On the surface, Ruthless is as lovely as can be. When she opens the door to her condo in Huntington Beach, CA, she’s all smiles and laughter in her skintight pants, despite the fact that there’s a menagerie of cats and dogs at war with each other in the background, and that INKED is about to take over her life for the next 10 hours to do a shoot and interview. But Ruthless, who’s gained the reputation of being a tough chica on LA Ink, has good reason to be practically giddy.
For the past few years, the 25-year-old petite tattoo artist has been bouncing back and forth between guest tattooing in Hawaii and her hometown, Los Angeles, but thanks to her hardworking manager, some luck, and one life-changing Skype conversation, she’s landed a gig on LA Ink. Working alongside Corey Miller, Amy Nicoletto, and Paulie at Craig Jackman’s American Electric Tattoo, the rival parlor to Kat Von D’s High Voltage, Ruthless will be staying on the mainland for the foreseeable future. As the new artist in the shop, she’s had her share of tension with coworkers, especially Amy. Things have even escalated to the point where Ruthless threatened to knock Amy’s teeth out.
Is this the same girl who confessed to us that she can’t believe all of this is really happening? Certainly. Despite a conservative upbringing by a first-generation Filipino family in the Los Angeles suburb of Eagle Rock, Ruthless acquired a sharp edge that suggests more is going on underneath her bubbly demeanor. It’s an edge as sharp as the claws of the tiger that wraps around her right arm. In high school her interest laid in athletics, namely track and field and, surprisingly for her size, basketball. “I played every sport and was the captain,” she explains. But it was the opportunity to go through police training boot camp that really held her attention. “When they came into my classroom and talked about the boot camp and police training stuff, I was like, ‘Heck yeah,’” she says. Ruthless succeeded in the program, graduated at the top of her class, and became a drill instructor. But while it’s important for a 5’2? woman to know how to defend herself, the training wasn’t without its drawbacks.
Ruthless was 18 the last time she was in an actual fight, and during the scuffle she went into a trance-like state, she says. “When I snapped out of it I had ended up breaking a lot of her teeth out,” she remembers. “I broke her nose, I broke several of her ribs, and she got expelled from school. I’m not proud of it. Ever since that I try my best not to [fight], and I haven’t fought anybody since then. That girl recently added me on Facebook.”
Just because Ruthless hasn’t fought in years doesn’t mean she’s a pushover. But you probably already knew that from her brief time on LA Ink. Born Ruth Pineda, she earned her nickname while working at the Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor in Eagle Rock a few years back. “This prostitute came in with her pimp,” Ruthless starts the story. “He had given her money to go get tattooed, and she had lost it. She did something with it and couldn’t remember. Then, all of a sudden, she turned around to everybody and started accusing us, that we stole her money. She was saying all this crazy stuff—like, ‘I’m gonna kill you.’ I had to physically escort this person out. I was really pissed off because they were threatening everybody and I’m like, ‘This is not going to happen. Not when I’m around.’ When I came back in everyone was staring at me with their eyes all huge. They all started saying to me, ‘Holy crap—ruthless, you’re freakin’ ruthless.’” The moniker stuck.
The boot camp training paid off in ways other than giving her confidence in combat. Her intense discipline—combined with a passion for the art form—is what got her through a grueling apprenticeship under her then husband, Tattoo Joe at Physical Graffiti in Bridgeport, CT. Ruthless, who loved art from a young age, says, “As soon as I found out that you can put art on you permanently, I was like, Wow. Even when I saw my first piercing on somebody’s tongue in high school I was like, That’s so awesome, I want that. I never thought it could be a career for me.” She used to hang out and draw in her husband’s shop. She says, “He saw my drawings and was like, ‘You can draw. Do you want to learn how to tattoo?’ I’ve never looked back since.” That’s when her trial began. “It was a very hard apprenticeship. Before we entered the shop, he’d be like, ‘You are not my wife and I’m not your husband when we’re in the shop. You’re my apprentice.’ I had to shovel snow, rake the leaves, scrub tubes, do push-ups and sit-ups, vacuum, and paint the walls of the apartments next door—these things that you’re like, What does this have to do with tattooing? But it has everything to do with it. It teaches you discipline. It puts your heart in the right place.”
And now she’s inking on prime time cable television every week. Regarding her involvement in the show, Ruthless is still learning the ropes and how to keep up her stamina on days when the crew is shooting for 17 hours. Unlike real life, reality shows require takes and retakes and more, and when coupled with tattooing it can get exhausting. She’s also cagey about saying anything about any of her coworkers—including Amy, whom she’s flared up with on camera—as she’s still finding her place in the shop. But she does admit that it is strange being recognized on the street. “Before, no one knew who I was,” she says. “Now people are like, ‘You’re Ruthless.’ It’s so trippy. You don’t really know how to react to it.”
Speaking of reactions: When Ruthless’s mother first saw that her daughter had gotten inked, she was beside herself. “I used to tease my mom and be like, ‘I’m going to get that tattooed on my face. I’m going to get that tattooed on my hand, my fingers.’ And she’d be like, ‘No! Don’t do that!’ She’d get worked up and it was funny.” When Tattoo Joe did tattoo a 19-year-old Ruthless, her mom was distraught. “The first tattoo I got was pretty much half my arm. She was like, ‘You’ve ruined your life forever.’ I had to tell her, I haven’t changed. But from where she’s from in the Philippines, the only kind of people who get tattooed are gangsters and murderers—unless you’re from the South, then it’s more of a tribal thing. I had her come into the shop to show her what it was really like, and now she totally understands. So does my dad. They watch the show and they’re very proud of me. My dad will joke around about getting the footprints of my sister’s kids on his chest.”
Still, Ruthless’s mom would prefer her days of getting inked were over. “She’s like, ‘No more tattoos on yourself, but you can keep tattooing people.’” She likely wasn’t too delighted when Ruthless inked “L.A.” onto the back of her ankle. But then again, neither was Ruthless. “During the whole thing I was like, Man, I wish somebody else would do this. I was screaming and yelling at myself. … It’s one of those things that’s just better for somebody else to do.” Hence, Mark Dupp of Unbreakable Tattoo is inking the traditional-style sleeve on her left arm. She says that the piece, which starts with the swallows on her hand and features skulls, flowers, and water further up her arm, “is based on my spirituality and how I view life. The real meaning behind the swallows is how far you’ve gone in the sea. But since I’m not a sailor, I have them because I’m a free-spirited person. The flowers and skulls are for life and death, and the main skull has tribal on it because tribal means you belong somewhere, and I believe you belong somewhere after death, like heaven. I hope I make it up there.”
In the meantime, Ruthless will have to hold her own, both offscreen and on, with the likes of Kat Von D, of whom she’s not a fan. She explains that despite meeting Kat numerous times, the star of LA Ink still doesn’t remember who she is. “I’ve met her throughout the six years I’ve been tattooing—and I’m not anybody to remember—but if you meet someone so many times, how can you not remember them at all?” Ruthless finally cracks about her fellow cast member: “It came to a point where it’s just insulting. I don’t care how famous you get. I don’t think it’s right to treat anyone like that.”