The Most Controversial Ink Master Moments Ever

It's no secret that reality shows are wildly popular, and while some count on the audience's desire to partake in some legal voyeurism as people date or try to survive in the wild, some showcase actual talent. That's the case with "Ink Master" and similar shows: Tattooing has a long and strange history, and even with that long history, there can still be a lot of controversy and stigma attached to getting inked. Even when it comes to "Ink Master" — which is supposed to showcase the skills of some of the best artists around — there's controversy.

A large part of it comes from the fact that since tattooing is an art form, it can be highly subjective. One person's perfect tattoo is another person's lifelong regret, and that's ok. But there are other issues at work here, too. Tattoos can't be removed without going through a lengthy and painful process, so the work that gets done on the show belongs to someone for life. And that's a heavy responsibility. Do some artists take that too lightly? That's at the heart of just some of the problems viewers have pointed out.

While some of the most controversial moments have sent dedicated fans — and a few contestants — to social media to take things into their own hands, others made headlines in more mainstream media. And here's the thing: There are a few truly horrible things that have allegedly gone on behind the scenes, and that definitely didn't make it on camera. 

The mysterious missing episode

So here's a good, old-fashioned mystery, some headline-making confusion, and some wildly impressive detective work on the part of one Redditor in particular. In 2021, it came to the attention of mainstream entertainment sites that one episode from 2014's Season Four was missing from Netflix. It was the sixth episode, which was described as pretty standard stuff when it aired. There was a partner challenge, artists were judged on a flash challenge and their ability to create contrasts with light and dark in their tattoo... the usual. So why was it controversial enough to pull from streaming completely?

Fan speculation on Reddit included the possibility that there was a song playing in the background that had run afoul of copyright issues, or that it may have had something to do with a COVID-era audience being upset about watching a challenge that had been sponsored by Corona beer. Others guessed there were fights in the episode, but others were quick to point out that wasn't the case.

Then, a now-deleted Reddit account posted the results of some impressive sleuthing skills that seemed to prove just why the episode had been so controversial. They looked not at the artists, but the human canvases. One mentioned that he was a part of the indie wrestling circuit, so the OP started digging. They were able to match the man's image and even his tattoo to identify him as James "Rude Boy" Riley, who was convicted on charges of the possession of child pornography in 2018. The mystery, it seems, was solved.

Oliver Peck's blackface photos

Judge Oliver Peck was a mainstay on "Ink Master," until ... he wasn't. In 2020, TMZ broke news that confirmed that nothing put on the internet can ever truly disappear, and in this case, it wasn't just one or two photos but a whole bunch of photos of Peck in blackface. In some, he's in the process of using makeup to cover himself, in others, he's fully dressed in a basketball uniform, wig, and makeup. Can it get worse? Everyone could decide for themselves with another photo that surfaced, showing Peck in full blackface and wearing a Superman-style costume. Instead of an "S," it sported an "N."

Peck apologized on a now-deleted Instagram post, saying (in part, via USA Today): "I look at those photos and it's hard for me to believe I could have been so clueless, insensitive, and dumb. ... I can only hope that ... anyone I have offended, can also find it in your hearts to accept my sincere apology."

It's safe to say that people were generally unimpressed, with countless social media posts condemning Peck for a slew of reasons — including the fact that the photos had been posted to his MySpace, at a time when this was already not an appropriate thing to do. While Paramount — the network behind "Ink Master" — acknowledged his apology, they also decided that he was going to be relieved of his hosting duties.

One contestant's elimination for smoking pot

Season Five of "Ink Master" saw a massively controversial elimination: Popular competitor Josh Hibbard was removed from the show after it came out that he had been smoking pot to deal with anxiety. Interestingly, the network even tried to get fans in on the movement to push to have him stay on the show, but — as the saying goes — rules are rules. Hibbard later spoke out himself, in a statement that acknowledged he had been removed for violating the terms of the contract the artists all signed. 

Although audience appeals to override the decision didn't help, that didn't stop people from taking to Reddit to discuss what they saw as a massive injustice. There were a few points made by numerous people, including the fact that other artists were perfectly fine to smoke cigarettes as a nerve-calming, stress-reducing break. Others took issue with the idea that another artist would essentially turn him into production, and then gain an advantage with one of the top artists gone. 

And many took issue with how quick many of the artists were to condemn him for his pot use. Accusations of cheating were thrown about, but many commenters said that it was pretty low to jump on a talented artist to get him removed on a technicality instead of in straightforward competition. While some suggested there was more to the story that didn't make it on camera, there were a ton of people who weren't happy with the way things went down.

