Dearly Departed Tattoos: An Interview with Mark Clifford

A skull rose can symbolize the balance of life, and yes, Mark Clifford does color tattoos

Mark Clifford spent most of his life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he was born in 1975. He held various jobs and played in a band, which led him and his bandmates to get tattoos and ignited his interest in this art form. Clifford started working as a tattooer in 2001 and co-owned a tattoo shop from 2005 to 2015. In 2015, he moved to China with his family and continued tattooing. After two years in East Asia, he was inspired to open his unique studio with appointments and walk-ins in Michigan called Dearly Departed Tattoos and Fine Art, and became the owner of a 3,200-square-foot Victorian building with a turret, large rooms with 12-foot ceilings on the main level, and an abundance of beautiful woodwork. Dearly Departed is an enjoyable place in Milford Village, a charming little pedestrian town with many Airbnbs and excellent eateries.

This interview delves into when Mark Clifford got his first tattoo, what led to him becoming a tattooist, a description of his artistic style, additional information about the museum-like studio, and his advice on the current tattoo industry. Unquestionably a must-read.

Above: A skull rose can symbolize the balance of life, and yes, Mark Clifford does color tattoos.
Mark Clifford frequently depicts skulls, human or animal, such as this crow cranium
Clifford frequently depicts skulls, human or animal, such as this crow’s cranium.

You held various positions before becoming a tattoo artist, from selling auto parts to working at an amusement park. What brought you to your current career?

I always wanted to create in one way or another, and I grew up playing music, which was a huge part of my life. It still is. I was in bands, and we toured and did stuff like that, but when you get to a certain age and are in a band long enough, you get tattooed. I started spending a lot of time in a tattoo shop in Pittsburgh and fell in love with the environment, which fit me. I was fascinated by it. I loved the wizardry of the tattooing and the mysticism of it; it just seemed like an environment that made a lot of sense for me, and I dove deeper into drawing and painting and rendering things, and it didn’t take me very long to fall in love with it.

A watercolor composition of the Pharaoh Horses on Arches paper - tattoo flash by mark clifford
A watercolor composition of the “Pharaoh’s Horses” on Arches paper.

When did you begin learning how to tattoo, and when did you turn professional?

So there was a tattoo shop in Pittsburgh that I was getting tattooed at pretty often, and I started getting tattooed in ’93 and ’94. I got a few tattoos over the next couple of years after that. Still, in 2001, I got into it and begged the owner to hang out in the shop and help around there. I quickly started tracing flash, shading different things, making needles and pigment, and cleaning the shop. It was the same year I tattooed some friends, and it was a very busy place, so I only did a few tattoos. And the owner threw me into the fire. We were swamped on a particular weekend day, maybe a Saturday, and she said, “Hey, you’re going to do this tattoo.” So, I only apprenticed for a year. It was a trial by fire. So, somewhere around 2001, I turned professional.

Mark Clifford, an Eternal Ink Pro Team Artist, created this rose with black ink and a gray wash
An Eternal Ink Pro Team Artist, Mark Clifford, created this rose with black ink and a gray wash.

How would you describe your tattoo style if you had to categorize it?

When I started tattooing, things were very different. Twenty-two years ago, when I started, it was in a busy street shop, and we had to do everything. I mean, we didn’t have a choice. If the client walked in the door, you did what they wanted! So I learned to do everything pretty well for a while there, but right now, I prefer to do tattoos that last; I guess you can call that traditional tattooing, but it’s not always traditional imagery. I love doing skulls, roses, and daggers. And when I say it, it’s not always traditional imagery; those things are, but I tend to do them in a way that feels a little bit more on the illustrative or realistic side but applied traditionally, meaning lots of black and heavy lines. I want that stuff to look good 20 years from now.

A cowboy skull tattoo may represent strength, bravery, and grit
A cowboy skull may represent strength, bravery, and grit.

Who were your primary tattoo influences?

When I started tattooing, I felt guilty for not branching out much. I didn’t look at a lot of other tattooers early on. I was inspired by Paul Booth back in the early 2000s. I loved how dark his stuff was, how the subject matter was cool, and how he applied it. I met him once or twice at some conventions way back in the day, and he was super nice. So, that struck a chord with me. Bob Tyrell, for sure. And then, as I went on and went out and started meeting other artists, going to conventions and other shops, and eventually opening my establishment in Pittsburgh, I started researching more. There are a lot of guys in San Francisco (Paul Doblemen and Laurent Trelaun) that I’m inspired by, and I’ve been very fortunate to be friends with them. I go to San Francisco several times yearly to work there and always leave feeling inspired. There are a lot of guys in Spain right now who are killing it (Rafa Decraneo and El Bara), and I’m just really looking forward to traveling the world a bit more and meeting a lot of these people. Also, I’m inspired by the people I work with at my studio.

Inside dearly departed tattoos and fine art in milford, mi Numerous Sailor Jerry flashes, and a Get What You Get tattoo gumball machine on the right
Numerous Sailor Jerry flashes, and a “Get What You Get” tattoo gumball machine on the right.

