Ami James - NY Ink

Published: 29 March, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 210, April, 2012

Whatever your opinion of the ‘ink’ shows currently running the gauntlet on TV, to deny they had collectively changed the face of modern tattooing would be foolish. Thus, when Ami James agreed to partake of a Skin Deep-style grilling, we turned up the heat.

At the southern-most point of Sinai is the city of Sharm-el-Sheikh where Ami James was born and raised. His father (who was in the American navy) met his mother (a native of Israel) and Ami spent his early years in an area of Israel which had been part of Egypt. He was six or seven when Israel signed a peace treaty with Egypt that included the reuniting of Sinai with Egypt, and as a result, his family moved to the outskirts of Tel Aviv where they stayed until he was 12. At that stage, Ami’s father had left, and he, his brother, and his mom, found themselves in difficult times. After a big stock market crash in Israel, his mother found herself out of work with all her savings gone.

Ami remembers fondly the visits he and his brother used to take to Virginia to stay with their grandparents (on their father’s side). “We were blown away by America’s size and food and everything. America was this huge land of opportunity.” When they saw how much they were suffering in Israel, and how hopeless their situation had become, Ami and his brother “managed to convince mom that maybe moving to America might be the best opportunity [they’d] ever have”. By then she felt there was nothing to lose, so decided they’d give it a chance. She sold the last of everything she had, the three of them hopped on a plane, and they flew to Virginia where they stayed with their grandparents. Ami’s mom flew down to Miami to stay with a friend, and after a couple of months, landed a job. “She called us up and was like ‘alright, are you guys ready to come to Miami?’ and we said ‘hell yeah!’ So we left Virginia, went to Miami, and that’s where it all started.”

He lived in Miami until he was 17 and then went back to Israel to join the service. His dream was to join the navy in Israel because of his father. “The only thing he left me was the love of the ocean, and since I grew up in Sharm-el-Sheikh, that’s the only thing you have. At one point I wanted to join an elite part of the Navy…” But because he was an American now, he was turned down and instead joined a top infantry unit, ending up being a sniper for three years. Afterwards he returned to America to find himself without a job and without a high school diploma. He was 20 years old.

Ever since he could remember, he always had the skill to draw. Both his father and his grandfather were painters, and it was a gift passed down from them. So even though he hadn’t been in school since he was 15, he had always stuck with actively studying and pursuing his art. The first time he got tattooed he was 17 years old. He was still in Israel and it was his first glimpse at a tattoo machine. “While I was in the service, I had a weekend off and I went and got tattooed. When I was getting tattooed, the guy that was tattooing me walked outside for some reason and I grabbed the machine and started tattooing myself. That was my first glimpse of the tattoo world.” That was when the idea of pursuing tattooing first entered Ami’s mind; when the tattooer returned to find Ami with the machine in his hand, “he actually let me finish off the tattoo. And I knew then that it would become my life.”

Ami had been back in the States for about six months when on his birthday his two roommates presented him with tattoo equipment. “They said, ‘here’s your present and from here on, you’re going to start tattooing.’” After another six months or so Ami landed an apprenticeship with Lou of Tattoos by Lou. At that stage, Tattoos by Lou was one of the most predominant shops on the East Coast. Lou himself was a very old-school Americana-style tattoo artist, with a rich history and lots of cool stories that he shared with his new apprentice. Ami was very drawn to him, but it took a lot of begging and pleading until Lou said yes. “Then I apprenticed. I did my time. It was like going back to the army and doing boot camp all over.” When the apprenticeship came to an end, he found that he was now a tattoo artist and left the US.

For five or six years, Ami travelled the world. He would fill guest-spots in tattoo shops in any country that he could. He would stay in each place for a few months until he made enough money to move onto somewhere else and do it all over again. He explains that one of the biggest gifts that you have as a tattoo artist is the connections that you make and the ability to live out of a suitcase. “It was awesome. You didn’t live by the visas, the IRS, or worry about how you pay your taxes, how you do this or how you do that, you’re just a travelling artist. You work for commission and you get to travel anywhere you want. The person that owns the shop pays the taxes and you’re not a part of it, you’re just there for a couple of months before moving on. It’s something that was the easiest thing in the world for me because you’re basically just living to travel, you’re living to tattoo. You put your mark on the world as much as you can and just enjoy the ability, the freedom, of just being able to say, well, tomorrow I’m done here. I wanna go to Portugal, Milan, Denmark, Sweden, wherever.”

