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.
When he opened City of Ink in February 2007, it became the epicenter for an emerging music and arts scene overnight. There was also something unique about the assembled team: They were young, fly, and fashionable. Co-owner Tuki Carter and artist Chris McAdoo made up half of on-the-rise rap group Hollyweerd, and Bailey's apprentice Corey Davis was forming the duo Mach Five and his street/pop-culture magazine Greedmont Park. Carter's inroads into Atlanta's music industry would bring notoriety through star clients including Young Jeezy, Big Meech, Rick Ross, and Usher, while Bailey's underground ethos balanced them out.
"We just had a power team," says Bailey, who harnessed the crew's good looks and marketability for frequent photo shoots and hosted monthly art exhibits on-site. "It was all visual. We just kinda created an image for ourselves."
Pretty soon people were coming to City of Ink for more than tattoos: They were coming for inspiration and some much-needed authenticity. Major rap artists filmed videos on location, including "Tatted Up," the regional street anthem featuring Fabo of D4L that resonated with City of Ink's movement. It didn't take long before the small screen came calling, too. With the success of TLC's "Miami Ink" and its "L.A. Ink" spin-off, City of Ink seemed like the perfect setting for a tanner version of the tattoo reality show.
"Everybody came to us; every network, every production company. It's like they were reading from the same script," says Bailey. "They wanted drama."
The usual script dished out familiar roles: the inept co-owner/business partner, the loose cannon, the shop peacekeeper, the self-professed ladies' man, the wide-eyed male virgin, and the eye candy/love interest. Still, the opportunity seemed big enough and the money good enough that they almost didn't mind being temporarily typecast. Shot in 2010, the resulting pilot was helmed by the same production team behind "Miami Ink" and future episodes of "Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta."
"They were telling us to act, read the script, all that shit," recalls Bailey. "They even gave us Adderall to keep us focused." The basic premise was that Bailey and Carter were beefing co-owners who constantly argued. But when they "staged an argument on camera," Bailey felt they'd gone too far. "We don't argue for real; that was fake. They told us to fuss. Tuki loves to act. We did that so they wouldn't get into nobody's love life or private life."
It went against everything Bailey and City of Ink symbolized. So they turned down the deal — four times.
After the first episode of "Black Ink Crew" aired four weeks ago, one of Bailey's 16,000-plus Twitter followers asked him what he thought. "I gave my opinion," says Bailey, who eventually deleted his initial tweets out of respect for the people on the show. His real beef was with the final edit. "That they could fit that much negative imagery in 60 minutes, it blew my mind out."
About an hour into our conversation at his studio loft, Bailey gets a call on his cell phone. It's someone from Black Ink Gallery — the Harlem, N.Y., shop where the show is based. The black tattoo community is such a small universe that Bailey knows them well, and has even referred former City of Ink apprentices there. For the next 30 minutes he and the caller, who is not part of the show's cast, engage in a passionate conversation, in which Bailey explains that his initial reaction to the show wasn't based on any negative feelings he has for the members of Black Ink Gallery themselves, but for a system he feels is dead set on pimping and pandering to the lowest common denominator.
"Black reality shows are often saddled with the burden of representation," as Jon Caramanica wrote in his recent New York Times critique of the post-"Jersey Shore" breed of subculture-specific reality shows. That goes double for a show focused on such a narrow slice of black life. Neither VH1 nor Big Fish Entertainment, the production company behind "Black Ink Crew," were willing to provide comments for this story.
While Bailey empathizes with the Harlem crew's choice to appear on the show, he hopes they haven't compromised their careers by season's end. It's the reason he felt the need to document the rich history of African-American tattoo artists with Color Outside the Lines.
"I just want it to be respected, man. I want the history to be told more than anything, because once you know the history of something, then it's harder to disrespect it."
Now that Bailey's "semi-retired," he seldom pops in on City of Ink. Instead, he leaves the daily operation up to his crew, while seeing no more than one client a day at his private studio or taking time out to paint. Tuki Carter, now a signee to his former tattoo client Wiz Khalifa's Taylor Gang Records, has since left to pursue his solo rap career. And Corey Davis has taken Carter's place as the shop's co-owner. But the group still feels more like a family than anything else.
During a recent photo shoot, the ever-evolving team gathered inside for a rare moment with everybody present. As Paper Frank, a burgeoning visual artist and one of Bailey's former apprentices, blasted Trinidad James' "All Gold Everything" and cracked jokes between shots, it felt like a surreal high school picture day on which the teacher was absent. Reluctant to take center stage, even at the photographer's behest, Bailey stood in the middle of the fray eyeballing the camera's lens through heavy, post-smoker's lids and an easy smile. As the camera lens clicked away, he seemed pleased that the players assembled were not ready for prime time.
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