I had a chance to talk to Miya Bailey at the Tattoos For a Cure Convention in Los Angeles back in April. Miya, with Tuki Carter, have built Atlanta's City of Ink Tattoo into a household name in the city, and garnered a well deserved rep beyond. Here's how the conversation went...
I've been tattooing since '93.
How did you start out, was it an organic process?
It started out, first, because of poverty. I was living in the projects. I had a baby. I was a father. I was really trying to make a way for my children.
So what I did, like anybody from the hood, I started to do it the home way, but I knew I couldn't get past hood money doing it that way. I knew I was a businessman by nature so I decided to follow the right path and get an apprenticeship, which was hard in the early '90's -- it was '93 so trying to find an apprenticeship took a long time. I researched a couple of shops and ended up West End Tattoo.
How did you choose that shop?
I wasn't choosing it. I went down the phone book in alphabetical order and was denied down to the W's.
Almost 3 years. From Julia [Alponsio, formerly of West End], I learned the aspects of sterilization, professional tattooing and also the business aspect. I believe that you can be a talented artist, but if you have no business sense, you're not really going to make it.
How did your experiences as an apprentice affect how you choose your apprentices now?
My apprenticeship was hard. For my shop, I like competition; everyone wants to feel that they are the best artist. The way to prove that you're the best artist is to outdo the next person. That's what I try to instill in my apprentices.
Tuki and I learned tattoo from bikers, old school bikers, so we had to learn the traditional way and learn the aspect of old school biker culture. The shop was run by the Outcasts Biker gang.
The owner of the shop was female property of the Outcasts Biker club; therefore, everyone in the club was our boss, her husband was our boss also. So we learned and worked a lot.
I assume these were white boys?
When I lived in Asheville, NC, I tattooed mostly white clientele. When I moved to Atlanta, which is a mostly black city, I tattooed all blacks. The actual truth is the Outcasts Biker Gang is a black biker gang. Atlanta is a chocolate city.
I didn't have much experience tattooing white skin until I started to develop my own style in the early 90s. A lot of people don't know this but I was into the Gothic style, you know, zombies and dark imagery.
This was the era of Paul Booth, and anything that Paul Booth was doing at the time, everyone followed.
Let's talk about your inspiration for painting as well. What came first: the tattooing or the painting?
I've been drawing all my life. I'm an illustrator first; I've been doing illustrations since I was a kid. The earliest drawing I have is from '79 -- it's recognizable, you can tell what it was even though I was young. I started painting in '97, and professionally tattooing in '94.
Is there any connection between your painting and your tattooing?
No, with tattooing I have to listen to someone else's ideas and be inspired by them. I have a lot of clients who say, "I just want you to do anything," but you can't really just do anything. I might be in the mood to do a bunny rabbit on somebody, you know, then they are like "I didn't have that in mind." So you have to see the personality -- it has to spark something in me; I have to be inspired by the client. They have to move me some way.
In painting, I'm not thinking about business. In tattooing, I'm thinking about mass appeal -- how other tattooists are going to react to the tattoo. I'm thinking of everyone else except myself. In painting, I'm only thinking about myself, not about sales, the message. I'm not worried about anything; it's just a free flowing of my life and my culture. The life I live, that's my paintings. I see painting as my vacation from tattooing.
I look at tattooing as more as more of a 50/50 of business and art. In painting, I take the business aspect out of it: it's raw pure art.
In Atlanta do you have a lot of contact with other artists? Is there a lot of collaboration.
The tattoo shops really don't collab because of the business aspects to it, but the artists know each other. The tattoo community in Atlanta is pretty close knit. We're cool with the shop that me and Tuki started in. We're cool with all of our apprentices. We paid our dues, we didn't burn any bridges, and we didn't step on anybody's toes. We created our own lane, so everybody gotta have to respect that, unless you're just a real hater. We are cool with all the artists that come to our art shows.
So you have art shows at the City of Ink?
It's an art gallery first and foremost. We do a new show every month. The next is the Corey Davis solo show.