Multi-tattoo sessions

Anyone who's had a tattoo knows that it's not an entirely pleasant process — especially when it comes to getting certain areas of the body done. There's a lot that happens as the body reacts to a tattoo and gets punctured thousands upon thousands of times, and it's bad enough with one artist working on a person at a time. When human canvases go under two needles at the same time, it's not entirely non-controversial. And four artists at one time? That's what happened to a canvas named Katherine, who was openly ridiculed for reacting to the amount of pain she was in. 

In a Reddit thread that discussed the most ethically questionable moments on "Ink Master," these sorts of sessions came up a lot — especially the cheetah print. Viewers were wildly uncomfortable watching not only her pain but artists mocking her for suffering a panic attack during the procedure, and then trying to stop the process as artists kept going. What do the professionals have to say?

A Krakow tattoo artist who goes by Kate says (via her blog, Ink Art) that getting multiple tattoos in a single day can increase the risk of infection, leave your body struggling to heal, and in some cases, swelling can interfere with the process. In a piece on Byrdie, cosmetologist Jodie Michalak and dermatologist Dr. Lucy Chen agreed, also citing issues like the increased risk of infection and stress on the immune system ... and that's in addition to the pain. In other words? It's not ideal.

Should obvious mistakes get called out?

While the tattoo artists on "Ink Master" are professionals, mistakes happen. And here's the question raised by Redditors in a discussion on the ethics of the show: Should obvious mistakes be called out before they're permanently inked on someone's skin? The general consensus is that since someone has to walk around with that tattoo for the foreseeable future, yes. The problem is, it doesn't happen.

There's a ton of examples of some of the worst tattoos ever done on "Ink Master," including pin-up models with two right feet and other anatomical impossibilities, upside-down and incorrect flags, anatomically impossible animals facing in the wrong direction, and way too many spelling mistakes for a group of professionals to be making. (Who didn't cringe seeing the bible verse from "Cortnthians"?) While there's no question that human canvases know what they're signing up for, does that excuse artists — and judges — from perhaps not calling out errors in the hopes of getting competitors sent home?

As one Redditor observed, "Competitors seeing MAJOR anatomical issues and just giggling to themselves is evil ..." while another put forward the opinion that the show in itself was problematic, as it encouraged artists setting up other artists to do sub-par work. Another called out an instance where a tattoo was done with backwards thumbs ... even after it was brought to the attention of the artists. Yikes.

The sexual harassment lawsuit

Some of the most controversial moments on "Ink Master" never made it to the screen, including alleged events that led to a 2014 lawsuit. At the time of the filing, a lot of the details were scarce and most revolved around Nicoletta Robinson, the plaintiff who had been employed as a production assistant on "Ink Master." In her lawsuit, she claimed that she had been subjected to "non-consensual, unwelcome, and inappropriate touching," with her lawyers noting (via MSNBC), "From what we've been told by our client, we believe this is not an isolated incident."

Accusations make for difficult reading, and there were even allegations claiming that Robinson's supervisor was physically assaulted while on set, with many — including hosts Oliver Peck and Chris Nunez — also being accused of racist and sexist behavior. Robinson said that when she was hired, she was told she would be tormented and that it wasn't long before the sexist comments and the groping started. She added that when she complained, she was fired, and while it was announced that the network was cleared of liability, it's unclear what happened in the lawsuit. 

Interestingly, representatives of the Writer's Guild of America did come forward in light of the suit and confirmed that yes, abuses like those described in Robinson's lawsuit were much more likely to happen on the sets of reality shows than scripted shows. Reality shows lack layers of protections for employees, such as contracts, unions, and advocates, leaving those who work on them vulnerable. 

They've gotten called out for many, many instances of perceived sexism

This isn't just a single moment but many, many moments, and it's a massive problem that countless people have with the show. Start taking a look through the Reddit posts that talk about troubling trends on "Ink Master," and one thing that quickly jumps out is that a lot of people are bothered by the perception that there's rampant sexism and misogyny on the show — and there's a lot of specific instances to back that up. That includes complaints over the framing of male-female relationships, with women — specifically Marisa LaRen and Megan Jean Morris — being portrayed as love-obsessed distractions.

Others have pointed out that tattoos done on women frequently get criticized for not being feminine enough, with no consideration given to what the artist and canvas wanted. Some watching the seasons in reverse order have said that it's even more obvious just how misogynistic it is, with one person even saying, "The first few seasons are very much a product of their time. Really interesting if you view it as a documentary about society."

One of the most noticeable instances is the fact that it took until season eight to have a female winner, Ryan Ashley Malarkey (center). And it hasn't seemed to get that much better: Fast forward to season 15, and Redditors are still calling out sexism. Audiences point to comments objectifying womens' bodies and tattooed female forms criticized for being too masculine — particularly those done by Freddie Albrighton and Jon Mesa.

