A Brief Discourse on Ink

Tattooing has a long history with chapters written in places as diverse as the South Pacific, the Middle East, and North America. The style and placement of the illustration has always been significant to the culture, but now in the 21st Century in the US the importance of the symbolism behind the tattoo has begun to slip a bit. Even as late as the 1980s having a tattoo was a sign of a rebellious nature, now it is a sign you had some spare cash. Full disclosure, I have seven tattoos, one on each deltoid, five across the shoulders, and I’m always thinking about getting more.

 When I first heard about the reality TV show “Ink Master” I had mixed feelings, mainly due to the nature of reality TV. Fortunately, the show, now in it’s 4th season, serves not only as a showcase for some amazingly talented tattoo artists, but it gives insight into the history and symbolism of the art and the most popular tattoos people get.

Hosted by tattoo royalty Oliver Peck (former Guinness World Record holder for Most Tattoos in s 24 Hour Period with 415), Chris Nuñez (respected owner of premier studio Hand Crafted in Miami, Florida) and rock god Dave Navarro who has been getting inked up for 25 years. The premise of the show is simple: tattoo artists from across America compete to show they have mastered the craft of the tattoo artist. They intend to prove they are an Ink Master.

To do this, each week the contestants are given two separate challenges:  the first one is to test their artistic ability, and the second is to  demonstrate their knowledge of a specific tattoo style. This means that if a client comes into their shop and asks for an American Classic, a Black and Gray, a Japanese sleeve, or one of the other major styles, the artist can do the work. And, they have to be able to do them well, to the best of their ability. A true Master Tattoo Artist, or Ink Master, can do this because the title of Ink Master isn’t something you just adopt for yourself, it has to come from your peers. Or, in this case, from the expert opinions of the three regular judges and the weekly celebrity guest judge. The best part being that the title comes with $100,000.

The competition is intense and the ego clashes don’t fail to provide the required drama that reality TV is known for. Every week the artists argue over each other’s work and who should have gotten voted out. And this is not manufactured TV drama, these are real professional artists who have been working for a decade or more. The ego level is to be expected, although some crack under the pressure far more easily than others.

Season one only had ten artists, eight males and two females and only lasted eight weeks. Due to the popularity of the show, however, it has grown to thirteen episodes per season with sixteen artists competing. The finale is a live episode where all of the artists and human canvasses return and highlights of the season are reviewed.


                                                                                     13 Tattoo Styles


American Classic:  Siimple designs incorporating skulls, daggers, roses, eagles, anchors, and combinations of these done in 4 colors with heavy black outlines.


Japanese:  Soft, simple designs with bold colors. Koi, Samurai, Geisha, and Oni masks are all traditional motifs.


Tribal:  Polynesian and African mainly. Characterized by bold, curving designs that often narrow to a sharp point. Often rendered in green or black.


New School:  Big, bold, cartoony designs with loud colors. Any subject matter can be rendered in New School, although the effects achieved may not be as significant as in other styles.


Black and Grey:  Developed in the Los Angeles prison system this style was developed by Latinos who would make ink out of whatever they could (the Bible, usually since it was easy to access and didn’t arouse suspicion) then they would water the ink down to different shades of black and grey. This allowed them to achieve new depths and perspectives that other styles couldn’t match.


Portrait:  Photo-realistic artwork is one of the greatest tests of an artist’s ability. To be able to reproduce an image on human skin that you see in a photo takes a lot of practice and discipline.


Celtic:  Tight, interlocking knotwork sometimes accompanied by floral designs. Crosses, triskelions, triangles figure prominently in this school.


Anatomical:  Authentically reproduced illustrations of bones, organs, and arteries.


Bio-Mechanical:  Skin-rip tattoos that reveal gears, cogs, and steel rods beneath the skin.


Horror:  Dark, grisly tattoos featuring realistic Grim Reapers, skulls, demons, and zombies. Often done in combinations of black and green, red, or grey.


Dios de la Muerté:  Tattoos inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead festival this style features sugar skulls, masked women, and dancing skeletons.


Animal:  Real or imaginary, land or air. The ability to outline feathers, scales, and teeth is an integral ability.


Pin-Up:  Sexy girls in skimpy outfits. Can be of any time period, but common themes include dominatrix, Betty Page, and sexy nurse/soldier/demon.


Tomorrow I’ll start posting the episode recaps. Some will be longer than others, depending on whether or not I feel like going into detail about the quality of the work, singling out different tattoos for special discussion, etc.

The Virgin Canvas

So, last night Spike TV rewarded us by re-assembling the judges of Ink Master (Chris  Núñez, Oliver Peck, and Dave Navarro) and sixteen tattoo artists who think they have what it takes to be called Ink Master. This year, there will be a fourth judge:  America. Through the magic of the Internets the viewers will now have a say in the judging of the Elimination tattoo and the final tattoo on the live finale,

This year Spike decided to give us some more flamboyant TV-ready personalities, and let me tell you, they certainly found some good ones. Safe ones, as well. The tattoo community was at one time a haven for the demented and their influence remains strong. We can have Characters on this show, but we’re not interested in thugs and killers.

