With little more than a background in graphic design and a determination to do something creative with his life, Mikhail Andersson embarked on an adventuresome apprenticeship in tattooing a scant three years post graduating college that would merge his spectacular artistic skill and his destined career path into the same kind of high-definition story his vibrant tattoos have now become synonymous with.
He unflinchingly gave new meaning to the famous descriptor “starving artist” when he spent a financially skinny year and a half eating only tuna and sleeping on an air mattress to gain the priceless riches of practical experience he required while working for little to no money in established tattoo shops. He may not have been given many material items during those lean learning days, but he was paid tenfold in usable knowledge of his chosen craft.
In Andersson’s earliest days, tattoo artists practiced their preliminary skills on pig skins they would buy from the local butcher and half-ripe bananas because of their texture to learn how to wield the vibrating tattoo machine to reliable efficacy. He is quick to point out how young, upcoming tattoo artists, with the advent of computers, face an almost-unrecognizable port of entry into the parlor than he did.
“Back then, you had to know what was a liner and shader, how they worked, what capacitors they used, how to put a machine together, how to set the needle, how to sterilize them in the autoclave, needles, and metal tubes as well as what tips they used. It took a lot of knowledge.”
First learning and then swiftly ‘playing jazz’ with the laws of color, nature, highlighting, and shadowing, Andersson is set apart from many of his parlor peers for his experience-won knowledge of those older techniques but the freshest imaginable take on in-depth, internet-friendly imagery. He believes mightily in the sanctity tattoo artists must come to recognize in the tangible movements of their canvases before they can ever become the next Edward Hopper of the human body.
“The body is a dynamic form,” he says, “no matter what part of the body. The legs are not flat canvas pieces. They are muscles, structure, and shapes, and you are putting dynamic art on somebody’s body, and it’s permanent. It’s also impressive.”
The organic and bootstrap way in which Andersson approached the learning of his trade has informed the success of his immensely popular parlor, First Class Tattoos in New York City, and the skin art he produces itself.
Even a cursory glance at the jaw-dropping manner in which he renders shading, elaborate detail, and perspective quickly illustrates that Mikhail Andersson does tattoos radically differently and with a stylistic flair entirely his own and utterly indescribable. He had explained the recalibration of vision and perception necessary to draw by hand the way he does and the mastery of straight lines he earned in a time when tattoo machines were utterly non-computerized as “learning to see again.”
Andersson emphasizes the importance of respecting the lived story of the person on whom he is painting a permanent picture, but that the picture itself needs to hold a discernible life of its own.
“You must take something so gentle and precise and not mess it up because you cannot fix it. You have to get the skill to place it correctly and something that will complement the body,” he shares. Fabled now for his innovative captures of geometric galaxies, stars, flowers, nature, animals, and portraits, Andersson is as much a practitioner of the way of life promised by tattoo culture in general–one of visionary expression and liberated individuality, as he is a world-class artist with a free-spirited brand of inventive genius at his craft.
Six years into running First Class and its 8-10 permanent team members, he still thinks of himself as an artist first and a shop owner second, though he admits that the business takes up the lion’s share of his time.
Citing shows like Miami Ink in the changing of public attitudes about what tattoos and tattoo artists themselves could be and mean, he credits Instagram for the Golden Age that tattoo culture is now experiencing on a global level due to the way it opened never-before-seen travel and advertising possibilities for the profession.
Andersson still actively studies painters and is as intrigued by learning from his peers as ever, making sure never to lose his student’s eye when seeking new ways forward in his art. When asked how he has kept up and ahead with all of the monumental changes he has witnessed in the tattoo industry throughout the timeline of his career thus far, Andersson’s reply is not only in lockstep with the shifting tides of skin art but that of a life well lived in any trade:
“The experience of a tattoo artist is how we see the world. Everyone sees the world differently. They would draw it differently if you put 100 people in a room. The way I see things and how my view evolves, I probably would see things differently ten years ago, and ten years from now, I will see things differently than today. You evolve in your mind, your art, and what you put out there. It is a reflection of how you are in the world.”