Tattoo Mike: The Illustrated Man

: Documentary Feature
GENRE: Documentary
STATUS: Development


A New York City icon’s struggle with his sexual expression through art and drugs, set against the shadow side of 1980s New York.


The struggle with sexual expression through art and drugs of a New York City icon, Michael Wilson, Coney Island’s Illustrated Man. The film is set against the shadow side of New York City in the 1980s; from the wrecked beaches of Coney Island to the illegal underground tattoo scene.


The crux of the story will be powerfully and emotionally recounted through intimate sit-down interviews with his closest friends and family members. Each interview will be covered with two cameras, one wide shot and the other tight. As a direct reference to Michael’s painting and collage work which often willfully ignored basic rules of proportion and scale, and with Ethan’s twenty years as a portrait photographer, the camera will exploit compositional and framing contrasts to infuse emotion and create an aesthetic uniqueness for this film. We are very fortunate in the fact that although Michael Wilson passed away in 1996, a lot of visual material exists and is now in our possession. Interspersed throughout the film will be archival video including Michael’s appearances on various daytime talk shows, music videos for Bruce Springsteen and Lisa Lisa and the Cult Jam, never-before-seen performances from the sideshow and interview footage with Michael himself. In addition, a lot of Michael’s original correspondences have survived and will be read by actor, and executive producer, Jeffrey Dean Morgan on top of archival footage to give Michael as much of an opportunity to speak in his own film as possible. To play off of Michael’s trait of ‘compartmentalization’, aesthetically the narrative of this film will be broken down into independent chapters each discussing a key highlight of Michael’s life; tattooing, the sideshow, and his artwork. The contiguity of the film rests in the weaving of details of Michael’s personal life to illuminate the man he actually was: the exploration of his bisexuality, his lifelong battle with alcoholism and drugs, and the diabetes that continued to take a toll on his body and ended up killing him in 1996 at age 44 from diabetic shock. Tattoo Mike is also the story of an undiscussed chapter of New York City--the city that allowed Michael, by the confluence of circumstance, to become the tattoo and sideshow legend that he is. Today, as the grey zone widens on how one defines ‘sexual normality’ and society’s views on gender and sex are being rewritten daily, stories like Michael’s become all the more pertinent. The hope is that the film will play a part in creating a dialogue aimed towards greater open-mindedness towards persons with differing sexualities, freedom of exploration, and personal expression without judgment. It is also that dialogue between art and audience that lets us know as a society and as individuals, ‘I am not the only one. I am ok just the way that I am. There is no reason for me to feel shame.’


Ethan Hill - Director

Ethan Hill has over twenty years of experience in the magazine world as a portrait and celebrity photographer. A partial client list includes Food & Wine, Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone, New York Times, Business Week, Fast Company, WIRED, WIRED UK, Atlantic Records, A + M Records, Smithsonian, and TIME. For 11 years Ethan contributed regularly to domestic and international editions of Newsweek. Aside from commercial assignments, Ethan is also involved in a personal portrait project documenting the lives of gay men through photographs and intimate interviews. Ethan is an instructor at the International Center for Photography in New York and has work included in the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery London.

Talal Jabari - Producer

Talal Jabari is an Arab-American filmmaker who is currently producing One Night in Tantura, a personal journey of discovery into birth of the Palestinian refugee issue and Tattoo Mike, the personal story of an 80s pop icon who struggled with his sexuality, drugs and diabetes, in the midst of the underground tattoo movement in New York City. Talal is best known for producing and directing Full Signal (Big Sky, 2010) and Enemies of the South (Al-Jazeera Doc Channel, 2015). Talal co-produced the Critic’s Choice-nominated Speed Sisters (Hot Docs, 2015), as well as field-produced the 3-part documentary series Holy Blood (Israel Channel 10, 2013). Talal is also the cinematographer of Naila and the Uprising (IDFA, 2017). Talal lives in NY.

Rabab Haj Yahya - Editor

Rabab Haj Yahya is best known for the award-winning feature documentaries, The Feeling of Being Watched (Tribeca 2018), for which she won the award for best editing in a feature documentary (Woodstock, 2018) and the Critic’s Choice-nominated Speed Sisters (Hot Docs 2015). She was also an editor on the Emmy-nominated web-series the Secret Life of Muslims (Peabody Finalist, Vox and USA Today, 2016) and is a Sundance Edit and Story Lab fellow. Based in New York, Rabab has teamed up with some powerful directors to edit a number of shorts including Love the Sinner (Tribeca 2017), An Act of Worship (Field of Vision) and 62 Days (2017).

Jeffrey Dean Morgan - Executive Producer

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is an American actor. He is known for his roles as John Winchester on the fantasy horror series Supernatural (2005–07), Denny Duquette on the medical drama series Grey's Anatomy (2006–09), The Comedian in the superhero film Watchmen (2009), Jason Crouse on the political drama series The Good Wife (2015–16), Negan on the horror drama series The Walking Dead (2016–present), and Harvey Russell in Rampage (2018).


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