Chris Nunez - Miami Ink

Published: 30 March, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 133, May, 2006


It's more than skin deep...

Tell us something about your background prior to your becoming a tattooist.

"Well, I was a graffiti writer, finished high school and went and did a little bit of college whilst I was starting my apprenticeship. I’m of Cuban descent, my father was Cuban, my mum was French. They were around the whole time when I was growing up. That’s about it really."

So while you were growing up did you have any particular preconceptions about tattoos and tattooing?

"I have always liked tattoos for as long as I can remember. I was always attracted to the way they look and I also liked the mystique that was attached to the tattoo scene. I liked the fact that it was a low brow, rougher, tougher kind of scene."

But those associations and perspectives are changing these days, don’t you think?

"Yes. The whole way tattooing was looked at then as compared to now has done a complete 360 degree turn and though its lost some of the edge its probably made a better quality of life for people who are tattooed and its definitely raised the standards as a lot of the scratchers and the people who don’t really belong in the business are definitely gonna’ have to find a way out. People now are so much more educated as to the quality and standards of work that can and should be achieved."

So, although, its so much easier to access better quality work, which is obviously beneficial to the industry and tattoo community in general. Do you think that the fact that tattoos are less marginalised has taken some of the edge out of being tattooed?

"That’s true. As tattoos have become more acceptable that changes the face of what it is but there is still always going to be some sort of an edge as the personality has to fit. The inside has to go with the outside but its just not as intimidating as it was. And with regard to those people with heavy coverage, that’s a lifestyle and requires a huge commitment, which not everybody would want to take on.

There is currently much emphasis on the fact that many tattooists are coming from fine art, middle class backgrounds, especially in this country."

Did you undergo any formal art training?

"I went to one semester of art school as I had hated regular college. I thought art school would allow me to get a degree. But that was all bullshit and I just found it horrible. For me it was just a waste of time."

But you were already doing graffiti so you obviously had a talent for art anyway!

"That’s right. I’d been doing graffiti for eight years by that time. I started when I was ten or eleven."

So you don’t think it’s really necessary to have any formal training providing you have a natural aptitude for art?

"In my opinion the training comes from practice and from a desire to want to tattoo and no matter how good an artist you are you have to know how to draw when you tattoo. You can’t do a classic rendering and then think that you can just pick up a tattoo machine and imagine that it’s just gonna work. There’s really no other medium like flesh!"

How did you become involved in tattooing and how difficult was it for you to achieve the status you have now achieved?

"Well I was actually painting one day and Lou Scriberras, the owner of a studio called Tattoos By Lou, came by and saw what I was doing and asked me if I wanted to come over to the studio and hang out. I ended up working in that shop for a year and during that time I only actually did seven tattoos but I learnt how to make needles, clean, take care of customers, open and close up the shop and do the paperwork. At that time I was 18."

So the apprenticeship was quite tough?

"There are not that many people who actually do an apprenticeship like that any more and that’s kind of taken the lustre out of the business but at the same time there are a lot of natural artists out there."

So how long did it take for you to be happy with the quality of the work that you were doing?

"Five years or so. It was tough. What happened was that I put in all the work from my apprenticeship from 1991-92, which was when Hurricane Andrew devastated South Florida and it took out one of the four shops that Lou owned. All the guys from that shop had to come to the beach shop and that shop was tiny, almost like a closet, but all of those guys had to eat, and there was no room for me any more. So, ultimately, they let me go and I hooked up with Frank Lee who was a really good friend of mine and he took me under his wing. He took me with him to Ohio, sat me down and we worked at his mum and dad’s place and he and I hung around together for about five years. We decided to open a shop together and nine months after we opened we met Claus Ferman from Vienna. He was down at the Fort Lauderdale convention and he offered us the opportunity to go to Europe so off we went leaving the shop with a friend of ours. The shop went belly up but once I had lost the shop I was free to travel so basically from 1994/95-2001/2 I was travelling and that was probably the best thing that I ever did."

So what is the atmosphere like at Miami Ink, the studio featured in the TV show that you are here to promote?

"The shop is exactly like you see it on TV. There’s not one thing that’s different now except that there are only walk in customers. Due to the success of the show we ended up getting pre-booked for a year and that was crazy so we had to cancel it all because with all the filming and all of the travelling we are doing now we could not commit to long-term bookings. We had people flying in from all over the country, all over the world in fact, and it’s not fair for people to be flying in if we were not available to tattoo them. So, rather than let anybody down, we decided to only offer a walk in service. If I make it to work that day I tattoo and that’s fine. It’s just so hectic right now."

For readers who may not have seen Miami Ink, what was the idea behind the show?

"It tends to focus on the clients and on our artwork and how the two tie in together, if there is an emotional thing going on and we tie in to what the customer has going on, it all fits together, but we don’t have much shop drama or arguments, we just go in there and tattoo. We are a fun group of guys and we have a great time. Much of the show focuses on the stories of the clients, that’s the format, so its often a little more dramatic, a little more sad than the studio might be on a daily basis, but you know tattooing is like being a bartender, people do open up to us."

As tattooists do you compete with each other?

