Tattooing is an art form, and no one knows the ins and outs better than Chris Núñez. Between his stints on "Miami Ink" and "Ink Master," he’s become synonymous with ink excellence. And even with three decades of work under his belt, the Florida native still spoke with a sparkle discussing his latest artistic endeavor in an exclusive interview with Nicki Swift.
Color Collab, a new digital coloring book app available for Android and iPhone users, was the brainchild of Núñez and a friend whom he met — where else? — at a tattoo parlor. The app seeks to bring the "universal activity" of color to "amateurs" and "seasoned professional artists," as Núñez notes on Color Collab’s website, while also gamifying the experience by letting budding artists go head-to-head with each other and collaborate with legendary artists like himself.
Even though "Ink Master" was canceled and production on its live finale was shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Núñez couldn’t be in better spirits. Not only did he use his time in quarantine to launch an app, but he’s refined his perspective on life and his platform, as well. Between creating a blueprint for artists to monetize their work after going through many "bad deals" himself, to using his TV earnings to finance productions, Núñez has been busy. And while he’s excited for fans to see his new work on screen, he also "can’t wait" to get back behind the needle.
Chris Núñez’s newest endeavor is four years in the making
First off, I just wanted to ask how pandemic life is treating you. How have you been?
Man, you know what? Aside from everything that I think we’ve seen globally happen, and all of the different people that have been affected that way, staying busy through the pandemic was clutch for me. And I think was clutch for our group. We basically forged the app [Color Collab] that we’re talking about today through the pandemic, through all of us having trials and tribulations, family members [getting] sick, all kinds of things happening. But having work was definitely one of the strongest upticks through the pandemic for me.
How did this app start? Just through conversations during quarantine?
No, so [Color Collab] was a friendship in progress, basically, over damn, probably four years, a little more than four years. [Co-founder Tobias Sherman] and I met at my tattoo shop. He came in to get a tattoo. He had actually already been tattooed by Ami [James] from "Miami Ink," had a koi with water, of course, on the inside of his arm, and then came to me and really wanted to get something. And I ended up doing a big tiger on him. And it led us through about three sessions. He ended up getting a huge dragon on the top of his shoulder from [Chris] Garver. So he had the trio, the boys’ trio sleeve.
And we became really good friends, and we started like that. Then we went and caught lunch together. And next thing you know, we were at each other’s families’ holidays, snowboarding trips together, and probably about a year and a half ago, he had introduced me to [co-founder] Simon [Abitbol] as well in that time.
He and Simon were big proponents of ELEAGUE and that was really their work … Simon was an amazing developer and Toby was heavily invested in tech. And we were always talking about different ways that we could do things where I could work art into gaming. So over the course of time, we kind of went down a road of becoming friends … and finally coming up on something based out of the fact that I was a judge on a competition show.
So, because I was a judge on a competition show, why not? Since we have guests artists that we had always spawned and brought on as kind of other authorities throughout the show throughout seasons, why not do something with all of my close friends, bringing them on to this platform where we could create revenue for our artists or [they] could be showcased — featured, huge exposure for them. They would be able to promote and do everything that they wanted from the back of our house, for their art, for their projects, which we never would take a dime. We built something because I was an artist and I got so many bad deals. We collaboratively built something that we could give back to our artists that would be amazing. And then we decided to gamify it by creating this competitive component.
After 30 years of tattooing, Chris Núñez was ready to foster ‘creation and collaboration’
I know you curated the app’s premier partners. How did you decide on who to feature, or was it just people who you had met through the show and stayed in contact with?
Well, this is my 30-year anniversary being a tattooer.
Right, so I actually did that for a really long time. And still actually do. So, being that I’m a tattooer, being that I’ve traveled the world tattooing and learned my craft being on airplanes more than being stationed in one particular city or shop, I have all these great friends. And really these are the people that were inspirations to me throughout my career for different stylistic reasons, for different composition reasons, for all different artistic reasons that I always was like, "Wow, that was really cool the way they did this or they did this. I need to try to incorporate that into my style because I’m lacking here."
So for me, they were all friends, but [also] teachers. It was all people that I looked up [to that weren’t famous]. I felt like those were the authentic people to give back [to]. We really didn’t go after so much the cliché TV personality type thing. I went after the heart and soul or heartbeat, to me, of what I love about tattooing. And that’s real tattooers that are on the grind.
Yeah, you get to use some of that shine you have from being on reality TV to highlight these people who you met along the way. I was also wondering if you could take me through a bit on the user experience of Color Collab. What does it look like when a budding young artist loads it up?
