Ink Master: Bloodsport!

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of tattoos in general, and Spike TVs Ink Master is my favorite reality show. Artists tend to be flaky people, and tattoo artists tend to exemplify that. Considering the history of the art form it isn’t really that surprising, but I expect that will be changing in the next decade since it is becoming more common to have ink, than to be a blank canvas.


I only see 2 contenders.

I only see 2 contenders.


Flash Challenge

This season we have eight new artists, and eight returning artists. When the show began we were only introduced to the new contestants, however. And their first challenge was a three part exercise.

First they were tasked with sketching a nude model. This seems straight forward since 90% of all tattoos begin as sketches. The ability to translate what you see before you onto paper should be a fundamental aspect of the discipline. Yet, for some reason, most of these artists seemed dumbfounded by the sight of a nude woman posing for them.


Damnit, i wish I could draw.

As soon as they felt comfortable with their sketches, they moved on to stage 2 of the Flash Challenge:  assembling their tattoo machines. As we’ve seen before, this is a pet peeve of Peck and Nunez. If an artist cannot assemble their own tattoo machine, then their Master has failed them. A true craftsman should have an intimate familiarity with their tools, and those who do not rarely display the same level of skill as those who do.

Once the machines have been completed, it’s time to move on to the final stage:  translating their sketch to canvas. And rather than force a human to wear some shitty tattoo done by an artist who couldn’t complete their machine properly, the judges once again had the artists use a pig carcass.

Christian Buckingham pig tattoo

This little piggie got inked up.

It quickly became apparent that there were only going to be two artists of the eight who were going to be around very long.

ink_master_bios_011316_CHRISTIAN BUCKINGHAM

Behold greatness


Queen of the Needle









Megan Jean Morris set herself apart from the pack when they were dealing with the nude model. While everyone else was being ultra polite with the naked lady she was very much in control, unafraid to give direction so she could get the sketch she wanted.

Likewise, Christian Buckingham made himself known by being the first to assemble his tattoo machine, something he claims to have extensive experience with.

The Twist:

Now that the artists have entered the loft and see their new studio they learn that they will be joined by other artists as well. Each week a previous Ink Master contestant will return. And they will have the power to dictate the standards for the Elimination Tattoo. First up, self-professed “Tattoo God” Saint Marq, master of black-and-gray no outline tattooing.


It’s hard to be humble when you’re this awesome.

Last season Saint Marq was eliminated far too early due to a particularly strategic play by his former apprentice turned Super Mario impersonator Chris Blinston. Looking to set the pace for the new season Saint Marq set the challenge that the elimination tattoo would be done in Black and Gray with no liner, only a shader. This should have been a slam-dunk for him, and yet, this is what he turns in.

Saint Marq Ep 1

I have to agree with Ashley Velasquez, it really does look like he (she?) is wearing an umbrella.

The Human Canvas Jury decided this was the worst of the day, but I would not agree with that decision. Definitely bad, but not the absolute worst. It was a close call for him, but fortunately he was edged out by this disaster.

Worst of the Day Ep 1

The only saving grace this tattoo has is that it’s on the skull, so the lady just has to let her hair grow out to hide it.

Tattoo of the Day:

Lust by Megan Jean Morris

Lust by Megan Jean Morris

This is why I expect she is going to go further than anyone except Christian. It was a unanimous decision by the judges as well, so she is definitely going for that $100K paycheck.

Christian is making it clear that for him, this is not personal, it is all about the title. Eventually he is going to go after everyone in the Loft, and that is the only attitude that is going to win. Playing nice and giving people softballs is only cutting your own throat, as every competitor should know by now. Don’t let other people rattle you, it will only cause you to deliver bad tattoos (which is a punishment for your canvas) and will ultimately cost you, at the least, $100,000.

It’s too soon to tell how they will do against the other returning vets, but they will definitely outlast the other newcomers.

The Rise of Drama

I don’t watch Reality TV much, mainly because it’s a vapid wasteland for the most part. As in every wasteland, however, there are oasis, and this show is definitely one of them. For the past four seasons the quality of contestants has continuously risen, and the quality of the artwork as well. Unfortunately, it seems that the showrunners have decided that what this program really needed was the kind of ego-driven antics we normally see on other programs that use real people instead of actors.  So, this season they’ve decided to have rival tattoo artists prove to the viewing public who is actually the better artist.

Two of the more interesting rivalries occur between brothers (Jayvo Scott and Robbie Ripoll) and Season 3 vets Jason Clay Dunn and Josh Hibbard. As you may recall, Josh got plenty of flak for trying to win the competition by *gasp* using the rules of the game to his advantage. Specifically he would assign people difficult tattoos and/or canvasses.  Shocking, I know.

If I understand the purpose of the Ink Master competition, however, Josh was only proving who the best actually were, because an actual Master Tattoo artist doesn’t piss and moan about difficult canvasses. They do the job in front of them, and they do it the best they can. This is not to say that I’m in the Josh Hibbard fan club, but I do understand his tactics, and I respect them. He didn’t win the title in S3, but he did help winnow out the weaker elements.

And the weakest element this season is clearly LT who was so nervous he had to go vomit while his rival Ty’esha was taking her turn on their human canvas. Back in the loft he railed against the other artists for insulting his art, but Jason Clay Dunn quickly cut through the bullshit and made it clear:  only bad work gets you sent home. Not your personality, not your experience level relative to the others, not your gender or sexual preference.

