Inked Mag Staff
February 17th, 2023
A New Documentary Looks at the Extraordinary Life of Tattoo Mike Wilson
"Tattoo Mike: The Story of the Illustrated Man" tells the tale of a true original
It’s impossible to tell the story of tattooing in New York City without mentioning Tattoo Mike.
When Michael Wilson arrived in the city during the early 1980s New York didn’t have the clean-cut and corporate image that it does today. It was a city struggling to survive, known for blackouts, riots, crime and urban decay. But it was also a haven for artists, musicians and anybody who wanted to live by their own rules. In other words, it was the perfect landing spot for a man who had left home to join the circus and make his way as an artist and performer.
In New York, Wilson found his niche. He became a performer at the revival of Coney Island’s sideshow. He painted staggeringly beautiful psychedelic works. And he got tattooed in the city’s thriving underground tattooing scene. Most notably, he had his face tattooed during an era when it was unheard of. Everything about Wilson was original and this inspired a young Ethan Hill.
“I wanted to be like him,” Hill explains. “I wanted to look exactly like that. I aspired to that, and I didn’t understand why. There was just something so magnetic about his presence in a photograph.”
Hill reached a point in his life when he was going to have to rethink his career and move out of the photography world when the idea of making a documentary about Tattoo Mike crept into his head. Initially he wasn’t sure how to do so, but by making the right connections and learning how to pull on narrative threads, Hill was able to document Wilson’s remarkable life in the film “Tattoo Mike: The Story of the Illustrated Man.” Over the course of 60+ interviews, a vivid picture of the enigmatic Wilson comes together.
“Working on this project has probably been the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Hill says. “A certain freedom of autonomy came with doing this, in so much that I was able to pursue every line of interest and investigate every lead that presented itself. I met all of my heroes in the process, and it was sort of an accident, and it was all really relevant. One person led to somebody else who led to somebody else, and it was all either a direct connection to Michael or a really important historical historian or one of the doers, one of the game changers.”
In order to complete the film and share it with the world, Hill has put together a Kickstarter to fully fund the project. “Tattoo Mike: The Story of the Illustrated Man” is a work of passion that shines a light on a true original. If you’re remotely interested in tattoo history, particularly within New York City, you must check out this film. Click here to get involved with the project.
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