Steve Tefft's comments on Black human canvases

When Redditors took to the message boards to discuss the eighth season of "Ink Master," one of the things that popped up pretty regularly was discussion about artists who complained they were given a human canvas with dark skin. While many found it incredibly racist — often suggesting that someone who's going for the title of "Ink Master" should know how to work with all different skin colors and types — just as many pointed out that those complaints were nothing new.

They weren't necessarily frowned upon by the show, either. Steve Tefft was the winner of Season Two, and he was absolutely called out for his cringey complaints about skin color. During one of his episodes in Season 12, he went as far as to say, "I don't want the dark canvases. They take away half your skill sets" (via NPR).

And it's a big problem. In 2016, NPR took a look at inequality in the tattoo industry and spoke to artists and customers who pointed to what was not only a lack of representation but a pretty racist statement on standards of beauty. Comments like Tefft's send a truly awful message that only light skin is beautiful, and here's the thing. At the time, it seemed as though "Ink Master" agreed: The outlet highlighted that there were no images of tattoos that had been done on a Black canvas.

Acid cat

For every great tattoo that's done on "Ink Master," there's at least a handful that are questionable enough to make anyone rethink their determination to get a tattoo. (Does the show make sure everyone walks away happy? Not exactly: It turns out there are some reasons why not to be a human canvas on "Ink Master.") Sure, there are some that a person might be able to convince themselves that really, it's fine, no one's staring. But it's safe to say that perhaps the most controversial tattoo ever done in "Ink Masters" is equal parts disturbing, weird, and perhaps funny ... for anyone it's not permanently inked on. It is, of course, Acid Cat.

Is it a cat tripping on acid? Is it a cat being dissolved in acid? Honestly, either interpretation works, and that kind of says it all right there. There are multiple Reddit threads dedicated to debating the merits of the design and the inarguable fact that it's an absolute monstrosity. One Redditor summed it up like this: "It's honestly so bad, it's good, Like how do you do that by accident? I think you don't. Lol we've started to love it in our house." Another wrote, "me at the age of 9 with the spray can tool on mspaint," which is honestly pretty hilarious.

For every person who hated it, there were others who absolutely loved it. Some thought it was really cool, while others even got their own interpretations of it. Controversial? Subjective? Absolutely.

Birth time tattoo ... and other personal details

The tattoo industry seems like it might be a fun, indie sort of scene to get into, but there's a dark side to the industry. There's plenty of stories of hazing rituals and unprofessional artists that are inevitable in a highly unregulated industry, which brings us to something that many fans of "Ink Master" find questionable — artists who include personal details in the tattoos they ink on another person's skin. Perhaps the most egregious example was a clock where the artist used the time of his own birth. 

It was condemned as "pretty egotistical," with one judge saying that if someone he employed at his shop was caught doing that, he would be fired on the spot. Some Redditors said there was something massively weird about it, and strangely, others have done it, too. Cleen Rock One said that his trademark was using his own front teeth in skull tattoos, and Alex Rockoff used his own girlfriend as the reference on a surrealistic back tattoo (pictured). (It was unanimously voted the worst of the bunch for that challenge.)

In a discussion involving "Ink Master" ethics, Redditors discussed whether or not it was acceptable for artists to include personal details in tattoos. Some didn't see anything wrong with it, as long as it was still in line with what the client wanted. But others condemned it as egotistical, disrespectful, and narcissistic, and said that if they had gotten a tattoo like that, they would have definitely been uncomfortable with it.

Kyle Dunbar vs. Chris Nunez

Most reality shows thrive on drama, and "Ink Master" is no exception. One of the most high-profile feuds is the one between tattoo artist Kyle Dunbar and judge Chris Nunez, which MLive talked about in an interview with Dunbar. In a nutshell, Nunez claimed he was pushing Dunbar to be better, while Dunbar said, "If you train your dog by scolding every time it does something wrong, it cowers from you for some time. Eventually, if you beat it a bit, it strikes at you."

Dunbar also took issue with the way their conflict was framed, saying that even incidents where Nunez appeared to compliment him weren't sincere. That interview was given the same month that his elimination from the show aired, after an incident where he got physical with Nunez and shoved him. Dunbar later re-ignited the controversy on Reddit. 

There, he claimed that producers tried to push conflict by suggesting lines and pushing people to behave in a certain way, which led some viewers to cry foul on the part of the show. Was it fair? Dunbar made it clear that he didn't think so, suggesting that when it came to interviews,"... they keep you in there until they get what the[y] want ..." In another comment, he claimed that while there was no script, "they do try to start things ... and it is uncomfortable sometimes." Want to know the whole story behind this epic reality show feud? Check out this piece on the truth between Kyle Dunbar and Chris Nunez's on-screen fight.