Chivalry Ink Master-Style, ca. 2016

My tattoo artist wants you to know that Ink Master does not represent the tattoo industry as she and her colleagues experience or understand it. In her words: "Instead of wasting precious brain cells watching Ink Master and the other ridiculous shows that are a blight on my craft, watch Gypsy Gentleman instead. There's no fabricated drama. It's actually interesting, is made by a well-respected veteran tattooer, and showcases real tattoo artists and their processes, instead of the ones who are just trying to be celebrities. There's 7 episodes. Watch all of them."

She's right to be angry, I totally get this. She's right to be angry with Ink Master for the way in which it sensationalizes what is a complex, challenging, and uniquely intimate craft--for what could be more intimate than taking as your creative surface living, human skin? I don't know if it will reassure her to know that it was not, in fact, Ink Master that persuaded me I wanted to get tattooed, but Karen E. Olson's Tattoo Shop Mysteries and the way in which her detective, Brett, talks about the intensity of concentration that it takes to tattoo as well as the way in which her own tattoos mark significant moments in her life.

But how many of the people who watch Ink Master would prefer to read about a lady-tattooer in Las Vegas when they could watch "eighteen artists battling it out to prove they're the best"? Women like me (i.e. women of a certain age who read mystery novels) may find it fascinating to read about how meditative it feels to be working on a tattoo, the feel of the skin under one's needle, "alive, soft and moving," but to judge from the ads that I used to have to watch before Hulu introduced its commercial-free option, this is not the audience that tends to tune into Spike.com. Video games about car thefts and assassins, grooming products for men, shows about wrestling--my guess is that I am not quite the demographic Spike.com is aiming for (or, at least, not primarily).

My artist has told me that she has been asked several times to apply to be on Ink Master but has categorically refused. "Did you know," she asked me, "that they require female applicants to send in a full-body photograph, but they do not ask the men to do so?" Which, indeed, sounds horribly sexist. And it is true that there is always at least one episode in each season that somehow calls for the artists to do some kind of design on a (mostly) naked model, although sometimes the models do include men, and that these models are most definitely of a certain body type. All you have to do is listen to the opening credit sequence with its hard rock soundtrack (or maybe it is metal? I have no idea, it just sounds loud and electronic to me), dramatic voice-over, and neon captions, and you know you are not in Kansas anymore. Or not in the place where meditative women of a certain age tend to be.

So it's a show for guys (although apparently it does attract a more female audience than other of Spike.com's shows). And guys like competition, tough talk, and pretty women. I get it, I really do. This is sexist nonsense. Or is it? (At which point Fencing Bear gets herself into even more trouble.) This is what I see, and why I think the show is actually valuable, however much it feeds into the celebrity-machine of reality TV. Sneakily, but persistently, Ink Master teaches men who would otherwise be barbarians how to be gentlemen.

I know, it's outrageous, isn't it? Look, there is Chris Blinston picking yet another fight with Matt O'Baugh, or Kay Kutta talking about how he is going to take everybody in the house down, or Scott Marshall (R.I.P.) bragging about how he is the best. What could you possibly learn about being a gentleman from these jerks?

Try the final episode in Season 1, when Tommy Helm learns that he has come in second place.  He shakes Shane O'Neill's hand and gives a great big Tommy smile. Chris Nuñez, one of the three judges, says: "Talk to me Tommy," and Tommy says, "I feel like a piece of shit, man," and pretends to kick the floor. And then he thanks the judges: "I am actually, I am so excited that I was part of this." Cut to his final interview: "As competitor in this, I would have loved to be a winner, but the experience here at Ink Master was awesome. I learned so much from all the other artists I lived with. I learned so much from my critiques. My work is gonna take a new jump for the better. I am super happy with this whole entire experience." I remember reading in the comments threads on the show site how impressed the viewers were with how well Tommy responded--so well, in fact, that Spike.com gave him his own show, in which he, Jasmine, and Big Gus change their clients' lives by doing beautiful cover-ups of bad tattoos.

