I think I first met Mike Skiver in 1996 at the Charlotte Inkdependence show. I was working on my tattoo apprenticeship and it was the first convention I ever worked. Those days are pretty fuzzy, but I would guess that Bill Dedmon introduced us. I was a 19-year-old punk apprentice and I had no idea who the grumpy old guy was.
Over the years I worked a lot of shows with Bill and saw Mike a lot. If you've worked a convention or two you've probably seen Mike's Tattoo Museum booth and bought a raffle ticket from him to help support the museum. Bill encouraged me to buy raffle tickets even though I wasn't really interested, nor did I understand what Mike was actually up to. It probably didn't really sink in how important Mike's museum is until the late nineties. After that I pretty much always bought a raffle ticket or two, and never won a damn thing until Detroit this year.
I figured the Tattoo Museum finally deserved a visit since I won.
I knew that Mike had an impressive collection, but I really had no idea how impressive. I don't think anyone can really understand until you're actually there. It's like a natural disaster in that you hear about it and even see photos of it, but you just can't fathom the scope of until you see it. There is so much history that we take for granted, and Mike knows so much more than you really get a feel for in the quick few moments you spend with him at conventions. He has walls and cases full of tattoo flash and machines and memorabilia. The cases of machines alone are worth stopping in for a tour. Seeing how little yet how much machines have changed over the years was humbling. Mike knows so much machine history that I can't even begin to tell you how much information he shared with me. It was overwhelming, to say the least.
The museum is packed full of American tattoo history. It's overwhelming. It's cluttered. "I want it to be busy," Mike says, and it absolutely is. I am sure that next time I'm there I will notice a whole lot of things that I completely missed this time around. He walked through and talked about the work he'd done to the building in order to display more pieces. He opened cases full of breathtaking art and hilarious industry jokes. He showed me prototype machines that had never been tattooed with. Just being in the museum makes you feel like you are a part of something important.
Most memorable, though, is Mike himself. He remembers where he acquired every piece in the museum, and he tells the stories with reverence, humor, and pride. He is passionate about tattooing and its history, and he gets so excited about it that you can't help but be excited about it along with him, and want to learn everything that he can teach you about it. Even my wife told me that, though she was never a fan of traditional tattoo art before, spending a few hours with Skiver made her able to see the beauty of it.
So when you see him set up at conventions, stop and look at what he's got with him. Ask him questions. Listen to his stories and learn a little bit about how we all got here. Buy a handful of raffle tickets to help support the museum. And make the trip to Somerset, PA to see what you're supporting. If you are a tattooer you really owe yourself the trip.