"Not at all. What we do is to help each other. If there’s something that I’m not sure about I’ll take it to Chris or I’ll take it to Ami or to Darren and vice versa. We all work on each others sketches and we are all real friends and have been for almost fifteen years so we are not just guys who were cast to do the show."

How did the studio initially become involved in the series?

"Actually, Ami met a producer in New York in a nightclub and the guy told him that he had this idea for a tattoo show and was trying to find the right guys to do it but was not having much luck and Ami said, 'well if you want to try it with us I can put you in touch with the guys'."

So what did you hope to gain by your involvement?

"As a team we were quite scared to do it at first because we thought people might hate us for it. There is jealousy in the tattoo community but when it boils down to it if we hadn’t done it somebody else would and did, as from what I hear, there are two more shows coming out. But on the positive side we have raised the standards of tattooing. Whether people like it or not we changed the face of tattooing, and as a result, every single tattoo shop in our country has gotten busier. The day after our show airs there were queues outside the doors of all the good shops. We are doing high quality work on demand at the drop of a dime and people are now aware of what is possible. We don’t have one piece of flash in our shop, so whatever we do whether it’s tiny or a whole backpiece, it’s all from us!"

Did you have any problems from other studios resenting the fact that you were getting this opportunity?

"99% of other tattooists who are not into what we are doing will come up and shake our hands and tell us how happy they are with what we’re doing and then talk bad about us behind our backs. So a man’s gotta be a man about it and take it on the shoulder. But for us the experience has been positive."

What other worries did you have about doing the show?

"I don’t worry too much or I would never have become a tattooist. What I care about is how we are portrayed and the care that we have for the business. We wanted to elevate it not exploit it and that’s what we pushed for."

How many tattooists actually work in the studio?

"At the moment I have about eight guys there."

Are there any particular styles of work that you prefer to do?

"We all pretty much try to do whatever the client wants. Basically I like to do stuff that’s a challenge."

The apprentice on the show seems to get quite a hard time of things. Is that real or is some of it played up for the cameras?

"In all reality we can’t show too much of his apprenticeship in the series because if we did we would be teaching the world how to tattoo, we’d be giving away secrets and that’s not what we are there to do. We are there to show polished tattooing, to show people what is available, not how to do it. We have fought really hard not to become an instructional class. But if people really want to learn, they will, but we are not giving classes.

So Yoji’s apprenticeship is real, but it’s real when it’s not on camera. But all of the drawing and stuff he does in the show and on camera is all valid. But when he actually does a tattoo and we are all standing over him, telling him what to do, that’s not shown to the public."

Have you been pleased with the way the show has been edited so far?

"It’s hard because you always expect yourself to be portrayed in the way in which you see yourself and then someone else will come along and make your character."

So do you think the character that has been created for you, due to the edits, is a good representation?

"I’m pretty well content with what’s happened. I’m like the crazy, drunk, ladies guy. I don’t mind that, that’s fine, anybody who knows me knows that I’m a pretty crazy kind of guy."

How have you adapted to being filmed on a daily basis?

"You go from being a normal guy to being on camera fourteen hours a day, five days a week, for twenty weeks at a time, so it’s a little tedious but it has its perks."

Do you just get used to the cameras being there?

"Yeah, I don’t even see them anymore."

How about the clients, are they especially chosen for particular reasons?

"For the show the clients have to sign up and then go through a process as the production team wants to know that whoever is getting tattooed has a legitimate story whether that be happy, sad, good, bad, it has to be entertaining. You’ll see each one of us doing some really nice work and then you’ll see us doing some tiny, goofball tattoo and you might wonder why we are doing that but it’s all about what we have to do to fit in with the clients whose stories are featured on the show."

Before deciding to do the show did you have any preconceptions about reality TV?

"I really never cared to be on TV or to be famous. I never wanted to be an actor I just wanted to be successful in what I was doing. But you know, funny things happen for funny reasons and this could have been the thing that saved my life. I’ve had my share of shitty things happen but life carries you down a path so maybe it was time for me to get a little something better."

How about your own tattoos, what were the inspirations behind the designs?

"Probably 98% of what I have is totally meaningless in the sense that I never got tattooed because of this event or that event. I got tattooed because I love tattoos, I love tattooing and I loved the artists who did the work. I respected them and said; 'do what you want'."

Have a lot of different artists worked on you?

"Yes, I have tattoos from Brazil and from all over the States. Most of the work I have is done by friends it’s a great memory."

How about the style of work you wear?

"I have a lot of Asian, Japanese and I have some New Skool stuff."

And you prefer colour work?

"If I could go back and do it all over I would have black and grey, you can read it so much better, you look at this piece on my arm and know that it’s a face and it will be like that until the day I die. Having said that if you got one big piece of colour work down one arm, a massive thing, solid colour, it could look amazing. Its just that I wanted to get tattooed by as many people as possible so that I could learn, so I kept getting little four or five hour tattoos and then tried to tie it all up."

Aside from tattoos, what else do you love?

"Definitely my dog. I have a Pit bull, not your average kind of Pit bull, more like a teddy bear really!"

So, how about the future?

"I’m looking towards the future like it’s an open door. I just wanna walk through it and see what’s in each next hallway, that’s my philosophy now!"


Text & Photography: Ashley at