Ami James: “You don’t succeed, if you never fail”

This is the unpublished full transcript of the interview by Margherita Baleni – together with Miki Vialetto – with a legend in the tattoo world: Ami James. Take a look at our gallery and enjoy!

He’s definitely one of the most well-loved and famous personalities in the tattoo sector. A real old-school tattooer, he’s had a tattoo machine in his hand for over 25 years now. In this interview we did at Tattoo Life with Miki Vialetto, we present Ami James in a different light: we’ve taken him away from the TV spotlights and looked back at some milestones – some perhaps revealed for the first time here – of his now high-flying career. He has seen both success and failure because, as he puts it, You don’t succeed, if you never fail. We learned how he was the shop boy in a tattoo shop mopping the floors who ended up becoming a tattooer who – no matter what tattoo request a client makes – can proudly say: have a seat and let’s get started.

Ami James photo by Mike Nybroe
Ami James photo by Mike Nybroe

Ami, thanks for being here with us! If you don’t mind, we’d like to start by talking about your background, because your story is very interesting: you were born in Israel and then lived in Egypt, before going to the United States, to Miami. Two strong cultures, which might have also influenced your personality and creativity.
Yes, I would definitely say that my journey has made me who I am today – even through the hard times, like moving from my homeland and then travelling. All these experiences have definitely influenced my personality.

You went to Miami when you were eleven years old, and six years after that you got started in the tattoo sector. How did that happen and why did you choose tattooing?
I came to Miami in 1984, and at that time there was a huge punk rock scene that I seemed to get dragged into because, in a way, I felt like I was an outsider here: I came from Israel and didn’t speak English so well. I got embraced by this punk culture which didn’t really look at me as an outsider. And so that’s how I got into drawing things for punk bands – flyers, album covers, things like that. Back in the day there was a lot of tattoo imagery in punk rock: skulls, skeletons, stuff like that… So that was my first glimpse into tattooing. In 1992, when I’d just gotten out of the army, I came back to the States and for my twenty-first birthday somebody bought me my first tattoo equipment. That person was my brother’s best friend; he knew that I wanted to start tattooing so much that he had gone and spent his paycheck to buy me a machine and some needles to help me. At that time I was getting into a lot of trouble, so it ended up being perfect because it allowed me to get a glimpse into my future. At breakfast on my 21st birthday I opened up a box that changed my life forever. Unfortunately, six months later my friend hung himself in the living room. So it was a pretty rough start to tattooing, and I knew I couldn’t change any of it. But I wanted to make the best of that sad situation, and prove that I could do something with that gift. I knew that I had to get an apprenticeship.

And that’s what you did: at Tattoos by Lou, a very old-school apprenticeship… and thanks to him you learned those values which don’t exist anymore in the tattoo world. What were the most important things you learned from Lou?
At the time there was only one reputable tattoo shop in Miami, which was Tattoos by Lou. I started to hang out there a lot, trying to get a tattoo, looking into the window. At the time Luis Segato and Troy Lane were working in the shop with other big names, and Lou was really an old-school guy. He’d worked with Paul Rogers for a long time, and it wasn’t easy to get into their tattoo shop! But eventually I think I broke Lou, and he agreed to let me in. I would mop the floors, wash his cars, stuff like that.

What was he like?
He was a very funny man, full of life, a really good business man! He’d been a junkie for many years and had managed to clean up his life. And he wanted to take people like me, who were going through a rough period in their lives, and help them change. I don’t think Lou had any other apprentices, except for me. I don’t know if that’s absolutely true, but I never met another apprentice of Lou’s.

What was a typical day like, in the shop?
I started out doing everything! Everything that had nothing to do with tattoos, that is: I cleaned, went to get things at the supermarket… I was like his shop boy, but that was the only way to get into tattooing. As much as I was not that type of person, I had to do it. Some days I hated him and we would get into fights. But actually I loved the guy like my father! Slowly but surely, two years later I was tattooing and Lou was allowing me to have my own clients. Sometimes he’d put down my tattoos, but it was his way of pushing me forward. You see, back then it wasn’t easy.

