interview: Mike Giant

Mike Gigant is a graffiti and tattoo artist, co-founder of the Rebel8 brand and a talented illustrator with his own, recognizable style, which made huge influence on us. It’s the perfect example of the trueness to the roots, and the importance of his lifework. In order to introduce you this creative person, we did not want to write an article or translate an old interview with Mike, so we contacted him personally and asked some questions about  his style, Buddhism-influence on his life, tattooing, cars and his opinion about modern street culture. Enjoy.

Let’s remember the first years of REBEL8. What was the future of the brand in your mind and did you achieve it? Can you tell us about that times and changes, that had been coming since then?

Joshy started REBEL8 in 2003 with $500.  I was his first employee.  I never had a vision for the brand.  I just drew stuff that Joshy put on clothing.  At first I was paid by the piece, then I was put on salary.  The salary alone felt like an achievement after years of freelancing.  The brand built a loyal following in the Bay Area over ten years then it was moved to Los Angeles where it’s based now.

What do you think about the modern street culture, which has extremely changed in recent years and now it’s similar to the endless fashion show? I remember that times, when Hypebeast for instance was about the real and original streetwear brands, like REBEL8. Now it’s like a typical Vogue column. What do you think is the reason of that situation and what will be in the future?

Streetwear has become part of the mainstream fashion world.  That’s pretty obvious.  But I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  I just think small start-up brands have a harder time getting shelf space in stores.  But online, I still think it’s pretty easy to build a following as a start-up.  Especially if you’re just trying to have some fun and your bottom line isn’t financial growth.

Had this situation and the changes somehow been affecting on REBEL8?

I left the company in 2015 so I honestly can’t say what’s going on with the brand these days or how their business is being affected by the changes.  But I did see recently that REBEL8 no longer does wholesale.  I imagine other brands are doing the same.

What is streetwear for you and which changes did you notice in it? Will be great to point out some positive and also negative moments. 

To me, real streetwear is created by individuals who aren’t happy wearing what everybody else is wearing and feel compelled to make their own clothes/statements.  I think it’s always been that way and continues to be.  The positive side of streetwear in my mind are brands like The Hundreds, Obey and Death Traitors — brands that have something to say and use t-shirts to spread their message.  On the negative side of streetwear are brands like Ed Hardy and Von Dutch — brands begun on wealthy investors and celebrity endorsements whose sole intent is making money.  Luckily, they never last but I don’t think they’re ever designed to last.  I think that “make your money and run” attitude hurts real streetwear.

Mike Giant

You draw for many years and despite some changes in your style, it’s still unique! How did you choose it and why you only use black and white colors?

I studied the work of Patrick Nagel as a kid.  In my teens I studied the work of Charles Burns, Rick Griffin, VCJ and Jim Phillips.  After studying their works, I think my style evolved organically from there.  I think it’s mostly black and white because I’m colorblind, I love simplicity and I love Sharpie markers.

You’ve been tattooing for a long time, but then decided to stop. Tell us how it all started and what was a conclusion after all? How tattooing changed your life? What is your opinion about the current situation in that industry, when people just don’t care about traditions and tattoo-culture?

I started tattooing in 1998, at my home in San Francisco.  I was apprenticed by Nalla Smith and moved to NYC in 1999 to work at his shop, East Side Inc. I returned to the Bay Area the following year and worked at Newskool Tattoo in San Jose for a while.  Then I picked up a spot at Everlasting Tattoo in SF where I remained until 2002.  At that point I moved to Oakland and took a spot at Tattoo 13, one of Freddy Corbin’s shops.  I was only there for about year then ended up back in my hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Around 2006 I founded Stay Gold Tattoo in Albuquerque with some old friends.  I worked there for a few years then returned to the Bay Area in 2008.  From that point on I stopped doing tattoos professionally.  I still tattoo friends about twice a month though.  It’s just not something I pursue.

Making tattoos was a great way for me to earn a living for many years but it did take its toll of my body.  Tattooing all day really hurts my hands, wrists, elbows, back and neck.  Drawing on paper is far less damaging so I pursue freelance work a lot more these days.

And I don’t mind the recent changes in the world of tattooing.  I don’t think everyone that wants to make tattoos has to go through a “traditional” apprenticeship.

Can you remember that moment, when you took a spray can? What graffiti mean to you? Is it an art, a way to blow off steam or a reason to relax and spend time with your friends?

I started writing graffiti in 1989 in Albuquerque.  I’ve always been interested in different art mediums and fell in love with spray cans straight away.  I love being able to paint really big, really fast and spraypaint is a great tool for that.  And working at night illegally was a terribly addictive rush.  I’m also thankful for the friendships I developed with my bombing partners over the years.

