Ink Master, a popular Spike TV show that pits tattoo artists against one another in a contest to see who is the best, is about to enter it’s fourth season. As these sorts of reality tv shows go, Ink Master is remarkably popular. I say remarkably because tattoo culture at large, while gaining rapidly in popularity, still isn’t mainstream. This introduces a number of problems that could either help or hurt that tattoo industry in general and tattoo artists specifically.
Ink Master: Judging Art
It’s been debated to death. Is art objective or absolute? Ink Master, as a show, has clearly come down on the absolutist side of the argument. I say this because the show is based on judging art–and you can’t judge a piece of art if art is subjective. But whether you should judge art is a different story altogether.
On the show, every season has featured a judging panel made up of 3 judges. Two of the judges are prominent tattoo artists with long and successful careers. The other judge has always been the host of the show, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction fame. If you’re going to judge tattoo artists on the tattoos they create, this isn’t necessarily a bad line up. Navarro’s lack of experience as an artist makes him a good tie breaker or counterbalance to the two tattoo industry veterans. He’ll have more of a layman’s perspective which often translates to a less technique-based criticism of the various tattoo pieces he’s presented to judge. This means that at the very least one judge is performing his duty based on his own personal tastes–which can’t really be fair to any of the artists.
The Technique of a True Ink Master
Having your handiwork judged and critiqued by a peer who’s at the top of their game can be very helpful. At least in terms of learning or mastering techniques. When it comes down to subject matter critique or artistic style employed (traditional, new school, etc.) it might be less helpful or even detrimental. It’s also worth pointing out that not all tattoo artists have the same approach or technique. Sometimes it’s a good thing, other times its bad. As with the application of any art form, there are absolutes in terms of techniques and there are also techniques that are modular–can be applied differently or changed to suit a particular need. Judging on Ink Master doesn’t always seem to reflect that.
The Impact on the Audience
Ink Master follows on the heels of other successful reality tv shows based in the tattoo world, such as Miami Ink and L.A. Ink. It isn’t the first time the general public has had the opportunity to experience tattoo culture close up, but it is the first time that mainstream America is getting to see artists compete with one another. Despite the implied change of focus, Ink Master is still a reality tv show and it’s primary focus is on the drama–not the art or technique, which seems to be secondary.
These kinds of shows are turning on viewers to the idea of getting a tattoo without providing them the informative resources necessary to make them a properly informed consumer. Sure, the show will toss out an occasional factoid in the process, but there really isn’t a great depth of educational material on the program and that can make daily life for tattoo artists more difficult than it needs to be. As with any service industry, one bad review can cripple your business and ill-informed consumers are more likely to write negative reviews.
Why Ink Master Will Never Reveal the Best Artist
Back on track! This, perhaps, is the biggest problem I see with Ink Master. The show winners will never truly be the “Best Artist” on the show each season. Viewers won’t notice because the mainstream American audience for the show isn’t in tune with what it takes to create a tattoo or what it requires to be a great tattoo artist, as I’ve just stated. In order for the winning tattoo artist to truly be the best of the competing artists, you’d have to be comparing apples to apples. The show currently compares apples to oranges to bananas.
What I mean by that is each artist on the show is extremely skilled in their own right and in their own style. Ink Masters as a show is taking artists of different styles and skill levels (and experience levels-which also makes a noticeable difference) and trying to compare them to each other using a series of challenges that force the artists to create in styles they don’t typically employ and in some cases, using media which they may or may not have experience working in. Each challenge often slants to the artist who has the most experience in a certain style or technique, which isn’t exactly fair as competitions go.
Another problem with Ink Master as a show are the constraints placed on the artists. In addition to occasionally having to create a piece using a non-preferred style, there are also time constraints. In the real world of tattooing the artist will take as much time as he or she feels is needed to get the piece perfect. Sure, the time limit makes for a great challenge on the show, but if the goal of the competition is to name the best artist what is the point in having a time trial?
Many artists appear on the show in an effort to promote their art and their tattoo shops. It makes perfect sense and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it can backfire immensely. Failing at some of these somewhat arbitrary challenges could give viewers the impression that a given artist isn’t very good–which could be entirely false. Many tattoo artists are specialists. They excel at particular styles and particular techniques and that is generally the norm. Sure, many tattoo artists are well-versed enough that they can do most styles and techniques well, but many veteran artists are incredible at something specific. The all-encompassing nature of the Ink Master competition makes sense from the producers and show developers point of view, but not from a practical one and the distinction between the two generally can not be made by the viewer.
So What Am I Supposed to Do With Ink Master?
Watch it, if you like. The drama is entertaining and the art is fantastic. You might learn a few new names or come across an artist whose style is right up your alley. That said, make no mistake–there is probably more than one “Ink Master” per season and the winner may or may not be the best. If you are new to the tattoo world, do your research and learn about individual artists, their processes, and their strengths and weaknesses. If you want to get a piece done, come in informed, patient, and willing to listen. It’s the best way to ensure you’ll get a piece of art you’ll really enjoy.
The new season of Ink Master is slated to start Tuesday February 25 at 10pm on Spike TV. Season 4 will feature 2 artists that may be familiar to Richmonders: Matti Hixson from Virginia Beach, VA and David Bell from Fredericksburg, VA.
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