“I was about 5 years old when my uncle called me into his room, put a little deodorant on my arm and added a geisha stencil,” Michael Duke says. “Ever since he pulled off that stencil, I’ve been hooked. I was showing it off to all of the little kids. I thought it was awesome.”
The youngest of five children – and the only artistic one – it took more than a few temporary tattoos as a grade-schooler to become a full-time tattoo artist. As Duke sunk more and more time and money into growing his tattoo collection, he also became invested in the culture surrounding tattooing and considered learning to tattoo himself.
“I’d thought about tattooing for a long time, but I knew it was kind of a sacred thing,” Duke says. “When I was about 25 years old, my girlfriend at the time bought me some cheap tattoo kit as a gift. I was like ‘I don’t know what to do with this.’”
Thankfully, Duke was going into Orange’s Fine Tattoo Work to get his back inked by renowned artist Lucky Bastard at the time. Although he didn’t know much about Lucky or the shop – he only went in because a coworker had previously gotten tattooed there – Duke ended up at the right place at the right time and left the shop with more than just a tattoo.
“I showed Lucky the machine and he just said ‘This is garbage, get rid of it!’” Duke recalls. “That same week, I asked him for an apprenticeship, and he told me he was thinking about getting an apprenticeship. He said ‘Go home, take a day and think about if you really want to do it.’ I woke up the next morning and drove right out to Fine Tattoo Work to tell him I was in.”
After sacrificing the life he’d had up to that point – including quitting his job at T-Mobile – Duke committed about two years to apprenticing at Fine Tattoo Work. Living off of roughly $40 per week, Duke became reliant on his family to help keep him afloat during his apprenticeship. Even now that he’s an established young artist years into his tattooing career, Duke still remembers the very first day he started his tattooing journey.
"They told me to go get a piece of melamine, and I didn’t know what melamine was," Duke says. "It was raining that day, and I had to bring back a piece of wood in an open truck. They didn’t even have melamine, so I freaked out and came back with a different piece of wood. I got chewed up a little bit, and that was the start of my apprenticeship.”
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Beyond just explaining to Duke why it made more sense to get a complete dragon on his entire back rather than half of a dragon on half of his back, Lucky helped the young artist stand out from the pack right from the beginning. From Japanese to American traditional to black and gray, Duke’s work after only a handful of years in the industry is every bit as good as many artists who have been working for decades.
Of course, it’s not just the artistic side of tattooing that Duke’s learned from Lucky. The work ethic and customer service aspects of tattooing have been instilled in Duke as much as anything. As much experience as Duke had working with customers through previous jobs, the different level of client relations necessary in tattooing has been one of Duke’s biggest takeaways from the first stage of his career.
“With any other job, you deal with a client for maybe a day, but with tattooing you may deal with them for a lifespan,” Duke says. “I have clients who have been getting tattooed by me since the beginning, and they become friends over the years.”
Fine Tattoo Work, 745 W. Chapman Ave., Orange, (714) 997-4389, @michael_duke