A Portrait of the Tattoo Artist as a Wild Man
When Mad Mike's tattoo parlor opened in the heart of Fort Lauderdale's black community in August, word on the street was that Mike Scibica, the burly white guy with a skinhead haircut who appeared to be dealing in skin art, was really an undercover cop branding the neighborhood drug dealers and street thugs for easy recognition. Either that or he was a dealer trying to move in on their action. Why else would a big white dude splattered with tattoos quit a steady job driving a truck to open a tattoo storefront on the corner of Sistrunk Boulevard and Powerline Road -- the heart of one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in the city?
"I am the new dealer on this corner," says Scibica, owner, artist, and sole employee of Mad Mike's. "I deal in ink. I want to get people hooked on ink. I'll tattoo anybody who comes through that door, from dope dealers to housewives. As long as they're over 18, I'll ink them."
Clutching a tattoo gun between thick rubber-gloved fingers, he leans over the forearm of a nervous young black man. "Now you're sure you want it on your forearm?" he asks. "Maybe you should get it further up the arm, someplace less visible. When you go to apply for a job, some people frown on tattoos."
Equal parts tattoo artist, entrepreneur, and neighborhood guidance counselor, Scibica is an oddity on Sistrunk, an artery where a Caucasian male is far more likely to be carrying a badge than a local business license. His tattoo parlor, on the site of a failed pager outlet, is one of the few white-owned-and-operated businesses in the area. "People said I was nuts to open up here," he says. "I said 'You're right,' and that's why I named it Mad Mike's. The name suits my personality anyway. I'm an arrogant asshole, and if anyone doesn't like it, they can get the fuck out."
Scibica says that attitude, along with his physical appearance -- he's a big man with an ample beard and dark, piercing eyes -- keeps the gang members and drug dealers who frequent his shop in line and has already earned him a certain amount of respect on the street. "I have a couple of thugs who come by to check up on me from time to time," he says. "Make sure I'm doing OK, ask me if I'm having any problems." In return he'll sometimes cut them a deal on his already low-priced tattoos.
Beneath the menacing bad-boy image -- one Scibica thinks will be good for business -- lurks a gentle giant, a model of racial tolerance, and a hard-working family man with two adolescent boys attending predominantly black schools nearby. "You've got to find something bad to write about me," he says, flashing a sinister grin. "I'd hate for it to get out that I'm some type of counselor or something."
As if on cue, two neighborhood kids enter the shop. "What's up, Mike?" asks one of them, a Haitian teen named François who has taut cornrows crisscrossing the top of his head. "I'm getting my tattoo today."
"You got your ID with you?" asks Scibica. "When'd you turn 18?"
"Monday. Remember I told you last week I'd be back."
Francois picks out a design from among the laminated black-and-white drawings plastered to the walls of the tiny shop -- among which are roses, panthers, marijuana leaves, handguns, and gravestones.
"I'll take that one," he says, pointing to a design featuring the words "Smile Now, Cry Later" above a pair of theater masks, one with a big grin and a cigarette between its lips, the other with a sallow frown and a barrage of tears pouring from its eyes. "Only leave out the reefer, my mom's giving me enough grief about this as it is."
"Well you know what to tell her if she gets mad, right?" asks Scibica. "You got it in Miami. The last thing I need is an irate mom at my door." He lets out a big baritone laugh that shakes the long dragon on his forearm and the rows of silver hoops running up and down both ears.
Francois takes off his loose-fitting black T-shirt, and Scibica begins swabbing the young man's bare chest with alcohol. He shaves off the fuzz with a blue plastic razor and instructs his human canvas to lie back on a padded tattoo bed. François winces as Scibica approaches with the needles that will inject permanent ink into the skin cells on his chest. With cautious precision Scibica begins filling in the outline of the design, which is far less popular than those expressing less noble sentiments, like the initials M.O.B. hovering above a wad of cash. The letters, which stand for "Money Over Bitches," are one of a handful of similar money-oriented designs on the walls of the shop. One design puts wealth over matrimony, pairing stacks of coins and cash with the words "Till Death Do Us Part." Another features a pot-smoking drug dealer counting his cash with the words "Takin' Care of Business." Scibica warns some of his customers away from certain designs. "I tell them, 'Why put a gun or a reefer leaf on your arm? You're just asking for trouble,'" he says. "You're marking yourself for the cops."
Although his only run-ins with law enforcement stem from unpaid speeding tickets, Scibica says he understands life on the street. His mother, who was 16 years old when he was born, put him up for adoption, and he was raised in a string of foster homes. He began doing drugs and drinking heavily when he was a teenager and lived on the street in Los Angeles for a year when he was 18. Around that same time, he began to go clean. "I don't do any of that stuff any more," he says. "I'm crazy enough as it is, why enhance it with drugs or alcohol?"
After working for years managing buildings in Fort Lauderdale, Scibica three years ago began cultivating his tattooing skills by reading a book on the art and technique of tattooing. He quit his job, began driving a truck part-time, bought a Harley, and started practicing by putting ink on his own legs and arms. In August he scraped together all his pennies and went into business for himself.
"I was scared as hell," he says of the business venture. "But I was also sick of conforming to society and being a yes person with a big smile on my face. Having my own business is so much better for my mental health. There were no tattoo parlors in the area catering to a predominantly dark-skinned clientele. I saw a void, and I filled it. The first month was great, but now things have slowed down. I think I tattooed everyone in the neighborhood.
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