Ami James told himself he was done opening up his tattoo shops to TV cameras. The star of TLC’s Miami Ink and the spinoff NY Ink had his fill of staged drama and high jinks, and the revolving door of clients in mourning took a toll on him emotionally. There were offers to do other shows, according to James, but he declined. That is, until the opportunity arose to do something more authentic and to his liking.
The Tattoo Shop is an eight-episode docuseries for Facebook Watch that follows James and his former Miami Ink costar Chris Nuñez, more recently known as a judge on Paramount Network’s Ink Master, as they attempt to strike gold once again with the newly opened Liberty City Tattoo in Wynwood. James is an executive producer on the web series, which premiered March 15 and airs Thursdays.
“The past [reality] shows were more drama-driven,” James says over the phone. “There was no reality when the cameras were in the air. We were forced to do scenes that would never happen in a tattoo shop. That might work for a reality show that doesn’t have to do with a craft, but we want to show what we do. [The Tattoo Shop] is more about the art. There aren’t six takes to get something right. We’re just shooting what we do, and if it’s not usable, on to the next story.”
Just because The Tattoo Shop is truer to life doesn’t mean it’s lacking in style. The camerawork and editing are slicker than they were on the TLC shows, from the slow-motion shots of ink dripping into ink caps to the closeups of the tattoo machine prodding away at skin.
Unlike the TLC shows, which ran about 43 minutes per episode, The Tattoo Shop is a concise 15 minutes per episode — maybe too concise. Its second episode dedicated only four minutes to a former neo-Nazi skinhead who wanted the Israel-born James to cover up a hateful tat. It left this viewer wanting more.
About The Tattoo Shop’s clients: Most appear to have been handpicked based on their backstories. Some will tug at your heartstrings (not unlike the ones James said took a toll on him during his TLC days), including a Pulse nightclub shooting survivor. Another thing The Tattoo Shop has in common with the TLC shows is its cast. Besides starring James and Nuñez, the show features fellow Miami Ink alums Darren Brass and Chris Garver and NY Ink's Tommy Montoya.
The original Miami Ink location in Miami Beach, where all but Montoya rose to fame, is no more. James’ nearby Love Hate Tattoo Studio, on the other hand, is still going strong. It continues to attract gawkers to this day despite the fact that Miami Ink ended in 2008. James doesn’t mind the photo hounds. He’s forever grateful for the fans and understands the fervor.
“That shop is a gold mine,” James says. “That shop changed how people perceived tattoo culture. People started getting tattooed because of what happened in that shop. I still go there once or twice a week. The rest of the week I’m mostly in Wynwood. That’s the new baby. Whenever a new baby is born, I spend as much time as possible with the new project.”
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Liberty City Tattoo is located in a collective space known as Division Wynwood, which is also home to F1rst Surf Shop. The location is in Wynwood — not Liberty City, as the name implies — but James thought "Liberty City Tattoo" was appropriate because, he says, that’s what he knew the area as when he was growing up in Miami.
Still, James loves the neighborhood and what it’s become. This week’s episode of The Tattoo Shop was filmed during Art Basel and will highlight Wynwood’s rep as a mural mecca. He speaks highly of Miami’s art scene and some of the names to come out of it. He’s less enthusiastic, however, about the city's tattoo scene.
“I think we still have a mediocre scene in Miami,” James says. “Not that we don’t have great tattoos done in Miami, but places like New York and California have built bigger communities. We’re still working on it.”