Tragic Details About Ink Master Contestants

Despite the preponderance of pain, needles, and physical anguish, "Ink Master" is an upbeat TV show. Running almost continuously since 2012, but with a couple of breaks and several spinoffs, the Spike TV and then Paramount Network series applies the intense reality-competition format to tattoo artists. Each week, some of the best needle-wielding skin illustrators compete in tattoo challenges, and by the end of the season there's only one contestant left to claim the show's $100,000 prize. The series amplifies the talents of many artists while also depicting the rich, thriving, and tight-knit subculture of the tattoo community.

It takes no small amount of confidence, bravery, and wherewithal to not only get a tattoo, but to create and execute them, too, particularly on television with judges watching and prize money on the line. Many "Ink Master" contestants must already be in possession of a steely resolve, because they needed it to endure daunting life challenges, be they economic or health related. Here are some times when the stars of the "Ink Master" reality TV franchise had to face the most tragic things that actual reality could throw at them.

Scott Marshall died of a drug overdose

Tattoo artist Scott Marshall obviously brought something special to his medium, because he won $100,000 for his skills on Season 4 of "Ink Master" in 2014. Acclaimed for his ability to mix realistic styles with bizarre and surrealist elements and incorporate his passion for Japanese-inspired designs when appropriate, Marshall was versatile and capable, and he loved to boast of his unique and high-quality spin. Faced with a final challenge of delivering a portion of a full back tattoo, Marshall's heavily detailed, time-constrained, traditionalist work brought him a victory.

A little more than a year after winning Season 4 of "Ink Master," Marshall was found dead. After phoning his wife from his Roselle, Illinois, tattoo shop to tell her he felt too ill to go home, he checked into a nearby Holiday Inn Express. After he was discovered unresponsive the next afternoon, paramedics pronounced the tattoo artist dead. An initial autopsy blamed the death on a heart issue, but a full workup by a local coroner's office would later determine that Marshall died of an accidental overdose of heroin and benzodiazepine, or muscle relaxants. He was 41 years old.

Robbie Ripoll nearly died from a suspension mishap

"Ink Master: Rivals," the fifth season of the series, brought palpable tension. Robbie Ripoll competed against his tattooing sibling Jayvo Scott, and while Ripoll would prove triumphant in the battle of brothers, he'd finish in 13th place overall in his "Ink Master" season.

Self-assured and adept at bright colors, Ripoll turned his reality TV fame into a career as a touring tattoo artist, traveling to conventions and events. At some of those body modification presentations, Ripoll would show off another of his interests: body suspension. A daring combination of dance, extreme sports, and ancient cultural practices of Indigenous groups from around the world, it involves suspending practitioners from great heights via hooks that connect directly into their bodies by attaching to piercings. In May 2019, Ripoll performed his suspension act at the Kansas City Tattoo Arts Convention. While hanging from the ceiling of the venue, a piece of equipment malfunctioned, disconnecting Ripoll and sending him plunging to the floor. Upon impact, he endured a compound fracture in two leg bones and destroyed the ball joint that connected them. 

Ripoll's leg would never fully heal from the accident, and doctors had to surgically amputate it. With the aid of a prosthetic, he returned to his work as a tattoo artist. "Over the last few years, I've been able to go from losing it all (including my leg)," he wrote on Instagram, "to building a seven-figure tattoo shop."

Geary Morrill died from cancer

Geary Morrill, a tattoo artist based in Richmond, Virginia, also worked under the name Roy G. Biv, a mnemonic device used to remember the colors of the rainbow. That alluded to his colorful comic book and pop-art-inspired technique. With 17 years of ultra-modern tattooing experience to his name, and just after getting a Lyme disease diagnosis under control, Morrill charmed his way into Season 8 of "Ink Master." He didn't last past the early weeks of the competition, faulted by the judges for a lack of preparation.

Four years after his brief run on "Ink Master" in 2016, Morrill was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors told the tattoo artist that he had an advanced, stage four case of colorectal cancer, and he endured partially self-delivered chemotherapy treatments at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. In January 2021, he was admitted to a hospital and placed in critical care to treat cancer complications and pneumonia. Less than two weeks later, Morrill died. He was 43.

Cancer killed Clint Cummings

Clint Cummings was a common face in the universe of 2010s tattoo television. After competing on Season 2 of "Ink Master" in 2012 (where he finished in seventh place), the highly experienced tattoo artist from Texas went on to headline "Tattoo Nightmares Miami" and return to the "Ink Master" franchise with the 2015 spinoff "Ink Master: Redemption."

