I had the pleasure of interviewing Miya myself a couple of months ago for Inked magazine, and that Q&A is featured in the August issue, on newsstands now and available as a digital download. Let's just pretend that "television personality" JWow-whatever from the Jersey Shore is not on the cover (classing up the image of tattooed women, of course) and focus on our talk, which touched on how art got Miya out of the projects, how he developed his tattoo craft, racism in the tattoo community, and what Color Outside the Lines is about.
Here's a taste:
In the film, you also say that you were really attracted to tattooing artistically and even took a needle and thread and starting poking your own skin at a young age. What was the main attraction? It wasn't just one thing. I'd see my father with tattoos growing up and that was really the spark of it because every young boy wants to be like his father growing up. As I got older and came into my own, I was really into music and the first people I noticed who had really artistic work on them was a rock group called Fishbone. When I saw these brothers, it blew my mind. I'm from North Carolina, this country boy, seeing a rock band that's black with tattoos that weren't just names or stereotypical stuff. And just imagine what they had to go through from their own community. People didn't have sleeves or work like that in the eighties in the black community. When I started tattooing in the early nineties, the people dogging me the most were my own people saying, "Why are you doing that?" "Are you trying to be white?" Wow. But it's part of our culture. Tribes did it. I always knew this.
What was your start like, professionally?
I started off as a scratcher like everyone else because I couldn't get an apprenticeship then, but I wasn't satisfied. So I moved to Atlanta, which I considered a big city at the time, and took a chance and knocked on every tattoo shop I found. Everybody told me no until I got to West End and Julia Alphonso said, "Come on in; let me see your portfolio." She trained me for three years. Back then, I didn't understand none of the stuff she was putting me through, but I appreciate it now. She gave up so much. She was blackballed in the industry for teaching black people how to tattoo. I would hear at tattoo conventions, "She's a nigger lover." This was in the nineties! When we'd go to conventions, they would call us so many racial slurs it was unbelievable. That was some Rosa Parks shit. The first time I ever faced hard racism at a convention was in Philadelphia in '95. The people who stood out were the people who were nice to me. Paul Booth, out of everybody, was super nice to us. He said, "Y'all can sit and watch me work." And Cap Szumski too. He made me watch him do a portrait for two hours straight at the tattoo convention. He said, "I know Julia. She told me to keep an eye on you. Sit your ass down and watch me do this tattoo." You had to see people's facial expressions when they saw black kids, teenagers, sitting in his booth and watching him work. The looks on their faces inspired me forever.