It’s so important that you share this experience of yours, especially since the tattoo scene is completely different now; young tattooers start working as if they were already big professionals, with clean and perfect hands. Most of them have no idea what it meant to start tattooing back then.
Absolutely, they learn everything on YouTube, but back then we didn’t even have internet. Miki, you were already part of the tattoo scene back then, so you know what I’m talking about. It was just rough, the people in the industry were really rough people. The people who were coming to get tattooed weren’t the same as today; I mean there was a gun in very drawer of the shop. Once I asked Lou why he had all those guns and he answered: because at 11 o’clock at night you don’t know who’s coming in to the tattoo shop. It was a different world!

Ami James, Love Hate Social Club, Miami, USA
Ami James, Love Hate Social Club, Miami, USA

Miki: One thing that’s very clear when I look at your work is that you are a tattooer who knows how to make tattoos in every style, and you’re very good. You’ve chosen to focus on the Japanese style, then on lettering, and then Chicano. Maybe you know how to do everything because you learned how to tattoo in a shop where you had to give the very best of yourself for any client’s request. But now you see more and more tattooers who start out thinking they have to specialize in one particular style: only lettering, only Japanese, only traditional, etc… What do you think of this new trend?
You know Miki, it’s funny, because I think only me, you, and maybe a handful of other people notice these things. It’s true, back in the day you had to be able to do everything, because otherwise you would never have gotten hired. So I was trying to find myself as much as anybody who’s trying to grow and I had some amazing people whom I could always look up to, in that sense. After 25 years I’m finally figuring out my comfort zone in the Japanese style. In the past ten years I’ve focused on this style and maybe I’ve finally found what works best for me: how to make a piece last longer, how to make it better. Now maybe I’ll find my black and grey comfort zone as well… I’m still learning day by day.

I’m hungrier now than I’ve been in the last 10-15 years.

I see all these young kids coming in and showing such amazing work, and here I am – after 25 years in the business – and sometimes I just suck compared to them! The only way I can comfort myself goes back to what you said, Miki: to be that guy who learned how to be able to do everything, back in the day. And I really can – if somebody walks into the shop and asks for any kind of tattoo, I just say, have a seat and let’s get started.

Miki: Exactly! And I’d like to add that lately I’m seeing more and more incredible, wonderful pieces that are technically perfect, but that have no heart or passion in them. They are empty. It’s as if the tattooists made them without any kind of instinct.
M: And when I look at your tattoos, I can sense the history of tattooing. Because your tattoos are not ‘photos’ or reproductions of something, they’re not those perfect pieces which wow the viewer like certain realistic style pieces that seem realer than reality. Your tattoos have a ‘dirtiness’ about them which distinguishes them and makes them become real, more powerful tattoos. They communicate passion and the power of imperfection emerging from the heart.
This attitude of hyper-perfectionism is becoming more common, and not just with tattooing! For example, think of how many perfectly clean motorcycles you see around these days. They’re too clean! They look like they are on exhibition, barely used! They are missing something, a uniqueness which tattoos, especially, should always have. Some artists still express the passion they feel in their pieces. They don’t copy exactly what they see, but put their soul into the tattoos they create. I’ve never been a copy-master – and that is a kind of talent. Some people do have that talent!

Ami James, Love Hate Social Club, Miami, USA, phoyo by Kevin Johnston
Ami James, Love Hate Social Club, Miami, USA, phoyo by Kevin Johnston

What are the most important tattoos on your own skin?
For me, what is really important is the connection you have with the tattooer, and the fact that you don’t just commission something because the tattooer is a great artist, but because you respect him or her. The tattoo you choose should have a meaning in and of itself which only matters to you. So from this viewpoint, I like “souvenir tattoos” more than great tattoos. I’ve been saying this for 15 years: I like shitty tattoos made by good people, more than good tattoos made by shitty people.

That’s a great motto!
It doesn’t matter how bad a tattoo is; what matters is that you look back and remember the moment it was made and the person who made it for you. Let me just say this: 90% of the people who do amazing tattoos are shitty people. To me it is important how I connect with my clients, because I’m not just leaving a tattoo mark on someone’s skin.

I’m also leaving an experience, which should make my client say, every time he or she looks at their tattoo: “Ami was a good person and he’s had a positive influence on my life.” Fuck this idea of the perfect tattoo!

