Why Ink Master is totally fake

Ink Master premiered in 2012 on Spike (now the Paramount Network) at the height of the "shows about tattoos" craze which includes things like Tattoo Nightmares and Miami/LA/New York Ink. The premise of the show is pretty simple — a bunch of tattoo artists compete to see who is the best overall artist, as judged by Miami Ink's Chris Nuñez, Oliver Peck (the one-time husband of Kat Von D and expert tattooist), and Dave Navarro (who was once married to Carmen Electra, plays guitar, and has a lot of tattoos of his own).

Each week an artist will be tested with a variety of sort-of tattoo-themed challenges, from doing graffiti to painting cars. Winners get immunity from being eliminated while the rest go head-to-head to see who will get kicked off the show until only one remains. That last artist standing will be crowned, wait for it, the Ink Master, and win a cash prize. The show has made it through plenty of seasons and two spinoffs, indicating it's pretty popular overall. But is everything as real as it seems on the show? Reality TV has a bad reputation for not being all that real, and it looks like Ink Master is no different.

The human canvases may be staged

They call the people who show up to get tattooed on Ink Master "human canvases," which is only vaguely dehumanizing but accurate enough for the show's purposes. On any given episode, artists will meet a total stranger for only a few moments before having to tattoo something on them with no idea beforehand what it might be. Sometimes even the canvas doesn't know.

One of the obvious issues here when you watch the show is that canvases are sometimes tossed in specifically to be difficult. As SFWeekly points out, one canvas on the show was totally covered in psoriasis, a skin condition that alters an artist's ability to do their work. And since the producers interview all canvases ahead of time, they knew this was going to be an issue and did it anyway.

Other canvases have walked out mid-tattoo, paramedics have had to be called in, and some had no chance of sitting for the whole piece, like the woman who was completely sunburned. Since all of these people are pre-selected, it's obviously the fault of the producers that things don't pan out, but it's presented as though it's spontaneous drama that an artist should somehow be able to adapt to on the fly.

The timing isn't as down to the wire as it seems

There have been literally hundreds of people tattooed on the show since it premiered, and not every tattoo looks like a winner when it's done. It's natural that viewers have wanted to hear about the experiences of real participants. One such participant was redditor Coreymatchem who was a human canvas twice and certainly doesn't regret his experience at all.

According to Corey, despite the fact that the time limit is a big part of how the drama on the show is set up, it's actually pretty meaningless when you're in there getting the tattoo for real. For an elimination challenge, artists may be given 6 hours to do their work. Throughout that time, the audience will see Dave Navarro appear to give warnings of how much time is left. But Corey said that's all editing. In his experience, some artists were finished literally hours in advance. Other artists even went over.

Redditor Tattood_Mom said that, on her season, Dave Navarro's timed warnings were fake, they were all filmed at one time and just edited in afterward. So while it presents a sense of urgency for an audience at home watching, the time was apparently meaningless on the show.

The Human Canvas jury is mostly irrelevant

A big part of elimination process on Ink Master is choosing a handful of "worst" tattoos that have to go head-to-head before the judges. In many seasons, this is, in part, accomplished with the help of the human canvases. Calling it the "human canvas jury," the newly tattooed individuals are gathered in a room to look over everyone's work and critique it. The canvases will argue over which tattoo they like the least, and that artist is sent up for elimination before the judges, along with whoever was selected as the bottom two or three candidates.

Coreymatchem was on a jury twice, and as he explained in his Reddit AMA, it was all fake. He says they did discuss as a group what they all thought of the tattoos, but it was edited out of the final show. Instead, what the producers asked them to say is what was included. He says his jury actually picked an entirely different tattoo than the one that made it to air, but the show afterward was edited to make it look otherwise. In the end, the producers decide who stays and who goes based on their interests, not the contestants as a jury.

The judges aren't nearly as involved as it seems

You'd think a big part of the whole process of tattooing for a judge would be the judge paying attention to what you're doing, keeping an eye on how the tattoo progresses and really getting a feel for what went right or wrong. And the show does a good job of showing how during the process, artists will check in on each others' work and the judges also will go from studio to studio, checking out what's going on. Often we'll see Chris Nuñez and Oliver Peck chatting about what they think looked like an issue with a certain artist. So how is this a problem?

The problem with the way these judge interactions are portrayed, according to redditor Coreymatchem, is that they're totally staged. He said the judges are actually barely on set at all, and they came in for about five minutes to do the walk-through on camera. When this gets edited into the show, it's very seamless and the entire montage makes it look like all three judges were in the room the whole time. Jdizzle, a canvas on a different season, adds that some of the judges seem to make things up on the fly as well, not really sticking to any standards or guidelines when it comes to judging.

Flash challenges don't really test tattoo skills

There are two kinds of challenges on Ink Master. The elimination tattoo is the challenge that will see one artist go home, but there's also a flash challenge that typically happens earlier in the show, and those can get really weird.

Even though everyone on the show is a tattoo artist, the flash challenge can be anything from spray painting walls to sculpting to burning a canvas with live electrical wires. Artistic, sure, but not tattooing. And past contestants have pointed out that the show is unfair in how it challenges you to do something you have no idea how to do. After all, if the point is to choose the best tattoo artist, does it matter if they know how to make a giant Lite-Brite mural?

