Why Tattoo Artist Miya Bailey Believes He's 'On A Higher Level Than Black Art'
How the Atlanta artist balances creating fine art, tattooing and the business of each.
July 25, 2019 at 6:31 pm
Point 'Em Out is an editorial series where Blavity explores the latest and the greatest in Black art. Thanks to modern-day technology, we get to be virtual consumers of yesterday's icons and today’s most innovative Black artwork, and — if we're lucky — the Black geniuses who produce them.
When considering the subgenres that fall under visual art, drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics, graphic design, fashion design, filmmaking, printmaking and photography are typically what comes to mind, and tattooing is rarely associated with this category. However, this form of creative expression embodies the same properties as any other example of visual art.
Think about it: A tattooist examines what is seen, how it is arranged and how it should be approached. Also, color, space, shape, linework, texture, patterns, value, balance and unity all play a role in laying down a tattoo. With skin as their canvas and a tattoo gun as the tool of trade, chances are the tattoo artist ruminates these concepts bigly. Because they create wearable art, the quality of their aesthetic execution is imperative. Thusly, put some damn respect on a tattooist name; tattoo artists are artists — periodt.
Atlanta's own Miya Bailey is a master in the game and possibly the tattooist to the gods, though he'd never admit it. His client roster boasts the names of celebrity who's who, from soul singer Kelly Price to Mississippi's own Big K.R.I.T.
YouTube | ida harris
Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Bailey cut his chops as a tattoo artist as a teenager during the 1980s. He learned to tattoo on the block of his old hood while literally using a needle and thread, a primitive technique known for yielding what's otherwise known as a jailhouse tattoo.
Bailey has come a long way from West Asheville. Since relocating to the peach state, he has become a shop owner three times over. He opened the doors to City of Ink with partners Tuki Carter and Corey Davis in 2006 and is the founder of Peter Street Station, a mix-use arts and design community center that's open to visual artists of all disciplines and local kids. Peter Street Station also hosts jam sessions for musicians and weekly figure drawing sessions.
Like many tattooists, Bailey's artistic background started with drawing. His sketches captured aspects of his environment and cultural surroundings, including breakdancers, graffiti and iconic cartoon characters like Bart Simpson, which he eventually also began painting on clothing. Still an active painter, Bailey has exhibited his work in sold-out art shows, including one at Atlanta's Notch 8 Gallery in 2015. He's also a curator and contributing artist for The Trap Music Museum in Georiga.
An artist and a businessman, Bailey has established himself as an integral part of Atlanta's art scene, who is dead-set on creating opportunities and outlets for other aspiring artists and Atlanta's youth. Blavity recently caught up with creative visionary to get all up in his business.
Blavity: How long have you been in art?
Miya Bailey: I’ve been in art my whole entire life. I started around two — and I started taking it seriously. At around 10, I started selling art.
Blavity: What type of art were you selling around ten years old?
Bailey: [Breakdancing] was the first thing I was drawing. This was around the '80s; people were breakdancing.
Blavity: That was a good amount for a 10-year-old.
Bailey: Yeah, it was just that time, the '80s. It was a good time to grind.
Blavity: You’re from Asheville, North Carolina? It's an artsy city —
Bailey: Well the Black people aren’t "artsy." But yeah, it's an artsy city; it's an artsy town.
Blavity: Has Asheville or its tattoo culture influenced you in any way?
Bailey: No, it wasn’t a tattoo culture when I was there. I was really like the first person to put my foot down and make that scene possible. I had a shop there in '97, [on] Hayward Road in West Asheville. Right now, it’s a popular street, but at that time it was only one shop down the street, California Emporium, and it was a biker shop. I just wanted to put a shop near these [two] projects. When I was growing up, they didn’t get along like that. I just wanted to create one hood, so I put a shop in the middle of both of them.
Blavity: Dope. At what point in your creativity did you decide tattooing was the thing for you?
Bailey: I went through all the phases: clothing, fashion, jeans. I put the lettering on all the jeans; did all that stuff — jackets. Then I got into screenprinting. Once I got into screenprinting, I fell in love with people actually wearing the art. I fell in love when people started paying me to do jeans for them, especially when New Jack City came out. I was doing a lot of letter stuff on jeans; the Black Bart Simpson character. That was my hustle.
