Continuing his reign over the tattoo world, Ami James has stepped off the beach and into the concrete jungle with his newest endeavor, NY Ink. The cast proves there’s a respectable side to the art form that is becoming recognized among all the previous notions of the rebellious nature of it all.
by Brad Clarke and Stephanie Collazo
Photography by Jason Goodrich
Walk down any street in lower Manhattan and you will find people from all different walks of life sharing a common theme: the art of being tattooed. So when Miami Ink star Ami James decided to make the move to New York City and open a new shop, it made perfect sense to put The Wooster Street Social Club in the middle of it all. With the new shop comes a new show, NY Ink, where TLC documents James and his crew as they set out to conquer the artistic center of the world from their SoHo location.
For New York, the saying goes, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” The hard part is establishing yourself enough to actually make it. With an array of tattoo shops and world-class artists already in the city and the no-nonsense attitude of most New Yorkers, the challenge for the Wooster Street Social Club is to stand out from the crowd. How does one do that, you ask? By assembling a crew of some of the most talented and sought-after tattooists in the country.
Besides James, the all-star cast and team consists of Tommy Montoya, Robear, Megan Massacre, Tim Hendricks, Billy DeCola, Jessica Gahring and Chris Torres. All are unique individuals, and most importantly, extremely talented and passionate artists and managers. YRB got the chance to hang out with Ami and the crew at the newest locale to talk about how they got their starts in the game, the differences between New York and L.A. tattooing, what influences their art and some of the craziest on-the-job experiences.
YRB: When and why did you first start tattooing?
Ami: At 13 years old, I got my first homemade tattoo and at 17 I got my first professional one. My father was an artist so I have always been artistic and had a passion for it. It wasn’t until I got out of my three-year stint in the Israeli army that I knew I wanted to pursue tattooing as a career. There is nothing in the army for you. The day I got out I went and got another tattoo and starting planning on how I was going to make it happen.
YRB: Moving from the army into tattooing is a big change. What influenced that move and what influences your art?
Ami: I just knew I had to be creative and artistic in whatever I did in my life. Tattooing is such a pure trade. Someone seeks you out and gives you money for a permanent piece of art. I love it! Music is the main influence for my art. I am a fanatic about what I like and don’t like. If I can get away with one earbud in while I am doing a piece, I will. I listen to punk rock, old school hip-hop… You know, good music that has meaning. I can’t stand this crap today – Justin Bieber. When I hear that “Baby, baby, baby” in a club, I just walk right out.
YRB: With music influencing your art, have you gotten to tattoo any artists that have inspired you?
Ami: No, not really. All the artists that have influenced me the most I have not had the opportunity to tattoo, don’t get tattooed or have died.
YRB: How has the tattoo scene changed since you started your career?
Ami: For one thing, tattooing was illegal in New York when I first started. That is the biggest change. And now the word taboo and tattoo are finally divorced…
YRB: What’s the biggest difference between Miami and New York?
Ami: I used to be able to go swimming in Miami! Every place you go has a gift to give and something to take away. Miami is beautiful with beaches and half-naked women but zero culture. New York has all the culture in the world but will take all your money and has no pools. Also, the tattoo culture in Miami is weak compared to here. Here you have cops, doctors and lawyers with full sleeves.
YRB: Where’s the weirdest place you have tattooed someone on their body?
Ami: Teeth. I did a small star on somebody’s tooth. After a while it just looked like a rotten tooth. Also, I tattooed my friend’s mom’s head on Miami Ink. That was pretty crazy.
YRB: Is there a trend in tattooing that you can’t stand?
Ami: No. Things always come in and out of style. I’ll tell you this, though, the tramp stamp has moved. It went from the lower back and moved its way to the ribs. Every other girl that comes in wants a tattoo on their ribs, which is probably one of the most painful places to get one. You heard it here first: the new tramp stamp is on the ribs.
YRB: Five things the tattoo world should know about you?
