You know that thing that you expose yourself to again and again even though it does nothing but torment you? I’m not talking about a bad boyfriend, calls to that super judgey frenemy, or an all-night binge of booze and/or ice cream. I’m talking about that TV show that gets under your skin, fucks with your head and haunts your dreams. It’s not even satisfying to you anymore, and yet you go back again and again. Maybe for you it’s The Walking Dead or New Girl. For me, it’s Ink Master, a reality series on SPIKE TV all about competitive tattooing.
Fittingly, the first time I heard about the show was in a tattoo parlor, part-way through a four-hour tattoo. While some people wince imagining such a prolonged and painful process, getting tattoos for me has always been pleasant. This is in no small part because my tattoo artist, Laci Hess, is awesome. She’s calm and thoughtful, making sure I’m comfortable with the design and the pain level as we go along. She’s creative, spinning vague ideas into inspired designs. And it helps that we’ve been friends since high school, so as she works, we can just talk. After catching up, recommending podcasts, and digging into our shared affection for Doctor Who, our conversation turned to reality TV, and Laci mentioned Ink Master, a show she refuses to watch because it stresses her out. Turns out, me too.
The premise is simple: tattoo artists from across America compete week after week in head-to-head battles themed by style, design, or technique, and then are judged by a panel of experts. Considering the macho-tone of the show, I was surprised by how much of the hour-long eps are dedicated to soap opera drama. The mostly male cast is perpetually at each other’s throats, slinging insults and caterwauling over hurt feelings. I prefer the shade throwing of RuPaul’s Drag Race to the slur tossing of Ink Master, where men regularly bark “bitch” and “pussy” at each other, then promptly sulk before the show cuts to commercial. But their bad behavior isn’t what literally keeps me up at night. It’s the “human canvases.”
Ugh. Even that word: human canvas.
Of course, to have a tattoo competition, you need people willing to get tattooed. And on Ink Master those volunteers are called human canvases. The more I watch this show, the more I marvel that seven seasons in the producers can still find people willing to give up their skin for this series. Sure, it sounds great if you think, “It’s an opportunity to get a complex tattoo done by a master artist for free! And I get to be on TV!” But there’s so much working against that tattoo coming out as something you can be truly proud of.
According to a NY Post article on these volunteers: “Canvases are not paid to be on the show, and while they get to pick the tattoo in some challenges, they have to be up for anything in others.” They don’t even get to pick the artist they’ll be working with. IRL (as opposed to IRT) you might research portfolios to be sure you’re going to a tattooist who specializes in the style or design you want. Here it’s luck of the draw. But worse.
Mini-challenges determine which contestant gets to assign artist to human canvas. And—as this is a competition—most mini-challenge winners look to fuck over as many of their rivals as possible, and by extension (and thoughtless malice) their human canvases. They pair the girl who wants full color with the guy who specializes in black-and-grey designs. They team the guy who wants a tattoo on a very hard to ink body part with the artist with the least experience. And the human canvas knows none of this. They are just supposed to sit and take whatever comes. But let’s say the human canvas makes it through all this, and comes out happy with their tattoo. Their trials aren’t over because there’s still the human canvas jury.
At first, this sounds like a positive thing. It’s a post-tat panel where the tattooed get to give feedback on the final product. However, this panel is meant to revel in the negative. Good tattoos are never discussed (or at least those conversations don’t make the show’s cut.) This segment is only to pick apart the worst tattoos so that an artist can be added to the bottom for potential elimination.
Imagine: your skin still raw from a six-hour tattoo, you’re herded into a studio to have it criticized by a bunch of strangers on national television. In my experience, those days after getting my tattoo are tender in a lot of ways, including in how I see myself. As my skin heals, my vision of myself shifts to include this element I’ve chosen to forever alter my appearance. Even mildly negative things people say about my ink in that time sticks in my head the way the ink does in my flesh. Now imagine being surrounded by people ripping apart your new tattoo, and then having to go face the artist and tell them theirs is the worst. And then going home and waiting for all of this to play out for your friends, family, co-workers and random jackasses to see. Even if you liked it, it’s now tainted, a source of permanent embarrassment and shame. And yet your journey may still not be over, because a whole spin-off series has been created about these traumatic tattoos.
Ink Master: Redemption invites unhappy human canvases back to confront the artist who marred their bodies with subpar tattoos. This time, we hear their names. In interviews with host Dave Navarro, we hear their stories of embarrassment and shame. And then they get to come face-to-face with the artists they feel wronged them. They are not guaranteed an apology (few of these ego-maniacal assholes will offer one), but they do get the chance at a new tattoo, one out of competition, geared toward their liking. So basically, how most tattoos work.
The human canvases are such a minor part of the actual show. They are not competing, but—whether the show recognizes it or not—they are the show’s true stakes. While the artists play to the cameras and build their fame, these subjects will wear these moments on them for the rest of their lives! In this week’s episode, the artists were challenged to cover up hate tattoos (confederate flags and swastikas) that their wearers now regret. One contestant/artist admitted, “If this were in my shop it’d take me three days to come up with how to do it properly.” But there’s no time for that, so full speed ahead!
After hours perusing various online tattoo portfolios, I tuned in to Ink Master because I admire the artistry and diversity of styles and concepts found within tattooing, and hoped to learn more about them the way Project Runway and RuPaul’s Drag Race taught me more about their respective art forms. Instead, I am haunted by the hordes of people who get bad ink because of a mediocre reality show. I so fear for the human canvas volunteers as they go under the gun that I shudder and gasp more than I do watching most horror movies. I hope they’ll love what they get. But marveling in the successes gets far less screen time than scorning the failures.
After watching a back-to-back pair of these shows, I have actual nightmares that are not subtle. There are flashes of men yelling and yowling, shoving each other as they bellow “bro” and “dude.” Then I dream that I wake up, and my arms are covered in strange symbols, muddy colors and crass characters. My skin feels raw. My heart stings with remorse, and I can feel my throat rattle as if I’m screaming. Then I jolt upright, really awake this time and look at my skin, check my actual tattoos, still there, still lovely and everything I wanted. And in the middle of the night, I think of the human canvases, who wanted to be a canvas for striking art, but ended up with a scarring moment captured for TV.
Kristy Puchko lives in
perpetual fear that ice cream will become self-aware New York City.