The London Tattoo Convention, Tobacco Dock 2019

Japan Reimagined: an interview with Mike Dorsey

Mike Dorsey’s paintings are rendered in a traditional Japanese style but tell stories of interesting figures from around the world, from long-lost tales of inventors and scientists to well-known figures from Western pop-culture. As any fan of Mike’s work will know, he has created an enormous body of work which has recently been immortalised in his first book, ‘Japan Reimagined’. This week, we discuss Mike’s roots in tattooing, finding his style and what he’ll be painting next…

You’ve been tattooing since 1989. It seems to me that you arrived on the scene at quite an exciting moment in tattooing. How did you feel about tattooing at this time? 

It was incredibly exciting. I look back on those days fondly. It was still taboo and somewhat lowbrow art yet people were pushing the envelope of what was available at the time. Guy Aitchison, Eddie Deutsch and others were starting the bio-mechanic revolution then which at that time was so new and foreign to most tattooers. Much like modern realistic tattooing today, people were condemning it but it really did open a lot of minds to what could be done with this medium. Paul Booth, Marcus Pacheco, Filip Leu, Mick from Zurich, Bernie Luther and so many others were pushing everyones concept of tattooing as they thankfully still are today. 

Tattooing wasn’t an “industry” then as people put it today. We were at the tail end of an era where tattooers still made their equipment, like machines and ink. Tattoo companies existed but not near as many as today. We had to beg, borrow and steal from other professions, which gave me a skill I’m thankful for and still constantly use today. We made the tattoo as a whole. Made our needles, mixed our own pigment and made machines. We really built the tattoo from its base ingredients. A lot went into an art that as a whole was still looked down on but therein lies the beauty of it all and a magic that will never be experienced by many recent tattooers. 

I was incredibly fortunate to work with Kore Flatmo and Clay Decker at that time. Kore’s beautiful touch to his imagery and the high standards he set for himself in his tattooing, coupled with Clay’s crazy strong work ethic and large scale tattooing was an amazing environment to work in. Clay was always building what he could with what was available, again making us think outside the box. I am blessed to experience those days. It was exciting and I hope I took those same qualities with me after we all took our own path.

London Tattoo Convention: a Ukiyo-E style painting of the 'radium girls', by Mike Dorsey
‘The Radium Girls’ by Mike Dorsey

 Which tattooers did you look up to during your early years? 

I’ve already mentioned many above but there were so many more whose work I could only see in the 3 magazines available to me at that time. Don Nolan, Greg James and Paul Jeffries were doing what I would call a more western influenced Japanese style, which I could understand better at that time. Later I learned to appreciate the traditional Japanese tattooing it was all based on as I learned more of the imagery and stories and could better appreciate the thought behind what I was looking at.

London Tattoo Convention: 'Dark Hannya', ukiyo-e style painting of a hannya mask by Mike Dorsey
‘Dark Hannya’ by Mike Dorsey

How has your style evolved over time? 

I don’t know really, I guess it’s become more introverted. I used to try to do things I thought people would think were cool and interesting but recently it’s more things that I relate to – the viewer is somewhat out of the equation to a degree while I’m making it. I hope it keeps evolving and it seems to evolve faster and faster, just like time does the older I get. It leaves me confused many times. The shorter the time I have left becomes, the more crucial I feel it is to be on the right path and work harder in my art and as a human. I want to learn and experience as much as I can just as I did when I started. I don’t think I’ve left a big footprint in tattooing but I hope I gave back something to a craft that given me everything and that I treated everyone with the same selfless compassion that tattooing has shown me over the years and pushed me to be a better artist.

London Tattoo Convention: Japanese style painting of a geisha wearing a medical face mask by Mike Dorsey
A timely modern play on the traditional hand fan and hannya image. Painted with ink and gouache on cicada wing rice paper.

You have an obvious passion for Japanese art and culture. Where did this stem from? 