Blavity: Kind of like Shirt Kings in the '80s? Nike actually did my first tattoo.
Bailey: Yeah, I knew of them. I met Shakim when he moved down to Atlanta before he passed.
Blavity: I know you said you built your business in the hood. Was that hard as a Black tattoo artist?
Bailey: Well, at this point, there weren't too many Black tattoo artists anywhere. There were only five or six. I was the only Black tattoo artist in North Carolina, so it wasn’t like [I] couldn’t get Black clientele. It was the beginning of Black tattoo culture. People wanted something new.
You had certain artist showing their tattoos publicly, like Jodeci. I was influenced by Fishbone; they’re from Atlanta — that’s what drew me here. So I was influenced by their tattoos, and street people were influenced by street tattoos. But I saw people like Fishbone in magazines, and their tattoos were more creative — art. That was one of the first things that blew my mind about tattoos. And my father’s tattoos, he had "Logan" on his arm. That blew my mind. I looked up to my father on some warrior sh**t.
Blavity: What age did you get your first tattoo?
Blavity: What is the age of consent?
Bailey: Eighteen, but I did it myself. Somebody showed me how to do it. He learned while he was at Job Corps. He showed me how to do it the needle-and-thread way. You get a needle, and you wrap it, and you dip it and poke.
Blavity: Do you use lidocaine and sprays?
Bailey: No, I don’t use that. I’ve used it on me to experiment. It’s worse to me because when it wears off, you feel everything you missed while you [were numb]. I feel like if you’re numb, you won’t even know the quality of the tattoo artist because artists feel different. I think you should be able to tell the difference.
Blavity: What was it like the first time you did a tattoo on someone else?
Bailey: I think the first time I did one was my baby mother Sheila. I was nervous because I didn’t want to mess her arm up, but she let me do it.
Blavity: Was it successful?
Bailey: Yeah! She still has that tattoo till this day.
Blavity: Word is you’re a celebrity tattooist as well?
Bailey: I don’t call myself that s**t. I hate that s**t.
Blavity: But you have a certain class of clientele, yes?
Bailey: My clientele is working-class people. They save up their money to get me. That’s my clientele.
Blavity: How many tattoos have you done to date?
Bailey: A lot; 100,000? I don’t know. A lot.
Blavity: What’s the average cost of a tattoo done by you?
Bailey: I start at $1000.
Blavity: What size and complexity?
Bailey: Well, if someone spends $1000 dollars on me, I hope they would let me go big. But most people don’t want a back tattoo. I’m still not going to drop the price. I set my price.
Blavity: So I can get a sleeve for $1000?
Bailey: Hell no. You can get from your shoulder to your sleeve; the outside, not the inside. A four-hour session.
YouTube | ida harris
Blavity: What’s so special about a Miya Bailey tattoo?
Bailey: The people have to say it. It doesn’t look like anyone else’s, and you know you’re getting a lot of experience.
Blavity: How long have you been doing this?
Bailey: Twenty-seven years.
Blavity: Is there anything unique about working on Black skin, as opposed to white or fairer skin? Is there a difference in technique?
Bailey: The darker the person, the gentler you have to be. That’s due to melanin; it can cause scar tissue. Melanin is strong. It makes the skin tougher when it heals.
Blavity: I notice there’s a lot of color in your tattoos no matter the skin color.
Bailey: People know me for color, but there was a certain time when you were taught you can only use certain colors for Black skin. If you were sticking to the rules, it was all you could use. Then one day my partner Tookie Carter brought his baby-mother in, and at this point, you had to make your own colors — mix your own colors. Tookie started using pink, and from pink, he went into different colors. He was the first Black person I’ve seen using colors outside of what they thought we could use on Black people. I worked right on side of him, so I picked up the technique.
There was a client with a solid black eight ball, and Tookie covered it up with a samurai warrior. We were told it couldn’t be done, but it was done right in my face. Blew my mind, which made me start focusing on colors. I use a different color palette. I use brighter colors. Darker skin, brighter colors. You learn to bounce the color using different skin. It took years, watching people heal up. Ten years later, did the color last? And another 10 years.
Blavity: So you are a tattoo artist, but you haven’t stopped drawing and creating art?
Bailey: Yeah, a lot of people know me for art, but don’t know me for tattoos. A lot of people know me for tattoos, and don’t know me for art. I would have to talk about either, or.
