Read the story below and watch a video on how Mick Williams entered a novel field after honing his artistry behind bars.
On a blistering Southern California day this summer, Mikhail “Mick” Williams strolled into the Industry Hills Expo Center alongside his prize poodle, Magic.
Hundreds of pet owners, groomers, professional dog handlers and fans had gathered for competitions and informal showings over three days in June. Surrounding the oval-shaped arena, vendors hawked customized chew toys, personalized pet portraits and an assortment of gilded chokers, chains and leashes. One woman proudly pushed two shaggy terriers in a stroller.
When the poodles were called up, Williams guided Magic in a gentle trot before the judge, who scrutinized his coiffed haunches, closely inspecting ears, teeth and paws. On this day, there would not be a win for Williams and Magic at the Burbank Kennel Club’s annual dog show. Magic lost points for an unfortunate curve in his tail, leaving him short of a subjective competition standard: “a judge’s mental image of the perfect dog.”
But Williams was unfazed.
“It’s still a great day,” he said. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”
It’s been three years since Williams, 30, left state prison, and since then, he has found an unlikely haven on the national dog show circuit. Williams now specializes in poodles — parading the poofy, prancing creatures and also dyeing their fur splashy colors and shaving it into shapely roses, geometric tufts and intricate lines.
As he moves among his clients and competitors, few have any idea how far Williams has come. They know little about how he honed his early artistic skills locked up as a young kid, kicking off a tumultuous decade in and out of Nevada detention facilities.
A long-term study published by the federal government in 2017 found that among adult men who had been incarcerated as children, just 20% were working or enrolled in college 12 years after exiting the juvenile justice system. Williams has bucked those odds. He studied a trade, and now helps run a dog grooming business in Westminster, California, with his wife Holly Levinson.
His 9-year-old son — born during his years in prison — is a persistent inspiration.
VIDEO: ‘Mick Jr.’s Summer with Dad’
At school, Mikhail Jr. has shown kids a picture of his dad, who sports tattoos along his shoulders and arms of menacing clowns, demons and a prison tower.
“Everyone at school always says, ‘What? He looks like a hoodlum!’” the boy recounted. “And I’d be like, well he’s not what you think. He’s a dog groomer, a professional dog handler, and he got me into the sport.”
‘I deserved what I got’
Williams has shared his work on social media, and in videos produced by Sacramento-based photographer Karlos Rene Ayala. In a series of interviews with The Imprint in recent months, Williams described growing up in Arizona and southern Nevada, with a troubled childhood well before the grooming and the dog shows.
The abuse got so bad, Williams said, he started running away from home as young as age 10. He got into fights at school. And by his early teens, he had already been to juvenile hall and ended up on probation, he said.
When violence at home got even worse, he fled for the last time. Williams was 15 then, and ended up sleeping on bleachers at a local baseball field, or crashing with friends for a few days at a time. For a while, Williams recalls waking up early enough to walk his brother and sister to school.
But he soon got caught up in what he called “making some really stupid decisions.”
Williams freely discusses committing a string of home burglaries where he stole jewelry, watches and other valuables. He estimated he may have made about $1,000 that way. His increasingly wayward acts led to his arrest at a young age.
“I was messing up right and left, just robbing people for no reason,” Williams said. “I deserved what I got.”
Public records show Williams accepted a plea bargain that included a sentence of two, five-year terms for the burglary charges. He was eventually transferred to High Desert State Prison in Clark County, Nevada late one night, just after midnight. Williams’ new bunkmate gave him a metal blade for his protection, and some words of advice: Be ready to use it, and to aim for the armpit when you do.
Making art from floor wax and Kool-Aid
During his time in prison, Williams picked up drawing — a way to pass the time and earn extra income. The materials were limited, but served him well. He used the wax used to clean floors to create embossed greeting cards featuring cartoon characters. He fashioned toilet paper into roses, dyeing them red with ink made from Kool-Aid.
When Williams finally got paroled at age 20, he hustled jobs on the Las Vegas strip. He was also about to step into his biggest challenge: becoming a father. Williams loved falling asleep with his baby boy on his chest, playing late-night SpongeBob reruns at his one-bedroom apartment. But he and his son’s mother split up, and he couldn’t provide a stable home for Mick Jr.
Then he got banged up in the revolving door that batters so many young men returning to society after being incarcerated. Between 2011 and 2016, Williams said he was arrested several times for probation violations, returning three more times to lockups. His charges included minor transgressions like jaywalking, and holding an open container of beer on Fremont Street in downtown Las Vegas — a place where scores of merrymaking tourists tote alcoholic drinks. But the stakes for Williams — with a years-long record of arrests and court dates — were higher.
“It’s hard because you have to look over your shoulder everywhere you go,” he said. “All it takes is one little slip up.”
