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.