Section: Tattoos 11197Autor: Amir
Datum: 13.01.2008
Bereich: Tattoos

Detailed interview with Mike Portnoy of DREAM THEATER


Interview with Mike Portnoy (MP) – drummer from the legendary New York Prog band DREAM THEATER by Amir Djawadi (AD) for  

Mike was interested, what the subject was for this interview and so I explained it to him.

AD: Basically it´s all about your tattoos. Which was your first one?

MP: My first one was the DREAM THEATER MAJESTY-symbol. I got that in 1988, so I
was 21. So that´s my oldest one and I have seen hundreds, maybe thousands of
MAJESTY-symbols throughout the world. It´s good to know, that I´ve had the first one, that anybody ever had. And the second one was Charlie Dominici – our old singer.

AD: I saw that on the DVD.

MP: Yeah, he lived with me back in those days. We shared a house together and than I came home with this and then he loved it so much and then 2 days later he went and got it.

AD: So what was next?

MP: The second one?? (Thinking for a moment) I cannot remember at this point. Maybe this ankle bracelet!? Me and my brother went and got them together. That was in 1989 or so. Then came these music notes and everything I added next to the MAJESTY-symbol. I don´t know – then perhaps the Images and words – the sacred heart – that may have been next. I got that right after we finished Images and words in 1991. Before it came out. Then I probably got the Carpe Diem tattoo. Oh no no (corrects himself!) – next was my name in Japanese. I got that on the Awake-Tour while we were in Japan. I wanted to get something in Japan, while we were over there. So I got my name.

AD: Are your sure that it´s your name?

MP: Yeah (laughs) – it might say stupid American. No, it´s just Mike (Spoken: Meiki).

AD: That´s what they always say, but maybe it means big asshole (laughs).

MP: Yeah American asshole (laughs again). No it´s just Mike, because all the Japanese people call me that now, because of the tattoo.

AD: O.K.

MP: Then I got the Carpe Diem tattoo right – I think – after we recorded the Change of Seasons.

AD: Well, what´s the story behind this?

MP: You can see there´s a date. Actually it has kind of faded now, as I had it for so many years. 11.16.´84 (the Americans name the month first!) – that was the day when my mom died actually – and the Change of Seasons and the whole Carpe Diem section of Change of Seasons was written about that whole experience, because the day when my mom died, no (corrects himself) the afternoon before my mom passed away my teacher in school was giving a lesson about Carpe Diem in English. Appreciate your life and everything that is in your life, because you never know, when it may be gone.
And he taught this lesson that day and it was something, that changed my life.

That night, I went home and before I went out with my friends I gave my mom a big hug and a kiss and told her, how much I loved her. She asked, what was that for and I had answered, I just wanted to let you know I love you. And that was the last time I saw her, because she died in a plane crash that night. This lesson was the most important lesson I´ve ever learned.

AD: I guess.

MP: If the teacher hadn´t teached that lesson that day, I would have just ran out the door and never had this good bye to my mom. So I tattooed it here, so it always be there and I never forget that lesson.

So that´s that. And then next is that musical stuff, which is a John Lennon painting, ´cause I´m a huge, huge BEATLES-fan.

AD: Yeah, I know (do you realize, it´s more a monolog, than an interview – Hahaha!).

MP: And it was just one of his pieces of artwork, that I really liked and so I got it. I can´t keep track of the order any more (laughs).

AD: I´m really surprised, because I thought you are so good in memorizing things.

MP: Yeah, I try to. So then came my kids footprints – they are on my back. My daughter was born in May ´97 and my son was born in March ´99. These are the footprints from when they were like ten minutes old. At least in America, once a kid is born, they immediatly do a footprint.

AD: That´s what they also did with my boy.

MP: So these are the footprints. And then of course my wife couldn´t let me have my kids – something from my kids on my back – so I got a ball and chain and that is holding down the heart. That´s keeping me grounded, so that´s for my wife Marlene. It has our wedding anniversary date, which is July ´94. So my kids birthdays and my wife´s anniversary.

Hmmm, I think maybe this came next – which ist he octopus, the drumming octopus, which I got on the Octavarium-tour. You know, that was all about „eight“, the number eight and the octopus and I felt it was pretty fitting for me, being a drummer, with my arms and legs always flying everywhere. So it´s basically an octopus with my face.

AD: So that was your idea?

MP: Yeah. And it´s got a blue beard and everything like that.

