Miya Bailey looks too young to be a pioneer of anything. Something about the tattoos creeping up around his neck just doesn't say "38-and-married-with-four-kids." Or maybe it's the toy figurines that line the bookshelves of his private studio loft within walking distance of City of Ink, the tattoo and arts gallery he co-founded six years ago in Atlanta's Castleberry Hill arts district.
"It was way different when I started, man. This is unbelievable. It surprises me that you see black tattoo artists on TV," he says with a heartfelt laugh. "Yo dude, like, we came a long way since the early '90s."
Ever since the early January debut of the VH1 reality show "Black Ink Crew," people have been reaching out to him by phone, text, and Twitter to get his reaction to the first televised look at the heretofore little-known subculture of urban tattooing. Though the season has just begun, viewers have mostly been treated to the typical reality-show fare: the requisite baby-mama drama, employee infighting, and steamy workplace romances gone awry.
Bailey's tried to respond diplomatically. But based on his own past flirtations with reality TV, he's used to calling bullshit when he sees it.
In a business where he applies permanent ink to bodies for a living, Bailey harbors real worries about the lasting stain negative media images might have on the world of urban tattooing. Which is why he spent the last four years and $30,000 making a documentary about the real history of black tattoo artists, who account for less than 1 percent of the country's professionals in a $2 billion industry. Amid the cheap reality-show drama, he wants to make sure the strides black artists have made to reach the forefront of tattooing aren't left on the cutting-room floor.
There are no standard flash tattoo designs hanging on the brick and turquoise walls at City of Ink. Coffee-table portfolios feature photos of custom designs for customers seeking inspiration. In a corner near the front door, the shop's past press coverage in such magazines as Inked, Urban Ink, and Giant lines the wall. A framed dollar bill hangs nearby. The message is subtle but clear: This is not the spot for a ghetto ink job.
"I was taught by an old-timer [that] the work that you show people is what they want," says Bailey, who's spent years pushing the level of sophistication in the black community past Egyptian ankhs to actual art. Educating his clientele has been his focus since he entered the game two decades ago. And it's paid off. At this point in his career, Bailey can afford to live on his own terms. He's an in-demand artist with an international reputation, he's selective with his clientele, and his starting rate is $1,000 — a price point he readily admits is rare for an African-American tattoo artist.
A visual artist who sold his first drawing at age 12, he got into tattooing because he "was living in the projects at the time and nobody was buying paintings," says Bailey, who soon discovered the proper protocol.
"Back in my day, if you tried to tattoo without being trained, your hand got broke," he says. "The tattoo game was run by biker gangs. So you couldn't just open up a shop without permission. You'd get fucked up."
Because entry into the field required an apprenticeship with a professional tattooist, a good-ol'-boy network kept most African-Americans locked out. That's where Julia Alfonso came in. The white female and former owner of West End Tattoo is still considered "one of the mothers of black tattoo culture" by Bailey, partly because she ran one of the only shops in the country where black artists were allowed to apprentice.
Once Bailey got some experience, he moved back to his Asheville, N.C., hometown and opened up a shop with an all-white staff, because there were no other black tattooists to hire. Things were fine as long as his shop only catered to black clientele, but as soon as they started tattooing white customers, he says, he began to get harassed by the police. "It was a physical confrontation that went on and on and on, to the point where I felt like they were just trying to make me go broke in court all the time."
The climax came when a brawl at the local Denny's led to Bailey facing a nearly two-year trial for charges of attempted murder of a police officer, he says. "They jumped on us, and the whole Denny's — mostly white kids — beat the hell out of the police." He had to hire a private investigator and spend close to $30,000 on the case before the charges were eventually dropped. "The racism in Asheville was really bad at that time. Either I could close that shop down or I was probably going to be dead within a year. I just felt death coming."
Bailey's narrative sounds a world removed from the kind of stereotypical antics that play out on the average reality show. It's part of the reason why he invested in his own black ink story, which debuted last year. Color Outside the Lines, the documentary Bailey conceived and independently produced in partnership with Atlanta-based filmmaker/director Artemus Jenkins, took them $30,000 (half of which was raised on Kickstarter) to complete, as they traveled "from Atlanta to Amsterdam."
There was a time when Bailey could count the number of professional black tattoo artists on one hand — and he was one of them. In addition to interviewing other pioneers — such as the first African-American tattoo artist, Jacci Graham of New Orleans; Zulu of Los Angeles, whose work is featured on the likes of Janet Jackson and Queen Latifah; and Atlanta's own Lord Yatta, who also came out of West End Tattoo — Bailey "asked every single professional black tattoo artist in the world" to be in the film. Their stories paint a portrait of rebellion rare even among tattoo culture, where racist attitudes and ignorance about how to properly tattoo black skin have long persisted.
Of the three artists out of 48 who declined to be in the film, one was wary of attracting more black clientele. It's a frustration Bailey can identify with after years spent cultivating an appreciation for fine art tattooing in the black community. Because it's still a relatively new mainstream phenomenon among African-Americans — one that "really popped off when Tupac showed his tattoos," according to Bailey — it's been a steady challenge to turn novice customers into custom body-art aficionados. And while Lil Wayne's tatted-up torso has helped the art form become less taboo, the bad "scratcher" quality of work on the average rapper has almost hurt the craft more than helped it.
Bailey attempted to change that with the first shop he co-owned in Atlanta, Prophet Art. Located in a flea market near Five Points on Peachtree Street, it was the wrong place for his high-minded approach. So he closed it and went underground, continuing to develop his hybrid style on select customers while he worked on the next phase of his master plan.
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