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On this season of “Ink Master,” former contestants Cleen Rock One and Christian Buckingham were invited back as coaches to settle the score of their rivalry once and for all. Eighteen hopeful artists were split into two opposing teams and in the end, Cleen and Tony Medellin came out on top. Cleen, having competed on the show on three prior seasons, finally claimed the title after years of falling short. And Tony, a first-timer, went from underdog to top dog in the grand finale. Take a look at how each of these talented tattooers tackled the competition and how they strategized to win over the judges at the end of the show.

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What were your expectations entering into season 11 of “Ink Master,” as a coach and as a first-time contestant?

Cleen: My expectation was to shut Christian up, once and for all, and claim the title of Ink Master.

Tony: I was hoping to just get top 10, to be honest. I wanted to be on half the season so that people could see my work. But other than that, I had zero expectations. I was going to do exactly what I did at home and hoped it would work.

Tony, what made you decide that you wanted to be on Cleen’s team? Cleen, why were you excited to have Tony as a part of your team?

Tony: I’ve followed Cleen for a long time and I know his work. Even though he and I are very similar with the way we tattoo, I knew we would get along right out the gate and I preferred to be on someone’s team that I could get along with. Because if I’m friends with the person that’s coaching me, I’m going to have that connection and it’s going to help me in the long run.

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Cleen: Tattooing is so divided; you’ve got your traditional dudes, you’ve got your bonehead, big watch, dildo pen black-and-grey guys, etc. I could have sat there and been like, “This guy’s gonna pick Christian, this guy’s gonna pick me, etc.” You can almost pick out the style of every person and what type of attitude they’ll have. But I’m glad Tony picked me. Christian even made a joke saying, “If you want to talk about choppers, hot rods, and tits all day — then Cleen’s the the team to go on.” But I’m here to talk about tattoos. When in reality, my team and his team learned more about tattooing from watching me tattoo.

What were some of your biggest challenges in the competition?

Tony: Tattooing-wise, it was the damn heathens they brought in for us to tattoo. I’m a firm believer in the notion that your tattooing is only as good as the person receiving the tattoo. A lot of the time these people don’t like to listen or let us do our thing. They’re dead set in their ways, want their fame, and don’t care if they’re going to come off as assholes.

Cleen: The biggest challenge was trying to appeal to the judges. They’re so wishy-washy; one day they’re saying to be creative and then once you do that, they’ll tell you to copy a reference. If you try to think about it too much, you’ll go crazy. So I just did solid tattoos and thought they were either gonna like it or fucking hate it.

As tattooers and competitors, what strengths do both of you possess?

Cleen: Solid fundamentals, period. Personally, I think there have been several people who have done tattoos in the finale that don’t have solid fundamentals. The tattoos heal very rough and they’re not fundamentally at that level yet. But on Instagram, boy they’re killing it. They’re got healed pictures, filters, and videos — then, the next thing you know, they’re put on this pedestal. But once they get on “Ink Master,” they flop because they don’t have solid fundamentals. All it takes is clean, crisp lines; solid, packed color and you’re going to do great in this competition.

Tony: We’re powerhouses. We’re not afraid of what comes at us, no matter what the tattoo is. Instead of tripping out, we’re going to figure out a way to execute it. We’re both street shop tattooers and used to whatever comes through the door, there’s nothing we won’t tattoo.

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Going into the finale, how did each of you prepare tattoos that would wow the panel of judges?

Tony: My process for preparing for my final tattoo was reflecting on the past season by remembering everything I’d been dinged on and everything they liked. I actually made a pros and cons list, which is why I decided to go with a Viking skull. It allowed me to include everything that I’m good at, everything the judges wanted to see, and most importantly, it’s a tough ass tattoo that my client won’t mind wearing for the rest of their life.

Cleen: I wasn’t allowed to do a back, which is a great canvas. And honestly, I thought about doing a black-and-grey tattoo with a little bit of mixed medium, traditional, fine-line, realism — have a whole collage of styles. I seriously was going to do the biggest tattoo that has ever been done on “Ink Master.”

I think you did that with your finale tattoo.

Cleen: No, I had one full session to kill. If I had done a black-and-grey tattoo, I would’ve done a full front panel from his kneecaps to his throat. But, I wanted to make sure I was doing a rib panel and when he got there, I decided to blast out his whole chest and go down his leg. And I drew it the night before I had to tattoo it.


What advice would you give to other tattooers going on “Ink Master”?

Cleen: The biggest piece of advice I can give is to learn how to tattoo before you go on the show. Guys go on this show, and they have these big egos, but they don’t have fundamentals. Humble yourself, learn the fundamentals, be well-rounded, and you’ll do great.

Tony: Don’t do your version of American Traditional and learn how to use a coil before you go on that show because your fancy tattoo machine will not punch an outline in the way they want to see it. It doesn’t matter how many followers you have or how many styles you think you can do — you need to go into the competition neutral and ready to learn and adapt, because if you go in trying to do your way, then it’s not going to work.