So Simon built us such a robust platform and again, built it through the pandemic in such a relatively short amount of time, with all of our very small staff that we have, everybody’s Zooming back and forth, nobody together. Simon came up with something that, for me, the first time he gave it to me to use it, I couldn’t believe it. I was blown away. I sat on it for five hours. You know what I mean? Because you always hear, "Hey, we’re going to do this and we’re going to do that," but then when you have something in your hands that’s real for an artist especially, we have a lot of things come our way, but never come to fruition. And this thing was a real thing in my hand, I was completely taken back.
When you get on the app and you can open it up, you have your different tools, which you can select. You can select your different paints. You can paint either per cell or you can actually go in with an iPencil or an iPen and your tool and you can actually shape, you can blend colors. You can stipple shade, you can dye, you can fade out, you can use what almost looks like spray paint. You can get lost. So the beauty of what it is that Simon built through all of our conversations is now we get to watch our replays on the app.
Seeing what other people do with our app is what really blows my mind. And I think what really gives our company gas, because, yeah man, people are really getting after it and using it and doing things that I didn’t expect. And that’s the whole beauty of creation and collaboration. And that’s what this has been, truly.
Quarantine has been a ‘renaissance’ for creatives like Chris Núñez
I think it’s coming at a really great time too, because a lot of people have turned to art as a form of self-care during these times. Has coloring or art been a useful tool for you during these times besides getting this app together?
Yeah, because for me, I’ve been looking at, what I would say [is] the last five years for me has really been an uptick in art. And it’s been kind of this kind of reemerging explosion, because when I was a kid, I grew up in the graffiti world. I’m talking like a real kid, like eight years old till I was 18. Then at 18, I started tattooing and I took everything and all my energy and put it into that, because it was so difficult at the time to kind of grasp that I’m tattooing people’s skin. So I took that really serious and put everything into it. But to your point, being able to see what happened over the course of the pandemic for me, it’s a total — it’s a renaissance because we saw amazing music. We saw writing, we saw screenplays, we see art, we see this whole tech world diving into this NFT market. We see everything exploding, but anybody who took the time to create is reaping the fruit of their creation now, right? Because you’re seeing so many opportunities emerge and I think the artists are now, through what has happened and through all their hard work and through tech, are finally going to get a fair shake on heart.
Chris Núñez is planning a return to reality TV
So I know Color Collab isn’t the only thing you’ve been busy working on. I was wondering if you could give us any hints about the other projects you have in the works.
As far as Color Collab goes, I will tell you, we have some amazing contests coming up very shortly like in the next couple of weeks. And we will be dropping NFTs and we are actually going to do for the first ever launch … a collab between whoever wins the coloring collaboration on our contest, I’m going to take their art, I’m going to embellish their art, actually their physical piece of paper and then we’re going to create an NFT that we’re going to present back to them that’s theirs. We have some really exciting NFT launches, our partner artists and my friends. We are going into other genres of art quickly and emerging into the things that we really are attracted to, which is cultural, a lot of murals and street art, a lot of graffiti. So that’s a huge next step in the plan that we are working on currently.
We’re in development. From my time at "Ink Master," I got to learn a ton about how the back of the house operates, and I’m so grateful for the time that I spent there, because now I can executive produce. So I actually, during the pandemic oddly enough, was part of a Netflix project. And I’m executive producer back of the house on a show called "Tattoo Re-Do."
It was actually with one of my old bosses that was a head of a network that left, and we were talking. So I always stayed really cool with all my coworkers and everything, we were talking and we got out there and we produced the show and I cast it with my friends. So the majority, everybody that’s a tattooer on there, is an old friend of mine. It was really great to kind of put the light on other people and step back and just watch it all come to fruition. And that leads us to "Tastemakers," which is a show that we have in development now that we’ll start shooting next month for [Color] Collab, which really revolves around Toby and I’s friendship, because Toby is the tech guy and I’m the art guy. So we’re going to take each other on these adventures to meet and see these different things that play and sometimes fuse them together.
It seems like you’ve been definitely busy outside of the app as well. "Tattoo Re-Do," I assume the name kind of says it all when it comes to the premise of it.
Yeah … it’ll release on Netflix. We don’t have a tentative date, but we’re looking at somewhere in the next two months. So we just haven’t received our final date from Netflix, but … it’ll be six episodes out of the gate and yeah, it should be really fun. I’m excited to see how people receive it.
I’m sure to approach unscripted television from a different angle was super exciting and interesting too.
It’s definitely a different take. You sit in the back of the house. It’s a different world.
This is how Ink Master prepared Chris Núñez for the next phase of his career
So we had to say goodbye to "Ink Master" over the pandemic. I was wondering what it was like closing that chapter and saying goodbye to the show around this time last year?
You know what it was really, I think it was something that when I reflect on everything that happened in the course of really what we saw happen in the United States and, again, globally over the course of time, that was just a small glimpse. Nothing’s gone until it’s dead. So, you never know what’s in the future. You never know what there could be. And in the meantime, I have heard whispers that they’re bringing something back or whatever, and I wish them all the luck in the world. I stayed busy as I could. And I got my head down and I’m focusing on all of the positive and you know, I’m really excited about Collab.