First Round:  My Rival, My Partner

Each of the rival artists were paired up and assigned to design and execute a single tattoo on a willing canvas. The purpose of this, obviously, was to see who could get past their animosity and turn in excellent work. Three teams failed miserably, and their canvasses suffered for it.

LT, who claimed to specialize in Black and Gray, designed a Dios de la Muerte tattoo that just came out all kinds of wrong.


Tyesha and LT

Tyesha and LT

Dios de la Disaster

Dios de la Disaster







The judges looked at Mark and Ryan’s tattoo and came to the conclusion that they had fought a vicious war on their human canvas,

Mark and Ryan


Tiki by Mark and Ryan







And finally we had Caroline and Julia, who work in the same shop, trying to pull off a simple skull and roses tattoo that came out very poorly, even to a layman’s eye.


Olivia and Julia



Skull and Roses by Olivia and Julia








Elimination Round

After looking at the bad work the judges decided it was time to split the teams and let them go head-to-head to find out who was actually responsible for the loss in the first round. The catch, of course, was that each member got to pick the style their rival would work in. Clearly the goal here would be to eliminate your rival quickly by giving them a style they weren’t comfortable with. Caroline set Julia the task biomechanical (one of my favorites) and Julia picked Neo-Realism; Ty’esha gave LT color realism while, in a head scratching move, he picked cursive lettering for her. That is some Day One shit, and Oliver Peck was clearly surprised by the choice. Finally Mark set Ryan up for failure by assigning him Japanese, one of the most rigorous styles (and the specialty of Chris Nunez) with Ryan returning the compliment with color realism.

Winner:  LT

Lotus by LT


Winner:  Julia


Biomech by Julia

Winner:  Ryan

Hani mask by Ryan

The artist who had to go home, unfortunately, was Caroline. Her canvas wanted a skull and rose and, rather than learn from the previous day’s experience and show the judges her best work, she failed. The worst part was the same, shitty color for the skull that she did previously. In this competition, there is no room for error.

Neo Realism rose and skull by Caroline






The 3D Printed Tattoo

I recently saw a video of a 3D printer that had been modified to become an automated tattoo machine. It’s basically a MakerBot with a tattoo machine attached to it, but really this is only a prototype that serves as proof of concept.

What worries me is that as the technology advances software will become increasingly user-friendly to the point that even a child will be able to operate it. Not all tattoo artists need a Fine Arts background, but I think we can all agree that some knowledge of a Color Wheel sure does come in handy when designing a tattoo, if it has color anyway. For the ones that don’t contain color, what about things like composition? If you’ve been watching Ink Master (especially from the first episode) you learn about placement and composition. Technology will allow you to apply really well-drawn tattoos in bad areas using shitty colors except you will be able to do it in the privacy of your own home.

You can argue that digital technology has had the same impact for musicians. MIDI keyboards gave way to programs like Frooty Loops and Garageband so now people with absolutely no talent can make a song in hours.

The above is a prime example of that end of the spectrum. This young man fearlessly steps out and embraces 21st Century tech to let the world know he is unashamed of his total lack of talent at any aspect of music or music video production. He has a camera, a Macbook, and an Internet connection so by God he is going to use them!

This is the part where I start to sound like an elitist, but I don’t really care. I just happen to believe that the permanence of the tattoo process was part of the appeal. The pain was part of the experience. These things were important.

Life lessons can be learned in the idea of getting a bad tattoo. You made a mistake and how you choose to live with it tells a lot about you as a person. If you continue to wear it proudly then you are saying you don’t care about your mistakes, the opposite if you keep it covered. And if you choose to go get a new tattoo to cover it, then you are saying that you are willing to go back into the flames to recover yourself.

And if you chose to have that tattoo removed?  Holy shit you had some fucked up options to choose from:  acid, salt rubs, skin removal, or if you were feeling particularly festive, you could go for skin injections. Yeah, see as soon as they figured out how to add ink to your skin they realized they could use things like wine, vinegar, or pigeon shit. Yeah, all of those were used to remove tattoos, with results varying I’m sure.

That is important.

Now, instead of surgery to remove a tattoo we have efficient laser therapy to rid you of that unsightly tramp stamp you got because you were 22 and stupid. Instead of having to go see a newer, hopefully better, artist and once again enduring the pain of the needle to cover your mistake, you just shrug and say “Meh, I’ll just get it lasered” and move on, no lessons learned. No intellectual or emotional growth needed.

I don’t agree with that. Call me crazy, I just think that it is far better for people to take time to consider the long-term consequences of things before they do them. Not always, but occasionally, especially with regards to important, life-affecting decisions.

Tattoos have been around for thousands of years, as soon as people learned to make ink they figured out how to get it into their skin. And that shit fucking hurt, man. Here’s a video of an old-school Pacific-rim method of tattooing.

Apparently it hurts less than the modern method, but it’s still not painless. The natural instinct for most people is to avoid pain, so the more tattoos you had, the higher your pain tolerance. As the techniques were perfected the art got more elaborate and you could tell different stories without having to say a word.

Skulls, Grim Reapers, demons, unicorns, roses…these are all important symbols and each carries a significance that is readily understood by a large population. And prisons have their own language told in tattoos, so it’s a good idea for anyone in the criminal lifestyle to brush up on them. As to anyone who doubts the importance of symbolism, they have no business being in a tattoo studio if you ask me.



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.