This is going to be short and sweet – well, maybe splendid. Fashion Week is making me weak and it’s just starting. I shoulda, woulda, if I coulda attended the Ami James Pop-Up Tattoo Shop thing at the Empire Hotel yesterday but I was otherwise distracted. Besides, I will be at the Empire Rooftop tomorrow night DJing, and being north of 23rd street two times in a week is… problematic for a BBurger like myself. I’m opening for the fabulous Mel DeBarge. Mel and I have a long history of being in the same room and other things more times than I care to discuss. He is a great DJ and I am honored to be mentioned in the same breath and invitation with him. Kirill is taking pictures and he somehow always manages to shoot me on my good side -not an easy accomplishment. I’m on from 9pm to 11pm, although the invite says doors open at 10pm. Either that’s an error or someone has heard me DJ before or they want me to provide rhythm for the wait-rons as they set up. I’m excited about this and Fashion Week in general.
“We changed the history of tattooing and opened minds,” tattoo artist and rising reality TV star Ami James nimbly explains to me one day earlier this summer. “People would see a bunch of artists, not that whole thug mentality of big biker outlaws, which is now so unrelated to tattooing.” Leading me inside his bustling New York City tattoo parlor, Wooster Street Social Club, it’s immediately clear that James’ onscreen intensity isn’t a trick of the camera. His high energy, his tattoos (we try counting—maybe 60), his muscular physique (he boxes)—all are quite real. For nearly a decade, James has been building an empire of ink, starting with Miami Ink, LA Ink, London Ink—and, now, his latest, NY Ink, the TLC show chronicling his signature tatts—and the customers who ask for them—in the Big Apple. Through it all, James as eased into what you might call a New York kind of celebrity.
“I would take you to my office, but there are sixty pounds of artwork in there—like, $1.5 million of artwork,” says James, navigating around tattoo chairs and eager patrons. The Wooster Street Social Club, a ’50s-style parlor and art gallery (where at least half of the sixty pounds of artwork stashed downstairs rotates on display), also serves as the set for TLC’s NY Ink series. There’s hardly a quiet moment, which means business is booming for James.
A group of fans is gathered around the storefront, some watching other customers getting inked on vintage leather tables, others snapping photos of the artists and themselves, “Tag me on Facebook!” one young woman with an Ed Hardy hat and an orange-tinted faux glow tells her friend. I’m surrounded by people looking to have their chance at fame by association, getting a permanent tattoo by one of the artists on James’ staff featured on the show. The store’s policy states: “Don’t call. Don’t email. If you’re interested in getting tattooed then simply walk in. No need to make an appointment.” None of the walk-ins here look like the kind of people who you’d expect to be inked, but then again, tattoos have become just another accessory. A mother and her teenage son are leafing through books and picking out tattoos for themselves. “We are big fans of the show, we came from Texas for this!” the woman explains to me.
I am reminded of my own regrettable ink: three stars, which look more like blotches, on my ankle, which Ke$ha gave to me during an interview for BlackBook last year.
Now downstairs in the basement, lounging back on a chair, James breezily thinks back to the beginning of it all, before he became a brand. “Back in the day, if a customer wanted to get their neck tattooed, I’d be like ‘Cmon! I need the money, let’s go!’ But now I suggest you shouldn’t, or just go somewhere else.” He then pauses. “I’m not saying I’m rich, but I can live off what I am making.” James’ first tattoo was done with a needle and read ‘Miami Punks,’ an homage to the city where he still spends half of his year.
Tattooing in New York City was illegal from 1961 up until the late 1990s. Some say the law was on account of a hepatitis outbreak; James blames it on the sailors who caught it from prostitutes overseas. James remembers those early days well. “I made a lot more money,” he exclaims. “Eastside Ink, which was operating illegally, and Fun City next to Coney Island High were the only two shops that were real. You had to get buzzed in.”
Anyone prone to an impulse tattoo will have to prove their need for ink, at least if Ami James is the one holding the needle. “Yesterday, I tried to explain cherry blossoms. Everybody gets them but nobody knows the meaning. it’s very sad,” he sighs, his frustration seemingly genuine. “They bloom once a year for a week and then they fall. Life is so beautiful but so short, and the lesson is to make the best out of life and respect it. You realize why they’re Japan’s national flower, and it’s sad that people don’t know.” It’s humbling to hear this from a man with a tough-guy demeanor. James then goes on to tell me about one of his best memories at the shop, when a woman with breast cancer, who hardly had anything left of her nipple, came to him for guidance. James gave her an inked nipple.
