Why I love “Ink Master"

My tattoo artist is going to hate this. Okay, yes, I have a tattoo artist, and yes, she has done more than one tattoo for me. I am not going to tell you where or of what (a fencing bear has to have her secrets!). Suffice it to say that I sit like a rock and can do so for the better part of an afternoon. More than once. Okay, more than twice. Okay, we've done four, all about four or five hours' worth of work (are you impressed?).

But I love Ink Master. (My artist hates it, she says it is nothing like the artist community that she works with, and she really really really can't stand how Dave Navarro talks about the artists' clients as "canvasses.") My husband says it is only because I have a crush on Chris Nuñez, one of the judges, and I'm not saying he is wrong. (Chris is the one on the left. Dave is in the middle. The third judge is Oliver Peck.)

But the important thing is why I have a crush on Chris, don't mind that Dave calls the clients "canvasses" (okay, not much), and can ignore (for the most part) the toothpick that Oliver always has in his mouth. It's not because I enjoy watching the artists trash talk each other (I have my suspicions about how much the producers egg them on), although I know that is largely the point of much reality TV. Okay, maybe I enjoy the trash talk a little bit (I do keep watching after all), because it makes the competition seem real, as if there is more at stake than simply "one hundred thousand dollars, a feature in Inked magazine, and most importantly the title of Ink Master" (see, I have Dave's riff memorized, okay, he says it every segment, I should). But what I really, really love is the fact that it is about the art.

I know, that sounds strange. Tattoos as art? But they are--this is why Dave persists in calling the clients "canvasses." Because their skins are the surfaces on which the artists do their work. And what work they do! Okay, I have only seen a few tattoos in six seasons that I myself would want to wear--Tatu Baby's phoenix is still one of my favorites, and St. Marq's stain glass took my breath away--and I am not all that thrilled about most of the placements. (My artist is outstanding at making the tattoo work with your body, especially if you are a woman.) But that isn't really the point. The point is, these artists care about making their tattoos the absolute best works of art that they can. And they have come on the show to have their skills tested, over and over and over again, under incredible pressure ("America is judging you!," as Dave constantly reminds them), typically at some cost to their personal or professional lives, precisely so as to practice their art.

I really wish I had been taking notes, so as to be able to give you more specific examples, and I don't seem to be able to find photos of all the tattoos I remember over on Spike.com. Nor does it seem that you can stream all the previous seasons from Spike.com, although it looks like they are all still up on Hulu. (Right, now I am watching the first episode of season 6--I have to look out, or I may get sucked in!) Don't be put off by the music in the credit sequence or the tough looks that the artists all put on as they are introduced. This is a show about making great art, and no matter how tough the artists talk or how much they glare, they are all great Americans and good people. More to the point, they are entrepreneurs.

At the beginning of season 6, the artists are all assembled on the top of a building in front of One World Trade Center (I'm a little confused, I'm not sure they are on the building itself or looking out at it, I need to get back to New York!), and Dave says to them: "Welcome! We are standing in front of One World Trade Center. It is now the tallest building in the United States. America was built by workers constantly striving to master their craft. You now have a chance to do the same." Doesn't it send shivers down your spine?! America! Built by workers constantly striving to master their craft! And now you have a chance to do the same! I am going to listen to it again. Because, you see, Dave means it, I know he does.

There was one episode, I can't remember which season, when for the Flash Challenge (for fencers, a little like pools, the Flash Challenge seeds the artists into the elimination round, except in Ink Master, the winner of the Flash Challenge gets to hand out the skulls--go watch, you will see what I mean) the artists had to paint one of Dave's own guitars (Dave is the lead guitarist for a rock band; it's called Jane's Addiction, and, no, I don't like their music, but I love Dave as one of the Ink Master judges). It was fairly far into the eliminations, so there were maybe five or six guitars. As the artists filed into a club somewhere in New York, Dave was playing on his guitar (the only time I think he has in the course of Ink Master), and then he gave them a speech about what it is like for him when he goes on stage.

"When I play," he said, or words to this effect, "I have to be perfect." Okay, I have to look--it's episode 10 of season 2. Here's what he actually said: "Do not f*ck up one of my guitars." Right, it wasn't that scene I was remembering, Dave must have given the speech about what it is like for him as a performer somewhere else, but the judging on the guitars was amazingly harsh. As far as the judges were concerned, all six of the artists blew it, failed to do anything that took them out of their comfort zones. Dave hated every one of the paintings that they did. And Sarah started to cry: "You make it sound like we're not trying." This is what I mean about risking everything when the artists come on this show. The producers push them to trash talk each other, the judges tell it like they see it, and the artists are forced to demonstrate that no matter how strong they were when they came on the show, they can get better--or they go home.

But they want to get better--and do. Which is why it is worth letting the trash talk go and listening to what they and the judges actually say in between the boasting and expressions of rivalries (which I don't really believe). The artists talk about how important it is for them to do well for the sake of their families, whom they have to support through the art that they make. They talk about how important it is to know how to work with their clients--not "canvasses," but real people whom they need to be able to help feel at ease for hours on end as they put ink into their skin. They talk about what they learn from the challenges and the tattoo critiques. And they stand there and take it when the judges lay in.

Judges: "This is just a boring snoozer out of you." "You made no effort to work with the contour or the shape of the body. It's not flattering at all." "This isn't a dick challenge, that size matters, this is a tattoo." "You kinda slept on this one." Artist: "It's not really my thing." Judge: "Well, what the f*ck is anybody here for?" And then Dave says: "[Artist's name], you do not have what it takes to be Ink Master." I am amazed that absolutely every one of the artists who is eliminated--and just like in fencing, most are, there is only one left at the end of the day--doesn't burst into tears. Most of the women do, but so, too, do some of the men. And then they suck it up, insist that this is not going to be the end of their effort to improve, and go home, vowing not to let this one defeat get the better of them.

This is why I love Chris especially as a judge. He's the one in the above exchange talking about "boring snoozers" and "dick challenges." But he is also the one that has reminded the artists time and again, whenever they start taking the competition too seriously, that what is at stake here, important as it is, is only a tattoo. Only one tattoo out of their entire career. He's softened a bit over the seasons, now that I look back at that episode from season 2. Maybe he realized that what he says to the artists is going to go home with them in a way that perhaps he didn't mean. So now, when he eliminates someone, he is always sure to give him or her something to work on. As now that I look back at one of the elimination scenes from season 6, so does Oliver, too.

Because ultimately it's not about the personalities, however much the producers might cast the show so that it is. It's not about the rivalries or the strategies (again, I'm not convinced it makes that much difference, everyone has to do a great tattoo, and the artists are all hyper motivated to do their best work). It's about the art. And it's artists like these who have made our country great.


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