Tattoosday Goes Tribal on Ink Master

What’s the hardest thing about being an ink-blogger and getting a tattoo on a televised competition show? Keeping my mouth shut for almost six months about the experience.
This is the tattoo that  I received back in August in the course of my stint as a "human canvas" on  the set of Spike TV's Ink Master.

What you didn't see on the show (if you watched last night) was the consulting session in which I sat down with the artist and hashed out the ideas and concepts that I wanted represented in this tribal piece that ultimately ended up on my left thigh.

The two main elements are the honu, or Hawaiian sea turtle, and the hibiscus, which is the state flower of Hawai'i. Having grown up in the Aloha State, I wanted something that represented my childhood home.
The end result far exceeded my expectations. I want to again thank Heather Sinn, my artist, for giving me an exceptional tattoo under less than ideal conditions. 

I also want to share a little bit more about how I lucked into being tattooed by such a wonderfully talented artist.

The episode that aired last night was dubbed “Botched Head Tattoo” by the network. Fortunately, mine was not the botched head tattoo, although I have stayed in touch with the human canvas who chose to have his scalp inked and can say, with 100% confidence, the only thing botched about it was that it wasn’t completed in the five-hour time limit. The artist, Bili Vëgas, ultimately finished the piece at his shop in New York, and Ryan, who shared one of his other tattoos with us here on Tattoosday back in August, is very happy with the end result.

Photo Courtesy of
Bili Vëgas @
Back in July, I wrote here about Ink Master’s call for candidates looking for a cover-up. Shortly after posting the piece, I sent in my own idea for a tattoo for the show, thinking it was a long shot.

Within the hour, I got a response asking if I could come in and discuss the idea in person. Fortunately, I was off that day, and I went into Manhattan and met with production staff, discussing what I wanted in terms of a memorial piece for my step-father, who passed away in April 2010. This discussion also included a mention of my almost having been tattooed with a Hawaiian tribal memorial band.

Things moved quickly from there and after a series of phone calls, my original idea was scrapped and I was confirmed to be a human canvas on an episode dedicated to tribal tattoos. I am not generally a fan of tribal ink, but I thought that if I could get something with a Hawaiian influence, I would be cool with that. Having grown up in Honolulu, and with family still in the islands, it made sense to get something along those lines. I was concerned, however, whether whoever was tattooing me would approach the challenge with an understanding and respect for the culture of Hawai’i.

On the designated day, I met at the rendez-vous point with three other human canvases near Times Square to be transported to the set by shuttle. The studio was set up at an old church building in Newark. We were shown to a holding room with five other canvases and, as is typical in television production, we waited.

We didn’t know who the judges were until moments before being led to the set, which was quite impressive, as is evident on the show. I was initially happy to pick the skull with artist Heather Sinn’s name on it and, after our consult, during which I threw idea after idea at her about what would be ideal in the tattoo, I was excited to see what she would come up with overnight.

On the shuttle from Manhattan to the set the next day, we all chatted about our artists and talked about how we thought it would go. Ryan, who was about to have his head inked, was chowing down on a big bowl of red jell-o, a trick some tattoo artists recommend to minimize bleeding (the gelatin aids with blood coagulation). We were also still abuzz about the one canvas who was dismissed because of his psoriasis. The guy had been a veritable comedian in the holding room, and his absence was surprising.

After getting miked up and led to the set, we met with the artists in their work rooms and saw our designs for the first time. I was blown away by what Heather came up with, especially having looked at her online portfolio the night before, and noticed that she wasn’t an artist that did a lot of tribal work.

There was one glaring concern that I did have, however. Heather was not a happy camper. This was episode 2, so they had just started production, and one show was already in the tank. Mind you, they don’t wait a week between episodes, they are often shot in succession, and the hours are long and grueling, even to artists who spend hours on delicately maneuvering a vibrating machine doing meticulous work on a canvas that moves.

Heather did not hide this sentiment from me, the client, and I was concerned, especially since the challenge was rigorously timed, and had dropped from 6 hours to 5 hours after the initial cover-up challenge of episode 1.

She assured me that she was going to do her best under the not-so-ideal circumstances. I would direct readers to this interview that recently ran with Heather in the LA Weekly. She wears her emotions on her sleeve and does not back down from her feelings.

Heather told me she would not be very talkative when she was doing the initial line work as she was not accustomed to this type of tattoo. Fine by me. The cameras were around us constantly and Heather was very concerned that she would not have the time to finish the piece. She also expressed to me that she was not very fond of any of the judges. After seeing the flash challenge that preceded our meeting, I can see why.

When all was said and done, however, she powered through it and knocked it out with time to spare. The result left me with an awesome tattoo, and I have nothing but praise for her craftsmanship.

As for the show itself, so much footage went unused, including scenes in which the human canvases saw their tattoos for the first time in a full-length mirror, met with the judges, and did candid interviews with the producers.

I can say that, despite all the tattoo flaws picked out by the judges in the show, none of the canvases on my episode were disappointed with the final result of their sessions with the Ink Master artists. And, as much as I would like to bemoan the massive amount of "canvas" footage on the cutting room floor, ultimately the artists were being judged on the quality of their work, not on the stories behind their clients' tattoos, or their feelings about the final product.

I think that this is one of the compelling aspects about Ink Master that makes the show so interesting from a technical standpoint. Sure, there's the reality show drama involving the artists' personalities, but the show seems committed, more than most of the other "reality" shows out there, to celebrating the tattoos for art's sake.

I'm not on any more episodes, but I'll keep watching. 

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