In a social media you have photos of cars and bikes, real ones and also drawn. Can you tell us about that hobby? How did it start and what do you like in an American classic cars?

My father raced a Ford Mustang in the late 1960s.  His brothers also raced cars and motorcycles.  When I was a kid, my dad would always point out cool cars and tell me what year and make they were.  He took me to races and car shows.  It’s just something I grew up around and I developed a love for the shapes and mechanisms of motor vehicles.  I discovered lowriders when my family moved to Albuquerque in 1979.  I also built a lot of model cars as a kid, something I still do to this day.  And recently I bought a 2015 Indian Scout which really reinvigorated my interest in motorcycles.

From your interview and blog, we know that you have been in many countries. Can you name the most interesting places that impressed you or maybe somehow affect to your life?

My favorite city is Paris. I love visiting the Catacombs with my friend Psyckoze.  I’ve been to various parts of the system on 5 or 6 occassions.  It’s the most exciting place I’ve ever been.  And I love the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou, the Palais de Tokyo and Magda Danysz Gallery.  Tagging in Paris at night is a real thrill too.

I really love Tokyo and Yokohama too.  I’ve been to Japan about 6 times and I always had a wonderful time.  My Japanese friends are so cool and I love the food there.  I miss it a lot.

You was born in New York, grow up in New Mexico, and then was San Francisco. Did it somehow affect to your life and what is a real home for you know?

I feel at home in New Mexico.  I don’t remember much of my life in upstate New York because I was so young.  San Francisco has changed so much over the years that I definitely don’t feel at home there anymore.  Looking back, I think my time in New Mexico has had the most effect on my life and way of seeing things.

As we know, you have been practicing Buddhism for a long time. Can you tell us about that in detail, how it came to your life and what has changed since then?

I first learned about Buddhism in college.  When I moved to San Francisco in 1993 I continued to study Buddhism on my own.  I practiced mostly alone until I met Noah Levine.  He founded the Dharma Punx around 2001 and I was a regular at his weekly practice sessions.  Through Noah I learned about the Spirit Rock Meditation Center and did a few short retreats there. Then I began practicing at the Shambala Center in Berkeley around 2002.  In 2003, I moved to Dechen Choling, a Shambala center in the south of France.  I was only there for a few weeks before deciding to leave and visit nearby Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s community.  I found what I was looking for at Plum Village.  I stayed for two weeks then returned to the US.  I returned to Plum Village the following summer for another two weeks.  In my mind, Thich Nhat Hanh is the greatest Buddhist teacher alive today and his teachings continue to be a huge influence on my daily life.

Additionally, I’ve done many weeklong Vippassana retreats in New Mexico and California.  I feel like those experiences have had the greatest impact on my practice and I recommend retreats to anyone who has real interest in improving their lives through meditation.

What do you know about Russia? Maybe some graffiti/tattoo artists or brands?

In 1988 I visited St. Petersburg (it was still called Leningrad then) and Moscow.  I was 16 years old. I liked Russia a lot.  I visited the Hermitage Museum, Peterhof Palace, Gorky Park and I got to see a Russian circus performance.  I drank vodka for the first time.  And I remember I traded my jeans and heavy metal tapes with some local teenagers for a Russian flag and belt buckle and a matryoshka doll before I left the country.

These days I catch lots of cool graffiti writing and tattooing from Russia, but to be honest I can’t think of specific names.  I’m particularly impressed by the black and grey tattooing in Russia, especially the Cholo style work.  It’s truly world class.

Mike Giant

What has surprised you recently? It can be a book, movie or music album?

I was reading “Sex at Dawn” recently.  There’s some pretty mind-blowing stuff in that book.  For instance, in many ancient civilizations (including some that currently exist) it is believed that babies are made of semen.  Such that, when a woman begins to show that she’s pregnant, she is encouraged to have sex with as many men in the village as she chooses.  In this way, it is believed that the baby should exhibit the best attributes of her mother and “fathers”.  That makes perfect sense to me.  Why wouldn’t all humans for the last 100,000 years think that’s how babies were made?  But it was only in the last century that scientists discovered it only takes one sperm to fertilize an egg.  It blew my mind to consider how huge a change in perception that is.

Can you share your plans for the future? New drawings, REBEL8 releases or maybe new projects?

I’m currently working on projects for Vans, Reebock and Volcom.  I’m also doing some projects with Run the Jewels.  And I’m doing a show with artist Sam Flores in July in Albuquerque.  That’s all I can think or right now.

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