Charlie Corwin on Giuseppe Cipriani, Socialista’s Demise & ‘New York Ink’

Charlie Corwin is a player. More often than not, it’s the other guy from one of his ventures that has his photo in the funny papers or in bold letters, but it’s Charlie making things happen. I don’t think he’s complaining, as he’s insanely successful and pursuing all sorts of endeavors that are satisfying his creative needs. Charlie isn’t limited to being a bean counter, although his work does provide him with lots of green beans. He’s married to one of my cocktail servers from bygone days, the beautiful and brilliant Olivia Ma Corwin, who’s a mogul in her own right. She got out of the club biz by creating the pet clothing company Kwigy Bo. All the right pooches are wearing Kwigy Bo. I’ll let Charlie tell you about what he does and is planning to do. Pay attention, you might learn something.

I know you in three capacities: first as a friend; second, you’ve dabbled in the club world in this world of lounges, if you will; and then third as a filmmaker. Tell me about your film career. I’ve always been entrepreneurial in media. My first company was a record label, second an internet company, and I sold both of those and moved on to start Original Media, which is my production company. We started by making television, and then we moved to movies, and now we do both. We have something like 14 series on the air now, all reality, although we do scripted also. Anything ranging from Stormchasers on Discovery to the Ink franchise. We do The Rachel Zoe Project, Swamp People for History, which is our new big hit about the alligator hunters of the Atchafalya Swamp basin in the Louisiana Bayou. And the movie side of things we do sort of Sundance-y independent films. I’ve shot 5 movies in New York, and all of them have premiered at Sundance: The Squid and The Whale, Half Nelson, Guide to Recognizing Your Saints, August, and most recently a movie called Twelve which Joel Shumacher directed.

Let’s chat about your latest venture. I went to a party for New York Ink, one of those parties I thought wasn’t going to be very good, but it turned out to be really great, which is always the best thing. Tell us about New York Ink and the tattoo shop. This all started about 5 or 6 years ago with the first show, called Miami Ink. I was a big fan of Taxi Cab Confessions, and I thought the tattoo paradigm presented a really easy way to tell real stories. In other words, when people typically get tattoos, they typically get them to commemorate crossroads in their lives, be they inspirational or commemorative, sad or happy. And while they’re lying in these chairs, literally and figuratively naked, being painfully and permanently inked by a tattoo artist, they tell the story behind the tattoo to the artist, and it takes on this confessional paradigm, where the artist is like a punk rock priest telling their story to them. After I created that show, it became a hit, and we started to franchise it. We opened New York, which partners with Ami James, who’s also the star of the show. Our shop is called The Wooster Street Social Club, and it’s also the location for New York Ink, the newest installment in the Ink franchise.

Tell me how this space transcends the normal, traditional tattoo parlor, and how tattooing has hit the mainstream. Everyone’s getting one. My Mom told me the other day that she wanted a tattoo! She’s 81! These television shows have made tattooing mainstream in a lot of ways, or they have at the very least helped it along the way. The percentage of Americans that now have a tattoo is staggering. I can’t remember what it is, but adult Americans with tattoos is a number something like 40%. It’s a huge number and it’s gone up since we started doing these shows, it’s infiltrated pop culture, like a Warhol Campbell’s soup can or Brillo pad box. With this space it has become something different—it’s in Soho, so it’s not on St. Mark’s Place, it’s not a dive, a rat hole. You’ve been there, it’s a very beautiful loft. You put a restaurant in there—you put anything in there—and it would be beautiful. The idea of having it in Soho, in the art gallery Soho district, and it being an art gallery itself, is we are now elevating what was considered “down” market, what was considered “street art” into fine art that is worthy of being presented in a gallery environment. So that’s the idea.

One of the themes for the space is it’s a multi-platform artistic venue, it’s an interdisciplinary artist place for artists to create all different kinds of art that will hopefully cross pollinate—that’s the Warholian part of it. But one of the central questions I was faced with, being a reality television producer who was making a show about art, was how to make it appealing—to some people, those are strange bedfellows. Whether or not they’re irreconcilable is up for debate. So it’s the question of whether you can make a show about art, in this case tattoo art, and have it play to the soccer moms in the red states, and also have an artistic venue (like the one I’m describing in the center of Soho), and still have credibility among the artist community. This became the challenge. And so rather than try to solve that riddle, I decided to make it the theme of the space itself.