After his first run on "Ink Master" in 2012, and between his many other TV gigs, Cummings returned to work at his tattoo shop in Fort Worth. In January 2016, he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, which had already progressed to stage four by the time doctors discovered it. Due to the site of his tumor, and where treatments would focus, Cummings was unable to tattoo as much, citing the tremendous amount of pain. By October 2016, the cancer had moved into Cummings' kidneys, lungs, and liver, and he was hospitalized. The tattooist's death was announced on December 24, 2016. Sources reported his age at the time of death as either 35 or 36.

Health issues forced Oba Jackson to leave Ink Master

A graphic designer turned tattoo artist who specializes in portraits and tattoos with deep cultural significance, Oba Jackson (also known as Oba Moori) had only been tattooing full-time in Delaware for a little more than two years when he got the call to join Season 11 of "Ink Master" in 2018. After only competing in a handful of tattoo challenges, Jackson pulled himself out of the game and left the series entirely early in the season.

About a month into the production of his season of "Ink Master," fellow contestant Amanda Boone, an emergency medical technician, became concerned about Jackson's health. A blood pressure check resulted in a very high number, prompting Jackson to see a local doctor. "He told me you either leave the show or have a heart attack or a stroke," Jackson told Delaware Online. Diagnosed with high blood pressure years earlier and Type 2 diabetes just before "Ink Master" began taping, Jackson still experienced dangerously elevated levels, with his prescribed medicines not effective against the stress of competition and his inability to sleep well in the show's group-living environment. On doctors' advice, Jackson left "Ink Master" after four episodes.

Complications from cancer forced Gia Rose to leave Ink Master

Gia Rose left home to live on her own when she was 16 and thereafter lived an itinerant lifestyle, traveling and sleeping on trains and a riverboat before settling in North Carolina when she became an apprentice at a tattoo shop. Rose competed on the eighth season of "Ink Master" and made such an impression with fans and producers that she was asked to return for "Ink Master: Angels." 

Before Rose parlayed her tattoo skills into a burgeoning reality TV career, the artist was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer at 31 years old. Rose appeared on just five episodes of the spinoff before her abrupt departure. Unfortunately, Rose had to drop out of the production when she developed health problems related to her ongoing cancer treatments. The series, which featured "Ink Master" all-stars flying around the country to engage in tattoo challenges, was unworkable for Rose, who experienced a cancer-related inflammation of a sciatic nerve.  The condition led her doctor to advise her against getting on an airplane, making it impossible to continue shooting "Ink Master: Angels." "I beat cancer, I no longer have cancer, but I still deal with a lot of physical repercussions," Rose told Monsters and Critics.

Halo Grey had testicular cancer

Representing Baltimore and entering "Ink Master" with nine years of artistic experience, the tattooist known by the pseudonym of Halo Grey (real name: Sean Jankowski) demonstrated an aptitude with many kinds of inking, including horror-inspired imagery, traditional work, and realistic designs. Grey did very well in the competitive "Ink Master," and in the fourth season of the show, which aired in 2014, he wasn't eliminated until the last challenge just before the finale.

About two years before he made his debut on "Ink Master," Grey endured a major medical crisis. In early 2013, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and underwent surgery right away to remove malignant tissue. Afterward, doctors told the then-320-pound Grey that he'd need to report for chemotherapy treatments and take a year-long absence from tattooing to fully recuperate, as he couldn't safely attend to customers. Unwilling to not do the thing he loved, and which also provided his livelihood, he instead adopted Gerson Therapy, eating an all-organic diet in lieu of chemotherapy. He lost 115 pounds and his cancer went into remission.

Caroline Evans has a serious disease

When "Ink Master" reinvented itself with a "Rivals" concept in Season 5, Caroline Evans entered the competition to compete head-on with upstart New Jersey-based Ink Obsession coworker Julia Carlson. While renowned for her specialties of cover-ups and corrections in both grayscale and color styles, Evans would finish in 18th place in the late-2014 season of "Ink Master," dead last and the first tattoo artist sent home.

As many previous medical events suggested that she likely carried a genetic marker for a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, Evans, lacking the substantial amount of money the elective test required, agreed to participate in a study through a hospital that would pay for it. She indeed tested positive for EDS, though a cardiologist had previously diagnosed her with Marfan syndrome. Like that condition, EDS is a collection of disorders that affect the joints and connective tissue. Patients deal with symptoms such as excessively stretchy joints and skin, as well as lifelong constant pain. Evans learned she had EDS just before she went in front of the cameras for "Ink Master: Rivals."