Of course, cosmetic tattooing is not what the average customer at NY Ink will request, or receive. “People don’t put enough thought into it. They watch stupid hip-hop videos and see every rapper with their hands tattooed and they want to look tough. We call it the Swedish Sleeve, because in Sweden guys will get their hands tattooed and wear a long sleeved shirt so it looks like they’re fully covered, but they are not. To this day I don’t have my hands inked and I’m fully fucking covered!” he says proudly. James explains that when he began inking, in order to work as a tattoo artist, one had to be “a car salesman, a hustler. You needed to be tough, you needed to fight in order to work in a tattoo shop.” he swiveled in his chair and nervously tapped his foot. “But all of these things ceased to happen when pop culture took over. It just evolved, with shops on every corner and more open doors for artists. You literally had one shop per city, and there were maybe five shitty tattoo artists and one that was good. We just wanted to get tattooed as young kids and we were like, ‘I just want to get fully fucking covered!’ We didn’t care who did it. ”
I ask about his own tattoos, the body art I’m observing. I try counting the visible designs, surveying all the way from his neck to his ankles. His chest tattoos peek out through his undershirt. “How many do you have, thirty?” I guess. “Maybe 60 or 70—at least. It’s hard to count when you are fully covered.” Some of the tattoos are of ex-wives, or friends, and Ami warms up when pointing to one in particular given to him by his old apprentice, Yoji. It’s a decapitated Samurai head, which James explains is “not supposed to represent something bad. The Samurais would pay the warriors to bring back a head. It’s a kabuki story about a traitor and the revenge at the end…”
James balloons his cheeks. He quit tattooing for almost two years after Miami Ink ended and his contract expired, and given that he now has a whole new series, with much the same premise, I’m curious about how he’s feeling being back in the spotlight. Of his official break he says, “I was trying to cure myself of something that I was stuck in for three-and-a-half years, doing eighty nine episodes, seven tattoos a week, every week. It was overwhelming for an artist to be in. It crushed me.” James, also a painter, says he grappled for a while with his ability to separate his two art forms, “if you tattoo a lot you drag it into your paintings, which is a completely different thing for me,” he explained. “I was so tainted by it. I felt like I was boxed in for so long, in a room being filmed, and I forgot that I had a passion for tattooing.” Before Miami Ink, tattooing was more of a hobby for James, but once the series began, everything changed. “I realized that I was going to start hating tattooing. I found myself bled to death at that shop. They squeezed every creative drop.” Artistic dilemma aside, the show was a hit, and James continued to prosper. He launched a clothing company, opened a night club (Love Hate Lounge in Miami), and, mostly, focused on his own art, separate from tattooing.
“I think people respect what I do as an artist,” says James. “No one would go up to Shepard Fairey and say, ‘I want a woman on a toilet bowl.'” So far, no one’s asked for that particular tattoo. Then again, the season’s not over yet.
In the gritty, male-dominated tattoo industry, it’s not easy for a petite Pennsylvania girl to find success. But 25-year-old Megan Massacre has managed to do just that as an artist on TLC’s newest tattoo reality series, NY Ink, which takes place at Manhattan’s Wooster Street Social Club. Growing up, Massacre was a Jill-of-all-trades when it came to art – dabbling in acrylic painting, calligraphy, and woodcarving. She forayed into tattooing after high school and hasn’t looked back since. Despite being one of the industry’s few female artists, Massacre has managed to hold her own; enough so that the show’s producers and Ami James (star of the franchise’s original series, Miami Ink), approached her to appear on the Manhattan reboot. We asked Massacre a few questions about her background, interests, and the weirdest tattoo she’s ever done.
BlackBook: Where are you from? Megan Massacre: Originally I am from southeastern Pennsylvania, born and raised in the small town of Douglassville. I moved around the surrounding area, eventually finding myself in Philadelphia about four years ago. I moved from there up to NYC, where I’m currently living.
Why Massacre? My real birth given last name is Woznicki, very far from Massacre. Massacre was the result of growing up in the era of Myspace and hardcore scene names. My friends and I mocked this by making up ultra tough names to use for our bowling league team. Its just kind of stuck since. I’m rather fond of it.
