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Photos by Cassie Zhang

This Fall, a brand new tattoo competition show is coming to Paramount Network. Ink Master: Grudge Match brings back former contestants and gives them the opportunity to go head-to-head with their biggest rivals from the franchise. And Ink Master champions Ryan Ashley Malarkey of season 8, DJ Tambe of seasons 9 and 10 and Cleen Rock One of season 11 have returned to the competition, this time serving as judges. We sat down with the three judges to get the inside scoop on the brand new series, which premieres on October 1st at 10pm ET.


How were you approached about coming to Grudge Match as a judge?

Ryan: The day that I got the call, Arlo and I were talking about the show and he said, ‘Why don’t you talk to the network about doing a show where people who have competed come back and the winners judge. And then about an hour and a half later, I got the call for this show.

Cleen: Your dude needs to start talking about the lotto and me.

DJ: He might be God.

Ryan: And then 10 minutes after that call, my little sister called and told me that she was pregnant. It was the craziest day of my life.


How does your experience on Ink Master, as contestants, coaches, and winners, aid in your judging process?

Cleen: I mean, we know what a good tattoo looks like.

Ryan: You judge shit differently when you know what it’s like to be on the other side of things.

Cleen: For sure, I’m not trying to ruin anyone’s career. I think there’s a feelings process, where you don’t want to brutally demolish anybody and at the same time, you want to let them know what’s up.

DJ: But, when you’re here competing, you want to brutally demolish people.

Cleen: Yeah, when you’re competing you want to send people home and let them know that you’re not here to make friends. Being a coach for me was the hardest.

DJ: Me too. You couldn’t touch anything, draw or tattoo.

Ryan: What was always frustrating for me as a competitor was when the judges would always have a completely different opinion. We all have very different opinions from each other and the judges, so we’re bringing voices into the competition that haven’t been heard yet.


What was your biggest challenge during your own season(s) of Ink Master?

DJ: You can always say being away from your family, but for me, it was tattooing without music. I’ve never tattooed in my whole life without music on.

Cleen: That was the hardest, I say that to everybody. Tattooing in complete silence is the hardest. You cannot get in your groove. You know what I would do? I had an old school iPod, they would only let me carry that because it didn’t take pictures. I would put on one song that I knew every fucking word to and I would listen to that right before I went out. Then I would sing the same song in my head the whole time and entertain myself.

What’s the biggest misconception people have about you from seeing you on TV?

DJ: I just got told I look like Borat.

Cleen: I think everyone has something to say. Like ‘Oh, you’re so cocky, you’re not even that good, your teeth are messed up, you’re such an asshole.’

DJ: It’s tough seeing your character and people believing everything to it. Ninety-nine percent of it is real.

Ryan: You’re put in situations that you would never normally be in your real life. How you react to those crazy situations is different than how you would react in real life. Real life doesn’t have this crazy shit happening.

DJ: Sometimes you’ve gotta put it on for the camera. When Superman leaves work and he’s just a dude that goes home to his kids.


How has Ink Master helped your tattooing outside of the show?

DJ: It makes you go back home and simplify your stuff. I started to put more lines on things and I was still hearing the judges in my head. We should learn something from every critique, you need to leave the show and grow.

Cleen: I think people that are showing up and trying to learn something, they’re never going to make it until the end. Why would you show up knowing that you’ve never done a portrait? You know it’s coming. Why would you show up if you know that you have zero color packing abilities?

DJ: It’s like saying, ‘I’m a plumber, but I can’t fix that part of the sink.’

Cleen: Exactly, it’s like showing up to a baseball game and saying, ‘I can’t hit, but I can run fast as hell.’

DJ: But you have to do everything.

Ryan: But at the same time, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. I learned a ton doing the show. Before the show, I was working in a private studio by myself and I came for the purpose of learning.

How would you do as a contestant on Grudge Match and who would you want to face off against?

Cleen: I’d fucking win. I’d call Jason Clay Dunn back and say, ‘What’s up now, son?’

DJ: I try not to have grudges with anyone, so I don’t know who would want to come battle me. But I think that all of us would do great if we competed in the show because we’re all competitors and we’ve all won. We’d be a hard fight.