It’s funny, because maybe 70% of the people who watched Miami Ink thought: Ami James is so cool and famous, I want one of his tattoos! That’s actually the exact opposite of your thoughts on how to choose a tattooer!
This happens because now there are so many divas in this sector, there are thousands! And people adore them not because they are good tattooers, but because they are divas! Back in the day when you arrived in a town, the person who could give you all the most underground information, like which clubs to go to, etc. was… the tattooer. Today the average tattooer can tell you where the best Starbucks is, and that’s it. Back then, tattooers were considered as gods – though not in the same way they are today – because they knew more than everyone else and had more experience. I remember the first time I went to a convention in Europe; it was in Bordeaux in 1993, organized by Mike The Buddha. There were so many big names there, Filip Leu, Bernie Luther, etc… and they didn’t go around marking themselves as rock stars. But they totally were! Nobody respected them or adored them, society didn’t like them. They were outsiders. They were the game-changers for tattooing! When you listen to those big names talk, you understand that we have it easy compared to them. Back in the day we got to witness the golden era of tattooing, while today we get to witness the golden era of this art, but not of tattooing.

Now that you own five shops how do you choose from the young tattooers who want to work with you? I bet you’re bombarded with requests every day!
I think – and Miki knows this, too – that it’s very hard to find workers with experience today. Because even the young ones, who have just started tattooing, own a shop after three years. These young tattooists come into the shop, and although they may have a talent and a knack for one style in particular, most of them know nothing about that old-school education where you had to be able to do all styles. As for me, I am still looking for tattooers who don’t brag about being masters of just one style.

I think that kind of tattooer just comes and goes as the fashion changes. Unfortunately, today tattoos are based on fashion, while before tattoos meant Fuck the world! And fuck society.

Most of the guys who are tattooing for me have been tattooing for at least 15 to 17 years, some for 25/30 years. The problem is that eventually I’ve got to hire these guys without any background, who have learned at tattoo schools, because the old guys stop tattooing – maybe their bodies are hurting, or they just can’t evolve. When a kid comes into town and does amazing total copy tattoos, for example, he crushes the market. The old guys look like idiots compared to the new kids. Because that new kid can make a photograph on your arm, and even though that tattoo won’t last for very long, who cares? The education of most clients is very minimal, you see, clients don’t know these things; they follow the latest fashions and then end up with tattoos like letters on their ribs, or some infinity symbol on the back of their neck. Everything changes and evolves, and somehow we have to be able to keep up and stay relevant, and learn the new styles. So that we can do every style.

Let’s move on and talk about your TV experiences: Miami Ink and New York Ink. How did it all begin?
It’s funny, because the fact that I was a tattooer had nothing to do with it. One day a friend walked into a bar in New York where I was part owner – the place was called Seventeen. I was working there four days a week and only tattooing twice a week, at the time. And so my friend told that there was this producer who was trying to make a tattoo show, but he couldn’t find anybody he liked to do the show he had in mind. I told him to tell the producer to come by the bar, so I could suggest some people to him. When the producer came to the bar the next day we started talking, and at a certain point – just from talking to me – he goes: “You’re the guy I need! You’re not scared to speak and say your mind. I want you.” There I was with this guy who was offering me to do a show on tattooing and suggesting we put a team together and test it out. He showed me the artists he’d been talking to and honestly, some of them weren’t very good, so I told him that. But he needed somebody who could stand in front of a camera.

Who were you working with in New York at the time?
I was working with Shinji, Sakura – I’d met him in Japan. I was really influenced by Horitoshi’s style at the time and Shinji knew Japanese tattooing very well. Shinji decided to open a shop, and so that’s why I left New York Adorned to go work with him. Back then in 2004 New York Adorned was packed with the best talents: Dano, Mike Rubendall Chris Garver, Chris O’Donnell.

How did things go from there?
Things changed really fast: a few months later Discovery picked the show up. My life changed dramatically in seven months.

For the better?
For better and for worse, like a wedding! In a way, I was very lucky to be able to create a new career and open the doors to the world of tattooing. Just think, 100 artists had tried to get on the show before me. I saw the initial list of candidates: even though a lot of them were better artists than me, I guess they didn’t have the mouth… and the mouth is what sells TV!

