Ink Master Winner (Season 2): Steve Tefft


How did your journey to become the Ink Master begin?

Sort of in the wrong way. When I was a kid I would draw tattoos, and I saw in the back of a tattoo magazine that you could buy a kit. I told my friend, “Dude, if you buy me that I’ll tattoo you.” He did and I did, and then I spent a couple of years scratching. My friends still have those tattoos.

When did you start tattooing in a shop?

Twenty years ago I went to a shop in Groton [CT] and this nice biker guy apprenticed me in how to work a tattoo machine, but he wasn’t really an artist. I started to get work from my favorite tattoo artists and I would ask them about the trade, and little by little over 20 years I’ve learned. I should have gotten an apprenticeship and not wasted those years fucking around.

What tattoo artists did you go to?

Paul Booth did two on me. Mike Rubendall, Eric Merrill, Tom Berg—who did the back in Red Dragon—Liorcifer, and Shane O’Neill.

You have a piece by Shane, the first Ink Master?

It was way before. He did two pieces on me at the Philadelphia convention. I gravitate to the people who do my style.

Whose work are you impressed with at the moment?

Jeff Gogue is just on another level. I also like the European style of Victor Portugal, with all his different dimensions and shadows. But to me Paul [Booth] is still the guy.

What did you think of the talent of your Ink Master competitors?

The first episode, when I got out of the van and there was a midget, this dude with the red streak in his hair, and the mohawk guy. I said to myself, Man, this is a fucking circus, this is so not about tattoo integrity. And then I started seeing the work and I thought, No bullshit, these guys are good. At 43 I was the oldest guy on the show where half the people were kids. Nick was 21 but I wasn’t doing what he was doing at 21. Now these kids are jumping out of art school and blowing people away.

You seemed pretty confident throughout the taping.

Honestly, I know you have to be good and be a little lucky, so I shot for top eight or top five. I thought, Fuck, Jesse Smith is going to win anyway, so I’m just going to do my thing and I’ll go home when I go home. Once [Smith] went home I yelled at him. I said, “You fucker, now I have a shot at winning this thing and now I have to work under pressure.”

What was the hardest part of the competition?

Your biggest worry throughout the whole thing is, Can you finish? Because they keep telling us not to do big tattoos, but you think that’s bullshit because we have six hours. Guys like Lalo Yunda had a tough time getting comfortable. You are out of your element and they keep throwing curveballs. [Yunda] does sick work but had to go home early. Also, I couldn’t figure out the judges. They told us to stop doing the same shit and step out of our boxes, but when I did two tattoos out of my style I got reamed because “it don’t look like you did ’em.” It’s like having a girlfriend … I have no idea what they want half the time.

Who was your top five?

Jesse Smith, Sarah Miller, Clint Cummings, Jamie Davies, and Lalo Yunda.

But the fans voted back Tatu Baby…

When I heard that I asked her why she would go back. She’s not going to win it; she is not well-rounded enough. The judges are going to expect a lot out of her because she knows the way the game is played and there will be a lot of pressure on her because everybody loves her and expects her to win.

Did you think Smith was going to be voted back?

I know personalities work on TV so I thought it would be Clint.

Were you apprehensive about how you would be received?

I am kind of mouthy and opinionated so I wasn’t worried at all.

Your colorful shirts were a point of conversation.

One guy in the live finale’s audience asked me, “Why do you wear those shirts?” I told him that I don’t wear them for him, I wear them for his girlfriend. I’m not here to impress dudes. I can do that through tattooing. When I tattoo I don’t use a lot of color, I do black-and-gray and nasty and dirty images, but for some reason I like fashion. I am into super-crazy shirts and I wear purple socks and white shoes. Somebody called me the devil that wears Prada—those shirts are from Robert Graham. With two million people watching the finale I should call that motherfucker and tell him to give me some shirts. Or maybe I’ll do my own line.

Miller’s appearance in the finale was also striking.

[When I first saw her] I turned to her and said, “Bitch, I just lost $100,000 to a fucking dress! Are you kidding me? Navarro is going to be drooling all over you.”

But piece-against-piece, you got the title. What do you do now?

I can do the stuff I really want to do and be creative all the time. I still have a street shop but my appointments have been filling up enough that I can only work on custom pieces. I want to be inspired to do spectacular art and not just tattoo a cross with your mother’s name on it. Winning the title is a double-edged sword in that people are really going to start looking at my stuff and say, “This guy is the Ink Master?”

So you can’t relax. Every piece is going up on the web with the tag, “I got tattooed by the Ink Master.” I’m bringing my schedule down to four days a week so that on the fifth day I can sit around and design tattoos and make them all sick.

Does your head feel any bigger?

No, but I do feel touched. I’m going to spend some time traveling around to tattoo and meet the people through- out the country who supported me. It is already an amazing thing that someone will give you their skin, but to know that people also rooted for me—I’m so thankful.

Did you ever think you’d have this kind of fame?

I remember when I started 20 years ago everybody thought I was a scumbag because I was a tattooer, and now some people want my autograph or one of my tattoos.

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