The first thing you might notice about Michelle Myles is that she is a woman. When Myles is written about, she is often referred to as a “female tattoo artist,” but you should judge the artist by the piece, not the gender. “I never wanted to tattoo like a chick,” she says. Myles is better at tattooing than 99 percent of the population, male and female. She owns New York City staples Dare Devil and Fun City, she competed on Tattoo Wars, and she has tattooed celebrities like Boy George and Joan Jett.
INKED: How did your journey begin?
MICHELLE MYLES: I got my first tattoo in high school and kept getting tattooed whenever I had a couple bucks in my pocket. I just kept hanging out in tattoo shops and that was what really got me started. I moved to New York in ’89 and started tattooing in ’91, but tattooing was illegal at the time so there weren’t any shops to work out of. I didn’t do your traditional apprenticeship or anything. I was working with some other tattooers underground and then we opened up East Side Ink. We had an apartment and created a studio in it, even though it was illegal.
Do you wish you had the opportunity to do a traditional apprenticeship? Yeah, probably. I think I still suffer to this day for not having had it. I think I’d be more efficient. I’m sure there’s a lot of stuff I’d do a lot better. Plus, I spent so many extra years of doing crappy tattoos for not apprenticing. That would have been great if I could have had a really knowledgeable hand to start me out.
Did you come to the city to be a tattoo artist? No. When I moved to the city in ’89, that wasn’t really a normal career option. It’s not like now when all the kids see it on TV and want to be a tattoo artist when they grow up. I mean in ’89, back then, it wasn’t something anyone would really consider. It was more of a profession for dirtbags and prisoners—which was probably part of the appeal. I moved to New York to go to art school, Parsons.
When you were at Parsons— I wasn’t really good at anything else but art. I was a poor student in other respects, like reading. I don’t really know what I had in mind. But I would say that the minute I started tattooing, pretty much any other sort of artistic notion went out the window. I was in love with it from the get-go. I just knew it was the right thing to do for me.
Do you think any of your fine art training seeped into your tattooing? No. If anything, I’d say that tattooing really taught me how to draw. In fine art you can do whatever you want, but in tattooing it’s more disciplined and things really have to be really nailed down to tattoo them on people. So it taught me how to draw in a more graphic, concrete sort of way. I guess less expressiveness and more rendering. So I would say tattooing really took over everything else. I mean, now, I can’t draw anything that doesn’t look like a tattoo.
Who are your influences? Of the old-school guys, I really like Bob Roberts, Mike Malone, and—I don’t wanna call her old, but—Kandi Everett. She’s really underappreciated and, to me, those are some of the tattooers who really nail everything they do. Everything is drawn how it should be drawn; there’s nothing in their work that’s weak. For contemporary tattoo artists, my business partner Brad Fink is a huge influence. He really works hard at it. I wish I worked as hard as he did. He’s incredibly talented.
How did you meet him? We both grew up in St. Louis. Brad is still there. I’ve actually known him since high school. I remember him coming into the record store I used to work at when I was a junior. Unfortunately, I didn’t get tattooed by him back then and I kind of wonder what would have happened differently if I had. But at some point I moved to Texas, which is where I got my first tattoo when I was 17. Then I moved to New York and went back to visit St. Louis and reintroduced myself to him and told him I was tattooing. We became friends from that point.
And was that when you became partners? Not even in a business sense … we just became friends, and he would come to New York to visit me and I would go to St. Louis and visit him. Brad always said that if tattooing were legalized in New York, he would like to open up a shop with me. So when it was legalized, that’s what happened. I was walking down the street and heard somebody say it was going to be legalized, and I called him up that day. We probably signed a lease a few weeks later.
Dare Devil vs. Fun City? Dare Devil is really our baby. Brad and I have worked on it together and it’s 100 percent ours. It has the street image because we’re both really into hot rods, Evel Knievel, all that kind of stuff. That style is something that really resonates in Dare Devil’s image. What’s really special about Fun City to us is that it’s the oldest tattoo place in the city. It has a lot of history behind it. And even though we didn’t create Fun City—we bought it from Jonathan Shaw—we felt like it was something that was worthwhile to keep going and revitalize by putting our own spin on. It’s special to us in a different way.
Despite your success with Dare Devil, did you want New York to keep the ban on tattooing? At the time, none of the tattooers really wanted it legalized—it kind of kept the competition out of the city so we were perfectly content. I was happy working off of my own referrals. In some ways it would have been better—it would have kept it a little bit more of a personal scene. But it was at the point where you couldn’t keep a lid on tattooing anymore. There were tattoo shops everywhere. At the same time, I’m happy I had the shop and had the opportunity to work with other tattooers. You can only go so far sitting by yourself.
