For the past year and a half, acclaimed tattoo artist Miya Bailey, cofounder of Atlanta's City of Ink, has been working on a documentary chronicling the struggles of black tattoo artists in an industry that was, not so long ago, "run by bikers and skinheads." Color Outside the Lines: A Tattoo Documentary is set to be Bailey's swan song, his parting gift to the industry he's helped change during his 19 years turning all shades of skin into canvases for beautiful art.
Bailey is in New York City this week doing private appointments, the kind of work that finances his film. Complex caught up with him as he was getting out of bed following a marathon session of work.
Why do this film?
Miya Bailey: I’m doing the film because I’m ready to retire from tattooing and when I leave I want to try my best to bring other people up, all these brothers and sisters in the business. A lot of these artists are struggling out here. And they don’t have access to the avenues to get their work seen.
You know, I’ve been working on the film for a year and a half. My goal is to finish in two years. And I’m gonna finish in time.
What was the industry like when you came up in Atlanta?
Miya Bailey: When I started in the early 90s, it was run by bikers. There were lots of rules you had to follow. If you started tattooing and you weren’t trained, these guys would come and break your hand. I was 19. All my mentors were a lot older than me. I hated my apprenticeship though. It was like hazing. They had to break your spirit and kill your ego. You might think you’re nice, but "hey, go mop that floor," that sort of thing. Now I appreciate that, I appreciate the steps I had to take.
What's the industry like now?
Miya Bailey: The skinhead culture is low-key now, or at least I don’t see them at tattoo conventions anymore. Now it’s become part of the hipster scene. There are lots of skaters involved, artsy kids. There’s some old timer still around, but really all the younger boys have taken over the industry. It’s a new generation of artists, a lot of them influenced by hip-hop. There’s less racism. It’s more about talent and less about race. Things are opening up.
What percentage of the industry is black?
Miya Bailey: Only 1% of the professional tattoo industry is black, you know, black, trained artists. I'm maybe the most popular black tattoo artist in the world, so over the years I’ve come to know all the black professional tattoo artists. I’ve even set some of them up with their careers. There aren’t a lot of black artists that get apprenticeships. It’s a family tree, a small community.
How does the New York scene compare to Atlanta?
Miya Bailey: New York is known for having some of the worst tattoo artists in the country. So when good artists come up, they stand out here. See, it was illegal for so long here, and lots of people didn’t get have apprenticeships. So you can tell a New York tattoo. They use lots of line work because of the graffiti scene. Bold lines. But just cause you do it on walls doesn’t mean it’ll look good on skin. Still, there are amazing artists up here. Paul Booth is an amazing artist.
I know you've traveled overseas for your film—how does Europe compare to America?
Miya Bailey: The European scene is way different from the American scene. First of all, [Europeans] pay way more money. It wouldn't be anything for a guy to give you 2,500 euro for a backpiece. And they love artists. An artist is just as big as rapper over there. They’d stop us in the street. One girl approached us crying, saying “I love your work!” In America, they’ll just say, “your work’s dope,” and then keep it moving. But over there, visual artists are stars. They know your career.
How would you describe your career, your artwork?
Miya Bailey: My artwork is based on emotion. I’ll sit down with a person and they’ll say they want something to represent their mother, and then they’ll tell me a story. I create images based on the stories they tell me. I dig in like a psychiatrist. Because I just won’t do anything on a person. The artwork should match you.
What do you hope your film accomplishes?
Miya Bailey: I want it to break stereotypes. It's a problem of ignorance. There are so any black artists that didn't get trained in tattooing. And somebody will go and get a bad tattoo and then they won't want to work with a black artist again, thinking we're all the same. It's the same thing in the black community. Oftentimes a white artist won't understand black skin and they'll tattoo a black person and mess 'em up. Then you'll hear a black person saying, "Oh, I don't ever want to go to a white boy again." I want to break stereotypes on all sides. Soon as we stop looking at race, we can just look at the talent, at the artwork.