Joey Hamilton: Meet your New Ink Master
Spike TV’s Ink Master just keeps getting better. Not only does the show celebrate great tattoos and educate the public on good and bad tattoos, it enhances the careers of tattooers deserving the renown. Past contestants such as Jime Litwalk, Tatu Baby, and Craig Foster have their appointment books slammed, but not as much as Season 3 winner, Joey Hamilton. Working out of Club Tattoo in Las Vegas, he has a lot of international clients who fly in to see him—but as soon as the show started airing, local clientele started snatching up his time.
Since the victory, Hamilton says he gets about 60 calls for appointments a day and some people are already asking about his 2016 schedule. But until then, Hamilton is work- ing on ideas for T-shirts, designing a deck of Bicycle playing cards that will be going into Walmart, planning a convention tour, and enjoying his fame. When we reached him to hear more, he was in his home state of Oklahoma, where he was going to a Thunder game “to get my face on the Jumbotron.”
INKED: What’s it feel like to win Ink Master?
JOEY HAMILTON: Surreal. I was experiencing it—not thinking about it playing out on TV—but people want to take my photograph and I realize that they watched it.
Are you sure it’s not because you’re handsome?
Well, there are a lot more people now. I’ll just say that.
Do you think you came off the way you would have liked to be portrayed?
I feel good about it and I am definitely grateful for that. I feel like I represented myself well in the series.
And are you happy with the tattoos that you did?
I was never on the bottom once to have to defend my tattoos, so I thought that was really good.
What made you want to go on the show?
I did [the TV show] Inked many years ago on A&E. I liked the little notoriety of doing something like that and I just felt like I wanted to try it again. I actually tried out for Best Ink and went really far in the process of getting picked, but at the last minute they told me that I didn’t make it. Because I prepared to do that, it was a big letdown mentally.
Wait, you wanted to be on Best Ink?
The whole reason I was trying out for Best Ink is that it is fewer people and I felt like the talent on that show wouldn’t be as high as Ink Master. I thought I would have had a better chance at winning on Best Ink but then I said, “Screw it, I’ll go for the bigger show now.”
How did you feel about competing on TV?
I was nervous because you don’t know what to expect or how it goes down. But I have had so many experiences in my life that have geared me towards doing this, like living with 16 people in one loft. I did the military and there were 20 guys in our tent.
How does Ink Master compare to convention competitions?
When we got down to the end it was like a convention, where new school is going against realism. And I have been in that situation many times in conventions. Jime [Litwalk, the runner-up] and I talked about that situation. What it boils down to is that the judges pick what they like in styles and how you are executing it. It is like a convention-style competition.
You weren’t really positioned as a type of character on the show.
Maybe I’m getting old, but the drama part is getting old. Like with Josh [Hibbard]. I like Josh as a person and I am glad that he got to show that he can actually tattoo—because a lot of the tattoos he did were horrible, like the pin-up—but at the end he was pretty proud of himself because he got the most airtime. He was running around going, “I got the most airtime!” He felt like he won in that way.
He and Jime seemed to have tension.
I really felt that Jime got misportrayed on TV. Every day he was in there helping people out. We gave Josh everything he asked for. He wanted to be the villain. I didn’t like the way he turned it to make it seem like we were bullying him, because we weren’t. He would make comments and we would respond. But people in that house knew about Jime’s character. He was kind of the big mentor in the house. But he doesn’t take shit.
You’ve worked in the same shop as Jime, so you’re friends, right?
At the very end of it I really wish Jime wasn’t there because one of us was not going to win.
Are you comfortable with your final piece being the tattoo that you are most known for?
Somewhat. I definitely would like to go into it some more because I was playing catch-up. In the last session, instead of really being able to knock it out of the park, it was more trying to make sure it didn’t look bad. I am happy that it’s the tattoo that people see. It is funny that you go to social media sites and you see people dog your work or say that somebody else’s was better. I had a 19-year-old the other day write to me, “Stop tooting your own horn and your wife looks like a tranny.” My response was: “You are 19.”
What’s your critique of Jime’s and Tatu Baby’s tattoos?
