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Ink Master

December 26, 2012

One fascinating outlet for the analysis of visual art in today's pop culture landscape is Ink Master

I caught an episode of the reality television series, which puts professional tattoo artists to the test for a $100,000 grand prize, a couple of nights ago in my hotel room on Cape Cod. I was on the whole mesmerized, gratified and little amused by the seriousness of the show in terms of digging into the aesthetics of tattoo art.

The series host (Dave Navarro, a rock musician best known for his work with Jane's Addiction) was quite wooden. But the two judges, master tattoo artists Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez, were deeply and pleasingly intense about their craft and merciless in their assessments of the contestants shading, coloring and lining skills.

The three finalists were each given a willing model (known in the business as the "canvas," which has the curious effect of both emphasizing the artistic basis of tattoo art while depersonalizing the fact that the artist is inflicting intense pain on a person in order to achieve the artistic result). Each contestant also received carte blanche to tattoo whatever they wanted on whichever bit(s) of the human anatomy they chose, and could decide whether to use color or just plain ink. Two finalists went for backs and produced aggressive-grotesque heavy metal style tattoos, both without color. The third finalist adorned a pair of copious thighs with characters from Norse mythology in many hues.

What struck me as odd about the whole exercise, however, was how little attention the judges paid to the content of the work being produced. All the analysis seemed to be about the technical aspects of tattooing -- the quality of the line, color, shade etc. But the subject matter, at least in the episode I caught -- the season finale -- wasn't discussed at all.

One of the finalists created one of the most offensive tattoos I've ever seen -- a massive, raging skull, riddled with bullet holes. The head appeared to be bursting out of the woman's back upon which it was inscribed. It was ugly and seemed to be intended solely to shock. The other back tattoo, though technically adept according to the judges, didn't strike me as being particularly interesting to look at. It depicted one of those angry, zombie-like figures that you see on so many heavy metal fans' bodies, T-shirts and posters. The Norse characters seemed to me to be a little more interesting. It was violent in its way (a Valkyrie had a black eye.) But the violence told more of a story and was more subtle. Plus, the colors made the art appear to leap out of the canvas's flesh.

I'm confused as to why the judges offered no insights into what was being depicted by the artists. Nothing is out of bounds in body art, which is one of the best things about it: one of the canvases earlier on in the series had something (I forget what) tattooed on her vagina. But that doesn't mean you can't interrogate an artist for his or her choice of subject and consider things like originality as much as attention to line.

Perhaps the judges talked about content in other episodes of Ink Master and the finale just happened to be devoid of this discussion. It's a shame if that's the case. If not, then I hope that they make it a priority when the next series rolls around.

Oh, and I also hope that Ink Master's success brings about more reality series in which artists working in different media get their work as seriously critiqued.


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