Six Feet Under
116 N. 2nd Ave., Upland, CA
sixfeetunder.comINKED: How would you describe your journey?
COREY MILLER: Very well-rounded. I started with a homemade tattoo machine, then when I was 16 I began hanging out at a real tattoo parlor, and at 20 I was lucky enough to get my first real job tattooing at Fat George’s Tattoo Gallery in La Puente. George had apprenticed under Rick Walters, who tattooed at the Pike in Long Beach. That instilled a great love and respect for the history of tattooing in me. Working at Fat George’s was a true street shop experience, and George was a true old-school mean bastard. But I say that with the greatest love and respect.
Then it was Goodtime Charlie’s Tattooland?
Yeah, after George’s I was fortunate enough to work with Jack Rudy at Goodtime Charlie’s, which was where the best black-and-gray artists were working or had worked. Since I started tattooing I naturally gravitated towards black and gray, and I was fortunate to be working around some of the best in the business.
So did they solely inform your early aesthetic?
About the time I went to Goodtime Charlie’s I started traveling to conventions all over the world, and again was fortunate enough to meet some incredibly talented artists and amazing people. It was at a convention in New Orleans that I met Suzanne Fauser, who probably had the biggest influence on me as an artist and as a person. I spent the next 12 years making my way out to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to visit and work in her shop. She passed away in 2001, the year my second daughter was born. We named her Suzanna in her honor. After leaving Tattooland, I opened up a shop with two partners. That didn’t work out very well, so I kind of went back underground with my tattooing, which is where I got the name for my shop when I resurfaced in 1994 and opened Six Feet Under tattoo parlor. Looking back, I never would have never dreamed I’d be tattooing on TV. When I started out, tattooing was for outlaws but today it’s on television, in people’s living rooms. So yes, it’s been a well-rounded journey.
And now that the revolution has been televised, how has that changed the business?
I think LA Ink just put forth another view of what some tattoo shops are today. And it’s not just the stereotypical seedy shops anymore. When I started tattooing, the business had more of an outlaw vibe. Today there is a much cooler artistic vibe.
Do you feel opening up the culture is a good thing?
It’s just a fact, man: Shit has changed. Every underground industry has become somewhat mainstream, from bike building to tattooing. No one can control it. With the media and the internet, everything is just more accessible today. When people ask me about tattooing going mainstream, I think about what would have happened if Kurt Cobain just stayed playing music for junkie kids under a bridge—none of us would have been able to experience it.
Do you miss the outlaw culture?
The past is a great place to visit, but I’m just fine dealing with today. So many tattooers romanticize about the old days, and about being an old, hard-ass carny, but a lot of guys today haven’t tattooed nothing but cute college girls and policemen, so it’s pretty silly to act like a tough guy. I admit when I was young we did some pretty unspeakable shit and probably had way too much fun, but becoming a father helped me make better choices and leave the bad elements alone.
Have you inked any cute college girls recently?
Yes, I tattoo cute college girls too, but the cutest woman I’ve tattooed has been my wife, Kat Miller. I just recently finished her back piece [above left]. I made it a point to freehand the whole tattoo with no stencils at all. It was definitely a heavy tattoo for me. …
How did freehand affect body placement?
Drawing on the body helps everything for me—placement, composition, movement in the tattoo. … It also magnifies the unforgiving process that is tattooing.
Would you say it’s the culmination of your more than 20 years in the business?
Sure. I think my freehand work is something that has developed over the years. The TV audience finds my freehand interesting but I really like to get down for the tattoo community by doing my best. Through TV I feel like I’m in the spotlight, so I have a certain responsibility to stay sharp and creative, for them and myself.
Does another one of your creative outlets—your band, Powerflex 5—influence your tattooing?
Music has always been an influence. I’ve played drums longer than I’ve been tattooing, and Powerflex 5 is a great outlet for me. Steve Alba, our guitar player and a skateboard legend in his own right, and I have been friends since we were kids. We’ve been playing this instrumental, spaghetti western surf music for quite a few years now. You know, freehand tattooing can be like punk rock or jazz—it just flows.
Did LA Ink foster or impede the creative environment?
At first it was great. Working with artists like Kat [Von D], Kim [Saigh], and Hannah [Aitchison] was definitely inspiring, but then the hectic schedule of TV production got in the way. Doing just one tattoo a day because of filming constraints was hard, and it did impact my tattoo work. I made it a point to constantly sketch between shots to stay polished.
Did the time constraints hurt your wallet?
I was booked for a few months before the show, and I did have to put a lot of my clients on hold. I might have more business from the show, but I can still only do one tattoo at a time.
How’s Six Feet Under?
My shop is going great. We just celebrated 13 years at our current location. I got to give credit to my crew of artists for keeping it going. I’ve got some great guys, like Henry Powell and Larry Garcia, who have been with me for more than 13 years. They held down the fort when I’ve been gone. It’s funny when tourists come to my shop and think I went to Hollywood and now I’ve got my own place—that’s definitely backwards.
What do your mentors think of the show?
I was really surprised at the support I got from a lot of the old blood in the business. I’ve had numerous quality tattooers reach out and tell me that they think I’m doing a good job, and that really means a lot to me. Some young guys in the scene look at [us older tattooers] and want to glorify us as shamans. But I’m just a carny.
Do you think the people who only know you through the show really know you?
I hope so. I really do try to be myself, but with the editing process, it can be hard. Just like with the whole drama between Aubry [Fisher] and I. She might not have come into the shop as a “real” helper, but that’s the way I had to treat her, as a real shop hand. So when she acted like an ass, I treated her like one. It was the only way to keep my integrity. It was hard when they brought her in. I was mad about the decision to get rid of Kim and Hannah, and I really wanted to leave at that point, but ultimately decided to ride it out and see what came next.
Do you think she was planted to be your heel?
Absolutely, 100 percent. And after she was gone, they brought a different one in, Liz [Friedman]! That’s one of the reasons I quit High Voltage. When Kat offered up Liz to come work for me, I was offended and considered it a poison apple. You don’t offer things up to your friends when you yourself don’t even like them. In the end, that was the final straw for me, and I grabbed my shit and walked out.
Kat Von D considers you a mentor and a close friend—how did that sit with her?
I don’t really know. When I tried to tell her why I was leaving I didn’t get much of a reaction, which then made it much easier for me to leave.
So was it an easy break?
I didn’t like that it came to the point where I needed to leave, but it had to be done. Of course, leaving didn’t turn out to be that simple. I had a lot of prior commitments and a contract to fulfill with the Discovery Channel. This is where it got complex. And I also really wanted to finish what I started. So in the end I found a way to leave and fulfill my contract, by going over to the other shop being portrayed on the show, Craig Jackman’s American Electric.
Did you know him from before?
No. But I had seen his work and knew that he was a good tattoo artist. I actually met him on the day I walked out of Kat’s shop for the last time. He and I just candidly sat down, started having a conversation, and we just clicked. Craig is one funny bastard and it made the last eight weeks of filming fun again.
Have you and Kat talked since?
No, we haven’t. I do like Kat and I wish her nothing but the best. Every so often I get the urge to call her, but I haven’t yet. Hopefully, in a while, when all of the smoke clears we’ll sit down, remember what we first liked about each other, then we’ll talk and laugh about this trippy ride.