If youâ€™ve seen the show Miami Ink on TLC, you may think you know Chris Nunez, one of the showâ€™s star tattoo artists. But as any reality show alumni will tell you, the show is nothing like the real thing. In the 81 episodes of Miami Ink, none of the real stuff, according to Chris, was aired at all. Instead it was one sob story after another, leading viewers to believe that the primary purpose of tattoos is to memorialize the loss of a loved one. With his new show, currently in development for the Travel Channel, Chris and his crew from Miami Ink intend to share the truth about the gypsy life of a tattoo artist, and the different styles, cultures and tattoo practices that take place all around the world.
On top of his new show, Chris and his crew have lots of projects in the works, including their new production company, Love Hate Productions, and a sophomore Love Hate bar, located in Montreal. Chris may be a tattoo superstar, but heâ€™s not above asking his mom to tattoo him. Itâ€™s taking risks like these that have spawned his success.
“when you go home you donâ€™t want to have your significant other asking you to fill in her flowers or whatever, and thatâ€™s whatâ€™s always kind of steered me away.”
Format: Tell us about how you first got into graffiti.
Chris Nunez: I started probably like in middle school, basically like in 6th grade. I went to a public middle school and I was friends with all the older kids, and I was already a breakdancer before that. Thatâ€™s just what was in my neighborhood, I grew up in this predominantly Spanish and black neighborhood, and thatâ€™s what it was, you just do what the older kids do. So thatâ€™s basically how it all started, I was drawing ever since I was in grade school. So that was my jump off into graffiti.
Format: And how did that transition into body art for you?
Chris Nunez: Well I always loved tattoos, you know, from that same age when I started graffiti, I also always admired people that were heavily tattooed, and it was always a much lower-brow art. Youâ€™d be lucky if you could find like a copy of a tattoo magazine, just one somewhere, and you had to be 18 to buy it, or you had to get somebody to buy it for you, or steal it or something crazy just to get your hands on it. But I started copying that imagery, trying to translate it into my graffiti. You know, Iâ€™d do tattoo style stuff with graffiti lettering.
Format: So how did you get your start as a professional tattoo artist?
Chris Nunez: Well I started in Miami, I was 18 years old, and I was going to community college in the mornings, and I was like, you know, this is just not for me. And I was like, Iâ€™m gonna just do what makes me happy. It was sort of a rebellion thing, but it was also what I really wanted to do. So I switched it all up and pursued my tattooing career. I did my apprenticeship through graffiti, because one of the owners of Tattoos by Lou actually saw me painting, and thatâ€™s how it naturally came about.
So I started my tattoo career in Miami at Tattoos by Lou, and at the end of that Hurricane Andrew hit and completely took out one of the other shops and did a bunch of damage to the one where I was working. All the guys who had been working at the shop that was destroyed had to come in to the shop where I was doing my apprenticeship. So, long story short, I was small potatoes at that point, and I was the one that had to go. You know, there just wasnâ€™t room in this little tattoo shop for everybody. But [by then] I had made a lot of connections with guest artists, and one of the guys from Cleveland who came and did a guest spot, who was a really young dude as well, he basically took pity on my soul, and he invited me to come to Cleveland and live with his family, because at the time his mom and his step-dad owned a tattoo shop. So they offered me a spot, and I went up there, with probably 100 bucks in my pocket, I drove my truck straight to Cleveland and that was my basic real first gig.
After that, we basically just went from shop to shop, and traveled around the country, and did little guest spots all over the country until we ended up back here in Miami. Tattooing is a gypsy lifestyle, so Iâ€™ve worked everywhere. [At one point] I was living in Dallas, and my brother was living in Brazil and I woke up one morning, and had enough money for a plane ticket, and I had a passport and I was out. I ended up moving to Brazil and lived there for five years. I opened up a shop with one of the most talented people Iâ€™ve ever worked with named Maurizio. The shop ended up leading to my demise though. Long story short, I ended up getting deported. That was the first time. I was actually deported twice. Thatâ€™s what you do for Brazilian women I guess. [Laughs.] I had a girlfriend there, and at the moment it was like true love. So when I left I went to Europe for a little while, and then went back and forth from Brazil to Europe, so that all and all I was out of [the U.S.] for about eight years.
Format: So when you got back to the States, is that when you got involved with Love Hate Tattoos?
Chris Nunez: No, when I got back to the States I worked for about one and a half, two years, and I got burnt out. So I took a break for about 3 or 4 years. I just did odd jobs and hung out. And thatâ€™s when Ami [James] called me and told me about the pitch to do a show. So Ami got everybody together, and we took whatever money we all had and we grinded it out and we were able to open a shop [Love Hate Tattoos]. So we had the shop up and running for a few months, and born was Miami Ink.
Format: So tell us about the show. What was filming like? Do you think the show had an impact on tattoo culture as a whole?
