Known for his breathtaking ability to create unity within the boldness and complexity of black and gray work that has scored him a booth amoungst industry elites at the world-renown Bang Bang Tattoo in NYC, tattoo artist, Max, is leaving his mark on skin canvas and simultaneously attracting the masses. I stopped by the shop and caught up with the man behind the machine to discuss his artistic specialties, working at Bang Bang, his journey within the tattoo world and more.
First and foremost, introduce yourself to our readers. Tell us about journey within the tattoo world.
I am originally from Russia. I’ve been doing art my whole life. I become a tattoo artist late in my life; I made the decision when I was 25 years old. I did graphic design, illustrative artwork for musicians and all of that stuff, and I hit a point in my life where I felt like I needed a change.
Did you feel like you were in a stagnant mindset at the point where your art wasn’t therapeutic?
I was working with big companies and looking for a job; it was killing me. I spent most of my time looking for a job, but still working. I had to get approvals from so many people on every single job, and I felt like I wanted to work one on one with someone, you know? I made a list for myself. I put it together and asked myself what I wanted from my new career and asked myself what I wanted to accomplish.
Beyond your artistry?
I didn’t even know at that point. One of the pieces of the list certainly tied in with art, but some other examples were me stating that I wanted to help people. I wanted to make a difference in someone’s life, you know, something that actually mattered. Also, I wanted to be my own boss. I didn’t want to rely on anyone. At that point, my friends and I were creating a company and I felt like I was dependent on them. So, while I was putting that list together, and as cliche as it is, I was watching one of those tattoo shows and it just made sense. The first thing that I did was make a phone call to my friend Tole who I went to high school with and works here at Bang Bang and I asked him what I should do to move forward with this. I asked him if I should just get a tattoo machine and start tattooing at home [laughs]. He recommended that I find a tattoo shop and find an apprenticeship, and the way that the planets aligned, my friend from back in the day was finishing his apprenticeship in Las Vegas and I kind of took his spot. But, the whole time I was there, Tole was my mentor. I would call him all the time. I liked the guys that I worked with, but I wanted more. I wanted to be the best. So, Tole was my getaway toward New York City. I didn’t speak any English when I first came over to the states, but New York never left my mind. I knew that it was going to be challenging, but I couldn’t stay in NYC when I first got here. I was only 17 at that time.
Right. And in NYC, it’s so cut-throat; there is no empathy for you only being 17 years old.
Yeah. And at 17 years old, you really don’t know what you want. Vegas taught me a lot, everything happens for a reason, but I finally made my way out there to NYC. I always felt like an outsider. I never had interest in many other tattoo shops. The thing that I live by is not knowing is the best knowledge, so when you come to a certain experience, that initial feeling that you get is the truest one. And I just knew.
Yes. That feeling is what is deep within that an individual may not have translated outside of themselves. I perceive that in life you learn that through experience, and that feeling of knowing and being in tune with where you are momentously meant to be is priceless.
Yeah. I went to conventions. I tattooed at conventions. We would have a few artists that would rent a booth and all I saw was the same crowd. Everyone dresses the same. Everyone was the same thing, and I wasn’t that. I felt like I knew better, and I didn’t want to be that same cliche tattoo artist. I always try to break the barrier. I push my limits. And I always try to push myself with every tattoo.
On that note, I saw in your catalog that a lot of your work has a boldness within it yet maintains a complexity. How would you describe what your specialty is?
You know, I’m kind of new to this. There is no specialty. I have tried many different things, and I am still learning. I think that we all are, you know? I am starting to see a pattern of my own work, and I am just now starting to figure that out. You know, being in a shop like this that has such a broad following, it’s no secret that social media does wonders for us. We can see analytics of what kind of followers that we have, so we have to kind of cater to their needs. The demand shapes what you become. Also, I started working at a tattoo shop for eight months prior to actually tattooing my best friend and getting my first tattoo. It’s a different journey than most, but I experienced the anxiety of getting your first ink. You ask
yourself what is important and what do you want to have on your body forever, you know?
You know, it’s good that you waited so long. For instance, I got my first tattoo when I was sixteen. Let’s just say that in retrospect, I would have made an alternative choice. You collected life experiences prior to making that monumental decision, which I perceive led to a more meaningful choice.
Yes. I was 25 years old. I think that people who are between 16 and 18, and not everyone, of course, they don’t know what they want. Many tattoo artists have really bad tattoos. They thought that whatever they have tattooed was important to them at that time, or were intrigued by tattoo culture, or whatever trend was existing at that time.
Tattoos are like a yearbook in a sense. You know, a reflection of the psychological state of mind that you were in at that time in which you can look back and reflect upon.