AD: Do you have a special tattoo place, where you always go or is it justÂ…

MP: It´s all different ones. I mean some of them – like the early ones – are all from the same guy. But then, as I´ve been touring…
A lot of times on tour I´d like to maybe go to a place and like…you know, like this one, with the octopus. I was on tour, on the Gigantour and it was in Atlanta and me and MEGADETH´s bassplayer both got tattooed together. This guy came to the gig…

AD: But doesn´t take a long time…for such a big thing.

MP: Yeah, this piece took about four hours. The outline and the shading was done before the show like two hours before the show. Then we had to stop and I had to play the show and he had to finish the colouring afterwards. And that was really painful, because you know – the first two hours it was fine, but then by the time I played the show it had time to really get and start to get sore. You know, from playing…

AD: Â…and sweatingÂ…

MP: Â…and everything. So by the time then after the show, when he had to finish it and colour it in, that was probably the most painful tattoo I had. Because he was working on it and it was already swollen and sore and that was really painful.

And then have been other tattoos, that have come out on tours like this. I got this (Points on the tattoo on his hand) in New Jersey on the Gigantour as well.

AD: What does it stand for?

MP: That´s the symbol for alcoholics anonymous…and I´ve been clean and sober now for over 7 years, but I got that once that I got to my 5 year mark. I haven´t had a drink or drug in 7 and a half years and once I reached my 5 year mark, I thought it would be a good thing to put here (Points to the tattoo again) to really always…you know…before I reach for a drink to be reminded, how important my soberity is.

AD: Respect!! Very good!!

MP: This (he points on his wrist), I got this in Australia, this wristband, me and Steve Vai´s drummer, we went and got tattooed together, ´cause we were over there fort he G3-tour. I just thought the water and everything was cool, ´cause it kind of symbolized Australia…being down there.

AD: But his…the other is older, isn´t it?!

MP: Yeah, I forgot about that one, that I got for the Falling into Infinity-tour

AD: I remember that.

MP: There was a point, when I was like trying to get something for each DREAM THEATER-album and I didn´t really keep up with it. That´s When dream and day unite (starts pointing on the different tattoos mentioned before), that´s Images and Words, that´s a Change of Seasons, that´s Falling into Infinity…

AD: Â…OctavariumÂ…

MP: …yeah…Octavarium…then I haven´t stayed on it excactly. This is my most recent one actually. This I got on the last American DREAM THEATER-tour this past summer. I got it in Cleveland actually. My old drum tech José was out at the show, ´cause he lives there and he knew a tattoo artist, so he had this guy come out and do this for me and actually it´s the cover of the KING CRIMSON-album „Lark´s tongues in aspic“, but that´s not the main reason, why I have it, I just thought, it was really a cool design. And I thought the sun and the moon went well with the…

AD: Â…waterÂ…

MP: …and everything. And this (points on) is one of my recent ones too. This is a drawing, that my son Max did. He loves drawing monsters and dragons and he has a whole book, filled with monsters and I was like, one of these days, I wanna get one of these. So he drew this specifically for the tattoo and he signed his name and out his age, which is 8 and basically it´s a dragon, that he drew…and then my daughter wanted to have something on me too. So I gave her this little spot around the DREAM THEATER-symbol. I let her draw some stuff and she drew musical notes with hearts and some stars and she signed her name and her age, which is 10. Then she put DLG, which is Daddy´s little girl…so both of my kids basically drew on me.

I think, that will be really cool, you know, 20 years from now, when they have kids I can show that to my grandkidsÂ…your mommy and your dad drew that, when they were 8 and 10.

What else…then we have my leg here, which is basically a tribute to my five biggest heroes, which are THE BEATLES, you know these are the images from Yellow Submarine, like the flying glove and the yellow submarine and the Sgt. Peppers bassdrum. So that´s all THE BEATLES and then you come right here and that´s my tribute to LED ZEPPELIN. This is all from LED ZEPPELIN IV and John Bonham´s symbol and the swan songs and that´s all from LED ZEPPELIN. This (points on the tattoo) is for THE WHO. The background is Tommy and then there´s THE WHO-symbol and it´s coming through one of Keith Moon´s drums.

AD: So was it all done in one piece?

MP: No, this is maybe four different sessions, four different sittings.

AD: But I mean, the idea was to have it as oneÂ…

MP: …collage. Yeah, one collage of all my biggest influences and musical heroes. Yeah and it took a bunch of sittings to get it all done. And then back here I´ve PINK FLOYD with the wall and the hammers and the flying airplane and then – sitting above it all – is Frank Zappa.