Speaking of competition, how do you feel about NY Ink? It’s embarrassing. I mean, I really like Tim Hendricks—nothing but respect for him, and I actually don’t know much about the other people or whoever it is on the show. But I think it is unrealistic and gross the way it’s portrayed. It’s so heavily scripted. They’re not even New Yorkers. Chris Torres is the only one who’s from New York; they cast NY Ink like it’s Jersey Shore. But it’s not even reality TV—just bad acting. They think there’s some kind of truth in it, and there isn’t. I think I wrote on my blog, devilcitypress.com, that to me, their tattoo shop is equivalent to Monica’s apartment in Friends because it’s so unrealistic. And to hear Ami [James] whine, “I’m not going to [be able to] pay the rent” … I heard he made two million dollars.
You seem pretty offended by it. It’s just absurd and kind of gross to anyone who’s been trying to pay their rent in NYC for any amount of time to hear them say, “Oh, I hope to get business,” when they have ads on the sides of buses. I mean, my neighborhood used to be a shit hole and now it’s super trendy, but we somehow managed to hang on. So if anybody takes away from that and saunters in with a TV show, yes, I resent it.
But don’t you want the riffraff tourists to fill up that shop and not yours? We want the riffraff! We want anyone’s money. Anyone that comes into my shop is going to be treated well. I mean, as long as they’re in line. We don’t tolerate someone who comes in and acts like a jerk. But we welcome anybody in our shop. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have tattoos or never have been to a tattoo shop. There are no stupid questions, and we’re happy to take anybody. We’re not going to make anybody feel bad because they’re not cool enough.
What’s your favorite tattoo that you’ve done? I really like the one I did for my husband on Tattoo Wars. That was fun. I put a lot of heart into that one. I also really like the Statue of Liberty one I did, because that’s when I met him. It’s one of my sentimental favorites.
You do some pretty traditional tattoos. How did you get into that? I guess it was an aesthetic thing getting into traditional tattooing. The first few years I was tattooing, we still didn’t have the mainstream coverage in NYC like now. There were two magazines on the shelf; people weren’t really educated enough to know what was possible. I remember doing one Sailor Jerry pinup of a sailor girl’s head and I was so excited because nobody ever wanted any of that stuff. Now it’s like the hipster sort of tattoo style, but back then it wasn’t anything that anybody wanted. They wanted things that looked like new tattoos, not their grandpa’s tattoos.
Do you get tired of doing the same style over and over? It comes around in full circle … I’m not tired of doing it. I will always love the aesthetic of it and will always love and cherish the history, but at this point I think there are too many tattoo artists who created their whole careers out of tracing antique tattoos. I think that a lot of it has gotten really popular just for one reason: The images are so appealing. On the one hand it’s a good thing, because the stuff is really suited toward tattooing and is so fun, but I’m just tired of so many new tattooers who only have that in their jewel box, who are only tracing designs that someone else drew 60 or 70 years ago.
And that’s the effect of tattooing’s popularity? I think it’s really popular because people see tattooing as this cool job where you don’t have to dress up in a monkey suit. You kind of hang out with your friends all day, listen to music, and draw. It sucks but tattooing is not as cool as it used to be. Now it’s as cool as an Ed Hardy T-shirt. It used to be something that was kind of tough, and now it’s not. A lot of people don’t even know who Sailor Jerry is. On our blog, I wrote this whole thing about how Sailor Jerry mentored Ed Hardy as a fashion designer. We had a floor girl who read it and believed it.
Do you think the industry is the same outside of New York? No. Nothing’s like New York. We’re so lucky here. You do start to think, Oh, God, everyone here has tattoos. But all you got to do is leave and it’s not like that everywhere. In New York you have more liberal, younger people. It’s not like we’re drawing from a really conservative group of people for our clientele.
Is that why you tattoo in New York? I really enjoy being a New York tattooer, and I really like how modern tattooing was invented here. This is really the birthplace of modern tattooing. I think to be a part of the progression that’s come about of tattooing in NYC is kind of special. We just have a lot more people open to crazy stuff.
And celebrities. One time I was tattooing a guy in sweatpants and a button-down shirt. He stepped out for a moment and someone called him Boy George. When he sat back down I told him that I didn’t know he was Boy George. He was sweet and replied, “You never recognize a lady without her makeup.”