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.