Or try episode 8 in season 4, when Kyle Dunbar tries to pick a fight with Chris Nuñez over the critiques Chris has been giving him. There's a lot of posturing and taking off of jackets and eventually Kyle and the judges go outside, and it looks for a moment like Chris and Kyle are actually going to physically fight. Watching the scene again, it is a little hard to read whether Chris thought he wanted to take Kyle on, but then he calms down, and says to Kyle, "We're not gonna fight. I know you're sucking it up, but we're not gonna fight. Over this?" Kyle rejoins: "I just want to call you a bitch." And Chris says, shaking his head, "I'm gonna call you a bitch back, but we're still not gonna fight." At which point Kyle pushes him, and the production guys have to pull the men apart. Chris says, "This is stupid. You're fighting over a tattoo?" Dave Navarro, another of the judges, joins in: "Clearly, no one's gonna let anybody fight. It's not gonna settle differences." And then the most important thing of all happens. One of the crewmen whispers to Kyle: "Don't f**king do it man, you got kids."

Or try episode 12 in season 6, when the Flash Challenge for the day is to tattoo a loved one of a guest artist, all of whom have Down's syndrome. The point of the Flash Challenges is to give the winner the ability to assign all of the clients (a.k.a. "canvasses," the term being one of my artist's biggest pet peeves about the show) to the other artists. Typically, the winners of the Flash Challenges talk about how strategic they are going to be in assigning skulls for the Elimination Tattoo (the skulls have the artist's name underneath, and the Flash Challenge winner hands them to the clients to assign the artists) and how they are going to make things difficult for their fellow artists by the way they assign them. It's a big deal and typically fairly tense. On this day, however, things were totally different. The artists were all clearly taken by how seriously the guest artists were taking the opportunity to design a tattoo. They had to wipe tears away as they listened to the clients talk about why they wanted their tattoos designed by their siblings, children, and friends. The tattoos that they did from the guest artists' drawings were some of the best, arguably the best, tattoos that any of them did the entire season--they glowed with life and love, and the guest artists were all clearly delighted. On that day, the judges refused to pick a winner; all of the tattoos were beautiful. And the artists, the competition forgotten in the joy of doing the work that they love for people who clearly loved each other, all agreed.

Over and over again on the show, in between the obviously engineered taunts and posturing, the take downs and promises of revenge, something rather more persistently real comes through. Sometimes the men talk about how they had been in prison and how learning to tattoo gave them hope and a career. Sometimes they talk about how much they love their children, and how important it is to be able to support their families. Sometimes they talk about their military service, particularly when (as happens pretty much every season) the challenge is to tattoo another serviceman or veteran. Sometimes, like Erik Campbell in season 6, they talk about their faith and why they don't participate in the trash talk that the others seem to need (or that the producers engineer, it really isn't clear).

What the men do not do, at least not in any footage that has ever aired,* is perhaps even more significant. The producers may want full-length photographs of the women artists, but not once has any of the men in the house said anything either about the women not belonging in the competition as women or as women not being up to the challenge to compete. There have been moments when the men seem frustrated with the women's crying (and the women do cry much more than do the men), but the only ones who have ever said anything actually bitchy about the women's crying are the other women, who are also the only ones who talk about how they are better than each other as women as opposed to better than all the other artists as a group. Nor have the judges ever said anything about the women artists' work being "good for a girl," or judged them as anything other than artists. It is true that there are always more men in the competition than women and that no woman has yet won the title. But the judges consistently have tried to push the women just as hard as the men to do their absolute best work--and called them on their slips, just as they call out the men.

Which, if you think about it, is pretty much the definition of a gentleman. Someone who has a good career, works hard at his craft, cares for his family, honors his country, and shows respect for women by treating them professionally as equals but does not try to engage them in fights. The barbarians, a.k.a. young men for whom Spike.com was originally founded, may be drawn to the show by its loud music, competitiveness, and bluster, but if they watch long enough (which they couldn't, if they had not been drawn to the show in the first place), they will learn a number of important lessons. How to lose gracefully. How to accept critique. How (and whom) not to fight. How, in other words, to be not barbarians, but knights.

*So there is this complaint, brought by one of the production assistants against Chris Nuñez and Oliver Peck, which is pretty frustrating--guys, don't be dicks! Which makes it all the more important that the editors do not include this kind of interaction between the members of the house, even though they clearly use as much footage as they can showing the tensions that develop.**
**But finding that there had been this suit at all has now got me pretty depressed. Is nothing as it seems? You see nothing of this kind of behavior in the show as it airs.

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