Yeah. The art fascinated me, but I wanted my first tattoo to be a reflection of my entire life so far. My first tattoo had to either do with either my past life, my future goals or maybe someone in the family; those things you cannot take away from yourself. I ended up getting a tattoo reflecting the passing of my grandfather. As I dove deeper into thinking about it, his whole life journey amazed me and he was very inspirational. He was a musician who quit high school just to do that one thing. He followed his passion. He ended up being a licensed Ukrainian trumpet player. So, I got a trumpet with fire going into it. Basically, it reflects that whatever you enjoy doing, you have to pursue it. Otherwise, making money by doing a typical job at some random place is not fulfilling.
Totally. It is a lackluster existence. I perceive that individuals who succumb to that are always missing a piece of their puzzle.
Yeah. The biggest perk of my job is that I work with people one on one. I stay with that person forever. You know, you make a mark on them, and that impression that you make on them makes you connected.
And every time that person receives praise for the tattoo, they more than likely will get asked where they received the piece, and there begins the cyclic nature of it all…
Yeah. And I enjoy the time that I spend with the clients. We have conversations and sometimes those clients become really good friends. Sometimes family. Sometimes people repeatedly come back, they write letters saying thank you, and that is so big. It doesn’t matter if it is a dot on someone’s body, you know, you create that connection.
Do you find it therapeutic to tattoo?
I think that it is. I think that is part of a therapeutic experience. I always try to steer people in the right direction of what they are getting. A lot of people come in and they don’t know what they are getting tattooed. A lot of times, the clients have great ideas, and I am super down for it, but, sometimes people have ideas that I know they will regret.
Are you vulnerable when bringing your perception to the client’s attention?
I have no problem with that. I feel like with our shop, everyone collaborates. Whatever piece you are working on, everyone knows about. Everyone gives you suggestions and vice versa. It’s great. It’s very important. It’s very important to consider that we all make mistakes in life. There is an artist in all of us, and the artist within always wants to express themselves. I don’t look at it as just a piece of art, and I know that a lot of tattoo artists will not agree with me and think that each tattoo just has to look good. It’s very personal. I was a big fan of Japanese tattoo work, as you can tell that I have Japanese tattoo work on my arm, and what those guys created back in the day has a lot of meaning. Like what I said before, not knowing is the best thing. You can tell when someone doesn’t really know something about themselves, and sometimes you just know that someone comes in with an idea, but it’s not exactly what they really want.
But, you work together cohesively toward attempting to achieve a final piece and map it out?
Yes. You try to satisfy and achieve each client’s necessities and what they are trying to achieve with this piece of art on their body that is permanent, so you want to put a little bit of yourself in it, but it’s ultimately about the client. It is their piece of art.
What do you do outside of the shop to contribute to your creativity?
Well, I think that NYC in general, and especially this area around the shop is incredible. You pass by the same place every day, but the art on the wall has changed. Someone will put a sticker somewhere that has a message and it’s a living, breathing work of art. NYC on its own is inspirational.
Yes. You subconsciously derive inspiration everywhere you go in NYC.
Yes. I used to do graffiti art on the walls. That is how Tole and I actually had a connection. Ever since I was a little kid, I did that. The staircase in my apartment in Russia had my art all over the place and the cleaning man would always bust my balls for it and my parents hated me for it. Leaving your work on the wall with people not knowing who actually put it there fascinates me. And what I do today is the ultimate form of graffiti art. The only thing is that graffiti is up to you, it’s what you want to express. But, as a tattoo artist, it’s a collaboration. We’re a team.
How has working at one of the most prolific tattoo shops, Bang Bang NYC, had an impact on your life?
It has had a tremendous impact. Bang is such an interesting individual. The artists that he collected and put together is not just about art, it’s about the personalities that people have and how we all connect. It’s my family. I have been here for six months, and I can share things with anyone in here. I enjoy coming here. The clients feel the connection that we have at the shop. If you noticed, there is no art on the walls…
Yes. I caught that. I perceive that it is a potent piece of this shop that leads clients to truly dive in and open up their minds to what they really want to get tattooed, rather than reference to what meets their eye.
Yes, yes. And you see that the actual artists stand out. You see nothing but artists. We can create privacy if you need it, but you can almost feel an aura within the shop; it’s open space. You can feel each aura from station to station. It’s so obvious here. It doesn’t matter if you make millions on Wall Street or if you are an artist, you are not defined by the amount of money that you make or how successful you are. At the end of the day, you are a human being with emotions, demands, and needs. And that is the message that we send out here at Bang Bang NYC.