Each month our intrepid artist liaison and generally jovial Eikon staffer Patrick Coste sits down with a tattoo artist to get to know them a little better. This week he's catching up with tattooer & metal detector Mike Austin.
A passionate curator is what best describes Mike Austin for me. A living, breathing “library” of old relic knowledge. DA tattooer from the golden age of tattooing at his finest. You could easily get sucked into his world for hours on end... - Patrick Coste
Name: Mike Austin
Years tattooing: 30 years-ish...
Place of business: Longwoods Trail Tattoo, London, Ontario, Canada
Instagram: @longwoodstrailtattoo, @olderelic
Patrick Coste: Good day Mike! Thank you so much for taking the time to basically shoot the sh** with me about topics that are very much to my liking to be honest!! I see that you’re quite busy. What are you up to these days?
Mike Austin: Hi Patrick! I'm baking artisan bread right now. Gonna make some muffins in a bit. Thanks for asking me to chat. What have you been up to?
PC: I recently got into spoon carving. I’ve got a hook knife and a decent knife set, lol! I knew that was going to be a great moment, lol, but Mike I definitely know that we could go on and on about everything... If I remember correctly, that’s what happened last time I saw you at NIX2019, so let's quickly get to a few of the questions I had in mind for you!
MA: That sounds about right, lol! Ok go for it!
PC: Thank you. For those who have yet to meet you, I know you've been tattooing since way before the hot TV shows and I can imagine it was even before custom tattooing was a thing, right? Tell me how you got started. I know you have tons of stories... I can’t wait!
MA: Lol! Yes, that I do. It came down to “younger me” not wanting to get a haircut, lol. I was about 17 and was looking for a job. I went to a restaurant and the manager was ready to hire me if I cut my hair...I was ready to wear a hairnet and all. No way, ain't planning on having a dishwashing career, so I went a few doors down and applied to draw flash for a tattoo shop! Remember, it was indeed when custom tattoos weren't a thing.
I still have long hair today, lol, and if it comes off I’ll get a Haudenosaunee-style hair cut.
PC: Translation please Mike…
MA: Lol! It’s an Iroquois braid. They were from around here, London, Ontario, for many many years. The shop is actually on the Longwoods Road, Highway 2 that used to be named “Longwoods Trail” and was a trade route from before the country was what it is today.
Continuing on with my beginnings (and bring me back to this later ok!?). So I went and applied to draw flash in a shop named Blue Dragon, it’s now long gone. That was in 1985. They told me to come back Saturday, and I got hired and drew flash there for about a year. Then I got asked if I wanted to learn how to tattoo. It was a father/son shop, Frank and Darren, so it was an important thing. Remember, this was way back when custom tattooing wasn't really a thing and tattoo shops were scarce around the country. People like the Dutchman, Jeffries and Glover were the only ones really doing custom tattooing and my years of drawing led me to do so.
They started in a garage and at some point the son told me, “I hate my tattoos, if you can tattoo the way you draw, I can teach you. This is special and you’ll make a good living”. Very traditional in a sense. In return, I treated it with extreme respect.
PC: What was the first tattoo?
MA: A crazy rooster! Hah! So there I started at 18 and Darren, the son, told me he hated his tattoos and it was the father who practiced on the son and vice versa. I began fixing their mutual tattoos. My apprenticeship lasted about 3 years and I stayed and worked for those 3 years.
PC: Do you have one pivotal tattooing moment where you can say - Wow that was a moment!
MA: I would say it was at the Dunstable Tattoo Convention back in the 80s, when only a few conventions were around. There were maybe a few in each state in the USA, but Europe wasn't the biggest circuit. Amsterdam was one, and Dunstable was a great one, so we went there and represented Canada.
I did a tattoo on a fellow from France. I didn’t understand a word, but tattoos are a universal language. There were Irish I couldn't even understand, hah! Communication was hard but anyhow, I tattooed that Frenchman. It was in 1998 and I was happy about how the tattoo turned out. Then I remember very well, a tall man with a white ponytail and a big moustache came to me telling me how good this tattoo was. I didn’t know the man, so my younger self, full of bull, answered with something quite cocky and went on a bit and I got stopped! That man was Dave Shore and he told me, “Let me stop you right there. Your tattoo is good, not great”. I was talking to THE Dave Shore. He was working in Amsterdam at that time and I’ll remember that moment forever.
PC: Thank you so much for sharing. There's a lot of history in your life, I can see old canoes and muskets on my screen. It’s hard to know you and skip the historical part of your life and all the metal detecting you do. It would be easy once more to get lost in Mike Austin’s tall tales of old, lol, everything that brought you to now. Where are you at today?