What were your interests when you were younger? Art has always been prevalent throughout my life, even as a small child. My mom has kept drawings of mine from as early as age 2, and even has photos of me drawing marker tattoos on her body throughout my younger years. During grade school and middle school I spent most of my free time at a local art studio honing my skills.
How did you first get into tattooing? I got into tattooing kind of by accident. I was going to community college and working a dead-end job selling furniture when I first graduated high school. A friend from work asked me to give her a ride to a local tattoo shop, and she told the guys who worked there about how well I could draw. They asked me to sketch a few things for them to check out, then asked if I would be interested in doing a tattoo. Although I was terrified, knowing this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, I worked up the courage and said yes. The guys set me up and I did my first tattoo. They were impressed enough to then offer me an apprenticeship.
How’d you get into modeling? A few years ago, a friend of mine asked if I would like to come along with her to a photo shoot based around tattoos. I went along for fun and ended up really enjoying it. I was inspired to continue pursuing it, working with other models and photographers, making friends and continually meeting other talented people in the industry that kept driving me further. It kept expanding until it started actually infringing upon my tattoo career, at which point it became more of a sub-career for me instead of just a hobby. While tattooing is my first and foremost, modeling is also a great passion of mine.
Do you usually do your own makeup and styling when you’re modeling? Always. I have a really big thing about that whenever I have photo shoots or anything whenever they try to bring in another makeup artist or stylist I’m not into it. I’m just not happy with it.
When did you get your first tattoo? I got my first tattoo when I was 18, about 6 months after I started tattooing. I looked very young for my age, and my boss at the time claimed that customers were scared to get tattooed by me because they thought I was 14 years old and had no tattoos. One day he made me get my first one. Having no idea what to get and being on the spot, I started flipping through tattoo magazines and found a drawing that I liked of an amine girl dressed as a cheetah. At the time I was really into this style of artwork. That night he traced it up and tattooed the outline on the whole outside of my right calf, I went home that evening and my mom totally flipped out. I actually ended up coloring in the rest of the tattoo myself as practice. I’ve gotten many tattoos over the past years. I would say I have around 20.
What are you looking forward to while filming the rest of the show? I’m think I’m most excited to see the show in its finished product and all of our hard work coming together. I feel there is so much good stuff being filmed I have no idea how they’re going to cram it all in there!
Do you feel like there’s any big differences being a woman in the industry? Absolutely. Tattooing is a man’s world. In order to be a woman in this world you need to acquire a thick skin. I believe there are both drawbacks and benefits to being a woman in this industry, the drawbacks being that it is harder to get other artists to take you seriously. I know plenty of artists who know who I am, but have never bothered to glance at my tattooing portfolio, assuming I’m just another tattooed chick model. I’ve even had artists tell me to give up modeling in order to be taken seriously as an artist, which I think is total crap, but sadly they do have a point, because most people don’t look past my exterior. At the same time there are benefits. Being a woman in this industry makes you more unique because there are so few of us, therefore it helps me stand out in what has become a sea of amazing artists out there these days.
Any secrets to your success? What would you say to an aspiring female tattoo artist? I believe the secret to my success is not a secret at all. It’s years of hard work and dedication. I guess my biggest piece of advice to give would be, Ladies, do not feel as though you need to give up an ounce of your femininity just to be taken seriously. Be big, bold, sexy and beautiful without regret!
What’s your favorite tattoo you’ve ever done? I would say one of my most favorite is of a huge phoenix/peacock style bird, very vibrant and colorful, that encompasses a woman’s whole left side of her back from upper shoulder to the bottom of her left butt cheek, then wrapping around her ribs to her belly button. Not only did the tattoo come out gorgeous on her, it’s awesome because she works in a law firm and wears a dress suit to work everyday. I find that to be bad ass.
What’s an average day like for you? Its starts with me attempting to wake up by 8am every day, but always hitting my snooze button five too many times, rushing to get all dolled up and then running into work. I then prepare for a 12 hour, ever-changing day filled with tattoos, crazy antics that make me laugh till my sides split, and consuming about ten cups of coffee. I then saunter home where I sit down on my couch and usually pass out before I even make it to my bed. I love every minute of it.
