Jeremy Miller - New School Rules

Published: 29 January, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 221, February, 2013

It’s an early-ish convention morning after a late night before. Not traditionally a time for creative souls to be firing on all cylinders – more a time for mumbling into coffee and waiting for the caffeine to kickstart all the other essential systems.


But that’s not the case with Texas-based tattoo artist, Jeremy Miller, whose cheery personality is a good match for the blazing new school work he creates.

“I’m a happy person, I like to be happy and I want to bring that into my work!” he says animatedly as we sit down. And what work it is – super new school contrast and thick lines, cartoony images in psychedelic shades that loom woozily off the skin as if operating in a different dimension. It’s pretty distinctive stuff, and a long way from the first work he did.

“I started drawing tribal,” he recalls. “It was the late ’90s, early ’00s, and it was all tribal, that’s all anybody wanted.” Pretty much everything he drew was tribal, he says, remembering one occasion where he drew a non-tribal piece for a friend, only for them to change their mind at the studio and opt for tribal flash instead. “Maybe that’s why I hate it now!”

Starting from scratch

All the same, tribal work provided a way into tattooing for someone who admits to starting off as a stay-at-home scratcher. “When I was 18 I went and got my first tattoo and after that I just kinda started drawing all of my friends’ tattoos. About a year later I discovered the art of scratching and got a tattoo kit off eBay and started doing that.”

The ‘art’ of scratching is referred to with no small amount of irony, and it seems not to have lasted long. Instead, the military came calling and Miller spent some time in the Army, landing an apprenticeship once he left. His new employers weren’t troubled by his early adventures in DIY tattooing, he says. “Fortunately they didn’t look down on me scratching at home so I was able to get into a shop and start learning.”

Which is just as well, because the home environment wasn’t totally tattoo-friendly either, he says. “My dad had a little tattoo, but nothing major. It was always off limits to me, kind of a taboo thing. My mum was a nice Catholic lady and hated tattoos, and still does to this day.”

Really? How does she feel about his career, then? “My mom is my best friend,” he says without hesitation, “I’m completely a momma’s boy. But she hates each and every one of them. On occasion she tries to scratch ’em off; if I get a new one she’s mad for a few days!”

Out of respect for his mother he keeps his own pieces conservative and sticks to a ‘no hands, neck or face’ rule, so they can be covered up “when we go to church or if I go home for the weekend.” All the same, he laughs, “it’s definitely created some arguments!” But despite their artistic differences, she remains a staunch supporter of his work. “She helped me out when I needed investors to start my studio; even though she doesn’t like it, she’s still very proud and very supportive.”

The journey from tribal to his current adventures in new school lunacy has been, as for many artists, a lifelong one. The young Miller was always drawing, never formally training through art classes, but being “the kid in school who doodles”. He took drafting lessons, but even there it was all about the pen and paper. “Even though everyone else was drafting on computers, I was still hand-drawing, so even though it was different to what I do now it was still a form of art… it’s always been in there!”

It all changed when he stumbled across the early work of new school artist, Tony Ciavarro. “When I first got into a shop I’d never really seen new school before. It was mainly tribal and a little bit of black and grey stuff from the internet,” he says. “But I saw a set of Tony’s flash, this was 2003-04, fairly old now, it had a lot of that very high contrast stuff. I started trying to draw those cartoony images, but I couldn’t figure out how to get that kind of dynamic perspective.”

His solution? If it don’t fit, bend it. “I just started bending everything. Another artist, Elmo Boyd [currently based in Kansas City, check out tattoosbyelmo.com] tattooed a friend of mine and he tattooed a pencil that was curved, which gave me the idea to just curve everything, and eventually that started evolving more and more into whatever it is I do now, which all looks like it’s made out of Play-Doh…”

The Colour & the Shape

Warping the perspective of his tattoos while still keeping the bold contrasts and dynamic colours of new school work created what he calls “these crazy, weird-looking pieces. I like to make them so they look like you could pick each little part of it off, somehow.”

It certainly works. Some of the pieces we’ve seen do indeed have a ‘pluck me off and eat me’ pick ‘n’ mix quality to them. So how much of that is about intuitively knowing what works, and how much is understanding technical things like colour theory? Another new school expert, Mr Tanane Whitfield, certainly thinks the theory side is important [see Skin Deep 208, folks!]; what does Jeremy make of it?

“I completely agree, and it’s weird because I’ve never had any formal training in it. TJ Page, who works for me, has a colour wheel at his station and he’s always referencing it.” Miller has been encouraged to use the wheel by his colleague, but admits he has no idea how to use it. It seems to be an unconscious grasp of the theory, for him.

“I just know that if I’ve got something red I’ve gotta have the other thing be blue, and having cool colours versus warm colours and making them bounce off each other. It’s not really a formal understanding, it’s just knowing that a cool colour will make a warm colour look warmer. It’s pretty much an intuitive thing. The more you work with bright colour, the more you get it; you just have to screw a few up first!” he laughs.