The last two tattoos that I competed against were great tattoos in their own right, but as a tattoo artist I critiqued their work and I saw stuff that was wrong and I agreed with the judges on the competition part of it. I feel like Tatu Baby’s composition wasn’t that good. But the execution of it was amazing. The same thing with Jime’s; the “battle royale” just looked like four tattoos that were put together. I put all of my tattoo on one page, I drew on one page, and I feel like that is what helped me out.
Do you think the piece best represents your style?
It is indicative of how I work with people. When she came into that room I asked her what she wanted to get. I am the type of artist to say, “When you wake up in the morning you are going to have that tattoo, not me, so get what you want.” We bounced around ideas and as soon as [the canvas] said, “Mermaid,” I said, “That’s what we’ll do.” I always feel like I can tattoo what somebody wants and turn it into my style.
It was ballsy to draw breasts for your final piece on national television.
I tried to put starfish on them, and as soon as I was doing that it seemed too cartoony. I showed [the canvas] the drawing and it took her a session to be okay with the breasts being on her leg.
The judges knocked you for not making the tattoo pop, but since you tattoo in realism, isn’t that what something underwater looks like?
I tried to explain it. Every reference I saw, the colors were washed off in the background. They are judges and that is their opinion. Just like when [Chris] Núñez was dogging my gecko tattoo, it just shows that he may not have researched to know what those geckos look like. The same with the underwater stuff—boost the contrast.
What’s it like being judged by Núñez, who is a Japanese artist, and Oliver Peck, who is an American traditional tattooer?
Oliver taught Kat Von D portraits, so he knows portraits. But I think that is the one thing that the show is lacking: a realistic judge. Because realism is a big part of our industry now and we don’t have that guy who can pick apart things other than the technical part of it. I have a lot of respect for those guys sitting up there and doing that job. I did take offense sometimes, but I also tried to use what they were telling me. If you have a big ego and you go up there thinking that your way is the way, you are not going to learn anything. At the end, though, and I hate to say this, but the judges couldn’t do that tattoo. So it is kind of weird in a way that the guys judging you don’t do what you do.
Have the other Ink Masters reached out to you?
There was a party after the show and Steve Tefft grabbed me and said, “You and I are doing shots. Screw these guys, you are in an elite group now.” He is a pretty funny character.
And he wears those flashy shirts. If he is The Shirt you are The Vest.
Yeah, you know, I don’t usually wear a vest. I am a huge fan of John Varvatos’s clothes, that rock ’n’ roll stuff, and I had just bought a vest and I wore that to my first Ink Master interview. They were like, “Yeah, you are going to wear a vest all the time.” I liked wearing the vest but when you are tattooing for that long it is definitely tough to wear clothes like that. I will bust out a vest every once in a while, but it is not my everyday attire.
You were in the Air Force before you became a tattooer?
Yeah, my last year in the Air Force, it was about ’96 or ’97. At the end, with a year and a half left, I wanted something to do when I got out. Luckily this girl I was see- ing at the time said, “Hey, I have a friend who is in the military and is tattooing at a shop at night, and I think you should look into that.” Back then it was hard to get into the business but because we were both in the military he helped me out. I didn’t even have a tattoo at the time. The first thing I did was get a tattoo to see what it was like. And I am very fortunate that it worked out that way.
Were you always artistic?
I was going to go to art school after high school, but my brother had just joined the Air Force and he was driving a BMW and getting married, and I was from a small town in Oklahoma so I thought that sounded cool.
Do you remember your first tattoo?
My first tattoo was on Glenn Fleming, a gunner in the military; he was on Sons of Guns. It was a little skeleton guy, a carved statue he wanted. Being in the military, as soon as you start tattooing, all the guys want one. So I got a lot of time in the chair pretty quickly.
And look at you now. What’s next for you?
I want to design a few T-shirts, get my website going. If the chance to co-own a Club Tattoo opens up I’ll definitely be looking into that. I see myself traveling much more. I want to get my name back out on the circuit. The goal for this year is to parlay that Ink Master title and go out and compete alongside other amazing artists. Beyond that—normally I have a goal, but after this right now I don’t have a goal.
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