Ask premier tattoo artist Corey Miller how he got into the tattoo business, and he will probably tell you it was “by hanging around the wrong people.” And if you have a sense of humor and you get it, he may tell you the real story.
In 1982, a fifteen-year-old Corey Miller was playing drums in a punk rock band and he decided he needed a tattoo. So he carved out his first tattoo on himself using a needle with thread wrapped around it. This inspired Corey to build his own tattooing machine, which consisted of a fish tank pump motor, a bent toothbrush, the tip of a Bic pen, and some guitar string as a needle. He used to carry his homemade contraption around in a Vans shoe box with a bottle of Pelican ink.
By 1983, Corey ventured out to Hollywood and found himself at the first real tattoo parlor he had ever set foot in, Spotlight Tattoo, run by the venerable Bob Roberts. Spotlight Tattoo was the hardest punk rock tattoo shop in Hollywood, and Corey was intrigued by the hand-drawn skulls and other aggressive designs on the walls. And the technology they used impressed him. He knew his days of slinging tattoos out of a shoe box were numbered and that he would soon be hammering out ink with one of the strong machines they were using at Spotlight.
A year later, Corey went to Franco’s, the local tattoo parlor in Ontario, California. Franco was a 360-pound Sicilian with gold teeth, a Mohawk, and a .357 magnum slung in a shoulder harness. Corey and his buddies would go to Franco’s after school to drink beers and do whatever else they wanted to do. By summertime, Corey was drawing designs and taking out the trash at the shop, and Franco and the boys started calling him the shop hand. Franco’s soon closed after what Corey describes as some “pretty insane nights of fights, drunkenness, gunfire, arrests, and tattooing,” but not before Franco sold Corey what he thought was a broken tattoo machine that turned out to work just fine.
Things changed for Corey in 1987 — on the night he met tattoo artist Mark Mahoney at a house party. Mahoney was performing his handiwork on some partygoers, and after watching him work, Corey realized there was a whole other level to the tattoo game. He started hanging out at the shop where Mahoney worked. The shop was called Fat George’s Tattoo Gallery, and it was located in a tough neighborhood in La Puente, California. Over time, Corey started hitting Fat George up for a job as a tattoo artist. At long last, Fat George gave Corey his big break. Mahoney was making plans to open a new shop out in Los Angeles, and that meant that a chair was opening up. All of a sudden, Corey Miller had his first real job inking tattoos.
Corey turned twenty-one at Fat George’s in 1987, and as a young man in a gang-related neighborhood, the busy tattoo parlor just may have saved his life. While his friends were getting busted for anything from drunk driving to serious felonies, Corey was busy in the safe haven of the shop inking up to ten tattoos a day. Then another turning point came for Corey Miller in 1989 on the day Dick Warsocki walked into the shop.
Warsocki was known for his beautiful Native American fine-line tattoos. When Warsocki walked into Fat George’s that day he saw Corey, who just happened to be hammering out an amazing Indian Head tattoo on a customer’s back. Warsocki complimented him on the design, told Corey he was headed to New Orleans for a tattoo convention, and asked if Corey wanted to go along and crash on his hotel floor. Corey took him up on the offer, and at the convention in New Orleans, Corey found a whole new realm of tattoo artistry.
He met famed artists such as Guy Atchison and Eddie Deutsche. They tattooed with a style that Corey says had “absolutely no boundaries” and that was “limited only to imagination.” Corey also met one of his closest friends at the convention, Suzanne Fauser. The trip was the beginning of his annual voyages to Ann Arbor, Michigan, over the next twelve years. In fact, his career would take Corey Miller all over the United States, from Los Angeles to New York to Hawaii, and to a host of worldwide destinations such as Canada, France, Amsterdam, and Japan. He would eventually become one of the most sought-after purveyors of ink in modern times.
But let’s get back to our story. It was 1989, and upon his return from that first tattoo convention in New Orleans, Corey got a break from the one and only Jack Rudy, who gave him a job at Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland in Anaheim, California. Good Time Charlie’s was an institution in the tattoo world. Artists such as Mark Mahoney, Freddy Negrete, and Dick Warsocki had previously worked at Good Time Charlie’s, and it was there that Corey got the chance to work with Jack Rudy and Mike Brown—artists whom Corey collectively refers to as “the Kings of Black and Grey.” Corey considers himself fortunate to have learned some important technical skills from Brown and to have seen masterpieces created by the hand of Jack Rudy, his friend and mentor.
In 1991, Corey Miller and two business partners opened Optic Overdrive, the first tattoo shop in Upland, California. The shop lasted about two years and, in addition to drilling some amazing tattoos, also hosted an unforgettable shootout on the front porch. Unfortunately, Corey soon had to throw one of his partners out, and the other took an extended vacation as a guest of the State. Soon, Corey was back to traveling and, when at home, tattooing in his basement. It was in that dank, underground dungeon that the name “Six Feet Under” was born. Within three years, and after tattooing out of the back of a barbershop, Corey opened his own tattoo parlor, complete with a staff of two artists—himself and Henry Powell. Then on April Fools Day in 1997, Corey Miller opened up shop in his own building in downtown Upland, and that is where the Six Feet Under Tattoo Parlor is today.
Looking back on his formative years, Corey feels lucky to have experienced the best and the worst of the tattoo business. He never had a formal apprenticeship, as many tattoo artists do, but instead got his education by “going on my own and falling on my face and doing it all again on my own terms.”
His career has run the gamut from the street shop of Fat George’s to the “Kustom Klass” of Good Time Charlie’s Tattooland, and everywhere in between.
For Corey, a couple of the highlights of his career include being sought out by two incredible artists. The first was when he tattooed James Hetfield of Metallica and designed a dragon for Hetfield’s Gibson Les Paul guitar. The second highlight was when custom motorcycle artist Jesse James asked him to tattoo the $100 bill on James’s back.
But every tattoo Corey Miller designs, whether for customers famous or unknown, is itself a unique and timeless work of art. In addition, he continues to break new ground by engineering cutting-edge tattooing tools. He has seen a lot of changes during his more than twenty years’ experience in the business, and looking into the next millennium, the sky is the limit for Corey Miller and his house of original tattoo design, the Six Feet Under Tattoo Parlor.