TATTOO AS A FORM OF ART
A Spotlite on (Tattoo) Artist AMI JAMES
By Beth Melillo
On a beautiful summer day on the steps outside his Wooster Street Social Club located in Soho, NYC, Ami James took a break from drawing his latest art to tell PMc Magazine about all the exciting things going on in his career. As we talked about his tattoo art, his new clothing line, and his evolution, his hit TV series NY Ink drew fans to his shop location where they politely asked him to take photos.
He explained to me, on those steps, his raison d’être: “I want people to start looking at tattoos in a different way. To look at it as a form of art.” Ami James is an artist, and a brilliant one at that. When you are face-to-face with his work, it isn’t hard to grasp the obvious: that tattoo is a form of art.
Beth Melillo: Tell me about the beginning: can you remember the first time you got your first tattoo and the first time you knew you were going to pursue this form of art as a business?
Ami James: When I was 17, I joined the Army. When I was in the service, I was on leave for a week and I went to get tattooed by a friend of mine–it’s actually here, this dragon [he shows his tattoo]. The guy took a break in the middle of the tattoo and walked outside, and I was waiting and waiting while he was outside on the phone arguing with his wife. I kind of looked, and then I just started tattooing myself. Then he walked back in, freaked out, and said: “What are you doing?” He then came close and asked: “You just did that?” I said: “Yes.” He asked: “You want to finish it?” I said: “I’d love to.” So I finished the tattoo, and I knew from that moment on that was what I was gonna do. But I had to get out of the service first (which I had only just started). I had 2 ½ years to go, I was literally just out of boot camp. So I finished my service, and as soon as I got out, within a month, I was pursuing the art of tattoo. I was 20 years old at the time.
BM: When would you say was your big break, when you really got involved in the tattoo business?
AJ: I knew I was involved in the business the day I got my apprenticeship with Lou, who was operating the leading shops in Miami, the only shop on South Beach. He was this old time New Yorker, old school, in his 50s, and he took me on as his apprentice, his only apprentice he had at the time. That’s when I knew this was it, I was gonna pay my dues, but I never imagined how hard it was gonna be.
He had four stores–each day I had to drive around, lock the stores, wash his car, feed the dog, take the cat out, all these things, just to torture me to appreciate what he was giving me. At the time you don’t really understand that, you know. After six months of that, I started learning. I was actually tattooing out of my house a little bit. I didn’t make any money the first year, I basically ate a hot dog a day. He also tortured me by going to get Reuben sandwiches each day. I look back and it was worth it. I paid my dues and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way. I wanted it so bad. He was like my father, so I sort of had it out with him, spit on his boots. I actually left and went to Chicago, and six months later he drove to Chicago and said: “Get in the car, you’re coming back home, and I stayed with him another few years.” He passed away and that was my downfall. After he passed away, I stopped everything for a year, I was crushed. Then I made my way back…
BM: How would you describe a tattoo? As a personal statement? As a form of fashion?
AJ: I think using tattoos as a form of fashion is horrible because fashion changes. You can’t keep up with fashion, it’s always gonna evolve and change. Eventually it goes in a spiral: skinny jeans will come back, bellbottoms will come back again. But it is still dictated by people, and ever-changing. With tattoos it’s not the same. The choice you make now will last you a lifetime. It should be very personal to you, not to show off. It’s not like clothing. You know, when you wear something, your first response is often to check yourself out in the mirror to see what you look like, to see if those’re the coolest shoes right now, or hat. Well, a tattoo should be something bigger, should mean more to you, forever and ever.
BM: Congratulations on your success with Miami Ink and now NY Ink–what have you enjoyed most about this fresh start with the new show in NYC and opening a new store in Soho?
AJ: It’s fun because initially when I started Miami Ink there were no shows about tattoos, and I never thought it would become a hit. I said this was a way to market my shop. I was living in NY at the time, and I tried to figure out how to open a shop in NY at that time, but I just couldn’t afford it. I was only tattooing friends, 2 appointments a week. I was working nightlife more, running a nightclub, my goal at the time was to run nightlife and do tattoos for fun, as a hobby, because it was my passion.
I didn’t want to become dependent on tattooing, but this whole thing came about and I got asked to do the show. I said, “I can’t afford to open a shop in NY, its too expensive.” So I thought: “Miami is sexy. A lot of women walking around in bathing suits, everybody loves that. Let’s go to Miami and I’ll do a show called Miami Ink.” I thought it’d be great, I’d get six episodes maybe, market my shop–it’s the greatest commercial you can get on TV. But before I knew it, I finished with the six episodes and realized this was the hardest thing I had ever done. Then they said they wanted 26 more episodes, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. Then after my contract was finally over they asked if I wanted to renew and I said I was burnt out, I just didn’t have anything left–we did it four years straight.
