Ink On Ink: Mike Moses
It’s only natural that a tattoo artist should feel a need to turn their hand to other artistic endeavours once in a while—but out in the real world, making it work commercially is perhaps not as simple as you may think…
At least once a week, Mike Moses flashes his latest work in front of my eyes. If I’m honest, I could sit here and pull together a magazine out of his monthly output and never get bored of it. The fact that it would be mighty unprofessional of me is besides the point. We only miss a digital catch-up when he’s heading out on a camping trip. I have no idea what he does out there in the wilderness though. Sketching mushrooms in the wild would not surprise me. Making friends with bears and getting them to sit still for a portrait wouldn’t raise my eyebrows either. Then again, if he told me he had made contact with creatures from another world, my eyebrows may flicker but you would have to look hard to find the surprise in them.
I’m saying ‘they’ broke the mould when Mike got here.
Today however, we sit around an altogether different project he has been working on. Labels for beer? You bet. Thus, to begin… how exactly do you land what might appear to be a dream job for some?
“When I first moved to Columbus and was gathering a new clientele, one of those people just happened to be Colin Vent—the head brewer at Seventh Son Brewing Co. We did a beer-themed sleeve on him, which took about a year to complete, but in the course of that we discussed many things–not the least of which being craft brew and art. During our talks, it was proposed that as soon as they got around to bottling some of their fine swill, maybe I could do a label for them. After the first one, which thankfully they liked, I got asked to do another... and another... a poster for an event and then it became a regular thing. I've heard people have come into the bar and asked for 'that Mike Moses beer', which is flattering as all hell! Job security!
“While I have done a lot of commission work before, the jobs were usually few and far between as most people don't like to pay much for things. There are always people willing to work for free, which honestly kind of fucks it up for everyone. Would-be clients feel overly entitled and it devalues the hard work of artists everywhere. Fortunately for me, Colin is a great guy, and has fought for me the whole time. Every time I have any sort of a problem or conflict, he's been there and done all he could to keep me happy. I'm very lucky to have that guy as a friend.”
All of which is to say, the landscape has been soiled by those willing to get their work out there for free for the sake of getting their work out there. Sadly, the hard lesson to learn here is that when you do it for free once, the same is expected time and time again in a downward spiral of a hiding to nothing.
It's weird out there when it comes to illustration work. Hardly anybody chooses to commission illustration any more—maybe the magazines at the top end who still have mega-budgets from where I'm standing do—I guess with image banks, you can get away without it but it's certainly dying out as a commercial option that will put food on the table for artists. Maybe it’s the same view from wherever you happen to be standing:
“Man, weird is a good word. I wish I could say I was a veteran and had fought the 'good fight' and 'remember way back when' but the truth is I can't. I've never had much of this work come my way. It's so incredibly difficult to get jobs—real paying jobs where you're actually compensated for the amount of time that these processes take.
“You wouldn't believe how long you can work on something and then have people always expect more for less. My good friend Brian Ewing is a rock poster guy and one of the ‘grey hairs’ (sorry dude) that does remember when things were different and from what I gather from him, it's all kinda just falling out from over saturation of cheap artists.
“Combine that with the failings of print due to the accessibility (and disposability) of digital and you've got your doomsday meteor headed right for the small, peaceful world of illustration work. I'm sure that even larger magazines like this one have huge budget issues (did they ever not?) and a well-paid cover artist is a fatty luxury.”
I’m no beer connoisseur but some of these labels suggest the product inside the bottle is definitely worth investigating. ‘Enjoy Mr Owl with candy coated lollipops’. Now there’s a beer I want to try out whenever you’re ready. You have to hand it to Seventh Son—they’ve got a great handle on making their beer stand out from the crowd.
“Colin and all the people working there at Seventh Son really know their shit, and that's part of the success right there. These people are all dead men walkin', in the Bukowskian sense they found what they love and it's terminal, man!