Objects of fun

That’s the approach for the colour and the linework, but what about the ideas themselves? How does he end up at gas masks, worms with monocles, knuckleduster coffee mugs, or indeed any of the weird and wonderful creations parading these pages?

“I really prefer it if someone gives me a random idea,” he says. “My favourite thing to do is just to pick a random object; we’re sitting here right now, like let’s do this table. And that would be a fun tattoo, even though it’s just a table.” He points out my tiny dice earring (partially hidden by hair, which probably says something about his powers of observation and finding inspiration in the small things) and suggests a dice tattoo. “I can do anything with that! Throw some leaves, or bones, or roses or flames or whatever around it, but having that one central object is my favourite way to work.”

He likes to work with a certain amount of freedom once a client has suggested a central theme to him; it feels restrictive any other way, he explains. “I have a client who wants a really detailed piece, they want every little piece just the way they want it… and I hate it, I don’t even want to do it any more. It’s a pay-the-bills tattoo, because it’s thinking too much, it’s not just having fun. It’s not ‘you do this style, let’s get tattooed by you in this style and here’s an idea I have’.”

The ‘fun’ factor is important to Miller, who doesn’t think it’s a tag that demeans new school art. “A lot of times you can get a serious tattoo with it, but you’re still getting a cartoon. You’re getting something that’s inherently lighthearted, so I think that’s good.”

However, he does believe that calling new school tattoos ‘amateur’ compared to other styles is to do them a disservice. “To think that they’re amateur because they’re cartoony is completely false,” he says, going on to emphasise the positive impact that new school’s cheery disposition can have. “For the most part when you look at a new school tattoo it’s going to be fun, it’s going to have whimsical colours. Even if you’re doing a tribute piece for someone, you can still capture all the pieces you need to make a memorial, but perhaps you’ll be capturing a happy memory as opposed to getting a black and grey portrait – and I have nothing against them – that can be more sombre, more serious.”

Serious fun

Miller likes his clients to have a good time, not just when they look at their finished pieces, but also while they’re getting them. “I try to make sure customers are having fun, even when I’m torturing them. We always have a blast! When you look back in ten years at the tattoo, and you’re remembering getting it, I’d rather that be a happy memory than you thinking ‘shit, that hurt’.”

Having the right attitude is an important part of the business now, he thinks. “If you look back at the history of tattooing over the last 50 years, you went into a lot of biker shops and you got a particular attitude, and that attitude rubbed people the wrong way. I can understand it completely because it was this kind of backroad, hidden thing in the shadows, but now it’s more mainstream.”

The result? It’s nice to be nice. “Your customers pay your bills, you can’t have that shitty ‘if you don’t have a ton of tattoos you’re not good enough to be in here’ attitude. Even the lady getting her first little tiny butterfly, she’s still a customer and you never know, she might be back next week to get a full sleeve; but if you’re an asshole she might not come back!”

Renewal

He’s clearly come a long way from those tribal flash-bashing beginnings, but he’s not done yet. The next step is to expand and evolve, perhaps moving into painting to bring something new into his tattooing. “I’ve never done it before, so I’m going to devote some time to oil painting and try to develop a few more realism skills, and then transfer that into my tattooing. You know, to incorporate a big bold colourful piece with a soft, pastel, more realistic looking piece.”

Is that going to mean retreating to a cabin in the woods for months and coming back re-invented? “No way, I couldn’t do that, I’m way too much of a people person! I’m just gonna see what happens.”

There’s a loose plan of sorts, involving working with his artist wife to develop his basic painting skills, and perhaps getting some inspiration from painterly colleagues such as TJ, too. “The thing for me will be getting through those first few months where I try to understand the basics of painting, because I’ve never done it. I’m so used to doing everything with ink and colour pencils, so even doing the same stuff with a different medium might give me a new perspective and change things up a little bit.”

So why the need to change things up? “You have to try something that’s a little bit different. You might suck at it, but trying it gives you a different perspective on what you originally did.”

He might want to evolve things a little, but this is a man content with his chosen path. He must be – his business masters degree would open doors to more highly-paid careers, but that’s not for him. “This is not a job, this is pure fun. There’s not another job I could do that would be this enjoyable.”

There are challenges, though, he admits as we drain our coffees. “Last night I was drawing a tattoo – a gas mask for someone’s neck – I thought about putting bones behind it, because the mask has a cracked lens and it would give it an armageddon kind of look,” he says. Problem is, he did something similar a few weeks ago. “So figuring out how to change that while still getting the same idea in there, really seems to be getting tough!”

Maybe he should just go to the woods for a week, then? “Haha, maybe three or four days,” he says. “It’ll be fun!” Know what? We reckon it would be.

Pigment Dermagraphics and Fine Art

12233 Ranch Road 620 North, Suite 111
Austin, TX 78750

+01 (512) 331 5476
www.pigmentatx.com

Credits

Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Jeremy Miller

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