Marisa LaRen has Hashimoto's disease

Marisa LeRen differentiated herself from the rest of her Season 6 "Ink Master" competition by emphasizing her enthusiasm for fitness and self-improvement. One of the least experienced contestants, with only three years of tattooing work to her name, she joined the show — officially titled "Ink Master: Master vs. Apprentice" — specifically to compete against her mentor, Erik Campbell, to show that she was ready to be treated like a fully realized artist. LaRen would finish in 10th place in that 2015 season of "Ink Master," a few slots below Campbell.

Following her time on "Ink Master," LaRen found herself suddenly and seriously ill. Despite seeking out the opinions of doctors who ordered numerous blood tests and an endoscopy, she couldn't get a definitive diagnosis. "I was unable to keep down solid food for a year," LaRen told Inked. "I lost weight, couldn't work out, I couldn't even sweep the floor of the tattoo shop without almost passing out from over exertion." After two years of illness, a doctor pinpointed LaRen's ailment. "I was diagnosed with Hashimoto's disease, which is an autoimmune disease that attacks your thyroid," LaRen said, which explained her stomach issues, as Hashimoto's stops the production of stomach acid. Going untreated for so long left LaRen with a litany of health problems, including intolerances for many foods, gastrointestinal distress, hormone imbalances, and high cholesterol.

Josh Hibbard's self-medicating for mental health led to his exit from Ink Master

Josh Hibbard, blunt, direct, and passionate about promoting tattooing as a legitimate form of art and individual expression, competed twice on "Ink Master." In Season 3, he came close to the title, finishing in fifth place. Invited back for the fifth-season "Rivals" challenge, he competed against fellow Season 3 also-ran Jason Clay Dunn. In both seasons the Portland artist showcased his prowess with making tattoos with an uncannily realistic quality.

Hibbard, who experienced living unhoused in his younger years, suffers from extreme anxiety on occasion, and when he sensed an overwhelming sense of panic coming on during a Season 5 taping of "Ink Master," he self-medicated as he often did, with the use of marijuana. Hibbard lives in Oregon, where marijuana consumption is legal for both medicinal and recreational uses. But drug use of that nature is forbidden by the "Ink Master" contestant rules, which Hibbard had agreed to follow. He was kicked off of the show, officially for breach of contract.

Emily Elegado has endometriosis and faced cancer

Emily Elegado arrived at "Ink Master" Season 5 in 2014 with something to prove. Per the nature of that iteration's "Rivals" theme, Elegado faced off against fellow Tampa, Florida, tattooist Aaron Is, with whom she'd been at odds since an encounter at the tattoo studio where she worked. 

During the filming of "Ink Master," and caught on camera and broadcast as part of an episode that aired in 2014, Elegado suffered a sudden and painful rupture of an ovarian cyst. "That was a horrible day for me. I never wanted anything like that to come out on national television, but sometimes you can't control your body and stress will do incredible things to it," Elegado told Matt & Jess TV Commentary. That reproductive organ growth is related to Elegado's diagnosed endometriosis, a condition characterized by uterine tissue growing elsewhere, usually the ovaries. Endometriosis can lead to inflammation, swelling, scar tissue, bleeding, and significant pain. Elegado's reproductive health issues are so serious that in the eight years prior to her appearing on "Ink Master," doctors twice identified the possibility that cancer could develop. Elegado ultimately finished in ninth place, but she'd earn a reputation as one of the show's most outspoken and spirited competitors.

Christian Buckingham was struck by a drunk driver

Befitting his status as one of the most prominent tattooists in the U.S., Christian Buckingham is heavily inked, which he showed off on Season 7 of "Ink Master" in 2016. He also boasted tremendous skills in tattooing others and progressed all the way to his season's live finale, employing strategies he learned by watching other reality competition shows, such as "Survivor," adding gamesmanship to all the artistic celebration.

On "Ink Master," Buckingham only briefly discussed why he decided to throw himself into the dream career that put him on television. The reason: He was victimized in a car accident. "I got hit by a drunk driver many years ago," he told Hardwood and Hollywood of the injury he suffered while on the job, from which he endured long term and tough-to-correct damage to his left shoulder. "I had several dislocations and ended up having three surgeries to fix things up." When his workman's compensation insurance refused to pay for any more medical procedures after a doctor said the shoulder would never properly heal, Buckingham received a sum of money to train for a new career. "A lot of my friends told me I should try tattooing," he said.

f you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).