Starting things off, they had all of the artists meet at a city morgue, a clear test of one’s ability to ignore their surroundings and concentrate on their work. Fortunately the artists will not have to perform their work on cadavers, which was one method apprentices used to use, according to Dave Navarro. No, this is the 21sc Century, and the artists were each assigned silicone limbs and three hours to introduce themselves by showing their renderings of a snake and dagger.

Tatu Baby – She came to represent the Feminist cause and prove that female tattoo artists are just as good as men. Her first effort is a funky New Skool piece that looked really good.

Lalo Yunda – This European-born artist calls his style “Magical Realism” and he does have tremendous skill. His snake was a colorful piece, nothing unusual.

Kay Kutta –  A man who learned to tattoo in prison, he has only been doing this for three years, his first tattoo kind of shows it. He then drives the point home with his Elimination tattoo, causing Chris to comment that it is obvious Kay is new at this. Be interesting to see how far he goes.

Cee Jay Jones –  brash and arrogant, she is shown giving a dismissive opinion of the assignment, then humiliates herself in her first five minutes of the challenge by spraying ink all over her face. Then she compounds it by turning in a shitty tattoo leaving herself looking like a clown.

Clint Cummings – tattooed, pierced, and Mohawked Clint is a straight-talking clown who can lay down some serious ink.  Claiming two decades an ethic that says he must be able to do any style, he will last for a bit or flame out quickly. His snake might have been a bit too dragonish, but the rest of the work was still impressive enough to warrant comment.

Steve Tefft – A devotee of the Black and Gray in particular and Macabre/Horror tattoos in general, this guy has talent. His tattoo was brilliant compared to most of what we saw this episode.

Sarah Miller – Not a perfect piece, but it was still pretty damn good. If she had used more black for the outlines, she might have taken it.

Sebastian Murphy – A well-rounded tattoo artist, he delivers a solid Black and Gray piece with just enough red to set it off.

Jamie Davies – he looks less like a tattoo artist than he does a banker or a computer tech support guy.  His first tattoo doesn’t do much to dispel that impression since the snake has a dinosaur head.

Jesse Smith – Developed his own brand of New Skool tattoos and has made it his sole focus. This is going to challenge him, because this is season 2, the contestants know what is expected of them. His snake still incorporates his patented big eyes and teeth theme, so let’s see if he can refrain from that. Still, it was good for a win.

Jesse Smith Snake-and-Dagger-Tattoo

Mark Mathews – Big, tough-looking cat who is not only a tattoo artist, but a mixed martial artists as well. I’m sure there is no possible way these two careers are not perfectly matched. Normally working Black and Gray, he has begun Japanese as well. His first tattoo looks like a cover-up, and according to Oliver, a mediocre one at that.

Tray Benham – His snake was bisected by the dagger, but wasn’t bleeding. The result was as if two separate snakes were wrapped around the blade, the top of one and the bottom of the other.

Nick D’Angelo – 22 years old and competing for the title of Ink Master is a bold move. Unfortunately, his first effort is a completely lack-luster piece that shows a lack of understanding of the task, if you ask me. He tried to put a creative spin on a classic design and completely missed the mark.

Ron Givens – Another New Skool artist, he delivered an over-sized and ultimately lack-luster effort.

Mike Tacj – A 14 year tattoo veteran, he is also the first Little Person on the show. His snake looks more like a dragon, and the judges are not impressed.

TJ Hal – a war veteran known for his New Skool designs. Nice clean, bright tattoo…with no real detailing on anything, though.


Elimination Tattoo

Everyone must work with a Tattoo Virgin, someone who has never been inked before. And since Jesse won, he not only gets to pick his own canvas, he gets to assign the others. The fundamentals will be tested tonight, which is going to be tough for one person since some of the tattoos are just ridiculous. One of the canvasses wanted a city made of bacon, for instance. Seriously, he wants to walk around wearing that. Forever.

Behold, the Promised Land!

Tops and Bottoms

Kutta, Steve, Cee Jay, and Sebastian find themselves called down, and there is no confusion about who should be nervous. Both Steve and Sebastian delivered masterworks; the former with a sweet bio-tech tattoo, and the latter rendering a magnificent playing card of a Suicide King.

Tattoo by Sebastian Murphy

Tattoo by Steve Teft







The judges have a tough task picking one over the other in this match-up, so they don’t make the call. Another, slightly less difficult choice is made between whether they should bounce Kay Kutta or Cee Jay. He didn’t do outline on his fundamentals challenge, and she didn’t pay attention to her spelling, a critical and unforgivable error.






“I think I ruined my career” she laments as the show closes. And I think she might be right.