Ink Master: TV Review

Ink Master Still H 2012
Spike TV
Aping the format pioneered on shows like Project Runway and Top Chef, Ink Master trades the effeminate pursuits of fashion and food for the decidedly macho world of tattoo artistry in a weekly elimination competition that proves somewhat compelling.

Dave Navarro hosts Spike TV's reality competition searching for the ultimate tattoo artist.

Competitive elimination shows are nothing new to reality TV. From Survivor to Dancing With the Stars to Project Runway, the format of dicing up an hour with a series of challenges followed by the terse assessment of a panel of judges has become so engrained that it can be tempting to think that the road to success always ends with a cash prize and a photo spread in a magazine.

Having apparently studied their fair share of Top Chef episodes, Charlie Corwin (LA Ink), Jay Peterson (NY Ink), Andrea Richter (American Ninja Warrior), and Allan Title (Dog the Bounty Hunter), the executive producers of Spike TV’s new series Ink Master, have essentially substituted tattoos for foie gras and kept almost everything else the same.

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“Over the next eight weeks, you’ll live and work together, competing in grueling tattoo sessions designed to test the most essential skills you must posses to be a master tattooist,” host Dave Navarro, the amply tattooed guitarist for the band Jane’s Addiction tells the 10 artists competing, we are repeatedly reminded, “for $100,000 and the title of Top Chef Ink Master.”

Just about every line, camera angle and edit here feels aped from a Bravo show, including the requisite awe that the aspiring tattoo artists feel toward their host.

“All of a sudden Dave Navarro walks out, and he’s a rock star, you know? This is shocking. This is a little bit intimidating,” contestant Jeremy Miller says as the group learns that its first Quickfire Challenge, er, Flash Challenge involves tattooing pig carcasses hanging in a New York City meatpacking district cooler.

“It smells like death,” Lea Vendetta, a comely French woman with dyed red hair, says as the group dons white coats and enters the locker. Aptly, the assignment is to come up with an original design for a skull tattoo and render it upon the swine flesh in just 90 minutes.

“These are real artists,” Navarro assures the camera with a straight face as the cast get to work on the pigs. “We have museums that people go and look at the works of art that great artists have done. The general public doesn’t realize that a guy on the subway is walking around with just as impressive works of art on his body, that in many ways are much more difficult to pull off.”

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Whether it’s the time constraints of the challenge or the unfamiliarity of working on pig hide, suffice it to say that the great masters don’t have all that much to fear from the resulting skulls.

“Outline, shading, color,” Chris Nunez, the owner of Miami’s Love Hate Tattoo and one of the three judges, says of one of the artist’s end products. “I’m not here to win a popularity contest, I’m here to call it like I see it, and that’s a bad tattoo.”

Kat Von D’s ex, Oliver Peck, is the show’s third judge, seems plays the good cop to Nunez’s bad, offering equal measure of criticism and encouragement.

“Day one, it’s always rough,” Peck tells contestant Heather Sinn, a blonde with multiple face piercings, after she complains that the 32 degree temperature of the meat locker didn’t help facilitate a better design.

After settling into “The Brownstone,” their lodging for the competition (though most New Yorkers will note that the building is actually constructed of bricks), the protagonists face the Elimination Challenge, er, Elimination Tattoo, where in each is paired with what the show calls a “human canvas,” aka a live person.

In the premiere episode the challenge is to cover up a client’s unwanted tattoo with a new design.

“Over 22 percent of tattooed people in the United States have at least one tattoo they want removed or covered up,” Navarro tells the contestants as they assemble in a swanky, custom built parlor where each is given his or her own workspace and ink gun.

Our budding skin artists must design and apply the new tattoos in just six hours, which makes you wonder about the mind set of the human canvases who have volunteered for this duty. But it’s here that Ink Master finally distinguishes itself from all those elimination shows that have come before it.

The tattoos are real, and there’s no shortage of drama in their application. Without revealing the outcome of the episode, one of the clients writhes in pain from the moment the gun touches her skin. “Two lines in and this girl is already screaming,” the unlucky artist says.

In the end, Navarro fires off an appropriated version of the Padma Lakshmi’s Please-pack-your-knives-and-go tagline, telling the loser, “I need you to pack up your machines and close shop.”

With eight weeks worth of elimination to come, and countless more tattoos to be rushed into existence, Ink Master may yet become as successful as predecessors like Miami Ink. To really endure beyond a season or two, however, the producers may want to think about trying to step outside the lines already drawn by other elimination shows, and come up with an original catch phrase or two.