Frank McManus was an artist who appeared in Season 3 of Ink Master. While he enjoyed his time on the show, he notes that the competition really doesn't tell you anything about an artist's skill. For instance, one of his challenges required him to tattoo an inmate in a prison cell. Not the craziest thing ever, but he also had only one needle and extremely poor lighting. With limited resources and equipment, he felt there was no way he could produce work to the best of his ability, nor could anyone else. As he told PennLive, the challenges "don't have much to do with what tattooing really is."

Some of the challenges are a nightmare

Speaking of challenges, it's not enough that they don't necessarily show off artistry and skill as it relates to ability to tattoo. Some of them are just borderline torture and physically daunting even before you have to deal with the artistry aspect of things.

Heather Sinn was a contestant in Ink Master's first season and recalled just how brutal the entire ordeal was when speaking with LA Weekly. She said between tattooing dead pigs in a freezing meat locker and getting sunburned on a rooftop on a hot summer's day while working on a car, the show was more like Fear Factor than anything else.

Sinn was ready to leave the show on more than one occasion, but producers desperately tried to keep her there, going so far as to hire a masseuse to help her deal with the physical toll of some of the bizarre challenges. She acknowledges that she was probably too sensitive for the show, but also should have known it was never really going to be about art.

Despite Sinn being in the first season, the show hasn't really changed much about how the flash challenges are presented, continuing to put artists in situations where they may freeze or get burned as a side effect of their work.

Judges seem to play favorites

One of the biggest charges that can be levied against any reality show is that it's all plotted out ahead of time and the judges and producers have already decided who's going to win. From Coreymatchem's comments about producers ignoring the jury it seems like this is also the case on Ink Master, and he's not the only one to acknowledge it.

One of the most memorable artists on Ink Master was Kyle Dunbar, who participated in two different seasons and famously got into a physical altercation with judge Chris Nuñez before he was kicked off the show. During an NBC interview, Dunbar chats about the show and mentions that one of the hardest things for him to deal with on the show was watching the judges praise a tattoo with noticeable flaws from an artist they liked while simultaneously critiquing the same flaws from a different artist.

Chris May was a contestant on Season 3 of Ink Master and told Northern Illinois University's paper that he had to "call shenanigans" on the show for its favoritism of artist Katherine "Tatu Baby" Flores, who got to compete in two separate seasons. Flores won the first competition on her season back, which May feels was only because she was a draw for the show's audience, and not because she had the best tattoo. In the world of TV, it's all about ratings.

Some of the shots are just straight-up staged

Tattood_Mom, jdizzle161, and Coreymatchem mention in passing during their Reddit AMAs that the producers stage events to get that perfect shot that's going to look or sound better when it gets in TV. And while jdizzle161 concedes he's actually worked in editing and understands this is how TV is made, it does make the "reality" part of reality TV take a backseat when you hear how people are told to act and react ahead of time.

Corey notes that canvases are given headphones. You can see some of the canvases in some seasons apparently listening to music, but it's actually just set up by producers who stick headphones on them just long enough to get a shot on camera because the headphones are made by a sponsor. There's actually an episode in Season 7 where the artists have to design a pair of Monster headphones.

Phones, books, and other items are banned on set, partially for privacy reasons but partially because it adds to the drama. As Corey says, "Who'd wanna see people getting tattooed all calm and reading?"

Tattood_Mom said she had a pre- and post-tattoo interview that never made it to air that was mostly prompted as well. They would ask her questions and then, if they didn't like the answers, ask her to rephrase them.

Producers force the drama

Heather Sinn said she spent more than her fair share of time crying on the show in her season. The artists were sleep deprived and forced to engage in drama for the cameras if they wanted any rest. Sinn told LA Weekly the artists would talk with each other about their issues with the production during downtime. At one point a producer literally told them that, if they wanted to go to sleep, they better stop discussing the show and start discussing each other because none of their complaining was going to make it to air. That seems like a pretty cut-and-dried ultimatum meant to make the show seems a little saltier than it was.

Redditor jdizzle161 got a tattoo from one-time Ink Master Angel Gia Rose and pointed out that, during the actual process, everyone got along fine. The drama is just a product of how the show is stitched together in editing. He also said when the judges looked at his tattoo they seemed to love it, but when it came time for the critique they went out of their way to find issues, resulting in his artist being sent home.

They obviously know things are going to screw up

One of the most obvious issues on the show to an outsider watching is the strange relationship between canvas and artist. In real life, you probably put at least some effort into selecting the artist you want to work with, rather than just have them assigned, usually out of spite, by another artist.

The divide between artist and canvas is rarely explicitly mentioned on the show. Canvases must acknowledge, as Coreymatchem stated in his AMA, and accept ahead of time as part of the contract that the tattoo they get is the tattoo they get, and it's their responsibility if they dislike it and want something fixed.

But there is also a show called Ink Master: Redemption, also hosted by Dave Navarro, the sole premise of which is that people who hated their tattoos get to come back and complain. The canvases can sit for a "redemption" tattoo if they like what the artist who ruined their first tattoo comes up with, or they can walk out. But the mere existence of the show is something of a slap in the face to the original show, a sort of safety net for the inevitable screw-ups that will take place under such difficult to navigate conditions that are just not ideal for producing tattoos.