Chris Nunez: Well you know doing that show was a double-edged sword. It did both good and bad. It legitimized tattooing in a way that, I guess, people that looked down on it donâ€™t anymore for the most part. But it also gave tattooing more of a friendly â€œmom and popâ€ stigma. And the really cool thing about tattooing is it always wasnâ€™t [like that.] You know, it [used to take] a lot more for you to go and say, â€œIâ€™m gonna get a tattoo,â€ but the show kind of made it really ok.
But you know, that wasnâ€™t our fault. It was a contract, and we signed, and we all never expected that the show was going to do what it did, and I donâ€™t think anybody did. I think it was more of like a hoax or a joke kind of thing for the network, but they went for it, and it ended up becoming a monster. And at that point, that was the kind of network that wouldnâ€™t show the real aspect, they wouldnâ€™t show what a tattooer really has to go through. Theyâ€™ll show you sad story after sad story to keep you hooked. But thatâ€™s not what a tattoo shop is about. Thatâ€™s not what it ever was. You know, I maybe inked ten memorial tattoos in ten years before the show. [But after the show] I think that all around the world it became like this self-soothing, therapeutic way to get over the loss of a loved one or a bad time. So it went from being all about artwork and self-expression to airing out the deepest, saddest, worst times of your life, and coupling it with a tattoo to soothe the pain. And also thatâ€™s not what was intended but because we did 81 episodes of that, and because it reached 161 countries, I think that the world just kind of thought like, â€œoh yea this is what you do in a tattoo shop.â€ Either that, or if youâ€™re happy then you get a Koi fish at a tattoo shop [laughs]. What would happen is that the production company and the network saw that this was an angle that worked. We rescued a pretty hurt network out of the dumps and created a brand and a machine for them to sell merchandise and to do all this stuff. And even though we said we were going to try to have as much fun together as we could, most of that never made the air. Most of the real aspects of tattooing never really made the air. We did a complete dramatic show. [On the show] Ami and I had to fight twice, and we had to fake it. Before Miami Ink Ami and I had never fought in our lives. And all of us as a crew had tried to quit the show or get out of our contracts at one time or another. But every time it would be, â€œif you do, youâ€™re going to pay this price, and youâ€™re going to be paying for the rest of your life.â€
But to me, [the show] was the best thing that could have happened to me personally because I learned. When I was doing it I was miserable, I fought it every day, but now I look back on it, and think it was like graduating from school, or almost doing another apprenticeship.
Format: Wow, so after that experience, itâ€™s surprising to learn that youâ€™re actually developing a new show with the Travel Channel right now, correct?
Chris Nunez: Correct. The show weâ€™re developing with Travel Channel weâ€™re really happy about. We partnered up with Travel Channel because weâ€™ve always liked the shows. Theyâ€™re really a cool network to deal with on that level, theyâ€™re really pretty free and easy going, and they were like, â€œGuys, we have faith in you and what you can do, so go out and make the best show you can and weâ€™re behind you.â€ That was huge for us, thatâ€™s what decided it for us immediately, because getting back on TV was only going to happen if we could do this show that weâ€™re doing. It would never be to go through anymore of that reality docu-drama stuff, none of that.
Format: So whatâ€™s the concept of the new show?
Chris Nunez: Basically itâ€™s based on us traveling around the world and showing all the different tattoo artists around the world, all the different cultures, and the lifestyles of the tattooers. Itâ€™s really kind of doing what Miami Ink never did in that itâ€™s telling the truth about the way it is to be a tattooer, the different styles, the different cultures, the travel. Itâ€™ll show that thereâ€™s more than one dimension to what we do. Because there are tattoo artists that are painters, and there are tattoo artists that only tattoo, and that are complete visionaries that do things that people canâ€™t imagine. So what weâ€™re going to do is travel around the world and experience their artwork, their lifestyle, their culture, sometimes their nightlife and really just make a travel show out of tattooing.
Format: Do you think youâ€™ll get some ink along your journey? Do you have any good open spots left on your body?
Chris Nunez: Oh yea, 100%. Weâ€™re going to be traveling and seeing the best modern artists in the world, and weâ€™re also going to travel to tribes and really far off distant places. This is the show opportunity of a lifetime. We really developed this concept to the fullest and we brought it forward, and we did it through creating our own production company, which is Love Hate Productions. So weâ€™ve gone from being bossed to being the bosses.
Format: Tell us about your own tattoos. What are your favorites or least favorites?
Chris Nunez: Um, I donâ€™t know Iâ€™ve got so many silly things. My favorites are probably drunk tattoos. I mean, youâ€™re with a bunch of your friends and you have a tattoo shop and you have the keys to the shop, and you also own a bar, so weird shit happens. I mean Iâ€™ve woken up in the morning literally like, â€œOw, why does that hurt?â€ And you look down and you have this little stupid quarter sized tattoo from last night on you, itâ€™s like, â€œOh Jesus.â€ Really, thatâ€™s like the most fun thing to me, especially because the best way to get tattooed is by your friends or really special people in your life. You know, you can get all the beautiful artwork in the world but I think you have to kind of hit it off with the person who youâ€™re getting it from or itâ€™s only half the experience. So, you know, like when I let my mom tattoo me, I didnâ€™t do that because it would [look great] I did it because it was something I really wanted.