Coming off a show like "Ink Master," do you feel it’s kind of prepared you for this next step in your career as an entrepreneur and an arts advocate in any different ways?
Absolutely. Over the course of the last three years I’ve been in and out of the Amazon quite a bit, and I’ve been living over there with two different tribes and I’ve been shooting a documentary with them that’s all based on them. It is not a docuseries hosted by me. It is not any of those things. It was my passion, and a big portion of the money that I made on "Ink Master" fueled me to go and shoot something that I believe in with all my heart. So I chased down this project and in the meantime, keep finding ways to do charitable things and bring things back to the Amazon, back to the community, all through art. So, we will be hosting [and working with] three tribes. We’re bringing them into Collab and doing capsules for them where the proceeds all go back to them. So we are an art-driven community; we are not an opportunistic community when it comes to the world that we’re delving into.
It definitely seems like you’ve taken this fame you’ve gotten from the show and really are finding great ways to give back to not just art, but to communities as well with that platform. It sounds like we’re going to see you reunite with some friends on some of your upcoming projects. Do you still keep in touch with Kat Von D or anyone from "Ink Master" or "Miami Ink?"
Yeah. So my "Miami Ink" guys, we’re all still super cool. [Chris] Garver’s actually part of the new project. Chris and I, we stayed really close throughout the time. Ami and I are cool, Darren [Brass] and I are cool. Like all of us, obviously it was a huge tragedy with [Yoji Harada who passed away in 2019]. That was a heartbreak and a half that we all got dealt. But I keep cool with everybody, man. I’m all about the worst situation could come in front of me and I’ll find the positive out of it, you know? I’ll pivot and find a way, everything’s a teachable moment and that’s how we try to approach life.
Chris Núñez’s passion for tattoos has not changed
Now that you’re 30 years into the ink world, do you still find yourself giving a lot of tattoos or has the art or the actual physical process of it changed at all for you?
Well, no, actually through the pandemic, obviously we were completely stifled. So the creation of Collab kept those juices flowing for me. And now … there’s an excitement to it. I have an appointment coming up next week and oddly enough, I can’t wait for next week.
So, when I tattoo, it’s the thing. That’s why I think the Collab experience for users is a lot like my experience with my clients. It’s a way when I sit down and I actually, if I’m tattooing you, I forget everything going on in my life and what I’m doing is my focus. … Over 30 years I’ve had a few arguments with girlfriends or a few bumps in the road or whatever, you know what I mean? And you get to work and it’s like, you think your whole world’s caving in and you put your head down and start tattooing and it just, it’s gone. It’s gone. And throughout that four hours that I’ll spend on that client, I’ll do 40 hours of work on myself and I stand up and it’s like, I feel great again. You know what I mean? It’s cool. It’s all: "Everything’s going to work out. There’s no problem." And I hope that’s what the app does for a lot of people.
It’s funny, I actually got my first tattoo just a few months ago. My artist had been doing it for about 20 years himself and it was just like a really meditative chill vibe. And I was like, "I get this. Why did I wait this long to get into this?"
That’s the beginning.
Tattooing has made all the difference in Chris Núñez’s life
Do you have any wild or interesting stories from your years of tattooing celebrities and clients?
Rather than one instance, what I would tell you is that there’s a magic that occurs in a tattoo shop. And it’s that you’ll have a gangster sitting across from a detective sitting across from this walk of life and that person … You’ll have this dichotomy where, especially tattooing in Miami, tattooing in New York, tattooing in LA, tattooing on the coast like that, you have such an amazing dichotomy of people and characters and everything that comes in. Every day in the shop was a surprise. And to relive any one moment, for me after 30 years, it’s an impossibility. Tattooing’s given me my culture, my life, my taste, my languages. It’s forced me to learn Portuguese before I ever started down the road of the Amazon.
I spoke Spanish, I spoke English, I got to learn a little Italian. I picked up a little French, you know what I mean? I got to do it in every city because I had a craft that I could put into a box this big, jump on an airplane and go. And that kind of escapism gave me so much culture and so much freedom to interpret and see the world through different eyes, because you see the world through the eyes of every country you’ve been to that I can’t say enough about what it did for me.
Definitely. Do you have anything else to add about Color Collab or anything I might not have asked?
I’d just like to say that we have different versions for it. We have Android, we have Apple, and if somebody does get it and they put it on their iPad, pick up your pencil and get in there and you will get lost for hours and hours. When you have a pencil in there, you can do so much on your iPad that it really turns into a whole other world. And we have so many updates and features coming. We have pens for every artist. We have different tools and we are dropping a huge IP collaboration here also in a few weeks, which I can’t tell you what it is, but it’s a huge one.