Ami: 1 – I’m a lot nicer than I look or come off at times. 2 – I like to do black and grey tattoos. 3 – It truly bothers me when people say I’m the best in the world at tattooing because I’m on T.V… I am honestly my own worst critic. 4 – I like to surround myself with artists that are much better than me. 5 – The three most important things to me are family, health and good friends.
YRB: So what do you do here at the shop, Jessica?
Jessica: I am responsible for managing the shop, finances, books and the people. I watch over things and make sure they run as smoothly as possible.
YRB: What led you to this position?
Jessica: Well, I have a master’s degree in education administration and policy studies but was offered two apprenticeships for my art skills. While learning the craft, I took a management position in banking to make money. When I heard about the new shop opening, I sent Ami my résumé and the rest is history.
YRB: What are the biggest challenges in managing a shop like this?
Jessica: I would just say strong personalities, because everyone has an opinion. I don’t view anything as a challenge [but] more as an opportunity, because either I will learn something from it or something good will come out of it.
YRB: Do you ever think of becoming a professional tattoo artist?
Jessica: That’s my dream that’s what I want to do. I actually did a pinup on myself and I did one on my boyfriend, too, but that’s my goal, [and] believe you me, I will be there. I joke that I will have my own cover, not because I am a cute shop girl or a cute girl with tattoos, but because I am good at tattoos.
YRB: What style are you drawn to? What would you like to do?
Jessica: Definitely photo-realism – whether color or black and grey – I love portraits, flowers. I draw portraits; it’s something I have always been drawn to [laughs]. I respect all styles even if it isn’t something I want to do. I love the history of the old school style of tattooing, but it’s not where I want my art to go. I look at it and think, ‘Oh my god, she needs a shadow here, some shading there.’
YRB: You don’t get to tattoo much, but on whom would you love to practice?
Jessica: Oh man, I don’t know. Anyone? Sarah Palin. It would be funny to give her an Alaskan flag or something.
YRB: How does one become the floor manager at The Wooster Social Club?
Robear: I was working at a tattoo shop called High Roller and Ami found me there. He poached me. It was cool, though, because my best friend owns the shop and was happy for me to get offered such a great opportunity.
YRB: What was your first tattoo of and what was the significance behind it?
Robear: My first tattoo was of the Gemini symbol, and it was when I was 17 years old. I’m a true Gemini; I have that duality because you know it’s the sign of the twins. There is a good one and a bad one. Actually, on the show I am Robear when I’m good and Robeast when I’m bad. It remains one of my favorite tattoos. A lot of people hate their first tattoo. I just remember I was 17 and I was like, what am I going to get? I was so dead set that it was going to be forever, it had to be something that had a meaning, and at the time I was into astrology so it fit. Miss Cory Good and Tony Silver at High Roller Tattoo in NY did a few of my tattoos as well.
YRB: What advice would you give to someone getting his or her first tattoo?
Robear: Make sure you absolutely love what you are going to put on your body. Ask yourself in 10 or 20 years from now, will it still symbolize you and will you still love it? It doesn’t have to be extremely deep and serious, but you might want to make sure it’s a keeper because it’s not going anywhere!
YRB: On the show it seems like you aren’t a big fan of Chris. After the episode where he and Ami fight in the basement everyone seemed to warm up to him except you. Have you warmed up to him since then?
Robear: Chris and I have our on days and our off days. It simply depends on our mood on the day. We don’t always hate each other and we don’t always go for each other, but every day is different with him. I’m an open-minded nice guy, but he has a very rough, abrasive approach and I don’t do well with that. He’s acting like a badass and he has to prove he’s a badass and [instead] he got his ass kicked.
YRB: Would you ever consider trying for an apprenticeship?
Robear: I would possibly consider going for an apprenticeship, but right now I like the management business side better and I also do interior design and fashion work. So those are my main interests right now. I would love to do entertainment reporting, like red carpets. But I keep my eyes and ears open always.
YRB: Being a true New Yorker, describe what you have seen in the N.Y.C. tattoo scene over the years.