AD: Yeah sure.

MP: That´s his moustache. People say, you were your influences on your sleeve, so here´s a perfect example. I´m wearing my influences on my leg. And (thinking for a moment) that might be it!? Until next time – but of course I keep adding…

One of the next ones, I want to get is I wanna get a portrait of my two dogs…looking to get that one in the future…we´ll see. But that covers it for now – that´s everything I´ve got.

AD: Very good.

MP: Any questions?

AD: Yeah! How did you come up with the idea of having tattoos at all? I know it´s very big in rock music, but also there are many people without any tattoos.

MP: I think through the years it has become so acceptable. I mean, when I started getting tattoos in the late 80´s or early 90´s, not everybody had them. If you watch videos of bands like in the late 80´s and 90´s, I mean you know METALLICA, ANTHRAX, SLAYER and all the bands around them. None of them were tattooed. And now?! Now they all are. It just seems, that in the past 10 years or so, it has become so much more…accepted. In America they have these reality shows like Miami ink and L.A. ink and it has become very acceptable.

People walk around with full sleeves and…you know…and don´t even think twice about it.

AD: So you don´t think about the aspects, people talk about like, when your old and it´s all like bleaching and hanging down…

MP: When I got my first couple of tattoos, I was concerned about that, I was concerned about – you know – especially because DREAM THEATER wasn´t successful on living yet and so I didn´t know, what I was…

AD: Â…work in a bank (laughs)Â…

MP: …yeah, I didn´t know, what I was going to do for a living and so in the early days it was a little scary. But I think now, as I said, it´s so much more accepted, you can see people working in banks, that are covered with tattoos (I must admit, that I have not seen that so far - AD), but especially for what I do, you know, when I´m back home, people kind of expect me to like this. I have a blue beard and I´m covered with tattoos.

I go to my kids school to the parents-teacher-meetings and they kind of expect that from me, because of what I do for a living.

AD: And people come up and do interviews about it.

MP: Yeah, I think, it´s cool.

AD: Yeah, it is cool. I´m still thinking back and forth about maybe having one, but I think my wife wouldn´t be that happy with it.

MP: Yeah. My wife…it took a looong time to talk her into one and she finally got one. When I got my octopus on the Gigantour, the artist was there in the dressing room and I convinced here to get one so she got something around here ankle. She said, it hurts so bad. See, I can handle the pain. It doesn´t bother me, but she was a baby, she couldn´t handle it. She was in a lot of pain.

AD: What do you think is the right age to decide about a tattoo? I mean, if you are thinking about your kids, your boy or your girl.

MP: Well, in America, I think you cannot get a tattoo until you are 18. You have to be 18. I would have no problems, if my kids were 18 and wanted to have tattoos. They have grown up around it, you know. I mean, they drew mine. They drew on me. SoÂ…I show you this actually, this is funnyÂ…(Opens up his laptop, which is on the table and shows me the video of the time, when his daughter Melody drew the tattoo on his arm).

AD: Unbelievable, how old they are already. I remember the pics behind the venue in Rotterdam (I had shot some photos on the day of the fanclub gig in Rotterdam quite some years ago, when they were little and carried on the arms).

MP: (Talking about the video) Obviously my kids have been to many, many tattoo places with me. (Commenting) Here she´s drawing the heart on me…

I´ve got the feeling that they´ll end up wanting tattoos.

(At this point we get a little private – as we know each other for many years now – and talk about my little son, just being about 2 months old at that time - AD)

AD: So (back to the subject) do you go to any conventions, tattoo conventions?

MP: No, I enjoy reading tattoo magazines. Seeing different artists. But I´ve never been to any conventions.

AD: I don´t know, how the focus came up, like our website has a tattoo section. And it is really well read, like many thousand people read the stories. So they featured SLAYER and other bands, talked to Tom Araya and stuff.

MP: I think, there used to be a section on our website with all the different DREAM THEATER-tattoos (It´s still there Mike – I checked it out - AD). I´ve seen so many DREAM THEATER-tattoos. And a lot of them have the symbol upside down and I never have the heart to tell them.

AD: Yeah, so many people are into these tattoo things and you are a “living legend” with all these tattoos and I think many people may guess and think, what is the story behind it and so I thought, ask the man himself.

MP: I mean now, like every band has at least one or two guys, that are tattooed. In the early days it was only people like Ozzy Osbourne, Henry Rollins, like Flea from the RED HOT CHILI PEPPERSÂ…not everybody had them back then.

