Tom Conlon (writer),
Rudy Archuleta (photographer)
You may not recognize Charlie Corwin's face, but if you know that gal next to him you're definitely familiar with his work. Corwin is the brains behind TLC's Ink franchise, including both Miami Ink and LA Ink. Whether that makes you love or loathe him, there's no denying the impact this 36-year-old television mogul has had on the world of tattooing.
Corwin broke into the world of entertainment by way of the late '90s dot-com boom. After selling his Internet start-up, Live Music Channel, for what he modestly calls "a little money," Corwin found himself sitting in his lofty Silicon Alley offices with a couple of cameras, an Avid editor, and little to do. "I decided to try and become a television producer because I had two years left on my lease and didn't know what else to do."
That was the start of Original Media, the company that currently helms both Ink shows and has produced such critically acclaimed films as 2005's The Squid and the Whale and 2006's Half Nelson, both of which were nominated for Oscars.
"When we started up, reality TV was a new thing," Corwin says. "It was the easiest way to break into television without a track record or a bunch of big fat credits. You didn't need to be Aaron Spelling to be a reality TV producer." His first show, 2003's Skate Maps, followed members of the Zoo York skateboard team on a European tour. It was during the filming of this short-lived series that Corwin first had the idea for a tattoo show.
INKED: Where did you get the idea for Miami Ink?
Charlie Corwin: I was a big fan of Taxicab Confessions on HBO and figured I could do a kind of version of it in the tattoo parlor. People generally get tattoos to mark a crossroads in their lives, whether it's celebratory, commemorative, inspirational, sad, or happy. When they lay down on that bed, they're partially naked, both literally and figuratively, and the tattooer is sticking a needle in them and inking their body permanently. So when you're naked and vulnerable and you have this crossroads in your life, you end up telling the story behind it to your tattoo artist. That struck me as an odd, punk rock priest kind of subculture confessional. It was almost weirdly sacred in a way and had a dynamic that I thought would translate really well to television. The trick would be finding the compelling characters that accurately epitomize this world.
How did that become Ami James and friends?
I met Ami through a mutual friend and he was super into the idea. He and the other guys had all worked together some 10 or 15 years earlier in South Beach, but had scattered. Ami was working in a shop called Tattoos by Lou, where Yoji was sweeping up. Chris Garver had moved to L.A. and opened True Tattoo on Cahuenga Boulevard. Darren Brass opened a shop in Connecticut, and Chris Nuñez was doing construction. Television audiences are really savvy when you start faking stuff, and I wanted guys who had a real history together. So Ami pulled them all back together again.
How did you go about making a TV show out of this?
I didn't have a network or anything, just an idea. So I said, "Screw it, I'm going to roll the dice and pay out of pocket for the presentation reel"—the tape I'd use to shop the show around to networks. I bought all of the guys tickets to Miami and rented this house on the bay for a weekend. We rented a tattoo shop that we pretended was theirs and just shot what we thought the show would be like. You look at it now and it's kind of rudimentary in terms of what we ended up figuring out for the show. But in a lot of ways I think the reel is better than the show because I didn't have the channel screwing it up.
Well, there's a limit to how edgy you can be on TLC. It's soccer mom television. Plus, everyone was really excited to be doing it. After a show runs for a hundred episodes or so, everybody wants to shoot themselves. But there was so much energy in [the reel]. It was this old group of friends fucking with each other and pushing each other's buttons, and it was hilarious. Plus, we're in South Beach, which is just this dirty-sexy town where everyone is walking around in thongs, covered in tattoos. I could tell this was going to make for a really good show. When I got back to New York, I shopped it to different networks, but everybody passed.
Were you given a reason why?
I don't know … because they're stupid and wrong? I pitched it everywhere: MTV, A&E, Spike, Discovery—all the major cables. They all passed, including TLC. I thought I was dead. Then six months later I get a call from my agent saying, "You're never going to believe this. Remember Miami Ink? It just got picked up by TLC." Apparently the head of development over there at the time—who I won't name—had been the only one who didn't like the show. That person ended up leaving the company, and the first thing TLC did was get the show back. Ami freaked when I told him. It was interesting because at the same time A&E was doing a tattoo show called Inked with Carey Hart. So it was the battle of the tattoo shows. It was a race to air. It became a race and a battle for dominance in the tattoo genre.