Let’s talk about the space. What else is going to be going on in that space besides traditional tattooing and a section for filming? The way I think of it is like the Russian dolls. At the center of it you have the human canvases, the clients, the people that come in to get tattoos on their skin, and that art itself. Around that, the larger circle of the television show itself, where you have producers and directors, camera people, and sound people walking around with shoulder-mount cameras filming a television show—creating a television show. Around that you have the actual walls of the space, where we are curating exhibits from mostly street artists, and other organic urban artists. So we’re going to be doing a rotating mural on the wall, which will then get piped into a projector, and project it onto the wall while you’re in the space. So there will be multiple artistic endeavors unfolding in real time while you’re in the space getting tattooed.

And there will also be events. The events are going to be driven by art, so they’re going to be real avant-garde kind of events. Think—sketching days where you’re just sketching all day during a drawing seminar, with live models. Or we’re planning a kind of 24-hour film festival, where you have to shoot, edit, and deliver a short film in 24-hours. So there are all sort of artistic-driven events.

You were involved with one of the most hard-luck projects of all time, Socialista. It was really a great place, it had a good run, and people really loved it, but it got banged out because of bullshit. Tell me about your role there. I was always fascinated—and still am—with nightlife in New York. I think it’s the stuff of dreams. I had met Armin Amiri, who was one of the owners, and really running Socialista. I had met him originally through my wife Olivia when he was working at Bungalow 8 with Amy Sacoo. I’ve known him for many years. When he opened this place he went and showed it to me and I was blown away by the location. It’s just a gorgeous location with windows onto the river in the Jane Street Hotel. I was warned that that space was cursed, because there had been several other things in that space over the years.

I have that theory, by the way. I passed on the space, personally, for clients of mine a number of times. You actually took it while I was still with the clients who were insisting, and I was saying no. You saved me, vindicated me. You’re welcome. Armin invited me to invest, and at that time it was Armin and his partner Giuseppe Cipriani. The plan had the upstairs as a nightclub/lounge, and downstairs was to be a restaurant. It was a Cuban-themed nightclub, and Cuban-themed restaurant—hence the name Socialista—but the food in the restaurant was going to be run by Cipriani, who obviously has a lot of experience running restaurants. I loved the idea, and I love Armin, so I went out and I brought in a bunch of my friends, including some big names, to invest as well.There was a small group of high-profile investors that opened Socialista, and it was great. Giuseppe never showed up, basically. He never showed up to run the restaurant.

He had other problems. He had other problems. So Armin was left to run the restaurant, and ultimately—

I don’t want to make him sound like he was being flaky. He was distracted heavily. He was under indictment for tax evasion. So ultimately two things killed Socialista: Number one, and I don’t know the details of it so I shouldn’t speak on it with authority, but Giuseppe ended up making a deal with the government.That included him paying a large fine, and as part of that fine he taxed all of his restaurants—including Socialista. That’s how he covered the fine. And we were not up-and-running long enough to be able to cover that. I’ve never told that story before, but that’s the truth.

The other part of it was we had a very unfortunate incident with Hepatitis A. There was a bartender that worked for us who had gone home somewhere in Central America, I cant remember exactly where, for the weekend or something. He came back to work and he had unfortunately brought it back with him, unknowingly. Later he started feeling sick and figured out he had contracted Hepatitis A, which is not a good thing if you’re in the restaurant business serving drinks. It turned out that the night that he had worked also happened to be the night of Ashton Kutcher’s birthday party. Which made for a very awkward aftermath: a lot of phone calls asking people to get tested, which led to news trucks outside, putting microphones in everybody’s face before they walked into the club. You couldn’t come back from that.

No, there’s no coming back. Nightclubs are an addiction. I’m addicted, your wife is addicted. Even though Olivia and I are not in the business anymore, there’s a certain part of our brain that’s tapped in that wants a little bit more. I write about it, I got out that way, and I also design clubs. Did you get hooked? Or are you retired? Oh I’m hooked, I’m hooked. I didn’t lose enough to be scared away. First of all, I don’t regret the Socialista investment. I still love Armin, and I’ll probably invest with him again. I think it was a fantastic experience while it lasted. It ended too soon, and that was very unfortunate, but I had so much fun while I was doing it, and I would absolutely do it again. I have lots of friends, you included, who are nightclub proprietors whom I trust implicitly, and would be happy to go into business with.

Image: Rudy Archuleta (photographer) from Inked Magazine