INKED: What was your first tattoo experience?
AMI JAMES: It’s funny that we’re having this conversation while I’m in Israel because that’s where my history starts. When I was 17 years old, I joined the army here, but before that, I went to get tattooed by a guy named Avi Psycho. He wanted to take a break while he was tattooing me and he left me in there for about 10 or 15 minutes. I just grabbed the machine and started tattooing myself. When Avi walked back into the shop he freaked out and started screaming and yelling. But when he looked at it he was like, You know what? That’s not a bad job. He asked me if I wanted to finish the whole tattoo and I said that I’d love to. That was my first glimpse. At that point, I knew it was going to be my career. The problem was that I had to wait until I got out of the army, and that didn’t happen until I was 20.
What did you do when you got out?
I went back to the States and started doing tattoos out of my house with tattoo gear my roommates had given me. Then, two or three months later, I started apprenticing with Lou Sciberras at Tattoos by Lou in South Beach. What kind of education did you get from him?
Lou was an old-school tattoo artist. When I apprenticed, he must have been in his late 50s. He believed in the old-school ways and he gave me an old-school education. I never regretted it. It made me feel like I had a little bit of the old-school teachings. These days, if you’re a great artist, anybody will let you come to the tattoo shop and get an apprenticeship. There are a lot of Poindexters out there now.
How did you land your spot on Miami Ink?
I had this scumbag by the name of Charlie Corwin come to talk to me because he knew that I was a people person. I was only doing one appointment a week at 55 Tattoo, which was the Horitoshi family’s shop in New York City. It was a full-on Japanese hand-poked tattoo shop. This fucking scumbag comes up to me and asks me if I want to do a tattoo show. He says he’s been searching from shop to shop for two months and couldn’t find the right characters. I’m outspoken and, to some, a little obnoxious, and apparently that’s what he was looking for.
Where did it go from there?
It was kind of fucked up because this guy dragged us into a contract that basically fucked our lives up. He banged us out for all of our money for a long fucking time. He tried to fuck us for everything we had. It was a tough thing to have somebody come to the tattoo business and promise that you’re going to be represented in the right way, and that no one is going to make tattoos or your shop look bad. To some, maybe it didn’t, but it definitely didn’t represent what we believe in. It was like he took full control with his attorneys and fucked us.
How did you feel when you saw how you were being portrayed on the show?
If I took your life and edited it down to the one percent I want to show people, I can make anybody look like whoever I want. I can make the biggest asshole look like an angel. It’s so far away from who a person really is. We ended up being these characters that we really aren’t. That’s TV. It’s not a scripted show, so the viewers start to believe every bit of bullshit that happens during it.When did you realize it wasn’t going how you wanted it to?
In the beginning, I saw American Choppers and I said, “Man, we got a great potential show to do what those guys are doing.” Not that I’m a fan of their fucking bikes, but the dynamic of a shop is so interesting. My whole idea was that it was going to be real. But TV makes it not real. If I scream at Yoji [Harada] once a fucking month, they make it look like it’s every fucking week. You can’t have control over everything unless you produce your own fucking show. Miami Ink was 99 percent fake and I’m sorry people have to know that. If it was real, I wouldn’t have to walk through the door three fucking times so you can capture the scene.
So was the Kat Von D fallout mostly TV magic?
Man, that’s TV, dude. I never have anybody shit in my house. When somebody talks shit about you in your own fucking house, you ask them to leave. And that was it. They’re saying that I called her screaming at her on the phone. She said I was chauvinistic and I said a woman doesn’t have a place in a tattoo shop. It was all fake. I didn’t even have the chick’s number. They wanted to create drama because they wanted to push another show. They needed to create a cliffhanger. At that point, I lost all trust in the network and said, “I’m done. I don’t want to do the show no more.” I didn’t agree to have my name spread with 60,000 people because it was my name that created it. It was LA Ink, London Ink, fucking Italian Ink. It was endless.
So we probably won’t be seeing you making any cameos on LA Ink?
Oh, no. You will never see me having anything to do with Kat, on TV or off. I don’t wish anything bad on her, but I don’t want anything to do with what she or the network are doing.
Did the show end up having a negative effect on your tattooing?
I’ve done the best tattoos I’ve ever done over the course of the past four months, and it was due to the fact that I was out of that fucking shop. Being in there shooting for four years destroyed me mentally and artistically. It made me hate tattooing. I was associating tattoos with sad stories and tragedy. I can’t go out at night without having some poor bastard coming up to me and telling me that he wants a tattoo for his dad who died yesterday. It just made it so fucking horrible.