MA: Well, today I’m in Melbourne, a few minutes from London, Ontario where Longwoods Trail Tattoo is located. It’s the old Highway 2 that used to be called Longwoods Trail for many years, and was used by the First Nations for over a thousand years! Lots of history, new and old, around here. Some call it the smallest tattoo museum, but rarely do they notice…
We’re located in this old 1950s truck stop/diner-type place, and it’s also part of the history of the old highway. Recently Debbie, my wife, and I were talking about the “if you could be anywhere, where would you be?” question. We were like, “Right here!”
I tattoo with my brother John, who is a big part of my life and this history, and it’s been this way for the last 20 years or so. It’s actually the first nice shop name we’ve had, lol. Tattoo shops have the weirdest names at times, this one’s our nicest, lol. At one point we had Mike’s Tattoos, then Mike’s Custom Tattoos, then Custom Tattoos by Mike & John, lol.
PC: You know of my love for tattoo machines, anything new in your museum?
MA: Actually yes!! Hah! I recently got new machines from Kev Shercliff in Staffordshire, England. He sent me a bunch of Mickey Sharpz, Mickey Bees, old stuff...quite old actually in tattoo years. He told me, “I don't collect them, I build them. You’re the machine keeper.”
PC: I’m sure there’s way more to cover. We’re just getting warmed up! Hah!
I know you love history at large.. Like, you LOVE it, and it’s been a life-long affair. How did you get to love it so much?
MA: If I can pinpoint one moment for this one, it would be when I became pen pals with, and then met, the Canadian writer Farley Mowat.
He was the first person I drank a beer with too, lol! For those who don't know, Mowat was a prolific writer who wrote “Never Cry Wolf”, “People of the Deer” and others you all probably know and probably studied in English literature at school. So my younger self, at 10 years old, started a written correspondence with him and then a relationship that I cherished for all my life until he passed away in 2014 in Port Hope, Ontario.
Farley Mowat, people have got to know this, was a war hero! He saved several thousand Dutch people from starvation during WW2. He stole an Allied Forces jeep with his acolytes, and drove through enemy lines to tell the German generals that it would be smart to surrender because they were going to lose big time. He asked them to let the planes drop food to people. They asked, “How can we trust you, and where?”. Mowat said, “We’ll put a big white X and you’ll have to trust us”. He was decorated with several medals for this.
I illustrated his last book, which never got published. It’s a gathering of short poems mocking humans… I might self-publish it later on! There’s also the University of Toronto time capsule that’s to be opened in 100 years, in which he included a lot of stuff that we exchanged over the years!
PC: WOW, thank you for telling us about this!! Amazing! Your passion is staggering...Another topic of interest from the adventures of Mike Austin, lol, is the metal detecting you’ve been doing. I have to say, I'm a big fan!!
MA: Lol! Thank you. I started metal detecting when I was about 11 years old, with Bill Campbell, an unofficial historian who told me he’d found a mastodon tooth! I was sold!
The first time I went detecting, I visited the site of an airplane crash that happened in the ‘40s/‘50s. It was in a farmer’s field. The planes did a few rounds and then crashed. They later built a monument near Chatham for the people who lost their lives at that time.
I do it alone., it’s my time. You know how tattooing goes, it’s demanding and takes a lot of energy, mental and physical. I go detecting to find balance.
PC: I’ve got to ask, what’s the best find you've discovered over the years!
I’ve found many objects over the years, such as an Officer’s waist belt plate from an American officer. He was part of the 800th Kentucky and Ohio marauders who came in 1814 and destroyed everything. Murdered, stole, burned cabins.... They had two campsites and I believe I found one of the two. I also found an Officer’s gold-plated button, part of a pocket watch and a barrel band from an old rifle. I found a rock celt and an older copper culture, 3000+ year old fish gaffing hook that you would tie on a pole.
My favourite object that I’ve found, occurred when I dropped a window crank off a second story window right down into the hostas. It’s when I found my wife’s ring, lost three years before... It was her favourite and a great memory of when her father passed away!
PC: That’s crazy, and you’re a great romantic there Mike! Hah! It’s nice to see a happy person in the right place.
MA: Funny you should say that. Debbie and I were talking about where we would live if we could live anywhere… It’s beautiful here and there’s a lot of history around here. We love it!
PC: Is that your beehive I saw on your social media page?
MA: Oh yes! I got into beekeeping about three years ago. They’re fantastic for the environment and they’re so active it’s crazy. There are many acres around here with no pesticides. I harvested 130 lbs of honey last time and sold it in a second!
Our environment that we’ve created only has native plants, right from the beginning of the spring. By the way, never cut dandelions, they’re mandatory for bees. Everybody should have bees period. Get bees Patrick. Lol!
PC: GULP! Ok Sir, I'm on it! Mike, thank you so much for your time. I knew we’d get to touch just a tip of all this history. We need to revisit this once more.
Follow Mike Austin adventures on instagram: https://www.instagram.com/olderelic/
You can also check out this awesome documentary about Mike Austin on VIMEO: Longwoods Trail