The Man! The Myth! The LEDGER!
By Sofia Mella
Honolulu, 2009. After a sweet two weeks sipping on Chi Chis on the North Shore, smoking hoover in Maui and accidental sunburn between the boobs in Waimea, I’ve pulled myself together to do an interview with the wonderful Mike Ledger. By “pulled myself together” I mean to say I put a singlet over my bikini and hailed a cab. When I pull up outside 930 McCully St I at first think I must have the wrong address. There is literally no signage for Mike Ledger Inc. Like NONE! How custom only is that? I then notice his name a plaque outside, like a lawyer’s sign or something. Phew. Bye bye taxi. I fumble over the buzzer too, and by this stage I’m feeling quite intimidated.
930 McCully is an office block. I walk down the florescent-lit hall and spy Mike’s door. Gulp. OK, shoulders back, you’re a professional, I assure myself. Yeah, a professional loafer, I think to myself. You can’t call two weeks in Hawaii a business trip just because you tack a bit of reporting on at the end.
I walk into Mike Ledger Inc and am greeted by Hawaiian babe and assistant to the man, Danielle. Danielle exudes the perfect attitude for a tattoo receptionist – calm and friendly, tanned and terrific. I feel less like an alien. Then Mike strides out of his room towards me and I am immediately at ease.
Mike began tattooing in New York City in the 80s. Inspired by his heavily tattooed grandfather, he gained an apprenticeship under Eric Desmond at Peter Tattoo. At the same time Mike was at college studying art. “I did a month in college – at the same time I was apprenticing too – I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I was like ok I’ll try it… I was doing it for my family but in the end it didn’t work out.” He instead dedicated himself to learning all he could about tattooing.
His next job was at Lori Leven’s New York Adorned. “Right before that I went kind of underground, working alone. It was more private for my clients who were getting body suits and I started thinking it was better to work that way. You’re in there for four or five hours and no one’s coming in distracting you. When Lori offered me a job I thought I’d try it out. It was just me and Scott Harrison there and it was nice to work by myself privately in a studio and then once and a while work in a shop setting.” It was this early practice that led Mike to set up in Hawaii where he works almost always entirely alone. I ask what it’s like to have no outside influences, no artistic exchange.
“There are pluses and minuses. I see artists now who’s work all looks similar (from working together). With no outside influences I’m coming up with stuff that’s new now, no influence. I do miss working with Tin Tin , I used to go see Filip Leu a lot, and I do miss that, that back and forth where it’s a positive.... the level starts to get higher and higher.” It seems Mike is very selective and quite wise about what he chooses to expose himself to. He has little time for competitive one-upmanship and seeks to grow both as an artist and a person. The same applies to the clients he chooses to take on. “If I’m going to start a body suit, back piece or sleeve I’m going to see you for the next year or two so you can’t have negative vibes. I feel like every time I do a tattoo it’s giving a piece of myself, my energy. Why give it to someone who doesn’t deserve it? Through that kind of a network I draw good people as clients.”
A trip to Hawaii to visit a friend in the late 80s changed the course of Mike’s life. “I basically fell in love with it. My soul felt at home,” he says. “The Aloha in Hawaii where the extended families BBQ on weekends with the kids, that’s where I wanted to finally have and family and settle down in Hawaii.” However, he wasn’t at the top of his game artistically and didn’t want to come to Hawaii with nothing to offer. “I didn’t want to be just another guy here just taking, so I figured if I honed in on my skills, travel the world, then maybe I’d have something to offer Hawaii.” Ten more years of honing ensued and then finally in 1999, Mike Ledger moved to Oahu and opened Mike Ledger Inc.
“I have one son, I couldn’t think of a better place for him to be raised.
In NY when I was apprenticing, Eddie Deutsche had just left the shop and I remember him talking so much about Hawaii with Ed Hardy being here and everything, so to me Hawaii was like this Mecca. Hardy was here with Malone, what they picked up from Sailor Jerry, the east and the west mixing, what a great hub. Coming to Hawaii it was humbling. In NY I already had a waiting list, there was a lot of competition in NY ‘I wanna be like that guy’ etc. I didn’t care about that stuff. I basically just wanted to grow as an artist and what better place to go than where it started?”