Format: You let your mom tattoo you?
Chris Nunez: Yea, I had my mom tattoo me. I just asked her to write â€œMom.â€ Also, this girl that I lived with in Hamburg, back when I started tattooing in Europe, who I had such a great time with for the three months I was there, on my last day I had her tattoo a heart with an anchor on me, because thatâ€™s the symbol for Hamburg. So just like little weird shit like that, that you do with your friends, I mean itâ€™s not meant for everybody, but thatâ€™s my favorite keepsake for people that I truly care about. I probably only have like 10 or 15 of those retarded little tattoos all on my legs in between big real tattoos, but theyâ€™re my favorites.
Format: So is there ever a time in your life, like maybe if youâ€™re putting on a suit or meeting your girlfriendâ€™s parents or something, that you wish you didnâ€™t have so much visible ink?
Chris Nunez: No way thatâ€™s the best. Thereâ€™s nothing better than putting on a suit and completely cleaning up and looking the part. I love it, I grew up with a father who wore a suit everyday but had definitely gangster tendencies and there was nothing cooler. To be able to do all kinds of different things and play all kinds of different roles, thatâ€™s what keeps me feeling alive. Thatâ€™s the thing that I like to do. Thatâ€™s why I became a tattoo artist because I didnâ€™t want to be stuck in any one place, I didnâ€™t want to have to work anywhere. When I wanted to pick up and go I would just go.
Format: So youâ€™ve literally never had remorse about a single tattoo? Seems like a dream.
Chris Nunez: You know Iâ€™ve always gotten things that make me smile. One of my first tattoos that I got was this thing I got from somebody who I just didnâ€™t really like, you know, it wasnâ€™t like a guy that Iâ€™m still friends with to this day. So that was like the only thing that I regretted, but it wasnâ€™t because of the work, the work is great, it was getting it from somebody [I didnâ€™t care for]. And when you get something from somebody you donâ€™t like, you know, youâ€™re wearing a permanent mark from that person for the rest of your life. So from that point on, very early in life, I realized no matter how good I think somebody is, [I have to like them]. I learned, donâ€™t get something by somebody who is an asshole just because they do really pretty work. You have to respect somebody on some level to let them tattoo you. Whatâ€™s the point of getting a really beautiful tattoo from somebody that youâ€™re like, â€œthis motherfucker!â€ And youâ€™re stuck with their shit on you for the rest of your life.
Format: Is there any design that you would refuse to draw on someone?
Chris Nunez: Thereâ€™s certain things that I wouldnâ€™t believe in, you know thereâ€™s certain walks of life, and whatever, I only do things these days that I want to do. But Iâ€™ve been like that pretty much forever. You know Iâ€™m not judging what anybody elseâ€™s beliefs should be. I have my own, and Iâ€™m sure theyâ€™re pretty fucked. But I donâ€™t have to subscribe to somebody elseâ€™s either.
Format: Are tattoos on women sexy to you?
Chris Nunez: You know what it is, is I feel like if Iâ€™m going to have a woman in my life, and sheâ€™s gonna be with me like, more than just tonight, then basically I wouldnâ€™t want anyone that heavily tattooed because when Iâ€™m done with work I like to be done with work. So when you go home you donâ€™t want to have your significant other asking you to fill in her flowers or whatever, and thatâ€™s whatâ€™s always kind of steered me away. Not that I donâ€™t like the look, I love the look. But at the same time I donâ€™t want to have to think about tattoos the rest of the night once Iâ€™m home from work. You know when I was first into tattooing Iâ€™d live, sleep, eat, drink tattoo magazines, tattoo conventions, tattoo everything. And it might have actually been what burnt me out. You need variety in your life. So finding that balance as you get older, Iâ€™m going to be 36 next week, and Iâ€™m starting to find my balance. Iâ€™m starting to be honest with myself about what I like and I donâ€™t like, instead of forcing myself to like things because I need to.
Format: Do you happen to have the inside of your lower lip tattooed?
Chris Nunez: No. I donâ€™t know why. Thatâ€™s kind of one of the things I always thought to do. Like at weird times, Iâ€™d be like, â€œIâ€™m gonna get my lip tattooed.â€ But I just never did it.
Format: How would you describe the feeling of getting a tattoo, to someone who doesnâ€™t have any?
Chris Nunez: Itâ€™s weird, you have so many different nerve endings like all over your body. Sometimes it can feel almost like an acupuncture massage because itâ€™ll like tingle and then kind of get this pulse. Sometimes it feels hot, sometimes it feels almost like a cut. You know, itâ€™s weird, it differs on everybody and on different body parts. But when people want something and theyâ€™re like, â€œOh itâ€™s going to hurt more here or hereâ€¦â€ Iâ€™m like, you know especially if itâ€™s the first time, â€œYou might as well just get what you want.â€ You know where you put [a tattoo] on your body shouldnâ€™t be depending on the pain, you should get what you want where you want.