When you’re not working you’re … I’m kind of all over the place. Some days off I enjoy just bumming it at home in my pjs, not drawing on my eyebrows that day while eating ice cream and watching movies. Others, I like dressing in full costume and going out on the town, dancing on tables and drinking whiskey till the wee hours of the morning. I like to mix it up.
What do you enjoy most about tattooing, and what are some of the challenges? I would say my favorite thing about tattooing is the intimacy of the whole process. The idea of creating one unique piece of artwork to fit that one in particular person, that they choose to wear on their skin forever as opposed to on a t-shirt or hanging it on their wall is extremely fulfilling. The biggest challenge is the compromising of artwork. Everything I do is custom, and when someone presents me an idea, I get an instant mental image of how I would like to design the piece. Sometimes it ends up being not want the client wants, and they want to change the design. While this seldom happens, it’s hard to compromise artistically when you feel something else looks better.
Do you think with the show that there will be any instant comparisons to Kat Von D, since she was the last female artist on the show? And if there are, do you care? I don’t really care. It’s one of those things where I’ve already kind of experienced it. I just feel like we’re both in the same genre. There’s a couple tattoo TV shows now, but there aren’t any other prominent girl artists. It’s the same series. It’s like she did Miami Ink, she did LA Ink and now NY Ink is the next one in the series and that’s the show that I’m doing. She’s the girl, I’m the girl. We’re both girls, we’re both tattoo artists on the same series. Outside of that I don’t think there’s really any comparisons.
What’s the weirdest tattoo request you’ve gotten in your career? A lot of guys have asked me to do like weird shit, basically because I’m a girl. There aren’t many girl tattoo artists. And guys don’t really want other guys touching their parts. Guys will always ask me to do private tattoos. But sometimes they just want a tattoo, and sometimes they’re a creep. I have a story but it’s kind of gross. I don’t know if you want to hear it.
No, it’s fine. Go ahead. I was at a shop and this guy says he’s wants a tattoo on his ass. And I’m like, that’s weird. What made it so weird is that the guy had no visible tattoos. He was probably in his late forties or early fifties, a regular run-of-the-mill, blue collar guy. What weirded me out about it was that he couldn’t really look me in the eye, and he stuttered really bad. Like he was having a hard time talking to me about getting the tattoo. It was really awkward. At that point, I didn’t want to do the tattoo at all. And my boss was like, No you have to do it. And I was like, No, this guy’s weird. And he’s like, We’ll be in the room with you, it’ll be fine. And I’m like, That’s still weird. So my boss goes up to him and says, She’ll only do it if you pay double. And the guy was like, Done. So he says, I want the tattoo on my ass. And I was like, What do you want? He’s like, I don’t care. You don’t even have an idea? You’ve got to be kidding me. So I went to the books and found the smallest piece of tribal I could find. How about we do this? He’s like, Awesome. And I’m like, So do you have other tattoos there, because I have to see where we can put it? And he’s like, Oh yeah, I have a bunch. And then he drops his pants in the lobby, in front of everybody. And his whole ass is covered in tattoos, like underwear. He has the most random tattoos, Looney Tunes characters and flowers. What made it even more shocking was that he was wearing a woman’s white lace thong.
Wow. Yeah, and he’s like literally falling out of it. And I’m just laughing so hard I couldn’t even talk to the guy. I’m like, This has got to be a joke. But obviously he had gone to other tattoo artists. And people had just covered random splotches of color all over him. Other people had messed with him and didn’t take him seriously. Anyway, I asked, Where do you want to put it? And he’s like, I don’t know, pick a spot. So I kind of pointed to a spot kind of more near his hip level and I was like alright we’ll put it right here. And I did the tattoo as fast as I could. It’s one thing if people really want it, and they’re a really weird person, but they’re cool about it. But when the guy can’t look you in the face and is making you really nervous, it’s awkward. And that was this guy. I’ll never forget that experience, and to this day I will never again tattoo a guy’s ass.
That’s pretty crazy. Yeah, and that’s not even that crazy for this industry. Lots of people ask for stuff like that. And I understand I’m a girl, and if guys want tattoos in more private spots that they don’t want another guy touching them. They’d rather a girl tattoo them. Being a girl in the tattoo world you experience that a lot.
[Photo: Jake Smith for TLC]