I took a break, and it really helped me. In the end when I was asked to come back and do another one, I felt I could do NY now, I was ready. I thought: Now I’m gonna do it how I always wanted to do it. I could have opened a shop here really cheap, but I wanted to push it in a different direction. And I waned to kind of push it in the face of people that said I would never be a part of the art world. The goal was to be a part of the art world. There are some artists who didn’t have open arms to us. They would say: “What do you know about being an artist?” Anyways, we managed to do it again. We’re really fortunate.
BM: Your Soho shop Wooster Street Social Club is like a “high end couture” tattoo shop?
AJ: The idea was how do we stand to be in Soho without being another shop that is so typical. We wanted it be very authentic but high end, all the other businesses in Soho are very high end. Architecturally, Soho is very beautiful. We did it fast and the end product I was very happy with, it came out well.
BM: You have your hands in a lot–TV, art exhibits at your store, regular clients, you also custom design art for mobile phones, what’s next?
AJ: I’m a designer–I draw, I design for anything, I look at everything from a different perspective. It’s always in an artistic way. If you are in a restaurant and you ask me to hand you the salt and pepper shakers, I look at them and wonder: “How can I make that design look better?” I want to put my designs on everything. I’m very fortunate to have that way of seeing things. I want to color the world. I want to put my art on walls, bicycles, clothing. My clothing line is the biggest thing right now. I think artists look at things different, we think: “How can I get better in an artistic way?”
BM: Tell me about your new clothing line?
AJ: The clothing line is called Ami James Ink. It started with all the t-shirts I wound up drawing, and it went on to include denim, hats, flip-flops, and then it went on to just about everything. But the clothing isn’t tattoo designs. It’s not the Ed Hardy look–everyone seems to think it would be like Ed Hardy, but it has nothing to do with it. We draw anything–we draw 1920s pop art to today’s pop art, we pride ourselves in drawing whatever you have in your head. We take what’s in your head and put it on a piece of paper. I changed my idea of how to approach clothing design, I asked a girl what kind of shirt she’d want to wear, and she said she loved seagulls. So I said I could draw something like that. I asked why she liked seagulls? And she said it was because seagulls always fly away from the ocean. I realized I could put that together, and eventually I came up with all these ideas. It started to snowball and now we have about 100 designs out there, and they are doing well.
BM: When someone leaves your Soho shop, what’s the overall experience you want them to walk away with?
AJ: First of all, I want them to walk away with a tattoo that makes them happy. And thus, with a happy moment that doesn’t stop existing. A tattoo should be timeless. I want them to take that experience home and be happy knowing that it is gonna last them a lifetime. Some people make the wrong decisions, getting a tattoo spontaneously without thought or feeling, but for people that come in here that just wanna make a fashion statement, I tell them to come back when they’re ready and put some thought into it.
I want people to start looking at tattoos in a different way. To look at it as a form of art. You don’t have to get a tattoo to come in here (Wooster Street Social Club), you can just watch. That’s why I put all these windows in shop, so you can look through the frame like a painting and watch the form of art being done on one side. It’s a painting within a painting. Get tattooed, don’t get tattooed, buy a shirt–just come in, and open your mind.
BM: Any experience that stands out?
AJ: The most meaningful tattoos were the small ones from friends to me and ones from me to my friends. When you tattoo a celebrity you help them, but there’s no mutual connection. Realistically, you don’t have a strong friendship, and so the tattoo doesn’t mean as much, it’s like selling a painting. Someone bought the painting off you, and he appreciates it, but eventually you sort fade away from the painting. When you are very close to someone and you give them a tattoo, it forms a bond and represents how you respect one other. So when I tattoo a friend, it’s very meaningful and that connection and meaning lasts a lifetime. That bonding moment, and that souvenir, that’s forever.
BM: Anyone you would look forward to work with?
AJ: If I got my wish, I would want to work with artists. I would like to do collaborations on canvas. I’ve pretty much worked with some of the best in the tattoo world, and I think I’ve managed to make my mark. I want do my art on canvas and try to conquer another art world.
BM: Any advise for your fans or upcoming tattoo artists?
AJ: Don’t try to cheat. Get a proper apprenticeship. Don’t cheat the business, because I think it eventually backfires. It’s important we pay our dues to get in business. It’s a gift to draw on people and make money and survive off something that was at one time a dying art.
Written by Beth Melillo
Photography by Marie Havens
Design by Marie Havens
Special Thanks to Alan Rish!
Ami James, at Wooster Street Social Club, 43 Wooster St, NYC, August 10, 2011, Photography by Marie Havens