Eventually Ami found himself back in New York which is when the pattern started developing of travelling back and forth between there and Miami. He would spend his summers in New York and his winters in Miami. Occasionally he’d go back to travelling the world, but he’d always return to one of the two cities that had now become his bases. He was now also working the nightlife scene and was partners in a bar. His tattooing had become a hobby, and he was only tattooed friends or took the occasional appointment. He has always enjoyed the nightlife scene and has discovered recently that people were always surprised about that fact. But his friends would always point out that eversince he was 21, he was always either promoting, or doing something involved with that scene. “That was always my love. I loved going around shaking hands, making people laugh, showing people a good time.”

Charlie Corwin, the owner of Original Media, was looking for a tattoo artist with charisma, the kind of charisma that would work on TV. He had heard through a mutual friend that Ami James would be the perfect candidate so a meeting was arranged. “But this was 2004. Reality TV hadn’t really been exploited to the full yet. Don’t get me wrong, there were a few reality shows, but you’re talking minimal numbers; it was before the craze. So my first thought was a complete turn-off. I would do a documentary before I did a TV show. But the idea of building a business and showing the world that tattoo artists are not these idiots the world seemed to think they were was appealing. I mean, back in the day if you had tattoos you were associated with being a criminal. I remember being denied entry when trying to cross borders.” Being heavily tattooed for 25 years, Ami has experienced countless strip-searches, and has been frowned upon everywhere he went.

“So I looked at this opportunity and I thought, this is the first time when we might be able to explain to the public that just because you’re tattooed, it does not make you any different from anybody else.”

They discussed how they could go about explaining to people that tattoo artists are just artists. How the good ones are basically just artists who have managed to take their talents and make money with them, rather than to just paint and “be a starving artist because that world didn’t belong to the street anymore. The art world ceased to belong to the street a long time before that, but the cleanest form of art is street expression, and that’s what tattoos meant to us”. Ami agreed to do a pilot episode, but wasn’t convinced that opening a shop in New York City would be a good idea at that point. Rent in New York compared to any other place is extortionate and it was still not clear if the show would be a success, so Ami suggested instead that they go down to Miami and do it from there. “I said lets just open a shop there because it’ll be cheap, the overheads will be cheap, and I won’t get stuck with $25,000 a month rent in case this whole thing doesn’t work. Because to be honest, at that point I didn’t even want to own a tattoo shop, I was happy just tattooing out of my friend’s shop. But I figured I’d give it a go because anything could happen.” Love Hate Tattoo in Miami was owned by a friend of Ami’s called Merlin; at the time, Merlin wanted to sell the shop, so Ami bought it from him.

Charlie and Ami sat down and began to discuss how the show should work, to figure out what is so interesting about tattoos and how they could get it across to a wide audience. Ami was convinced that one thing most people could relate to, are the stories behind some of the tattoos. “A lot of the stories are crazy if you listen, and as a tattoo artist you’re hearing them through your whole career. We knew that was going to capture and captivate the audience, the fact that they could relate all of a sudden to a story that connected them to tattoos.

“The audience would also come to understand that what we do at times is a kind of a healing process for some, kind of a funny process for others, and for us as tattoo artists, it’s just what we do.” He went on to explain to me that most of his friends who have tattoos get them simply because they love tattoos, they love the way they look, and they don’t care whether there’s a story behind them or not. But for Ami, they couldn’t build a show only that, but needed the stories. “Over 100 episodes later and I’m still like ‘how could this be?’ But I realise that the stories will never end, shocking moments will never cease.”

For Ami, Miami Ink become a big turning point for the tattoo industry and the way that tattoos have come to be perceived. It was inevitable that the tattoo world was reaching a point where it was going to become a thing that TV would try and cash in on. “They were already pursuing it. It wasn’t like I invented it and shoved it out there. Also, one thing we were pretty adamant about was that we were never going to teach people how to tattoo on the show, we just wanted to show them what we do and what we deal with.”

It met with a lot of resentment from some quarters, but at the same time it was bringing more money into the tattoo shops. “We actually got the people that would never have stepped into a tattoo shop, to go in and get tattooed at the local shop that had been there for years, when they would never in their lives have given it a chance before. Not until they saw the show. I mean, we had that happen in huge numbers.