One curious thing I’ve read about you is that on the show you seemed to be a really angry person, even though you aren’t at all, in person!
It’s funny, because I’m really not an angry guy! 99% of what you saw on Miami Ink was fake, and there were very few parts dedicated to tattooing. That fake part ruined my life. But I had signed a contract, like it or not. So I became the angry guy, a TV personality who walked into a tattoo shop and yelled at everyone. In the real world, I’ve never done such a thing in my life! Actually, I’m the one who gets screamed at. And I take it, because they’re all close friends of mine; there are no managers in my shop, no hierarchy. It’s a democracy and everybody gets to decide what happens. We’re a team, nobody works for me, they work with me. That angry character was just what the television wanted to show. It’s not true, it’s a crock of shit!

Miki: Do you think this is why after the Miami Ink and New York Ink experiences you tried to do a TV format where you were travelling all over the world, in search of authentic tattooing? Unfortunately your idea – which I liked a lot – was never aired…
I’m still not giving up on that dream, Miki! Right now, though, I’m doing another show, this time in my own tattoo shop. It’s a kind of redemption, really, for all the tattoo drama that has been aired; that drama pushed me to find another place like Facebook to show who I really am, with no drama and real stories. I’m a tattoo artist, not an actor: I just wanna give you a great tattoo. The program shows me talking with clients, and how we talk about deep things. However a tattooist isn’t a psychiatrist; I wanted to show what a tattoo shop is really like, and not what television leads you to believe.

When will it be released?
In March, in the U.S. It will probably take a little bit longer before it’s aired globally. We’re shooting eight episodes and then we’ll see how it goes. I can guarantee that you will not see one fight; just more of the laughter and happiness that happen in a tattoo shop, along with personal things, more education, what to do and not to do when making a tattoo. The show is bringing in an incredible guest artist every week. And we’ll be talking about tattoos, giving each other suggestions about the tattoos we’re making, and so it will be an educational show about tattooing. It will help people learn more about tattooing, and show that tattooing doesn’t mean copying from another person’s work.

You’ve also been involved with the project Tattoo-Do. What does this project mean for you? Could you tell us more about it?
So for the record, Tattoo-Do started from an idea of a 24 year-old Danish guy who set out to look for a tattoo design for himself. He was trying to find someone who could draw it for him, and that was hard to do without going into a tattoo shop. And he wondered: “Who knows how many people are going through the same problem I am?” Nowadays, we have Instagram and Facebook… but just a few years ago searching for a tattoo design wasn’t so easy. In any case there are still a lot of problems involved in finding the right person to draw what you want. And there are literally thousands of tattooers and studios to look at, so the whole process becomes very difficult. So a friend of this Danish guy told him “I know just the guy to help” and guess who he called? Me. So he told me all about it and the next day I booked a plane to Denmark, and then we did a search together and discovered how many people were searching for the same things, all with the same problems. So that’s how we created Tattoo-Do: it brings together the best tattooers and makes it easier for people to find them, so that they can get the pieces they want done well.

You are so lucky, you’re very talented, and it seems that everything you touch turns to gold! Is there anything you’re still working on?
I know what it looks like, but there have been a lot more failures than successes. You don’t succeed, if you never fail. The failures are what drive me to go and try and make some successes, day by day. The friendships that I’ve acquired through the hard times of failure helped me to get to success by listening to other people, by accepting their point of view, by looking at what they are doing right and using that to drive me forward. I’m going to fail tomorrow, but I’m gonna get up and go look for the next big thing. And thank God I’ve failed more times than I’ve been successful, because I don’t think it would have made me the person I am today: it’s humbled me a lot. Even after Miami, a lot of people thought I’d become a millionaire, but I made some bad investments and lost it all. I sat with my wife and said, hey, we’re broke. It’s just some people’s belief that since you’ve been on TV, you’re rich, but TV does not pay a lot unless you’re an actor. And I’ve never been an actor; I’ve just been a person that showcases what he does for a living. I’m dependent on myself to create success and make good business decisions, and I have to make that happen through good projects. You can’t just sit down, you need to gamble, whether it goes well, or not. I’ve gambled all my money to try something new – I’ve closed shops, then opened them again, then closed them. You’re always gonna fail, but that is only going to make you stronger, if you let it.

Ami James photo by Mike Nybroe
Ami James photo by Mike Nybroe
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