Who Is The Ink Master?

Finally. After years of Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, Top Chef, and Top Valet Parker, Spike TV has given tattoo artists their due with Ink Master, a worthy new addition to the genre of reality competition shows. And that makes perfect sense, since you can judge a finished tattoo through the TV screen much better than you can judge a turbot fillet from Hell’s Kitchen. Speaking of judges, Spike has brought on Jane’s Addiction rocker Dave Navarro, venerable tattooers Chris Nunez and Oliver Peck, and a rotation of guests (including INKED’s creative director) to award one of its 10 competing artists $100,000, a feature in this magazine, and the title of Ink Master.

Nunez is a charismatic pioneer of tattooing on TV, having starred in Miami Ink as co-owner of Love Hate Tattoo Studio with Ami James. He started out in the graffiti scene and then traveled the world, picking up artistic influences that had yet to inform most American tattoo artists before getting into the tattoo game.

Oliver Peck is eight feet of tattooer stuffed into a five-foot-and-change frame. He’s got the hottest machine in Texas, which he wields from Elm Street Tattoo, and he recently expanded to Los Angeles, taking over True Tattoo in Hollywood. In the TMZ world he is also known as Kat Von D’s ex-husband and has been described as “what a cartoon villain looks like.” (We happen to envy that mustache.)

“In general, I don’t really watch television, but I saw a cooking competition show once and I couldn’t believe it,” Peck says. “Why do people watch that? Who cares? You made a soufflé and it went flat and now you’re crying. Big fucking deal. In Ink Master it’s not like you messed up some dessert and someone can’t eat it—you’re making tattoos. A lot is on the line for the people getting tattoos and the tattoo artists who want to elevate their profile.”

And the pool of contestants hoping to do just that are a mixed bunch, with varying levels of talent and experience: Al Fliction (BKLYN Ink); Tommy Helm (Empire State Tattoo Studio); Jeremy Miller (Pigment Dermagraphics and Fine Art); Shane O’Neill (Shane O’Neill Tattoos); Brian “B-Tat” Robinson (Moving Ink); Heather Sinn (The Tattoo Room); James Vaughn (Straight A Tattoo); Bili Vegas (Sacred Tattoo); Lea Vendetta (A Stroke of Genius Tattoos); and Josh Woods (Black 13 Tattoo Parlor). “It’s a pretty spread field,” Peck says. “I have to be totally candid, which could make me come off as an asshole. But my job is to make sure that the good tattooers come out on top.”

“I criticize, but I’m not there to hurt anybody’s feelings or say anything that isn’t true,” Nunez says of his role on the show. “If you put yourself in the position to compete, then you have to be able to take the criticism. It’s not like somebody woke them up and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to watch you create beautiful art and praise you all day.’ We may sit up higher than the contestants, but Oliver and I are still tattooers just like they are.”

Peck says he was nervous about his first encounter with Navarro (“Because you know what they say about meeting your heroes!”), but when they shook hands before taping they immediately hit it off and have since become buds. They even went so far as to tattoo each other in the greenroom. Nunez was a little skeptical when he heard Navarro was part of the panel, but the rocker quickly earned his respect, and Nunez says he feels the guitarist will bring a different and vital outlook on tattoos to the dais.

The competition, which airs 10 p.m. Tuesdays on Spike TV and kicks of beginning January 17, will be rigorous. Viewers of Top Chef and Project Runway are probably familiar with the format: Contestants live and tattoo together under the watchful eye of the judges, in the shadow of New York City skyscrapers. To house the action, Spike rented a church that time forgot and transformed the sleeping quarters of the clergy into pristine tattoo booths replete with old-school barber chairs and slick modern-day artwork. In the beginning of each episode the contestants will be given a quick creative task, a Flash Challenge, which gives the winner a leg up for the Elimination Challenge. At the end of each episode, the loser is asked to pack their needles.

The flaws some in tattoo-land have already pointed out are that good tattoos can’t be created in a small amount of time. And what happens when, say, an artist adept at Japanese-style work finds himself up for elimination because of a not-so-perfect old-school tattoo? “Some of the contestants will be suited to certain challenges and some won’t be, but in the end good tattoo skills will always win out,” Nunez says. “The truth is that you can’t do an intricate body piece in the allotted time, so tattooers should know that and work the size or complexity of the piece into their time constraints.”

Fact is: You need to be able to serve more than one client a day and keep appointments by working under deadlines if you want to have a successful shop and be able to feed your family as a tattoo artist. “I know how hard it is to tattoo with cameras surrounding you,” says Nunez. “I hope the field will figure out how to work under that pressure and progress as the season goes on. Truthfully, if you are a good artist you should be able to create art in any environment.”

In addition to the obvious constraints on the artists, there are other difficulties with the nature of the competition that make it a difficult one to judge. Sure, there are tattoo competitions at conventions every weekend, but the judges of those are charged with picking a winner, not a loser. “I came in with the mind-set that we have to pick the best tattoos,” Peck says. “But we have to pick who’s the worst. It’s a hard gig to be that guy who says you were the worst. They are all working tattooers, and we are saying to them, ‘Hey, out of all these people you suck. Here’s your fucking bag of shit. Go home. … Basically the best tattoo only means that the contestant is safe.”

“It’s going to be tough to eliminate somebody, considering that their livelihood is tattooing,” Nunez says. But the winner is going to be the artist who keeps his or her eyes on the prize. “Don’t forget that these tattooers are competing for a hundred grand. There are tattooers all over the country who don’t make $100,000 a year.”

Stakes are indeed high. They are high for the contestants and high for the industry, as the eyes of the country will be, in essence, judging the claim that tattooing is an art. Until now, tattooing has only been a backdrop to shop drama and clients’ stories, but Ink Master will put the focus on the craft and its process, rewarding those with stellar work, not just those with stellar looks or sparkling personality. “A lot of complaints with tattoo shows are that they are not about tattooing anymore,” Nunez says. “Hopefully this is going to highlight the appreciation of tattoo art.”

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