Buddhist philosophy and brotherhood: these are the essential characteristics of Mike Giant’s art. His name is associated with the tattooing world and the California Lowbrow scene; he currently has exhibitions showing throughout the world and also has his own clothing label. His artwork, though iconic, is founded on simple rules which in turn are rooted in respect for History and in the importance of learning from the community and passing on what one has learned to subsequent generations…

Mike Giant’s universe is an intricate and sublime web of symbols, an intense mix of visual languages which embrace different cultures, cre- ating a new dimension of compositional unity. Women of languid and disturbing beauty, tribal insignia and allegories of death dance together on a single fascinating surface. DROME magazine met the eclectic artist when he was in Bologna for the presentation of his volume in the 36 Chambers book series, published by Drago. The resulting lengthy interview turned out to be more like a pleasant chat with an old friend.

DROME: You came to fame as a street artist. Graffiti artists usually belong to groups known as crews, made up of people with the same interests who help and support each other as real brothers would. What do you think of this type of genuine artistic friendship?
MIKE GIANT: I started doing graffiti in 1989, at the same time that I was getting into the tattooing scene and getting my body tattooed… but really I was just waiting to hook up with the right crew! In 1995 I asked a friend to teach me the basics of tattooing and when he opened his own shop later on, I was there to give him a hand. This meant I had the chance to meet some of the top tattoo artists around at the time and learnt a lot from them. I did my first tattoos in 1998 but without the help of my friend and of other artists, I wouldn’t even have known where to start, so friendship and brotherhood are really important on the graffiti and tattooing scene. Of course you have to be very careful about choosing your “family”: some people have artistic integrity and others are only in it for the money, so you have to look for the right group of people who share your interests and ideals.

D: In almost all world cultures, tattoos are symbols used by people belonging to a specific community, for example the Coptic Christian cross in Islamic countries or Japanese yakuza tattoos and those of the Russian Mafia gangs. Most of these symbols convey messages which can be deciphered only by the initiated; they represent a visual language which conceals a powerful means of communication. You are one of the few people who dare to mix different styles – ranging from old school traditional to Japanese, religious and Hispanic symbols – within a single tattoo. Do you think that today’s crazy combining of symbols and meanings is cheapening the tattoo’s cultural value, reducing it to a purely aesthetic phenomenon?
MG: I think contemporary tattooing should respect the ancient systems of symbols. I’ve studied the rituals and the social significance of this artistic expression in different cultures throughout the world and I’ve learnt a lot about Japanese tattoos and how they were done, as well as reading books on American tattoos and on other tattoos throughout history… I’ve read up on the topic, you could say. So now I consciously combine different styles and symbols because I see the world as a single element: the ground we walk on and the air we breathe are the same in every corner of the world as they are in my home town. Combining cultures makes sense because we are all part of a single whole. In my opinion, a tattoo isn’t just an aesthetic phenomenon; it’s a timeless image drawn with an awareness of History. Every symbol tattooed on the skin should go beyond fashion and be timeless; it should fuse with the past and maybe last for ever, if I’ve done my job well! (he laughs).

D: Many graffiti artists (for example SEEN, as well as yourself) use their skills to work on skin. Tell us about the link between graffiti and tattooing…
MG: I think it’s the mentality behind them that’s the vital link between these two disciplines. Some people decide to overstep the limits of a “normal” lifestyle, and tattooing is a way of being subversive by embracing underground culture. It’s the same with graffiti. These two forms of expression embrace a common desire to break rules and to create art in the face of every conventional obstacle.

D: I was particularly impressed by the typographic work in your Paris show at the Magda Danysz gallery. They have a manic precision about them! In this era of emails and texting, it’s good to see there are still some artists working with calligraphy.
MG: Oh, thanks! For me it’s important to keep the calligraphic style alive. I learned loads about lettering from my circle of friends, my “brothers”. There are things you can’t get from books, you know, like the alphabet; someone has to write it for you so you can learn the right movements to do it yourself. For me, hand-drawn work must not be allowed to die out, I have a deep love and respect for it. I think the development of new technology and lettering by computer means more jobs for people like me who do their own work by hand, because it’s a unique and priceless piece of art.

D: Eros and Thanatos, love and death, are two timeless themes spanned by universal logic. You often draw beautiful pin-up girls along with skulls, bones and other symbols of death. Do you think these two universal principles in complementary opposition can coexist harmoniously?
MG: Yes, that’s what Buddhism has taught me! Everything is contained within a single entity and everything is connected. Take me; I was born and I will die, I’ll no longer be able to speak or breathe but this body will decompose and return to the earth along with all other things. So there’s no real moment of life or death; everything intersects and that’s why I’m inclined to associate love and life’s other gifts with symbols of death. Fear of death gives rise to suffering but can also be a great source of inspiration: it reminds me that I have no time to waste, I need to be in my studio, creating, because that’s what I have to offer. For a long time I thought of taking up Buddhism and becoming a monk, but I’m a man of my time and my way of communicating is through drawing.

D: Let’s talk about your ”chamber” in the 36 Chambers book series published by Drago. Did you find it challenging using colors rather than just black and white? Have you been following the other publications? What do you think of the project?
MG: Well I do sometimes use colors in tattoos, you know, and in fact in graffiti, I use quite few. I prefer to draw in black, white and primary colors but in the case of 36 Chambers I wanted to make more of an impact, so I used a flashy Pantone blue. It was a great opportunity! And yes, I have followed the other publications – they were fantastic! I was very happy to be involved in the project and I love the Drago “family”. It’s been great fun working with them and they really looked after me. Drago is a rare example of an independent company specializing in street art!

D: How did you get into the art world?
MG: I walked! (he laughs) In the art world, if a gallery thinks it can make money selling your work, you can be sure that, sooner or later, you’ll be offered an exhibition. It’s as simple as that! I’ve worked really hard over the last few years and my work has touched a lot of people; then they started getting into my art and collecting my pieces just because they liked them, so it’s been a natural evolution. It’s a great honor for me to be in Europe at the Magda Danysz Gallery now, because the roots of history and culture are right here in the Old World. But there’s no way I’m going to go off and lose touch with my urban roots and my brotherhood! I’m actually working on the Rebel8 clothing project; my partner sees to the business side and all I have to think about is drawing. This gives me plenty of creative freedom and it’s great fun! I reckon Rebel8 is a brilliant way of getting teenagers involved in art so that once they’re adults they’ll be able to buy real works of art – it’s my way of staying in touch with my people and with the future.

D: I’ve read that you’re going to stop doing tattoos…
MG: Yes, I’m basically retired now. The job places too many demands on my body, my hands, my neck, my eyes… so if I want to carry on drawing artwork for the rest of my life, I have to give up the tattooing. I still have work to finish, though; there are some “back pieces” I’ve already started that I need to complete, so I’ll keep going for another year or two just to get them done. But I don’t think I’ll ever completely abandon tattooing as an art form; it’s less a job than a powerful and very individual means of expression that I want to be able to offer to my “family” and friends.

Micol Di Veroli


Published on DROME 14 – the FRATERNITÉ issue