AD: Yeah, it changed a lot. Like even people in hospital, they have them. Once we went to this WACKEN OPEN AIR Festival and I met a guy and he was showing his leg with a tattoo and we talked about his dayjob and he was a medical doctor in neurosurgery in a leading position. So being a doctor doesn´t stand against being metal, just because you don´t have long hair and stuff. So maybe one day, I´ll get my tattoo.

MP: Yeah, get one for your kid – for your son. This was one of my biggest fears, when I started…Uhh, I have to live with this forever. It has to something incredibly important, that I´d always want for me for the rest of my life. I mean, that´s why it´s something with your kids. Your kids are going always to be with you forever, that´s never going to change.

But even…you know, like some people when I first got the DREAM THEATER-symbol…like oh, what if the band breaks up?! Well, look at Charlie. You know, Charlie was kicked out of the band not long after he got the tattoo, but the way he sees it and I agree, it´s a part of your life and even if it´s something that you don´t have when your 70 years old, it´s at least a reminder of something that was part of your life. And it´s something, that will always be with you.

AD: And I guess it has some importance as you have chosen it. In the moment you choose it, you have an idea behind it. You wouldn´t like put WALMART on your arm or something, because…

MP: Like I said before, like here. When I look at this, I´ll will always remember my trip to Australia…Steve Vai´s drummer…going together…you know, and it will have a special meaning.

AD: It´s like a photo album. And you can turn around and look at yourself in the mirror and say…

MP: Â…exactlyÂ…

AD: Â…this is my life!!

So you still have a little more space left for tattoos.

MP: Yeah, I would love to – as I said – have my dogs on my leg or something. But I wanna have it specifically done by this girl, a very famous portrait artist in L.A. – so next time, I get to L.A. I´ll see, if I can hook up with her. And then there´s another famous tattoo artist and I wanna maybe have him do some stuff on my arm. We´ll see.

AD: It´s amazing. I like to look at it. I wouldn´t be that much into it, to have all my body painted, but maybe one like the DREAM THEATER-logo or I like the QUEENSRYCHE-logo also. Like these are timeless. And DREAM THEATER is a big part of my life, so I can, as you say...

MP: Well, when I got this in Cleveland over the summer with my old drum tech José, who was out at the show and actually I bought him a tattoo and he actually got a DREAM THEATER-symbol on his arm, and he doesn´t even work for me any more. But being with DREAM THEATER for 12 years was a big part of his life, so he wanted to get that just to symbolize a part of his life although he wasn´t with us any more.

AD: But I also see people – as far, as I can tell from the pictures – like the bass player from METALLICA that has no tattoos.

MP: I don´t think, that any of them except James Hetfield…oh no, Kirk has a couple too.

AD: Yeah, he hasÂ…

MP: Â…his stomachÂ…

AD: Â…and I think on his arm.

MP: But James, he´s got a lot over the past 10 years or so.

AD: I think, if you have the money to do it properly, it´s good. But some people, they have it, I don´t know, like “self made”, really bad ones…but the colour ones, if it´s good quality, it´s a nice thing. The one from James (Hetfield, vocalist of METALLICA) with the flames or what he has on his arm. I like these.

What else should we say about tattoos, that everybody should know?!

MP: I don´t know!?

AD: So do we have time for two or three other questions? (Once you have the chance to talk to a guy like Mike Portnoy in a relaxed atmosphere, you have to grab that opportunity)

MP: Sure.

AD: I was really impressed about the DVD you made “yourself” – the 3-DVD-set (It´s called “In constant motion” and very impressive and worth seeing it). I wrote a big article about it also for THE MIRROR fanclub, but I didn´t see it so far. I think the magazine (The printed fanclub magazine) is not out yet?!

MP: I´m not sure!? But I think they are here tonight.

AD: Because as I´m a drummer myself, I thought, I should write something about it and so I talked to Michael (Bitter – from THE MIRROR fanclub) and he said, yeah, go ahead. And he wanted to bring it in different issues of the magazine.

MP: And if he wasn´t interested, maybe the English one. They are always looking for contributions as well. It´s VOICES UK – the one from England. They are always interested.

AD: Yeah, I´ll will do it in English first anyway, before I translate it into German.

So thank you very much for your time and interest in doing this interview and I wish you a great show tonight. I´ll keep you informed about the use of the interview in different media. Until next time.

(Interview and all photos by Amir Djawadi)


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