Williams doubted whether he could escape his past.
During a stint on the outside when he was 24, Williams met Holly Levinson after moving to California. Their first date was a concert by the rapper Warren G.
Levinson, who had grown up competing in dog shows, liked Williams’ spunk and relentless optimism. She saw that he had a strong work ethic and introduced him to the grooming business. She also saw, up close, his struggles.
But just 30 days after they met, Williams got caught up in another probation violation in California.
“For several years, it was like he was stuck on a merry-go-round and couldn’t get off,” she said.
This time, though, he was headed to prison. Still, the two kept up their relationship while he was incarcerated at High Desert and elsewhere. Over a three-year period, every two weeks, Levinson traveled four hours each way to visit him.
On March 7, 2019, Williams left the Nevada prison with a solid pledge. Before he left, he wrote letters to members of his family, vowing never to return to prison or miss important moments in their lives.
After he got out, Williams installed hardwood floors before deciding to join Levinson’s Hollywood Dog Grooming Spa, now located in a strip mall storefront in the aptly named city of Westminster, California. She suggested it might be a good place for him to work without having to explain his time in prison to a potential employer.
People always get me in trouble, Williams reasoned, so why not stick to the dogs?
The shop’s stock-in-trade consists of basic trims, nail clipping, bathing and blow-drys. But Williams also began experimenting with the more elaborate “creative grooming,” first by hand and sometimes with an airbrush gun. He instantly took to neon colors, psychedelic-looking patterns and anything-goes looks he could create on the dogs’ fur. And in early 2020, to celebrate his one-year anniversary of being released from prison, he entered the Groom Expo West — the first competition of many to come.
Some of his most eye-catching designs have included dogs embellished with colorful roses and hearts. Others include holiday-themed visions, like a Bichon Frisé decorated for Halloween with a white spider web crawling up its back leg. Williams has turned a Schnauzer into a Bengal tiger and transformed another dog into a black swan. Perhaps the most spectacular was the neon paean to the Pac-Man video game that he splashed across his poodle’s curly fur.
Sometimes customers request a design, other times, they rely on Williams’ creative mind, honed behind bars.
Heather Georges, 25, has been taking her cockapoo Calvin and Shih Tzu-poodle Hobbes to Williams for grooming for the past two years. She first had him transform her pets into their comic strip namesakes for Halloween, but now gives him free reign to come up with new designs. Knowing what she likes, Williams has turned Georges’ pets into Spider Man and the video game character Spyro the Dragon. This year, he dyed Hobbes a phosphorescent hue that gleams radioactive green under blacklight.
Williams has a “rare talent,” Georges said, and she feels “antsy and super excited” to glimpse his designs for the first time when she goes to pick up her dogs. But she also appreciates the fact that Williams is not your run-of-the-mill neighborhood dog groomer.
“I want to be weird,” Georges said, “and he gets it.”
His handiwork has been featured in photo essays in the Los Angeles Times, Vogue and a recent book documenting top designs from dog groomers across the country. Last year, Williams competed at the invite-only Groom Expo in Hershey, Pennsylvania, the largest event in the world for professional dog stylers.
At such events — wearing his trademark color-coordinated baseball cap and Air Force 1s — Williams stands out as a young Latino man among the largely white, middle-aged crowd of dog handlers wearing sensible loafers and professional skirts. When he first started to compete, judges assumed he was lost, and asked when his wife was coming up to the stage. Other competitors sometimes shot him ugly stares.
But now he relishes standing apart from the crowd.
“Nobody expects me to be doing it,” he said. “Now you have to look at me for something else — not just that I was breaking into shit. It means a lot from where I was, living on the streets and locked up, to be where I am today.”
‘You still have tomorrow’
When Mick Jr. was born, Williams was locked up again for violating probation. He missed his son, so he’d unfold a pink piece of paper marked with prints of his hands and feet, tracing their tiny outlines. Williams still keeps that now-threadbare paper folded up in his wallet.
These days, Mick Jr. lives with his mother in Las Vegas, but visits his dad in southern California several times a year. This summer, he spent three months helping out at the shop and entering competitions as a dog handler. The fourth-grader has studied the loping heel-to-toe gait of professional handlers by watching Youtube videos and practicing during recess at his Las Vegas elementary school.
Dog competitions are fun, but Williams has a higher aim. He entered his son into a American Kennel Club program, in large part for its promise of a college scholarship. He doesn’t want Mick Jr.’s diploma arriving at a correctional facility.
Megan Cook, Williams’ aunt who spent years living with him as a child, said he was always a committed father — even throughout the period of his life when he was in and out of prison.
“Mick was robbed of his childhood growing up,” Cook said. But now, she added, “most of all, he wants Mick Jr. to just enjoy being a kid.”