Was the forced drama ruining the show? All I tried to do in the beginning was have a reason why you’re getting a tattoo, but it snowballed into something ridiculous. Everybody wanted to invent a story about what their tattoo meant. They forgot that some people just love the art. For me, it wasn’t about having a great story or meaning. I really fucking liked dragons. I wanted to get a dragon. I don’t need no fucking story. I love dragons, I love Asian art, and I love black and gray. The whole thing snowballed to where these poor motherfuckers were forcing themselves to come up with stories to get tattoos. Some of them weren’t even fucking true. People would fucking lie just to get on the show. It’s something that I’ll never do again. I don’t want to hear anybody’s sad fucking stories anymore. After the show was over, I didn’t tattoo for a year because it put me in the worst fucking mood and put the worst thoughts in my head. You can only hear so many people talk about running over their daughters or their dead dog. I’m not a therapist.
How do you deal with the criticism you’ve gotten in response to your involvement with Miami Ink?
It’s really funny because haters are haters and they will always be around and there’s really nothing anyone can do about it. The show was going to happen. It was inevitable. And I think one thing that most people agreed on in the tattoo industry—whether they hated us or not—was that it was good for business. We brought tattooing into the mainstream for artists to be able to make fucking money. It showed everybody that tattoo shops weren’t all filled with bikers who butcher people. Tattoo artists are just artists and we wanted to showcase that that’s all we are, rather than being judged every fucking day for being tattooed. It was time to stop it and it was time to show the world that tattoo artists are just trying to make a living. What’s next now that Miami Ink is over?
[Chris] Nuñez and I had always had a show in mind, so we decided to produce it. It’s called Worldwide Tribe. We’re traveling around the world to show that all tattoo people have something in common, even if they’re not the same race, color, or religion. There’s something that connects us all. We have seen Ethiopian ladies with facial tattoos and Bedouin ladies with their bodies tattooed up to their foreheads. We’re getting whiplash from looking around every two seconds and seeing tattoo culture. The show is God’s gift to us after eating shit through a straw for four years.
How did the new show change your outlook? I got on the road and started seeing artists all over the world tattooing because of their love of tattoos and not because of some stupid fucking story. We couldn’t go to the shop without hearing about somebody dying. When I finished my contract they were like, Do you want to sign up for some more? I said, “Fuck you, I’m not signing up for shit. I don’t ever want to step in that tattoo shop ever again.” I put my tattoo machines away and I was done. Then, all of a sudden, my dream came true where I could travel and meet amazing artists. I didn’t have any more horror stories being related to my fucking art.
Did that help revitalize your own work?
All of a sudden, I started doing the best tattoos I’ve ever done. The best part is not charging for tattoos on the road. All of a sudden, I was getting paid a decent amount of money to do a show. I didn’t give a fuck about making money off of my tattoos, so I’m doing $6,000 tattoos for fucking free. You do it from your heart. That’s the best thing that happened to me.
Will the Miami shop still stick around?
The shop is still happening and we can finally take the Miami Ink stickers down and just leave the Worldwide Tribe stickers on the window. We want nothing to do with the old name. It’s like a bad marriage. You just want to get divorced. We just want to be able to own our name.
How about your other projects, like DeVille Clothing?
The last two years, DeVille went in a direction that we really weren’t happy with. The fact is that we didn’t have time to take full control of it so we had to hire designers and everything. Everybody wanted these crazy shirts with fucking filigree and bullshit all over them. We went with it, thinking it was what the business needed. But now we’re giving it a push in another direction. We still have the Love Hate bars and I have Love Hate Choppers, which is my pride and joy. We do all of that on top of traveling and shooting 80 percent of the time.
Have you thought about opening more tattoo shops?
It’s funny—there hasn’t been one month where I haven’t gotten a call with someone asking me to open a new shop or wanting to buy my name. If I was really fucking greedy about money, I would’ve done it. But it’s all about opening shops and knowing the work coming out of them is good. That’s much more important to me right now. I could have opened 100 of them by now and been a fucking millionaire. It’s not about that. It’s about the love of the art and tattoos. That’s what we are and that’s what we’re doing. There are lots of guys who open lots of shops all over town and can’t pull it off. They’re greedy. Greed is for motherfuckers.