“Statistically, the numbers of tattooed people grew immensely. I mean, in huge, huge numbers. Artists, basketball players, hip hop artists, singers, everybody started getting tattooed. There’s not one athlete out there these days that isn’t covered in tattoos. I mean, it’s everywhere. I think the people who really always had the good skills, the show only drove more business to them, and the people that didn’t have the skills were really the haters. If you’re really good and you’ve got a great clientele, there’s no reason why you should hate your neighbour, because you’re doing good business.

“And we also realised that we were doing it justice. We’re doing TV, but we’re not bashing the name of the tattoo world. We’re keeping it as real as it possibly gets, and nowadays you have to make TV. That’s what we do. We find a balance to be able to give both, to be able to prosper off the business and support our families and do everything that we do. But you ask me at the end of the day what I am, and I’ll tell you that I’m a tattoo artist. It’s my life.”

A little over a year ago, Ami opened a studio right in the heart of New York, Wooster Street Social Club, which also happens to be set for NY Ink. Despite the price of rent being quadruple what it is in Miami, Ami still charges the same minimum for both shops, believing that it helps people who don’t have as much money to go in and get tattooed. The two shops also share a lot of the same clientele, so he feels it would be unfair to charge them at different rates depending on what shop they stepped into.

Things have changed since the days before Ami started doing TV, “now you’re in the eye of the public and everyone’s looking at you. They want things from you, they want to get a piece of you, they want to take a piece of you; that’s something that you learn how to deal with as it goes. It’s not something that I figured out the next day. I think it was a good thing that I did it at 33 and not at 21, because I can definitely understand why it turns people into monsters. You start thinking that you’re a celebrity and all this bullshit. And I’m not a fucking celebrity. I’m a tattoo artist, just like the same tattoo artists that are still in my circle that have never been on the show. They’re still with me at the end of the day. That’s who comes to my house. I didn’t start hanging out with the Kim Kardashians or the fucking Paris Hiltons. It’s not my world, and nor do I give a shit about that world. I’m a reality star… I mean what the hell is that?!” he laughs and continues, “I didn’t climb on anybody’s back to get here. I didn’t have to do a sex-tape to get to where I’m at. I didn’t have to make a fool out of myself like Jersey Shore, I just did what I do and what so many tattoo artists do.”

The bonus of doing television for Ami is the fact that there are certain perks. He gets to make a decent living and he also gets good media coverage for his shop. He also gets to help out his friends, to give them jobs that make good money for them. “It’s a great feeling to be able to watch them prosper, to give them the opportunities to join me in many different ventures.” And most importantly for Ami, he gets to look after his family properly, “but for all those perks, there’s a downfall. You can’t sit at a restaurant and eat with your family without being stalked in some way, or bothered; people wanna take pictures of your kid; everybody wants something for no reason, or they want to give you something.”

He uses an interesting analogy for what it’s like to be in the limelight: “It’s a roller coaster ride, and it’s funny because the roller coaster will ride you until you’re done if you don’t know how to ride it. I’ve managed to keep a level head, managed to stay humble and not let this shit get to me. I live my own life. I’m like a fucking hermit y’know. I come home, I spend time with my family, and I hang out with the same friends I’ve hung out with for over 25 years now, and that’s where I’m happy. I don’t need the bullshit limelight and all the shit that goes around it. It’s not for me.”

Ami finds it important to take one day at a time in the world he is now in. One week’s rating can reflect on the following weeks rating, and suddenly everything has a new angle to it. For him, it’s as precarious as the fact that you could have a great season, but if the last episode lets you down, you could suddenly find yourself with a cancelled show. So his focus is to not look too far ahead because there are no guarantees. His aim is to make the best of each day and to try and get as much into the few months that you know you’re going to be on TV. “Because all the shit is short-lived. I’m aware of that. I’m not going to sit here and bullshit you with ‘oh I’m a fucking star, I’m gonna be here forever’ because that’s ridiculous. You realise that people grow on TV, the style changes, demand changes; what was a hit last year might not be the hit this year, and I live by that. I try to give my best and keep up-to-date and just give good TV. From that I get to do business and get the best tattoos I can in there. And also get the drama that people want to see on TV these days for some strange reason. But it is what it is. And it’s work. The machine is huge now and there is a lot to do.”