We open up to anybody; we're the only art gallery in Atlanta that doesn't ask for a percentage of the sales. Our goal is to really start a movement where the artists can make money and stop undercutting other artists. My number one goal is to show that artists can be millionaires.
The more freedom you have, the better artwork you have. A lot of times, when an artist is not worried about paying that phone bill, that power bill, you can create what's real and what's raw. In Europe, they respond to artists; they pay artists to be artists. In America, the lack of art is really bad.
Quincy Jones said we don't have an ambassador of arts and music. I think we need one.
In Atlanta is there a black tattoo scene?
We are the black tattoo scene, period. We got another couple of artists, but they all started from one shop. The Atlanta tattoo culture started in West End [...] It's changing now, but in the early 90's, there were no other black shops in Atlanta.
Personally, I think it's totally opposite than tattooing white skin -- it's a completely opposite thing. It's like going to any beauty salon: a white woman would get a perm one way, a black woman will get a perm a different way. You can't use the same methods you would when your tattooing white skin.
If you're a tattoo artist and you master black skin, you can easily move over to white skin. But just because you're good on white skin, doesn't mean you can do just anything on black skin. It's surgery and art, 50/50.
Are there any colors you stay away from?
No, I don't believe in that color thing. You know how they say black skin is limited in colors, but no, it's all about how you slow down -- and who's training you. You know we learned through trial and error at City of Ink. Every artist, we master each color one at a time. The same way you apply yellow, you wouldn't apply purple; the way you apply greens, you won't apply reds. We learn each color in.
On white skin, you can work a lot of colors the same way. On black skin, if you're using yellow, you have to ease up a little bit. A lot of people think you have to drill it in, but if you soften up a little bit, you might have a better result.
So it's about tuning your machine as well?
Fine tune your machine and you're good to go. That's what it's about. Your tattoo machine and working the inks that you got. It's not all about the name brand of the ink and all this stuff. It's all about who's training you and how you take your time doing it.
Then it's a longer time to put the tattoo in, you can't rush through it?
You can't rush through it because it will show. It will show.
We talked about the art, now let's talk about the business of tattooing. Many tattoo artists aren't as organized as you are or have your managerial skills. Do you put a lot of thought into this?
I'm really big on leadership, and I'm really big on business. When me and Tuki were putting City of Ink together, my mind state was Barry Gordy, you know how Barry Gordy put Motown together. He groomed his artists, he showed them how to market, he showed them how to dress, he showed them everything.
Tuki is a fashion icon in Atlanta, and he started a whole culture of how people dress in Atlanta. So I thought that would be a good way to market our artists, with a little of Tuki's fashion sense to give an image to the shop. With that image, you can promote it.
With us its not just an [art] apprenticeship about tattoos, we teach all aspects of business. Number one: it's about business. Number 2: it's about appearances and how you carry yourself. A lot of people don't know that we all had dreadlocks, we were all wild. That image scared a lot of people off, so we decided to all cut our hair off. It was a business decision.
We changed the location. We changed the name of the shop [previously, Prophet Art]. People were scared of the word "prophet" so we changed it to City of Ink, based on the movie City of God.
You fine tuned your business model to the masses.
To promote it there is nothing wrong with that; to me, tattooing is commercial now anyway. I didn't want to make it so commercialized that other tattoo artists got mad at me but I wanted to do it before another shop did.
The number one thing is that you tattoo because you love it, but you still have to make money.
We are learning as we go; we haven't mastered everything yet, but we haven't reached a million dollars yet either. We want to inspire other people in other cities that you can be an artist and not be a "starving artist." We want to destroy that whole image of the starving artist. I think artists should make the same money as athletes. We use our minds and bodies. I just think we should make more money than football players and basketball players. That's just my opinion.
What is next for City of Ink?
Next is dropping this Hollyweerd album. It's Tuki and his group. It's a whole culture, it's a lifestyle, it's music, it's fashion, it's art, it's business -- it's all these aspects of being free, and freedom is our number one message.