Blavity: Do you have a preference between skin or canvas?
Bailey: I do tattoos for a different reason: I do it to meet people. A lot of people that can afford a $1000 tattoo I can connect with. These are the people I connect with and make business moves [with]. I might have a guy I tattoo, he might be a weed farmer. He might be one of the few Black people in America to own a weed farm. That’s a good connection to have. My other client may be a doctor, world traveler. I get all these experiences meeting people where I gain new knowledge. If I’m not getting to travel like I want to, my clients give me new experiences and new information. I can learn without having to go to so many different places.
Blavity: So you love them equally?
Bailey: Well, I do love one thing more than the other — you know, it might be sculpture. I don’t get to do it a lot because I don’t make money from that; people don’t know me for that. But if I would say sculpture is No. 1, then interior design.
Blavity: So nothing you actually do for a living?
Bailey: Nah, nah. I mean, I’m a realist, so I have to do the Bailey thing that makes me the most money first no matter if I like it or not. When you a father and s**t, you can’t be like, "Oh, I don’t want to do this today." I have to put my logic first over wanting to do anything.
Blavity: City of Ink — how long has it been up and running?
Bailey: Twelve years for that specific brand.
Blavity: Now you have Peter Street Station, too. Tell us about that.
Bailey: It’s an extension of City of Ink. It’s on a more community-based level. People know City of Ink for tattooing. This is multiple disciplines; where people know multiple disciplines of art. Here, I get to focus on everything: All the art forms equally under one roof, and everybody gets to feed off the creativity of each other. It’s hard to get inspiration by being around people in your own medium. I like being surrounded by different themes. Anything that feeds my imagination.
Blavity: You made a statement about your art not being "Black art." Do you still feel that way?
Bailey: Then, I felt that way. But it's obvious that I’m Black, so if you put a tag on it, it's going to limit my money.
Blavity: Does it?
Blavity: You know, it didn’t, so I'm Black as f**k, now. When I said it 10 years ago, I wanted all money. Ten years later, I’m still making the majority of my income from the Black dollar. I now own a piece of property. I paid my dues, I can say what the f**k I want to, right? So my freedom level is a little higher. I’m still not all the way free. So certain things I would say now, I couldn’t say then. Of course, I’m going to say it’s not Black art, because I didn’t want anyone to put a tag on my s**t, because I need white people to buy my s**t. I need everybody to buy my s**t. When you put a tag on certain things at that point in time, guess what? People aren’t buying that s**t.
Blavity: All right, so you're free at this point in time?
Bailey: Now I’m more free. My s**t Black as f**k. I feel my art appeals to the Black soul. Most of my buyers are Black. If a white person buys from me, they have a little soul. My personal opinion is it's clearly Black.
The way I look at it now it's more expression. It's more emotion art. That’s what I want to call it 'cause I think the emotion — everybody feels pain and beauty and emotion. I want everybody to see that s**t. That’s how I want people to look at. DNA-wise it's Black. It shows in my art. But I just want to leave race aside because it's physical, and once you leave the physical, it’s the soul — right? My art is like soul art, and from the soul is emotions. So, I’m on a higher level than Black art I would say. I think it limits me when you say that. I think my art is higher than the physical plain. The soul is not a race. I might come back as a bird or something. While I’m in this Black body, I live a Black experience.
Blavity: Your top-five visual artists in any discipline?
Bailey: My all-time favorite artist is Charles White.
Blavity: Have you seen A Retrospective?
Bailey: It’s in LA right now. I promised myself I'll go see it before it's over. I will be going to see that. It's like a spiritual pilgrimage to me. He was a romanticist. His motion is on a higher degree than race.
Then there's Picasso, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Muhammad Ali
Blavity: What’s next for Miya Bailey?
Bailey: I want to retire.
Blavity: What does retirement mean to you? What does it look like?
Bailey: It means finding things I like. If I’ve been doing artwork since I was 10 years old; when have I lived? So I want to use the rest of my days to live a little bit. You [know] in Endgame how Captain America got his life? If you got an opportunity to buy your freedom as a slave in America — because we are economic slaves — you have to earn money to eat, to live. You can’t live without money out here. I’m just trying to buy myself enough freedom to experience a little bit of life. I would like to climb mountains. I want to do the things my imagination said I could do.