Marking his world: One man’s artistic journey

by Stephenie Conley
After prepping the area, Miller outlines the design with a ballpoint pen to define the edges. (photo by Jill Ocone)

After prepping the area, Miller outlines the design with a ballpoint pen to define the edges. (photo by Jill Ocone)

Hands encased in black surgical gloves wipe away red ink and blood, which had begun to run, pool and obscure the delicately drawn design.  The hum of the tattoo gun temporarily ceases as the artist hunches over and carefully inspects his work on the exposed hip of a 27-year-old woman reclined in a dental-style chair.

“A lot of doors have opened up over the years, meeting people,” he said casually to her as he adjusted the napkin tucked into her pink lace-trimmed underwear. “You find friends anywhere in life.”

Such is a typical moment for professional tattoo artist Jay Miller. Owner and operator of Crucible Tattoo, a shop on the edge of downtown Kent, Ohio, 35-year-old Miller has been tattooing since his first apprenticeship at age 16. However, he actually wanted to get into tattooing even earlier when he started hanging around tattoo shops at age 14.

“I tried to get somebody to teach me and nobody wanted to give me the time of day because I was 14, “ Miller said. “Nobody wanted me in their shop, so I kind of just did it on my own for awhile and then I wanted to get an apprenticeship, but I was still in school.”

Despite his age at the time, Miller was determined to become a tattoo artist (click here for his art).  He took the GED and left high school at 16 to work in his first apprenticeship at Dino’s State of the Art Tattoos, where he said he spent more time observing than working.

“I didn’t feel that high school was going to teach me anything pertaining to what I wanted to do in life,” Miller said. “I wanted it bad enough that being in the environment was enough for me.”

Even though high school did not encourage his path to tattooing and he had teachers counsel him against pursuing tattooing as a career, Miller’s exposure to the world of tattooing as a child was enough to inspire his lifelong passion.

“I’ve always been an artist and I wanted a way to express myself and make some money on art.  Most of my family were bikers, so I was exposed to [tattooing] very young. By the time I was 10, I probably saw more people get a tattoo than most people have seen tattoos. So it made sense that that was an outlet that I could get into and the type of relaxed lifestyle I wanted and to express my art,” Miller said.

Using black ink, Miller permanently traces the outline. (photo by Jill Ocone)

Using black ink, Miller permanently traces the outline. (photo by Jill Ocone)

Now Miller said that he, indeed, is living that relaxed lifestyle. He makes his own schedule, works mostly by appointment and his uniform of the day consists of clothing like khaki cargo shorts and a black “Walking Dead” t-shirt. He appears at ease and smiles readily as he chats with his customers.

There was a time, though, when things were not as easy. After his apprenticeship, Miller spent years practicing his craft and bouncing from shop to shop, some of which included shops like White Tiger, Heaven and Hell and Aardvark Tattoo in Akron, Smokin’ Tattooz in Kent.

Finally, he opened Underground Tattoo in Shalersville with then girlfriend Mary Krebs.   And while both their personal and business relationships lasted about six years, things came to an end in 2009.  The experience prompted Miller to leave Ohio for almost five months.

“I went on a little bit of a pilgrimage. I went down to Miami Beach, worked with some friends. I figured out it’s really hard to be depressed in Miami Beach. I came back and started over again on my own,” Miller said.

Upon returning to Ohio, Miller worked for a couple of different shops and tried his hand at a business in Ravenna, but ultimately decided to go back into business for himself with fellow artist Jonah Dunbar – and so Crucible Tattoo was born. The name for the shop was no accident.

Tattoo aftercare: advice from professional artist Jay Miller
by Stephenie Conley
-Keep your bandage on for at least 30 minutes, but no longer than two hours.
“Oxygen is crucial to healing, so anything you do to cut off oxygen will slow down healing time,” Miller said. “Try to stay away from constrictive clothing.”
-Wash the tattoo thoroughly with fragrance-free soap and water. Pat dry with clean paper towels; do not use cloth.
-Apply a lotion with no dyes or perfumes. Miller recommends cocoa butter rather than plain lotion.
“Cocoa butter is a natural product; your body absorbs it well. It promotes healing well,” Miller said. “Stay away from anything petroleum based. That will get in, clog the pores and suffocate it.”
-Leave the tattoo uncovered.
“Your average healing time is 7-10 days,” Miller said. “Most of the tattoos I do will heal within three to five. Once all of the scabs have flaked off, you’re okay.”

“Crucible has two meanings and that is why I chose this. It’s a melting pot; it’s something used to melt something down. Figuratively speaking, tattoo shops generally are melting pots,” Miller said. “There are a lot of different artistic, cultural backgrounds, ideas in a tattoo shop. The other aspect is a very trying event in somebody’s life. It’s an obstacle. It’s something you have to get past to go on to the next thing. For some people, that’s exactly what [getting a tattoo] is.”

Miller drew from his personal and professional life when coming up with the name. However, a clever moniker associated with life experience wasn’t the reason Miller wanted to open his own shop. Being in the tattoo business for as long as he had gave Miller a sense of perspective.

“In most cities that you go to…you know there’s that one highly reputable shop that you just know you’re going to get a good tattoo out of and Kent doesn’t have one. I believe Kent deserves a high-end shop,” Miller said. “I’m trying hard to make this a high-end shop. High quality work, good atmosphere, knowledgeable artists. I think that’s important.”