Robear: I’m 35 years old now, raised in Brooklyn, and got my first tattoo at 17, so I have seen it all. The biggest change is, it is acceptable now. It used to be a job killer. Like, if you went into an interview and had an exposed tat you were not getting that position. Nowadays, it’s so popular and acceptable, most people don’t judge like they used to.
YRB: How did you get your start in tattooing?
Tim: Tattooing found me. To be completely honest, I used to smoke crack with a friend. She knew I messed around with homemade tattoos and she asked her dad if he would sell me some equipment, which is very taboo in the business. I guess to appease his daughter he agreed and sent me to an old shop in Long Beach [CA] called The Pike. This guy who looked like he was from ZZ Top sold me some equipment, then showed me how to use it by blood-lining my hand. I got super lucky to be where I am today; I think it was meant to be.
YRB: Which of your tattoos has the most meaning to you, and why?
Tim: Such a New York Ink question. I don’t really have one that has the most meaning, you know? They are all important to me in some way or another. I have a tattoo my wife did on me that has a huge amount of meaning to me. I have one that I got for my friend who died. Every one of them has a certain type of meaning that reminds me of a certain place in time where I was at. So to point one out as the most meaningful one would mean that I could look back at a time and place and say that that was the best that life would ever be – and I really don’t believe that, you know?
YRB: What influences your art?
Tim: Sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll! [Laughs] Those things only took me to a certain level. Now, things like my wife, family, friends and my travels influence me, and most importantly, the people I work with.
YRB: Have you ever messed up on a tattoo?
Tim: Plenty of times, but not for a really long time. Do you want a story? About 15 years ago, I tattooed “honest” and “faithful” on my friends wrists and I forgot the “h” on faithful, so it just said “faitful.” So I just took red ink and made it look like a teacher’s correction and put an arrow and put the “h” in there like a little spelling correction in pencil and made it look like that, and we just laughed about it.
YRB: Have you ever refused to do a particular tattoo?
Tim: Yeah, I still do. I didn’t refuse them when I was younger because I was in a gang and I used to give gang tattoos, but I don’t give out gang tattoos and I haven’t for a really long time because I feel like if you earned that tattoo in the streets then you get that tattoo in the streets. I won’t do racist tattoos because I just feel like it breeds negativity. It breeds hatred; it breeds something that I don’t believe in.
YRB: You’re also from California. What’s the difference in clientele here in New York?
Tim: I don’t think there is much difference. I feel like tattooed people are tattooed people wherever you go. New Yorkers are a bit more raw, in a good way. No passive aggressive bullshit like you find out west. They just get in your face, tell you what they want and ask if you can do it for them, and I like that. I love it here.
YRB: Any advice for a tattoo virgin?
Tim: If you don’t have any tattoos right now, maybe you should think about it a little longer. Nowadays, it’s more punk rock to not have any at all.
YRB: When and why did you start tattooing?
Tommy: I started when I was 17 years old with a homemade gun. My cousin had just gotten out of prison and showed me how to do it. At 22, I was tattooing my friends in college on the side. I saw my bro was making killer money tattooing so I dropped out and committed to it full time. You pick it, I stick it.
YRB: What were you studying in college?
Tommy: I was pre-med. I wanted to be a doctor, but then I switched my major to business when tattooing started to become more of my focus. I was thinking about opening up a shop so I wanted to have those business skills.
YRB: You’re from L.A. What’s the difference in clientele here in New York?
Tommy: People usually seek me out for my style and what I do, so my clientele is pretty much the same on both coasts. As far as trends go, New Yorkers like color, full sleeves in either a sailor or Japanese style. L.A. heads go with the black and grey, fine line, prison style and portraits, which is more what I do.
YRB: What do you love about working in New York?
Tommy: The energy. I’m a hyper dude. I’m always juiced up, so I fit right in. Here, everyone is always on the go. L.A is real laidback; it’s real different.
YRB: You have a lot of tattoos that represent Cali. Do you ever see yourself adding a NY symbol anywhere?
Tommy: Yeah, I might get something for New York, but Cali is my home. I don’t know what it would be. I might throw in something for New York; it seems good to me.
