Flesh and Blood: Tattoo Artists Get Their Own Reality Competition
"Best Ink" premieres on Oxygen
The cast of Best Ink.
Premieres Tuesday, March 27, at 10 p.m. on Oxygen.
Tattoos are so mainstream. So almost soccer-mom-ish. As of 2007, more than one in three American 18-to-25-year-olds had at least one tattoo. But if you need real -- compelling! -- proof of just how middle-American and accepted tattoos have become, the fact there’s now a new reality show competition for tattoo artists should do it. You’re never as real as when you have a reality show, as they say, or they should say, at least.
Now, with Best Ink, which premieres on the Oxygen network on Tuesday, March 27, tattoo artists can compete for prizes, spazz out against crazy time-crunch challenges and talk catty shit about each other to the camera just like all the chefs, designers and singers who do it on other shows. There’s the added high-wire-act excitement of watching them work in a hurry to tattoo the actual skin of real people. It’s a little like watching a doctor perform an appendectomy on a patient with a stop clock ticking away. Hurry up or you won’t win!! Meanwhile, somebody’s bleeding over here.
“Best Ink” -- like many of those other reality show competitions -- is pretty good. Or it at least does a good job of catering to our desire to watch talented people do their thing and to sometimes implode under the pressure and the lights. The 10 contestants come from all over the country. They’re all practicing tattoo artists, and -- as you might expect -- they’re all pretty thoroughly inked-up and weighted down with piercings and body ornamentation. (A tattoo artist without any tattoos is a little like a skinny chef -- don’t trust them!) The winner of the competition will receive a cover and feature spread in Tattoo magazine and $100,000 in addition to the title.
The show is set up much like “Project Runway” or “Top Chef.” There are stern judges and quick tests that sometimes provide the winner with special advantages for the main challenges that involve the real skin. You’ve got to admire -- or wonder about -- the brave volunteers who submit their tender flesh to the needles and ink of these artists. Getting a tattoo performed by someone who’s in a hurry sounds a little absurd. But then again, these artists are probably giving it everything they’ve got to win, so it’s not like they’re snoozing on the job.
One of the pleasures of these shows is to get an insider’s glimpse into some of the tricks of the trade. You learn about balancing your acids and salt and fat by watching cooking shows. You learn about shit like “ruching” from watching the design shows. (Whatever.) And after you watch Best Ink you’ll probably start throwing around terms like “color saturation” when you visit your local tattoo shop, just to front like a pro.
The first episode starts with a “flash challenge” in which the artists have 30 minutes to sketch a re-imagined version of a standard (maybe a cliche) of the tattoo world: the butterfly tattoo. Some of the artists are talented draftsmen, some of them really aren’t. And when we’re shown what look like middle school colored pencil sketches, one starts to worry that we’ll be witnessing a train wreck in the form of permanently inked skin. But as it turns out, most of these young artists are talented and they’re competing in the show for a reason. Some of them are very young, in their early 20s and have only been tattooing for a few years.
The real challenge involves a “cover up” -- masking an old and unwanted tattoo with a new more elaborate and generally darker design. Cover ups are evidently a standard part of being a tattoo artist. People tend to grow tired of the rose or Chinese characters they get etched onto their shoulders when they’re 18. But turning a devil into a buffalo, or a bit of text into a zombie isn’t exactly easy. Watching the work get done involves a lot of buzzing machines and a lot of wincing of the people getting inked. And a fair amount of blood. There’s some inherent drama there.
“I gotta pull out a whole new needle so I don’t turn this kid’s skin into hamburger,” says one artist struggling with the time challenge. (They don’t do human hamburger on Top Chef.)
Judge Joe Capobianco is evidently a world-famous tattoo artist (He's from New Haven!). (“When he walked in, I think a little pee came out,” says one of the star-struck female artists.) He’s also an imposing critic and an outspoken and intimidating judge. His comments may raise some questions about gender and aesthetics and taste in the world of tattoos, though. He roundly criticizes one female artist’s rendering of a peach blossom for not being dark or saturated enough. I thought it looked great, almost spectral, on the pale skin it was inked over.
Tattooing is the rare art form where the work itself is attached to a brain and a mouth that can express its opinion.
“Skins are our canvases,” says Nicky Hennerez, one of the better artists on the show, “however canvases usually don’t talk back a lot.”