Did this shop exist elsewhere before Dearly Departed Tattoos and Fine Art opened in the 1881 building?

No, it didn’t exist. I had another tattoo shop in Pittsburgh for about ten years, from 2005 until around 2015. I needed a change because I had a gnarly relationship with my previous business owner/partner and needed to get out of there. I wasn’t going to go down the street and open a business. Then, my wife had an opportunity to move to China to advance her career. And that’s what we did. And it put a fire under my ass and made me fall in love with tattooing again. And I tattooed in China for two years. When I came back to the States, I knew I wanted to open my own space and do it my way, and I had a vision of how I wanted that to be. And it was really specific; my vision would require a particular venue. So we returned to Pittsburgh for a while and then moved to Michigan. I looked at buildings, and everything seemed pretty cliche: strip malls. It’s not what I wanted. So, I stumbled upon this house built in 1881 and fell in love with the place. You walk in the door and feel the warm and fascinating history. It has an awesome vibe!

Owner Mark Clifford The 1881 building houses the private studio Dearly Departed Tattoos and Fine Art in Milford, MI
The 1881 building houses the studio Dearly Departed Tattoos and Fine Art in Milford, MI.

What year did you open your studio in the 1881 residence? Please elaborate more on the process and decision to select the building.

Dearly Departed was established in 2019. It’s an old Victorian house. It’s over 3,000 square feet. It has four bedrooms. So, being built in 1881, it was a huge house.

I wanted to run a private studio. I want to work when I want to work. I have two kids, so I wanted to spend time with them and get home in a reasonable time. I had spent enough years in the street shop and running my own business in Pittsburgh that I didn’t want to be at work till eight or 9:00 PM anymore. I rented the top floor of the house by myself, and it was that way for a little while (a couple of months). Then, I was bored and lonely, and I needed some people to feed off of the vibe in the shop. I put my feelers out there to see what I would get, and I immediately got a call from a great guy who works in Michigan, does great solid tattoos, and has a massive following, which was exciting for me. So he came in and then had another guy tattooing in the area and had some botched apprenticeships, and he wanted to come in, and I brought him on. So, it grew quickly. Then we took over the whole house, rented it, moved downstairs, and added a couple more artists. Since February this year, I have been lucky enough to be able to buy the house. I own it now and am happy about that.

inside dearly departed tattoos and fine art in milford, mi Paul Dobleman tattoo flashes may be seen in this area of the studio
Paul Dobleman’s tattoo flashes may be seen in this area of the studio.

What are some of the unique items in the decor?

We have a lot of antiques and oddities. I would bet that we have one of the largest flash collections in the state. We have thousands and thousands of sheets of traditional flash all over the walls. Everywhere you look, maybe not thousands, but we have a lot of flash. It’s vintage stuff that most shops really can’t get. We love it when people get that flash tattooed on them. I miss tattooing the older stuff. I still love drawing and creating for people, and I paint a lot of my flash, but I love doing old Sailor Jerry and Percy Waters art. I have a lot of stuff from Spider Murphy’s Tattoo. I know you’ve recently met and hung out with Paul Dobleman. I have a ton of his stuff. I love that guy, and I love his flash! So yeah, I think that if you want to see antiques and have a cool atmosphere, visit the shop. It’s a museum feel.

mark Clifford dragon was painted in watercolor on Arches paper tattoo flash
Clifford’s dragon was painted in watercolor on Arches paper.

Are there any exciting future projects for the shop or personally?

We do a really big Halloween party every year. We sell 60 tickets to that event because it’s all we can handle; we do ten tattoos each that day. The tickets sell out, usually about a day or two, and tickets are 200 bucks. You get a Halloween tattoo, a custom-printed tote bag, a t-shirt, key chains, and more. And we have music, movies, food, and drinks.

We’re always trying to do flash events. Next year, I would like to do a formal (upscale vampire) ball just because of the Victorian house. We have the space for something like that. We do a bunch of conventions as a team. I will be doing the convention in South Africa and Italy in 2024.

grim reaper tattoo in black ink by mark clifford
The Grim Reaper with a hooded cloak and scythe, “reaping” souls.

In a broader sense, what is your opinion of today’s tattoo industry and any aspects you dislike?

In a broader sense, I think the industry has become over-saturated with tattooers who don’t respect the history and craft of tattooing. I believe too many people get most of their info on social media and YouTube, not from veteran tattooers, who are a bit more picky about whom they share their knowledge with. The blind leading the blind, so to speak.

Mark Clifford, proprietor of Dearly Departed Tattoos and Fine art, at work
Mark Clifford, proprietor of Dearly Departed, at work.

And what positive advice can you give to others?

The best advice I could give anyone wanting to get into tattooing is to choose a shop with a history and artists who have been tattooing for a long time. If your apprenticeship is too easy, it won’t be good for you. Do your research, learn your history, and draw your ass off. You’re asking someone to give you a career. It should feel intimidating because it’s important.

Photos courtesy of Mark Clifford