Mikey Vigilante has essentially wanted to be a tattoo artist since the first time he saw a tattoo in person. Growing up as a teenager in a small Midwestern town in the ‘90s, the young artist was introduced to tattoos the same way many people were in rural and suburban areas toward the end of the 20th century: through rock stars’ ink in magazines and on TV.
“I’d mostly seen tattoos on punk rock bands like Green Day and Rancid on the cover of Rolling Stone,” Vigilante says. “I hadn’t really seen tattoos other than that, but I was always drawn to their work, so I knew I wanted to get a tattoo. When I got my first tattoo, I knew I needed to seek out an apprenticeship.”
Once he had his first tattoo, Vigilante knew it was the art form he wanted to pursue. His parents’ firm opposition to tattooing was enough to get Vigilante to enroll in art school at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University instead, but eventually the artist decided he needed to follow his dreams and began his tattooing career roughly 16 years ago.
“My parents always forbade it, so I started making marks with razorblades on my skin to kind of give myself a tattoo covertly,” Vigilante says. “My parents found out and freaked out, but my dad was finally swayed by my actions to let me get a tattoo and not kick me out of the house. I just gave my dad his first tattoo about a year-and-a-half ago. That was like the biggest bonding experience we could’ve had.”
Although Vigilante would eventually go on to finish his college degree, the artist’s real schooling has been in SoCal’s tattooing scene. After spending time in respected shops like LA’s Zulu Tattoo and the legendary Long Beach location of Outer Limits Tattoo, Vigilante decided to open up a shop of his own in the LBC.
For the last 3.5 years, Paper Crane Studio has been known as one of the shops helping to bring Long Beach back to tattooing prominence. Under Vigilante’s direction, Paper Crane has brought in both artists and clients from all over LA and OC with a wide variety of styles. Of course, running a busy shop means Vigilante’s attention is sometimes drawn away from his own artwork, but that’s the price of admission for being your own boss.
“At some points, I find myself completely immersed in my art with the business running smooth, and I don’t have to pay too close attention to it,” Vigilante says. “Other times, the business is in flux because it’s growing, and I have to adapt to other changes. I get pulled away from my work, and that’s hard on me. My first love is tattooing and designing, but the shop is my baby, so I have to put it ahead of my personal desires.”
While his success as a small business owner is relatively recent, the elite level of Vigilante’s artwork is nothing new. As an artist, Vigilante specializes in large traditional Japanese style pieces with a secondary focus in fractal patterns and geometric tattooing. To some, it may seem like Vigilante is simply a Japanese style tattooer who’s looking to cash in on the popularity of complex mandalas and geometric designs, but the two styles are far more similar than they are different in Vigilante’s eyes.
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“My initial attraction to the Japanese work came from my love of pattern and organic flowing kind of images,” Vigilante says. “I think that’s really what the focus of the Japanese work is, to make it flow organically with the body. The geometric work I do is often based on images I’ve seen during hallucinogenic trips and from mathematical sequences, so it kind of all ties back in to being pattern-based and paying close attention to nature.”
But while many of his tattoos may be more “in style” now than ever before, Vigilante still kind of yearns for the days when tattooing was still a subculture and “tattoo model” wasn’t a profession. He’s not exactly a tremendous burly biker himself, but those are the types of guys Vigilante learned from and still thinks of as an old school tattoo artist. Sure, modern popularity is great for business, but the cultural changes still feel a touch weird to someone who had been tattooing for half of a decade before reality TV ever entered the industry.
“My first experiences with tattooing were all with bikers,” Vigilante says. “I grew up in an environment where those were the people who got tattoos and gave tattoos, and those were the people who taught me. Some of my fondest memories are from the rough and wild lifestyle that surrounded that. It’s kind of tough for me to look at tattooing and see it as this high fashion art form. It’s got this connection with modeling now, and I struggle with the image of the ‘tattooer’ nowadays. People expect a tattooer to look like a really hot model-looking girl with throat tattoos and airbrushed makeup, and I’m a little disconnected from that.”
Paper Crane Studio, 530 E. Broadway, Long Beach, 562-999-1454, @mikey_vigilante