“I'm fairly sure that Colin is the web spinner for all of the verbiage that you'll read on the bottles and he spins it very well. He's had an idea for each brew in his head since the wort was being made, and it develops as each brewing process follows down its road. Hell, I wish I could say I came up with a lot of it. It's quite eloquent in a low brow sort of way and always something fun. He usually hits me with the idea for each beer I work on and gives me a loose feeling of what he's going for. After that I kind of get autonomy—visually speaking—and that always works best for me. He trusts me, and that's always important for commercial work. Things get really irritating for everyone very quickly without that.”
Beer aside, this is beautiful all round. I ask Mike if it’s ‘always art for art’s sake’ regardless of what it’s for. I see people struggle with life and their careers by trying to force round art into a square hole far too often and that's not healthy for anybody.
“The type of artist I am—the type of person I am—I need problems to solve. That's how I work best. I need some sort of dictation, even if it's ever so slight to jumpstart me in a direction. Think of a shiny vehicle. It needs a destination to really be useful. Even something as simple as ‘north', and then you just sit back and let me mow down the bystanders on the way and really do some damage!
“That's not to say that I never come up with my own projects. I do. Just recently I did the artwork for the album ‘Kill The Wolf’ by B Dolan, an excellent underground hip hop artist. I had actually done the cover artwork on my own as just art. A week or so after it hit the internet, he contacted me and told me he wanted to use it for his next release. We started talking and that became that, so it does happen, it's just not common.”
That said, I suspect it’s not going to be long before somebody shows their face at the studio with one of these bottles in hand wanting a tattoo of the same. In fact, the concept of the Wilderman label (below) is so far up my street, it’s in my house. I guess the reason some of this works as a branding is that people identify with various aspects of them according to their own animalistic tastes.
“Wildermann is where it all really started to make sense and has now become the template for the layout of the labels and the feel of the art. I love that one. Visually all of those designs are pretty much just my hands at work doing what I think would be cool, so I wouldn't be strongly opposed to making a tattoo-able version of them for someone. I don't think a direct translation would ever work though. Ink and paper is just so different from pigment and skin—and I enjoy that separation. I could never be as loose with tattooing as I am with illustration, it just doesn't work that way.
“That's part of what got me back into doing this type of illustration; before I ever learned how to tattoo I was mainly a pen and ink artist. The style was totally different but the materials were the same. I got a new sketchbook a year or so ago and decided I was going to commit as much of it as I could to pen and ink and trying to flesh that back out again because I hadn't touched it in years, and I always loved the vibe and versatility. As I got more comfortable with it, it's basically taken over and become my dominant medium again outside of tattooing. Not many other tattooers are doing ink work and it's always been important to me to do something else that's not part of the herd mentality. I don't want to do something that's common. Period.”
So out in the real world of getting things done—for those interested in such things—what sort of time can a man find themselves spending on such things? Days? Weeks? Months?
“Depends on the deadline! I'm an artist and as such, a natural born procrastinator. I will stretch shit out to the bitter end, but usually because I'm still thinking about it and weighing decisions. A huge amount of what we do is cerebral. The idea itself is the tough part. The planning. Actually making it happen is simply a matter of making your hands do it and how many times you screw up before it's over. It's taken me a week or more on some designs, and then again if the hammer is coming down and I'm simply against a wall, then I've knocked one out in a straight (no joke... straight) 18 hours.
“With the ‘Ragana Yaga’ label for Seventh Son, something happened and I just couldn't get started in time. I ended up taking an entire waking Sunday and the majority of the wee hours of a Monday and just blew through it. That being said, I absolutely love that piece, though I don't care to work like that. It's very exhausting and stressful—and causes problems at home! The concept was in my head for weeks before that and I had been picking over it the whole time, so it was much easier to get it done quickly.”
“It’s tough out there on the illustration front but for the foreseeable future, I have more labels for Seventh Son, and a couple of t-shirt designs, but that's all that's peeking it's head up at current time. I love doing this kind of work, and am always willing to entertain and kick around ideas with people that are serious about wanting me to do some work for them. I'd really love to have more of it to do. I'm an illustrator at heart. I love marketing. I find it all endlessly fascinating so if anyone out there in the world has something interesting or fun to run by me, shoot me an email!
“I get excited when I see other people being passionate about their idea—that gives me ideas and that makes things happen!” •
You can find Mike online right here.