The art of Michael Malone, AKA Rollo Banks: Always in ink, now on paper
Bull's-Eyes & Black Eyes: The Art of Michael Maloneedited by Don Ed Hardy
Hardy Marks Publications, 108 pp., $40
Rollo Banks taught me to paint with watercolors in the Eighties. We were married then, both working for the Chronicle, where he was the exalted "cover master," producing his own work and hiring young talent like Keith Graves and Frank Kozik. His Chinese New Year series was the most famous, but his best cover for the paper is also a classic: the Day of the Dead, seen on T-shirts to this day.
He also brought world-class tattooing to Austin. The town had a spotty history with tattooing long before that, but he had the bad fortune to move here just as tattooing was becoming popular. "Becoming popular" is the key phrase, for in 1984 Austin's tattoo business was just a drop in the ink bottle. "Bad fortune" is, because, in his crusty estimation, trends were useless ways of rendering something to its lowest common denominator. "Let's take tattooing out of the gutter and put it on the curb," he'd snark.
Rollo Banks -- the nom-de-tattoo of California-born Michael Malone -- was used to the high-volume Chinatown bustle of Honolulu. He'd been tattooing there since the Vietnam War, when Navy, Army, and Air Force boys lined up out the door to get that panther on their biceps. Those were the glory days for rebel art, and a way for him to make money doing what he really loved -- drawing.
Malone discovered drawing at an early age. Raised by an arty mother and a macho-man father unlikely to appreciate his son's artistic side, Malone's dad approved "when he found out I could draw naked girls." Drawing naked girls came in handy for the tattoo business, but it didn't keep him afloat in Austin. Not even his worldwide reputation as a master tattooer helped; tattooing was on the rise, but Austin slumped with the Eighties bust. Malone returned to Honolulu in 1988.
In the Nineties, Malone slowly phased himself out of shop tattooing, but not its art. Much of his reputation was built on making tattoo machines and drawing "flash," the name for sheets of tattoo design, as it was on his tattoos. Malone, a collector of skulls, crucifixes, and other nouveau objets d'art, also began building tattoo art lamps and other sculptures, drawing and painting for his own delight. No matter what medium he tried, his tattoo background was an obvious influence with its bold outlines and bright primary and secondary colors.
Bull's-Eyes & Black Eyes was a long time coming. Subtitled The Art of Michael Malone, it features gorgeously printed ink and watercolor works primarily from the Nineties, with the occasional lamp and Chronicle cover thrown in. With a Warholian eye for pop art, Malone uses Kewpie dolls, the cartoon devil Hot Stuff, and traditional tattoo images of birds, roses, and banners, and mixes them in with Asian motifs. His love of Asian art, particularly Japanese, is the recurring theme, but what's so impressive is the different manifestations of it: the curly waves, swirling clouds, the kanji, all presented in the tattoo-influenced context. It's a spectacular tribute to his life's work.
The real star of this book is the lengthy interview between publisher/editor Don Ed Hardy, also a tattoo artist, and Malone himself. Malone has an entertaining, hard-boiled manner of speaking, like a Damon Runyon character, pooh-poohing any glorification of tattooing. His acerbic view of the business (and the world) is witty and accurate, and he's a raconteur on par with the best.
Malone's tattoos, like his Day of the Dead T-shirts, are still seen around Austin. His tour de force is on Jim Hughes -- the owner of Atomic City, better known as "The Prince" -- who sports an eye-popping full body "suit" of Japanese movie monsters. Now in his 60s, Malone is retired and lives north of San Francisco, where he draws, paints, and still signs his name "Rollo."