He is the prototype of a tough guy, or maybe a cross between Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man and the Bionic Man. Sitting across from his wheelchair, my attention is immediately drawn to his septum nose ring, sleeve tattoos and the purple-tinted sunglasses shading his eyes from florescent light.
But then Mike Dewey, 37, owner of Empire Tattoo in Upland, says 60 percent of his body is covered in tats—which, of course, causes me to look more closely at his legs. A bad motocross accident recently left both limbs broken and incased in plaster from the knees down. Far from incapacitated despite his MX mishap, he maneuvers easily behind the counter and displays photos of his adventures to artist Mikey Ramos, referring to the experience as “cool.” His last surgery was on July 6, during which his bones were pieced together with screws, and he mentions swelling but does not let on if he is in pain.
It obviously takes a lot to faze Mike Dewey.
Like with any illustrated man, it becomes necessary to separate the tales that surround him into fact and fiction—but here goes anyway.
Fact: He is a close friend of Blink 182’s Travis Barker and was responsible for the checkerboard race flags on Barker’s neck; the words “Can I Say” across his chest; no small portion of Barker’s right sleeve; and the heart with two birds on the back of his neck. This last design was a dedication to Barker’s mom.
Fiction: His shop is strategically placed where Foothill Boulevard meets a small access road called Dewey Way—but it was not named in his honor. This is merely an advantageous coincidence that adds mystique to his good reputation.
More Facts: His first tattoo was done by a celebrity (of sorts); a man only known as Bernie, who was the actual biker/father-figure to Rocky in the 1985 film, Mask. He got a “Corrosion of Conformity” tattoo for his eighteenth birthday—after the seminal punk rock band whose longevity did not outlast the ink—but has since covered it up in favor of a new theme. Many of his own tattoos—an assemblage of screws, motors, spark plugs and other car parts—reflect his undying love of hotrods.
Dewey won’t be back in business until the first week of August, but this is not a hardship. Word-of-mouth advertisement (hey, the flags on Barker’s neck speak for themselves) and the occasional phone book ad have him booked three to four months in advance, year-round.
“Most of my customers won’t let anyone else tattoo them once I’ve worked on them, and they tell me that if I ever quit tattooing they won’t be getting tattoos anymore,” he says. “I have a very loyal and regular clientele.”
That’s today, but 14 years ago he never expected to go into the business of inking. He loved tattoos and was in the main branch of Empire Tattoo in Rialto weekly, just hanging out or having new designs permanently inked onto his skin, but he had a steady job driving a semi-truck. Then his true calling began to take hold.
Dewey became the owner of Empire through his friendship with Shawn Warcot—the original proprietor of the Rialto, Riverside and Redlands locations—when his previous workplace was shut down. He was apprenticed, tattooing a half-sleeve dragon on a customer’s arm six months later.
“I picked it up fairly quickly,” he says. “It’s preferable if you have art skills, because you learn that much faster. Otherwise you’re learning how to draw and tattoo (at the same time), and that could take years.” He purchased the Upland location in 2000, after seven years working there.
John Sunseri, one of his five artists who now sits at a station behind the counter tattooing the word “gambler” in Old English on the front of a customer’s lower neck, was apprenticed in much the same way three years ago.
“John was very quick,” Dewey says. “In six months he was tattooing better than most of us around here who had been tattooing for over five years.”
Sunseri, who has tattoos over 30 percent of his own body, says he got his first tattoo at Empire, and that credit should be directed to the right place.
“I don’t think I could have learned from a different person or worked at a better shop,” he says. “Dewey taught me everything I needed to know.”
Within a regular workweek, Dewey is booked Saturday through Tuesday on an appointment-only basis.
“I still love it,” he says. “I do every tattoo like it’s my best and that’s one of the reasons why I’ve been successful. Many people are in it for the money; the more tattoos you do the more money you make, so you knock them out.
“But you have to do every tattoo like it’s your favorite and do high-quality work. That’s what everybody in this shop does. It doesn’t matter if it’s a quarter-sized tattoo or if it’s a full sleeve, you have to do it at the highest quality that it can be done.”
He and his wife Bobbie, his high school sweetheart, have been married for 16 years. This is a fact he has to confirm by looking across the counter and shouting, “how long have we been married?” Bobbie is a walking advertisement of his work. A feminine skull and crossbones design resembling her own features and coloring and a flower cover the tops of both of her feet. Counting them up together, they determine that Mike has done about 10 of her tattoos.
The depth and crisp detail evident in Dewey’s large portfolio of work echoes his admission that he cannot be hemmed in by one style. He says he can do just about everything a customer wants within reason, from realism to traditional ink work.
“One customer commissioned me to do his tattoo because his wife had finally given him permission but said he could only get one,” he says laughing. “So we did a dragon, but it took up his whole back. It was only one tattoo but his wife wasn’t very happy.”
Though returning to his shop is his first order of business, he says he will gladly return to motocross once he has completely healed.
“He can’t wait,” Bobbie says with a laugh of her own.
The Bionic Man smiles as he looks at his wife. “It’s not like I have injuries all the time, but when it goes wrong, it goes wrong pretty bad,” he says.