I really didn’t care for Japanese style tattooing very early on. But to be honest, I was ignorant to what I was looking at and didn’t appreciate the history and thought behind Japanese tattooing. Once I learned a small speck of the imagery it opened a whole new world to me and I consumed as much information as I could though books and word of mouth with other tattooers of the imagery. I am still and hope I always will be just a student of it all. I get many things wrong – embarrassingly wrong sometimes – but that’s all part of the curve. Nothing makes you remember the wrong way like being embarrassed of your failures and nothing is better than getting it right after 1,000 failed attempts. That one time that is correct is the end result of a million failures and you should be proud of them. You need to recognise your failures. I believe it is an incredibly important part of the process and to keep learning. I have a long way to go yet and I fully understand that.

London tattoo convention: a portrait of Leonid Rogozov performing self surgery by Mike Dorsey
‘The Self Surgery of Leonid Rogozov’ by Mike Dorsey

Which artists or art movements have inspired you? 

Nothing is off limits. I pick and choose what I like from where I see it. Mostly real life.

Your paintings, like the ukiyo-e prints of old, often tell us a story (from Japanese folklore to tales from Western pop-culture). How do these ideas develop? 

It’s really just a culmination of my experiences and what’s going on around me. I love to people-watch and tell stories about current social dilemmas and also lost history. I love stories of inventors – brilliant minds that history books glanced over. They have a story that is great and sad at the same time. I hope I keep them alive even if it’s just in a painting.

Do you have any stories in mind yet to be painted?

Lately I’ve been doing a bunch of obscure stories from the American pioneer and Wild West days. Many of the stories are just as outlandish and incredible as the stories told in ukiyo-e prints. It’s been really fun to learn so many crazy stories of a much more difficult time than we have today. It great to see people pass judgement on these people’s experiences from modern times as they tap their opinions from a cell phone while sipping a hot coffee. It’s a time we simply wouldn’t understand by today’s standards. People did crazy things because they had to to survive. That, to me, is fascinating.

London tattoo convention: a portrait of George parrott in traditional ukiyo-e style, by Mike Dorsey
‘The Tale of Big Nose’ by Mike Dorsey – based on the story of ‘Big Nose George’ aka George Parrott

How does tattooing today compare to your beginnings in the industry, for better or worse?

I try not to think about that too much. I worry about too much government in tattooing and many other aspects but honestly that ball is in motion and there is nothing I can do to stop it. I am just a viewer.

What is your favourite subject to tattoo? 

Large scale work mostly. The time and dedication from both tattooer and client is amazing. Nothing is better than a long day of tattooing one person and being mentally and physically drained from it. It’s the best nights sleep ever. Plus you know you have another day with them tomorrow sometimes! It’s a rollercoaster.

The London Tattoo Convention, Tobacco Dock 2021, Mike Dorsey
‘Hashihime’ by Mike Dorsey

You’re a force to be reckoned with when it comes to painting – one of the most productive out there! Do you ever suffer from ‘artist’s block’? How do you stay motivated to create? 

I do, pretty often. It’s like sitting in front of a book and forgetting how to read. I just gotta plough through it. I usually draw as much as I can and force it out. I think I’ve had some of my best ideas during those times because you try things you never have before. I think beating the same path is the cause of it. Redundancy is crippling.

Besides tattooing and painting, what other mediums do you enjoy working with? 

I carve and sculpt sometimes, it rewires your brain to think and approach things from a different perspective. I like doing assemblage sometimes with found objects. It gets to be a strange treasure hunt for objects you need.

London Tattoo Convention: the artist Mike Dorsey working on a large-scale painting
Mike Dorsey working on a large-scale painting

Tell us a little bit about your new book.

It was a big step that I am very thankful that I did with the encouragement and guidance of Miki Vialetto. It’s scary to put everything you have done over the past 30 years out there in front of your peers and those you look up to. Everything’s on the table and it’s a very honest moment to look at the culmination of decades of work and being happy with it or not. 

I’m thankful to have friends who pushed me to do it and to Miki for doing what he’s amazing at. I approached it as I would getting tattooed. I gave Miki as much information and as many images as I could and stayed out of his way to do his thing. His books are amazing and I didn’t want to interfere with his knowledge, opinions and aesthetic. I am truly thankful.

Are you looking forward to returning to London? What’s your favourite thing about the City? 

I love London! My favourite thing is of course the convention but the city has so much history, museums and everyone has been incredibly friendly to this Appalachian hobo as I try to get around there.


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