Empire of Ink: The Rise of Tattoo Artist, Reality Star, & Business Man Ami James
“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.