I’ve always been curious to know how those involved with reality TV view the actual ‘reality’ of it. I explain to Ami that I can’t help but feel that once people know a camera is on them, they’re going to act differently. Ami makes an interesting point though: “reality for me is with a camera behind my head. Reality for you is so far away from it. I don’t know anything without the camera in the tattoo shop, I’m so used to it already that to me, that’s reality.”

The only challenge, Ami admits, is getting the customer to feel the same. For them it’s not reality and can often take time for them to become accustomed to it. So for Ami that’s the bigger battle: “If they’ve just hiccuped, or messed something up, unless you want to look like an idiot on TV, we’re going to have to shoot it again. And most people are happy to do that, so it is pretty much reality, but why would we show you all the cuts where this guy loses his microphone or says the f-word by accident. So at one point you realise that we’re trying to give you as close to reality as possible, but remember, we’re still shooting this and there are the difficulties of the process. For me it’s reality, it’s as close to reality as I know at this point.”

These days, Ami has started working with a lot of tattoo artists who work in black and grey, most notably Tim Hendricks and Tommy Montoya who currently work at Wooster Street Social Club. He finds that because he is working in such close quarters with them, their style is starting to have an influence on his. “I’m starting to look at tattoos now more as art on its own, rather than just as a tattoo. When you do Americana-style tattooing, you want to get that black, heavy, whip shading, bold colours. Green, yellow, red. And that’s it. That’s very ‘tattoo’. But then the more you try and dabble in it, the more you’re working with other styles, you find that you’re starting to look at things that at one point weren’t considered real tattoos. So these days I’m thinking about how it looks as a piece of art as well as how it will look as a tattoo.

“I think it’s evolution. The skill level, and our tools, have gotten better. The needles we’ve gotten and the way we’ve learnt to use them… I mean, you’re seeing guys do photo-realism down to the T on people. If you would have said 25 years ago, ‘Is that possible?’, we would have said ‘Never, never, never’. You can’t stop this evolution, so you try and evolve with it.” Ami has started to look for inspiration in things that may not have been inspiration for tattoo artists, medieval designs that you’re more likely to see in an antique shop, etc. “I realise that I will no longer look at a tattoo having to be that eagle, or that dagger, or that snake. From now on it’s going to be whatever I want it to be.” It is important however that a tattoo lasts for as long as possible, he adds. Because any tattoo can look good for the first year, but the question is, what is it going to look like in 15 years. “We, as humans, don’t have an expiration date that says 70 years or whatever, we live a good long life these days, and so should your tattoos. So to me, the most important thing is how do I make your tattoo last your whole life, and still try to keep it as beautiful as it was the first day, right up until the last?”

As we approach the end of our interview I ask Ami about the old and the new, the old-school and the new-school, how things have changed. “I look at the guys that laid down the ground rules. Ed Hardy, Filip Leu, Mike Malone, Sailor Jerry, Cliff Raven, Bob Roberts… there’s so many of them. So many good guys that really were doing what we do now but 25 or more years ago. They pushed the envelope. If they could only see what kids are doing now, they would have said that that was the same thing for them decades before now. People were saying to them back in the day, ‘How the fuck are you guys doing that?!’ I mean, God knows what they’re going to be doing 15 years from now. I don’t know how much better it can get anymore. Because, literally, you’ve got these guys doing super copies of anything you want. So how good can it get already?! But I’m sure Ed Hardy asked around 30 years ago, ‘how good can it get?’ For me, he was my hero, and I would have said that it couldn’t get any better than that too. I look at them still and I’m like wow – how was he even able to do it back then?!

“The tools, the needles we had back then, it wasn’t the same. Now people don’t even know how to make needles. They buy everything disposable, they don’t know anything about machines. You can just order a machine on the internet. I can remember when we had to learn how to build a machine before we even owned a machine. You couldn’t buy needles, you had to make them! You don’t have disposable tubes, you had to scrub your tubes every day. I’m sure the old-timers are looking at us like we’re completely out of our minds, but that’s evolution, and I try and evolve every day. I keep evolving my style. I mean, I could keep doing Japanese and stay safe, but I’ll try a portrait, I’ll try this or that.

“I’d rather be a jack-of-all-trades and be able to say that I can do a good tattoo no matter what style it is. That’s really what I want to do. I want to become that guy that’s an all-round artist that will always give you a good clean tattoo.”


Text: Tom Abbott