Q & A With Charlie Corwin From Miami Ink and L.A. Ink
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.
What were Ami and the guys up to six months out?
Ami was basically couch surfing at the time. Darren and Chris Garver were doing well in their shops. Nuñez had gone back to construction.
What do you think made the show such a success when it finally aired?
I feel like this was a world at a tipping point. It was a world that had a critical mass of curiosity surrounding it, and we were pulling the curtain back to expose it. And the way we shot it was very real. We bought the shop for the guys because none of them had any credit, but we gave it to them to run as a real business. They were pretty much scraping by. Whether it succeeded or failed, there would be real drama in it. So they put this place together, and I have to hand it to them—they were very entrepreneurial, those guys. Very smart, very ambitious. And they saw this as an opportunity to make money. And they did and now they all have a lot of money. I mean, they really played this perfectly. They saw it for what it was and they said, “We’re going to start a shop and we’re going to own this shop.” Of course, there just happened to be a television show filming it all, which made the shop blow up in a huge way. At the height of this thing, the shop had become a tattoo mecca with lines around the block and people taking pictures in front of it. They were turning out money.
Was there anything that was off-limits?
Very early on, the guys made a deal with themselves that there’d be a code of silence when it came to certain time-honored secrets of tattooing. It was omertà, and I respected that. Their private lives were also off-limits. These guys aren’t Danny Bonaduce. They’re not going to let you watch them become train wrecks. When you want to see people cry and you want to see real human melodrama, that’s what the clients are for—or the revolving door of Love Boat guest stars, as I call them.
How did the show’s popularity affect Ami and the guys?
I don’t know because I don’t really talk to them anymore. They own a bar now in Miami called Love Hate, which was named for the way they felt about the show—so I guess that answers your question. They loved the show because they were very aware of how it translated to dollars. But they hated it because it was hard work and they always had cameras in their faces.What kind of love-hate did they experience from the tattoo community?
It was very important to them that they not appear as sellouts and that they maintain the respect of fellow tattoo artists. But it was unavoidable that some people in the tattoo community were going to be haters. Lots of people called them sellouts for doing the show, and that was a source of tremendous frustration and pain for them. I mean, what did people expect them to do? Not take this opportunity, and not feed their families? Not become rich? On the other hand, their street cred is very important to them, so this was a tough thing for these guys.
How soon after Kat Von D entered the picture did you start to see trouble?
Pretty much right away. I mean, look, Ami was the star of the show and when Kat came in she was a star herself. I think that was very threatening. I won’t lie to you—it definitely made for good TV.
So when Ami wanted to fire her you must have thought he was nuts. You and TLC were okay with it?
It was his shop, so it was his decision. But the one thing I made him promise me was that he had to fire her on camera—because I needed that story. I couldn’t just have Kat there one day and gone the next. So that’s what he did. Now, at the same time I had already been planning a spin-off show for L.A. Originally, it was going to be Chris Garver’s show since he’s from there. When Kat was fired, TLC had decided to do L.A., but Garver declined. So it was like, “Let’s do it with Kat,” and that became LA Ink.
Which show gets better ratings?
Why is that?
I think it’s a question of marketing and timing, and it being a fresh show.
You said you don’t talk to the Miami guys anymore. What’s the story there?
I’m not going to go into that. We just kind of grew apart.
But it’s fair to say you sided with Kat?
I don’t talk to Ami anymore, and Kat and I are good friends. I don’t know what the future of Miami is. I don’t know if that series will continue or not. The cast has become disenchanted with the show, and as a result the channel has become disenchanted with the cast. And it has to do with ratings. It’s out of my hands.
What’s the future of LA Ink?
We’re doing a lot of things to keep the series fresh. We’re telling tremendous stories and shooting the shop in a completely different way so that there’s more energy. And we’re following Kat’s life as she becomes a bona fide star in her own right. As her life and career evolve, so does the interest level in watching her.
Which world will you be peeling the curtain back on next?
I tend to gravitate toward edgy worlds. I enjoy learning about them and showing them to a television audience. I’ve done everything from freestyle motocross to those people who drive into tornadoes chasing storms. Right now I have a show on Bravo, about a stylist named Rachel Zoe, which peels back the curtain on the world of high fashion. That might seem pretty safe compared to the world of tattooing, but it’s a shark tank in its own right.