Who: Michael “Mikey B” Brousseau
What: Tattoo artist (self-proclaimed “tattyjammer”)
When: 12pm, Sunday January 8
Where: Federal Hill Tattoo, Atwells Avenue, Providence
Why: He’s a nice guy who’s incredibly talented… and hysterical.
Mike with friend and client, Shoshanah
“The best tattoo I’ve done this week? It’s a toss up,” says Mike, looking up from his light box, pencil in hand. He reaches for a wooden box. “Want to see both?” Of course I do. As he fishes around inside the box – which is chock-full of used transfer paper – I realize the enormity of what I’m seeing. Mike, who has been working at Federal Hill Tattoo for eight years now (and works 50 hours per week), has kept every tattoo sketch he’s ever created. Yes, he’s had to empty that box… several times over.
He hands me a piece of paper. On it is a large cartoon bull, sporting an oversized septum ring and holding a plate of cake in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. The bull sits inside a semi-demolished building, the roof resting atop the animal’s head like a tiny, little hat. A sign that reads “china shop” lies on the ground off to the side. “I drew this one for a chef who everyone refers to as a bull in a china shop,” says Mike with a smile. While some tattoos (such as this one) are fun, others carry a much more somber tone. In fact, his other favorite piece was a tribute he designed for a man whose brother had recently passed away.
Mike resumes what he’d been working on; he’s drawing up a design for his friend Shoshanah who has decided to honor the birth of her only son with a tattoo of his name. While the clothing store owner had a general idea of what she wanted, Mike had to offer quite a bit of guidance. “I like the idea of a bird,” she said, simply. “Okay,” Mike replied, “and where would you like it?” She smiled. “Well, that’s the thing. I don’t really know for sure.” Eventually, they settled on a design and a bodily location. In a complete act of collaboration, the tattooist truly has to take the client’s (often vague) concept and paint it into a cohesive composition. The ability to do this well is what separates the average tattoo maker from the accomplished tattoo artist.
The beginning of the day's sketch
As I watched Mike lay the design out on the back of Shoshanna’s shoulder, I noticed that his corner of the room was overflowing with knickknacks. One figure existed in droves. There were plastic owls and wooden owls; owls carved of stone; owls crafted in ceramic; owls welded in metal. “See those two glass owls up there?” Mike asks, pointing to a shelf above his station. “Those belonged to my grandmother. I brought them in here about eight years ago.” He peels back the transfer paper, and looks satisfied with the way the design rests above Shoshanah’s existing rose tattoo. “Ever since, people have been bringing me owls as gifts.” Hence, his collection was born
Do clients ever...
Pass out? “Yes, it’s happened many times.”
Freak out? "Yep. Once, I was tattooing a lady’s lower back. She literally reached around and whacked the tattoo gun right out of my hand.”
Ask funny questions? “People walk in, look right at us, and ask if we’re open.”
Say things that are annoying? “Sometimes I have to ask people to stand up for a moment while I get the station ready," Mike says. "I’ve had people freak out, asking if they’ll have to stand during the tattoo." He shakes his head and rolls his eyes. “Of course not. Clearly, that’s ridiculous.”
Mike sketches on his light box
As if on cue, Mike instructs his client to have a seat in his chair. He asks if she’s “ready,” as the buzzing sound of the tattoo gun fills the space. She nods; he begins. “How does it feel?” He asks, out of habit. It’s not as if he doesn’t know the answer. Mike, who’s literally covered in colorful ink, shares with me his most painful tattoo experience: “Getting the space where my upper thigh meets my butt tattooed was an experiment in terror. I actually saw stars.” He laughs. “It’s no secret, though, I hate getting tattooed with a passion.” I chuckle too, as do all the other tattoo artists in the room. We unanimously agree, yet we keep going back for more.
Mike can be found tattyjamming at Dave Peavey’s Federal Hill Tattoo five days per week. Call 861-1338 for an appointment. It’ll hurt, but it’ll be very well worth it.