Talent alone isn't enough; Joe Miller believes practice and dedication are crucial to becoming a good artist. An Iowa native, Miller moved to Denver in 2003 after giving up a career in architecture; he's been tattooing seriously for ten years. Today the owner of Old Larimer Street Tattoo, he also owns Third Eye Tattoo and Gallery in Cedar Falls, Iowa. We recently caught up with Miller, who talked about leaving the corporate world, surrounding himself with motivated artists and mastering free-hand tattoos.
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Westword: Why did you decide to move to Denver?
Joe Miller: I got my degree in architecture and I took a position in Denver and moved. I tattooed in college to get by -- a means to an end, really. And then after a couple years in the field, I just wanted to tattoo again. The corporate world wasn't my thing.
What made you want to study architecture?
I was always interested in building and design.
Were you artistic growing up?
My brother was actually the artist when we were kids. He could draw anything almost spot-on. As we grew and came to be, I slowly started taking art classes in college and sort of evolved later in life.
What was your first exposure to tattoo art?
Probably just the local shop that was down the street from where I grew up. Walking past it, peeking in the windows. It was a very old school kind of shop -- no kids. So I would just peek in the window. It was very intriguing.
How did you get started in tattooing?
I just kind of fell into it, really. I wasn't looking to be a tattoo artist. I painted a mural that an owner of a shop saw, and he commissioned me to paint a wall in his shop. He kind of offered, "You should be a tattoo artist." I was in school. I thought I had a direction of what I was going to do and be in my life, and I was just happy to pick up the work. Months went by and he called me up and said, "I have another wall and some extra cash if you want to paint it." I painted it and again he offered me, "You should be a tattoo artist. I really enjoy your art." I turned him down again, and then just slowly started hanging out with this person more and more and it just kind of fell into place.
When did you start getting tattooed yourself?
Oh, man, I was getting tattoos in maybe junior high or just about to go into ninth grade. It was "stick and poke," with a needle and thread and just basic calligraphy ink. We were kids. We were dumb. Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Miller. Was it hard to tell your family you were leaving architecture to be a tattoo artist?
They kind of knew, I think, that I might gravitate back into that. When I quit, I didn't go right back to tattooing. I wanted a zero-stress, no-responsibility job, so I started waiting tables. I worked twenty hours a week. It was amazing. It was the complete, polar opposite of being in the architect field, and I hadn't really thought I should start tattooing again but some of the people at the restaurant, as they found out that I used to tattoo, they would say, "Do one on me!" It slowly kind of fell back in place. I started looking around in Denver for places to work. I didn't have much knowledge of the tattoo scene here, so I landed in a few really undesirable shops before finding a pretty decent one. Every shop has its faults, but this was a really good foundation for me, and working at that shop pushed me in the direction to open my own, and that's where the real growth started to happen -- being the owner and having control of the artistic environment you're surrounded by.
When you just work somewhere, you're kind of at the mercy of the owner's say-so, and sometimes your co-workers are not as motivated as you would like to see. Owning this place is really what pushed me to create a positive environment, not only for my co-workers but also clients. I feel energy is really big. The ambiance of the place, people can feel a good vibe when they walk in. I surround myself with individuals who are pushing in the same direction; you can bounce ideas off, they're all motivated, they're all art-minded before tattoo-minded, which tends to get you a higher level of artistry in the tattoo medium. That's probably the biggest leap in my career: actually opening this place and surrounding myself with some of the best artists I could find.
What would you say is your style as an artist?
Over the years, I've gravitated towards pretty much every style and kind of beat it to the ground until I got bored with it and then moved on to something else. But then I still have that in my portfolio and my little bag of tricks if I need to pull it out. I have a mash-up of styles. I definitely enjoy the Japanese, more so the imagery and the culture of the tattooing than the actual style. I kind of modernize Japanese work -- traditional imagery and spirits and ghosts and all that, but with a more refined twist. That's what I'm interested in most. However, these days I don't do a ton of that. I wouldn't mind getting back into that a little more.
And you also specialize in free-hand?
I'm known for that. Early on, it was more about being lazy and not having my drawings ready, but practice makes perfect. As I continued to do it, it got more refined. For large-scale pieces that span a big area of the body, it's definitely a better way to get the image on the skin. You take a giant flat image drawn on paper and try to contort it to someone's body; it never quite transfers the way it's supposed to. Some areas are compressed, some areas pull and distort. When you draw it directly on them, it flows with the lines and curves of their body better. There are things you would never want to freehand. I would never freehand your grandmother's portrait or anything that has to look specifically like a person.
Do you work in other media?
I oil paint quite frequently. I do more of a Renaissance, Old Masters-style of oil painting -- fine art. I don't really mess around with a lot of other media. I found that's what works best for me. Acrylic is a little stiff. I like the medium to stay open a little more to work blends and details. I had a short stint with sculpture. That was a blunder and a half. It was more like a high-school clay project that anything I was trying to unravel.
Is it hard to find time to explore other media when you're running a business and tattooing?
I own other businesses, and up until a year ago I had five different companies in other areas. But I've refocused. I sold all my other companies and I just keep the two tattoo shops and the art gallery. They're kind of on cruise control. I have really good managers in place that keep the headaches out of my way so I can focus on my art.
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