Head Start - Myke Chambers

Published: 23 July, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 214, July, 2012

The age of 12 is not usually a time when one begins experimenting with tattooing. Unless you’re Myke Chambers that is, then it’s just another day in the life…

“When I was 12, my friends and I started giving each other stick and poke tattoos, but that was just what kids do at that age, I think,” says the Philadelphia-based artist who, leaving home with nothing but a backpack and his dog at just 15, began wandering the country as a vagabond until starting a tattoo apprenticeship in the 1990s, seems to have a penchant for getting a headstart on things.

“I remember skateboarding down the Drag as a little punk kid in Austin, Texas, and we’d go try to sneak a peak in on Dave Lum, a tattoo legend, before
getting run off. He was like a wizard to me, so mysterious.

“Then there were the punk guys I looked up to, like Henry Rollins from Black Flag and Mike Ness from Social Distortion. At that time tattooing was still edgy and not mainstream like it is now.”

But even with his underlying curiosity for all things tattoo, it wasn’t until about the time he turned 17 that Chambers seriously set his sights on tattooing. Although, admittedly, he wasted no opportunity to learn a few tricks and tips through good ol’ fashioned trial and error on willing friends whenever possible, his affinity to art being no surprise considering “all through grade school and high school, art class was always my favorite”.

“I don’t really remember the first creative spark or the first thing I created, but the earliest memory I have was when I was around six, I had to write a story and make a book out of it [and] I got to draw the cover for it. The book was about a pet deer I had when I was four and five, and it was from that point that I really started to draw and focus on art. Then, when I was eight, I won first place in an art contest with my entire school. So I guess I started really young.”

After some time spent “tattooing and messing up my friends”, one of Chambers’ closest friends, who just so happened to be a tattooer, took the passionate artist under his wing as an apprentice, teaching him the correct approaches to ink.

“There weren’t really any sacrifices for me,” he says, thinking back. “At that time tattooing was still pretty hardcore. It fitted right into my lifestyle of getting drunk and raising hell. I left home around 15 and started tattooing professionally around 18 or 19, that was like 1994, 1995. Wow… now I feel old,” he laughs.

“The first tattoo I did other than stick and poke was a tribal wristband. Honestly, I was too stupid to be afraid, I thought it would be easy. I was wrong. She wanted a tattoo and ended up with scarification. Again, I was too stupid and hard-headed to let that dissuade me from tattooing.”

Through mistakes come invaluable knowledge, and looking back at it now, Chambers admits, “the best advice I got was to always show confidence and that tattooing isn’t a race; to take my time.”

With strong roots in traditional Americana, on the surface it would seem Chambers solely tends to gravitate towards the old school style. But although traditional elements are ever-present in his work, Chambers makes it a point to incorporate modern touches, like Princess Leia, who can be spotted in all her glory in one of his latest eye-catching paintings.

“I try to hold to a lot of the traditional rules, but then do my own thing with it. I don’t really know how to describe my style, I just do what I feel looks good. I do everything for a reason, but I couldn’t really say why.

“I draw inspiration from everywhere, life, but I try to not pull my inspiration from other tattooers too much. I really don’t want to imitate anyone else.”
When he’s not roaming the world – “Next I plan on enjoying life, hopefully I’ll finally get to make it over to the UK” – Chambers can be found working out of Art Machine Productions in Philadelphia.

“My friend, Tim Pangburn, who owns Art Machine, invited me out. And I had been wanting to get out of Texas, so I jumped on it. The vibe there is very positive; he has a great crew there.”

And it’s not just his peers that make time at work a pleasure, it’s also his customers.

“I actually love dealing with the clients. I’m fortunate enough at this point in my career where I only do the things I want and the people that come to me are coming to get a tattoo from me, not just a tattoo. I’m so thankful for that.”

But no matter how pleasant a job may be, doing it day in, day out for years can start to take its toll on even the most passionate and devoted of workers.

“Sometimes it does actually [get dull]. Well, maybe not dull, just draining. Tattooing is very demanding; we have to be constantly motivated, we don’t get to have an off day. Right now I’m so booked up I haven’t been taking any days off at all, but I just got a house in the mountains in North Carolina with my lady, Mary-Leigh. I plan on cutting back all my tattooing so I can focus on living life and painting. I’m pretty excited about that. I’ll be splitting my time between there, Philly and my conventions/ guest spots.”

The painting he so hopes to devote more time to, includes extensive work with watercolours, a medium he started exploring just five years ago and has quickly mastered – he’ll even be holding a seminar entitled ‘The Basics of Tattoo Flash Style Watercolour’ at a number of conventions across the States this year, which, he says, need only be combined with practice and patience to master the craft. Included is information on brushes, canvases, spit shading, staining, and sealing.

“I guess I feel watercolour is really close to tattooing. You can’t make mistakes and if you do, you have to roll with it like you meant to do it,” laughs Chambers.

Taking a closer look at his personal canvas, you continuously spot one interesting work after another, including Chambers’ favorite pieces, “the portrait of my little brother that passed back in 1996 done by my friend, Josh Richey, then there’s my full back or turtle shell by my friend David ‘Resp’ Cheplivouza; it’s a traditional Japanese stallion.”

But by far, the most intriguing has to be the one you couldn’t miss if you tried, the tribal-like design that flows beautifully under his left eye. Now, before you think or say anything, it wasn’t just another off-the-cuff, get-it-now-regret-it-later face tattoo decision.

“I got my face tattooed when I was living on the streets as a kid, riding freight trains around the US. The reason I got it is very personal. The basic meaning of it is ‘life through truth and honour’, but it goes a lot deeper than that.

“If someone wanted me to tattoo their face they would have to already have tattoos on their face and I’d have to agree with what they wanted. I don’t usually tattoo faces.”

Asked what he hopes to achieve in his career as a tattooer, Myke Chambers casually says “I think I’ve already done it”, which explains why now may finally be an opportune moment for some long overdue R&R, including fewer hours at the shop and less time spent on the convention circuit, even though it has treated him well over the years.

“I started doing conventions to make money and see new places at the same time and then I just got sucked into it, honestly,” says Chambers. I don’t mind all the noise and I work pretty well in loud, crazy places, so it’s not a big deal. I kinda like it at times, I just cut back all of my conventions recently, I just want to relax for a while.”

Industry Love/Hate

I love how the industry can pull together for a good cause. Like a tattooer getting injured or sick and everyone pulls together to help them, that’s amazing. [But] I’m not big on how closed some people can be with their circles, how tattooers can shun others just because of the style they do or whatever, that’s really lame.

Eternally Bound

For anyone in the market for a good sketchbook or two, Myke Chambers has released Eternally Bound Volume 1 and Volume 2, each just over 90 pages, spiral bound and exploding with color and black and white images showcasing Chambers’ masterful blend of traditional and modern.

Art Machine Productions

1345 Frankford Ave
PA 19125 USA

(01) 267 239 2724


Text: Barbara Pavone; Photography: Myke Chambers


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