Miller’s silent partner, Dunbar, has only been in the business for about a year and a half and is still learning from Miller. Something he said that was different about working with Miller as opposed to other shops is Miller’s focus on the client and the personal touch.

“There’s private rooms here; most shops are wide open,” Dunbar said. “It’s real personal here, it’s real personal. It’s more of a professional custom shop. We don’t really have flash.”

Flash art is designed for mass production and is put in binders or on the wall to give customers ideas for tattoos. Shops that deal in large amounts of generic tattoos are street shops, Miller said.

Unlike Crucible Tattoo, Miller said that street shops are mainly concerned with getting customers in and out.  He described street shops as places in which a customer might walk in, pull art off of the wall, get a tattoo, pay and then walk out without ever making any kind of a connection with the artist.

“[Crucible] exists because I think they’ve done it wrong, Miller said. “I think that it’s not about the money. It’s about the client experience and about the art.”

In contrast to street shops, Miller said that he spends more time with his clients in consultation, especially because he specializes in large-scale tattoos. The consultations and then actual tattoo work can require multiple sessions and hours of time with a client.

“It’s not unheard of for me to just sit around on the couch and talk about pictures and ideas with somebody for an hour or more. I give them 20 questions to figure out what I can do to give them the best tattoo they want because I’m trying to do large-scale pieces. Those tattoos require a lot of planning,” Miller said.

Even though Miller said that he works hard to provide quality customer service experiences, he will be the first to admit that he may not be the right artist for every person.  Tattoo artists, similar to other art professions, often specialize in particular styles – which may not be one size fits all.

“I tell people all the time that I’m not the right guy for the tattoo you want. There are some things that I don’t do or prefer to do. I won’t just put anything on anybody,” Miller said. “What’s usually a good idea is to view somebody’s portfolio, ask a bunch of questions, and make sure the person you’re about to let tattoo you is qualified for the job that you want. And make sure it’s a job that person wants to do.”

Unlike professions like cosmetology, tattoo artists have no formal education requirements for licensure in most states other than certification for bloodborne pathogens training.  In fact, most institutions of higher learning do not offer courses that necessarily work well for the tattoo world. Miller, a current student at Kent State University, originally wanted to pursue an art education major and then changed his mind.

“I was having a hard time. I’ve been an artist my whole life. Formal art and what I do – there is a serious conflict.  Tracing is super bad in the formal art world, but it is incredibly necessary here,” Miller said. “I had real problems with it because I have done this for so long. It was really hard to be critiqued by 18-year-olds who have never sold any art and I just figured I’ve always done this so why am I paying money for something I already know how to do?”

Even though formal art courses did not offer Miller what he wanted, he has continued to pursue his education. Currently, he is interested in and has taken courses in philosophy, physics and geology.

“My education at this point is kind of my own personal journey. I already do what I want for a living,” Miller said. “It’s got to be like a personal journey; it’s got to be for the self or nothing. I’ve never cared what anyone else thought.”

Part of Miller’s journey right now is bringing up others into the business.  He said that he hopes to train three apprentices in house and then eventually bring in three artists from the outside.

Miller’s newest apprentice is former commercial graphic designer and ex-military member Joe Burger. Burger hunted around and visited several tattoo shops before he decided on Crucible Tattoo for his apprenticeship.

Miller uses red ink to fill the inside of the design.  (photo by Jill Ocone)

Miller uses red ink to fill the inside of the design. (photo by Jill Ocone)

“Anybody’s going to take your money to apprentice you. If you are going to get a good apprenticeship or not, that’s the question.  I wanted to see the shop; I wanted to see the guy who I was apprenticing under,” Burger said.  “I wanted to see what his expectations were of me; I wanted to see what the apprenticeship would be like.”

Part of the reason Burger chose Crucible was because of the shop itself. Crucible is located in a converted residence with a living room like waiting room, and separate rooms for tattooing and piercing.

“I liked how big it was. I liked how clean it was. This was the cleanest shop I had ever been in. I liked all the individual unfilled rooms,” Burger said. “I have never seen a shop that had eight rooms for artists. Hopefully, there will be a spot for me.”

On the other side of the apprenticeship, the master also had to make a decision to take Burger on. Burger said that he thought Miller was skeptical at first.

“It’s a lot of faith. A lot of this is like snake charmer voodoo. These guys all have tricks that they don’t want to teach anybody, so for him to bring me in is like faith. But it’s worked out,” Burger said.

With only a month under his belt, Burger said that he noticed something unique about the tattoo business – he only sees younger tattoo artists.

“I always wondered why I never saw any old tattoo artists. Where do they go? What are they doing? Why do they burn out so fast? The goal for all of these guys is to get a crew around them, get an income, and get out of dodge,” Burger said.

In some ways, Miller is similar. His desire to take on apprentices and other artists at Crucible isn’t entirely because he loves the business. Miller said that one day he hopes the business will be self-sufficient so that he can go out and do other things, such as travel and do humanitarian work.

“I find that I’ve always had the life that I’ve wanted and some of that might have been privileged so it just feels right giving back,” Miller said. “At some point in my life I will do some good back. With a business it makes it easier to do something like that. I’m only going to get one life, this is it, and I want to live it,” Miller said.