YRB: Are there any artists that you would like to be tattooed by?
Tommy: I want to get tattoos from Morgan Pennypacker and Troy Denning. They are good friends that are cool peeps. I like to get tattooed by my friends. I would also like to get tattooed by other people in the shop. I haven’t been tattooed by Ami, Chris or Megan, but I want to.
YRB: Tattoo artists often find themselves pigeonholed when they are known for a particular style. Would you say you are caught in this situation?
Tommy: No, not at all. I do a lot of different stuff. On the show they try to make it look like [I do one particular style], but no.
YRB: If you could tattoo anyone who would it be?
Tommy: Anyone? Shit, I don’t know. Probably myself. If I could put me out of myself and do my own work, I would. I know exactly what I want. Or maybe I would tattoo Obama or Jesus! [Laughs]
YRB: How did you become Ami’s apprentice?
Billy: Ami and I have been friends for 15 years so I have always been into tattoos. I was running my own exporting company in Japan, but when the economy crashed I lost everything. That’s when Ami took me under his wing and began teaching me how to tattoo and I’ve been doing that for the past year.
YRB: Did you have any previous experience in the arts before your apprenticeship?
Billy: As a kid growing up, I was always interested in art, drawing [and] painting but didn’t pursue it. As an adult, I got into photography and video and when this opportunity came about I got back into doing art like drawing and painting again like I never stopped.
YRB: What is it like learning from Ami? On the Miami Ink series we saw Yoji working under him and it didn’t seem like it was a walk in the park.
Billy: Yeah, it’s not especially easy learning under Ami. We’ve been friends for such a long time and the sudden change of roles from friend to apprentice has been difficult for me – and I think difficult for him, as well. From an art specific perspective it’s great; he has a lot of knowledge and experience.
YRB: Being so new to it all, what influences your art?
Billy: The people I learn from and the artists around me influence me. Living up to their standards and the standards of the clients is what drives me.
YRB: What kinds of work are you interested in doing?
Billy: I’ve started out doing traditional tattoos and paintings, that’s what I was taught by Ami and the rest of the guys at Miami Ink, but I love doing Japanese work personally. I like doing Japanese work because that’s what got me into doing tattoos.
YRB: After the show wraps do you think you’ll continue on this career path?
Billy: Yeah, I’m definitely going to be a tattoo artist. That’s definitely what I want to do for my entire life. If I do something on the side that’s something else, [but tattooing is] my passion right now and I think it will be for a while.
YRB: How did you become a tattoo artist?
Megan: I have always been an artist. Growing up, I went to an art studio every day after school, painting, drawing, everything. When I turned 18, I randomly drove a friend to a tattoo shop and when we got there, she told them I was a great artist. The guys there told me to prove it and to draw something, so I did. They liked the drawing and wanted me to tattoo their apprentice right on the spot! He was cool with it, so they showed me how and I did my first tattoo right then. After I was done I was offered an apprenticeship on the spot and that’s how it all started.
YRB: What influences your art?
Megan: Everything. The people I work with; their art, fashion, music, makeup… really, all the things I love. I like dark and twisted things and someone once compared my tattooing style to a Tim Burton movie and I thought that was the best compliment in the world!
YRB: Do have any weird tattoo stories?
Megan: Yes, I do. This strange guy was known for going around to all the shops in lower Pennsylvania to get tattoos on just his ass, like a weird pair of underpants. He came in my shop one day, stuttering and couldn’t look me in the eyes but asked me to pick out something to tattoo on his ass. I reluctantly picked out the smallest thing and then he drops his pants to reveal his lace women’s panties. His tattoos were freaky, too, like Looney Tunes characters and other weird shit. I inked him as fast as I could.
YRB: What’s the main difference in tattooing in New York as opposed to Cali, and does N.Y.C. inspire your art at all?
Megan: They are both so new to me, so I can’t say. I’ve only been here for four months and go back to California occasionally. I just love the business. I love New York too. It inspires me to get more done. It’s a rush. I get nothing done in California, too relaxed. Here, you have everything you could ever want and more.