are the hardest part of our job, and I’ll extend that further to cover other tattooers. A whole lot of tattooers are complete assholes. I’ve been shit on by people in this industry for a long time and I don’t really get what the point of being a fucking prick to everyone is. I get the whole deal of what tattooers think of people who get tattoos and how irritating clients can be sometimes and that we're all miserable, self-loathing people – it’s part of being an artist, but fuck, don’t be a dick, end of story.

“Clients typically don’t realize what goes into what we do, most of them are not artists and just don’t get it. But even if you’re the type of person that sees clients as food, are you gonna dropkick your $40 steak across the room before you eat it? I should think not. I like my meat tender too, but c’mon.”

Even so, Moses has been lucky enough to be tattooed by more great artists than he cares to recount, making the question of his personal favorite tattoo a challenge.
“There’s no way you’d allow me to blow up every friend of mine that I’ve been tattooed by in one article, so yeah, I go the other road. I have a really, really shitty koi fish on my leg by someone I fucking hate immensely and very deeply. I hope she chokes on something insanely spiny out of nowhere if she ever happens to read this. *Wiggles my voodoo fingers and works some serious black magic* That being said, I’d love to go back in time and stop myself from getting that one in particular by pushing her into traffic. Twice. It’s okay, I’ve been hit by a car, I can say that.

“I got hit by a car on foot and nearly taken out of the game permanently. I’m lucky I remember to put on clothes before I leave the house, which may or may not be good for my tips at the end of the day, but I doubt I’d make it to work without them. Though, I do live in NY. Hell, I could probably walk into City Hall naked and they’d ignore me just like any good New Yorker should.”

Multi-tasking Moses

In addition to tattooing, Moses has his hands in a number of jars – incidentally, he’s literally created a series of specimen jars – but prides himself on being rather elusive about it all.

“Drowntown is something I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s become a moniker for my internet presence, though I don’t walk around calling myself The Drowntown – that would be weird. Someone actually did that to me just the other day and it kinda bugged me out.

“It originally was the title for a solo music project I was working on some years ago, which I’d love to pick back up eventually. I have a whole mythos and concept behind it, but we’d need another whole magazine for me to explain it all and not sound like an idiot.

“It’s a place where some very bad things have happened, weird shit lives there now as a result – it’s a place you don’t really want to find yourself. If you get my book I’m about to put out – shameless self-promoting! – there are two photographs in it from the Drowntown. The dirt witch and the mad dogs, both are partial inhabitants of the Drowntown; and no, I’m not going to explain that either. You’ll just have to get the book. Suckers!”

And that’s not all he occupies his non tattoo-filled time with. “I have a lot of other interests that I try to find hours for while tattooing full-time. I do think it’s essential for people to have other interests and passions outside of what they do for a living. People need to be multi-faceted… I don’t believe in letting any one thing rule your entire world, it warps people’s minds.

“I want to work for the respect I get and get the respect I feel is deserved by my hard work. If I can make enough extra money to afford to pursue the avenues that I have interest in and bring my many ridiculous projects to life, then I’ll be happy too. If there’s one thing I’ve got, it’s projects. Ask anyone that knows me, they’ll say ‘Fuck Mike and all his stupid projects!’”

Which only leaves one question: Who is Mike Moses? “Currently, because I’m on a train for seven hours from Richmond back to New York, Mike Moses is hungry, but overall, I think Mike Moses just is. I like how you just tricked me into talking about myself in the third person. You Muhammad Ali’d me, damn it. You win this round!”

Career Doubts

There was definitely a time when I didn’t think I’d be a tattooer. I was in college, studying sculpture as a way to pursue my original interest of getting into special effects and set/creature design for movies. My sister had been tattooing for a good few years before me, so when I got offered the chance to learn, I took it… I’m still kinda shocked. Doubts about my career? Fuck, only every morning.

From Richmond to Brooklyn

The greatest thing I’ve noticed about this profession is that tattooing is pretty much the same everywhere. It’s such a commitment to get into this industry in the first place that if you’re around people who take it seriously, the love of what we do permeates everything. Everywhere is home.

Making Changes

Honestly, I’m not the type of person to attempt to change the tattoo industry. If I can change a few minds about what’s interesting and what isn’t, then I hope it’s accomplished by people seeing my work. I can’t make people stop tracing other people’s work, I can’t make people try harder, I can’t make people stop being assholes. Hopefully one day they’ll do it on their own. See what I just did there?

Thicker Than Water Tattoo

181 Avenue B
New York, NY 10009


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Mike Moses