It must be quite the sea change to move from New York to Oahu, I muse.
“I miss certain things about NY. But now being in Hawaii 10 years, when I go back to NY the city’s just way too much for me. I’d rather just be secluded and mellow. But I had my fun; I had a lot of great times in New York. But at this age and stage I’m in life, Hawaii suits me.”
In order to tattoo in Hawaii, the artist must sit a rather bizarre and outdated test to obtain a license. “From what I understand Hardy & Malone back in the day made the test and they made it hard to protect Hawaii,” says Mike
I notice that on the back to Mike’s studio T-shirt it says, “Every tattoo has a story, but not every tattooist gives a fuck”. He has opinions on the reality show phenomenon. He has opinions on the new breed of scratchers buying equipment from the swap meets and going to town on their friends. “Back in the day I used to be so proud of being a tattooist but now when you have everybody just buying equipment out of a mall, tattooing themselves, their brothers, cousins, and having a license don’t matter. But if anything happens, a hepatitis outbreak for example, they’re going to come down on all the licensed artists. These guys are exploiting it, selling equipment for the money or these body piercers there’s people doing scarification or implants, you don’t need a license but a tattooist does. These guys come in here doing implants, cutting the skin, shoving things in there, sewin’ em up, it’s more of a medical procedure than a tattoo. And again, if anything happens with that they’re going to crack down on tattoo shops. I think a lot of it now is just the money. (The council is) getting money from the artist for permits and licensing but they’re not doing anything about enforcing that.”
Reality TV in the US has reached hysteric proportions, taking tattooing with it. While bringing tattoo reality shows into people’s living rooms has no doubt opened some doors for the industry in the form of more exposure for example, it also creates new issues and negatives.
“I tattooed with Chris Garver at NY Adorned for years and I love Chris,” says Mike, “But to see them on TV, to see tattooing on TV is just… I don’t know, I don’t like it at all. I know it could be opening doors for business, this, that, but yknow, people come in with stupid questions like ‘wow, it hurts? I doesn’t look like it hurts on TV.’ or ‘It takes more than one session to do this back piece? It only looked like they did it one time on Miami Ink.’ Housewives comin' in telling me how it is cos they watch the show every week and it’s just like, you don’t know what tattooing is. That show is nothing; It's drama, who's having sex with who. 5% is tattooing. The rest is BS.” The flashiness and public exposure of tattoo TV flies in the face of what Mike was trained to uphold. “I was taught you don’t discuss anything. How much we earn. Now you have Chris Nunez, he bought an Escalade and a Rolex in cash. The next day the IRS is auditing all these tattoo shops. Now everybody looks at it like ‘I coloured in the lines as a kid, so I could make money.’ The people that it’s attracting, it’s just for the fame and for the money, not for the people who love tattooing.”
When it comes to the huge Ed Hardy label, Mike concedes, “If any tattoo artist in the world should be making money, it should be him. Rightfully so, he deserves it. But half the people don’t even know Ed Hardy is a tattooist! There was a reason why he was called DON Ed Hardy. He was the Don of tattooing!”
Like Ed Hardy, Mike Ledger’s work is showcased at the Contemporary Museum of Modern Art in Honolulu in the form of an installation piece entitled “Heavenly Garden”. Shown as part of the Café series, the piece overlooks the café garden. I’m interested in how Mike found working within the fine art context for this piece.
“I feel it’s my responsibility that if someone comes to me with a question about tattooing that I can answer them with authority. If I can change their view I’d love that opportunity. If I can change any negative views on tattooing, I’d love that opportunity. Especially in that context (at the Hawaii museum of Contemporary Art). I wanted to show that we are artists.”
Presently he is working on an exhibition of body suits with Japanese and Hawaiian love stories as inspiration for Valentines Day.
“I’m definitely at peace, I mean, this is what I dreamed,” he surmises. “My life is on track, it’s happening, I’m doing it. I don’t think anyone could ask anything more from life.”
Making a living tattooing in Paradise. Certainly sounds like a dream come true.