Behind the Scenes on 'Ink Masters'

Glenda Hersh and Andrea Richter talk about making permanent art on reality television. 

On Tuesday May 24, we will watch as three men are judged on how they’ve permanently altered the flesh of other men. Our heroes are tattoo artists by the names of Anthony, Christian, and Cleen. The savage judging will air live on Spike at 10 p.m. EST, and additional content will stream online. These three men—these artists— will have labored for 48 hours, each of the three having had two human canvases on which to show their work. Two other men, Sausage and Matti, will compete on a livestream, just for the sake of settling a rivalry. You know, with life-altering body modifications. Casual.

Whoever has altered the flesh for the better—the best, that is—will become a master. An Ink Master, of course. They’ll take home $100,000, and they will be judged by a jury of their eliminated competitors. This chorus of fallen tattoo artists is the jury, the human canvases are the receivers of the tattoos, and our heroes are the ones vying for the title of Ink Master. And there is also Dave Navarro.

You could tease the drama of Ink Master forever, because it is the stress that keeps on giving. The concept of the show is simple: tattoo artists will compete to give the best tattoos in new challenges every week, and the weakest artists will be eliminated. But the game of the show goes beyond the challenge at hand; it is ever-changing. It includes art-based, Project Runway-style micro-challenges and larger conceptual twists, i the move for the current season to be called Revenge. This season, fan favorites who’d lost before were invited back to compete with fresh blood. Although the show’s subject matter and talent are rife with drama, it is the format, casting, and expanding of the viewer’s insight into the Ink Master universe that makes the show so fantastic. So who are the masters behind the masters?

I got on the phone with two executive producers on Ink Master: Glenda Hersh, the president and co-CEO of Original Media, and Andrea Richter, the showrunner herself. Together, and with their team at Spike, they make one of the most complicated competition reality shows on air today. We discussed human canvases, fixing bad tattoos, my fear of Dave Navarro, and what surprises the live finale and next season of Ink Master will hold. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Are people ever scared of Dave Navarro? I’m intimidated

Glenda Hersh: I am.

Andrea Richter: No!

GH: No, we’re kidding. He’s warm and kind, and people are so excited to meet him, be associated with him, hear his thoughts, and—in some way—be under his mentorship.

AR: All artists and human canvases who come on the show love Dave, he’s warm, personable and open, and he’s an artist, so the artists can respect that. We could not have a better host. And he loves it, he loves to see the artwork, debate with the judges. He’s a great fit and face of Ink Master.

Could you tell us a little bit about the ‘Redemption’ segment of Ink Master that shows online? People get to fix their tattoos, but there’s more to it.

GH: We love redemption, we think it’s a really elegant way to explore a side of Ink Master that you don’t see in the regular show. For that reason, it’s a super interesting sort of second side and second piece of the the Rashomon that is Ink Master.

AR: That was the question that was always asked—that we were never able to answer during the series—which is ‘how do these human canvases really feel about their tattoos’? And as Dave Navarro said in the first season, “what happens to those who don’t get their tattoos fixed, or it’s not what they wanted?” It’s interesting to delve into, finding out exactly how all of these canvases feel once they go home. Obviously, you’re in front of the cameras, your artist is competing and you want them to do well, you came to be on the show and you’re excited, so the adrenaline is pumping. For those reasons, you don’t see their true reaction until two weeks, months, or even years after the tattoo’s on their body. You know, when everybody else looks at the tattoo.

Are there any big success stories?

AR: We have many human canvases, approximately 1500 have been tattooed on the show so far. There are of canvases who are really happy and loved their artist. There have been canvases who were even tattooed by more than one artist, which we often feature on redemption. We’re working on some new twists for the next season of redemption where canvases who really loved their artist can come back. That’s part of the story that you want to know: exactly how do all of them feel about their tattoos?

Speaking of feelings, what kind of surprises can we look forward to in this finale? How will fans feel about the future of the show?

GH: It’s a shift in the way the Ink Master model works. We really think that’s part of the success why it keeps growing and people love it and fans stay with it year to year is that the format evolves and changes. Not only are you getting fantastic art, and great talent and super characters and really challenging gameplay but you’re also surprised by what the game is every season. I think some of those changes in the format of the game happened organically, as the show grew and morphed, the format did with it.

AR: Most great competition shows have to evolve, and I’d like to think Ink Master is one of the great competition shows—and they tend to twist.

Human Canvas. That is such a wild term. How did you come up with that? Had you overhead an artist say it, or was that an invention?

AR: It was definitely something we came up with. In looking at that term—and it has become very catchy—but in looking at the overall show, it was ‘how can we really clearly state what it is that’s happening here?’ Were looking at the idea that these tattoo artists are putting permanent artwork on their canvas. A human canvas. So that’s where that came from.

I don’t have any tattoos, but I love the show. Do you think it resonates more with a certain type of person? Or do you find Ink Master has a well-rounded audience of human canvases, blank and otherwise?

GH: I think the general world watches and appreciates, and you can be fascinated by the artistry of the work itself, even if you don’t have tattoos. Also, the chemistry of what goes on, and the storytelling that we have—the competition, the characters—you just get sucked into it. Even when we’re screening it, or when I’m talking to Andrea about treatments, ideas, or casting, I’m totally drawn into the story that’s unfolding, beyond the fact that it’s about the tattoo world. I think it’s completely embraced by the tattoo world, but you get a general audience as well.

AR: I think that as a viewer watching it with no tattoos, it’s almost more intriguing, for the fact that you know what the stakes are. What Ink Master has, that other shows don’t, is that you have normal everyday people coming into the competition, being the human canvases, and then you have all these great artists. You have something that is dynamic to watch for people from different backgrounds, along with great artwork.

As producers, do you sense which artists will be great going forward, both in the competition and in winning the audience over?

AR: As far as who’s going to do well in the competition, it’s impossible to figure out ahead of time. There are so many factors: gameplay, strategy, who’s having a great day, what style of tattoo is going to cater to that artist at the right time. No idea how Revenge would work out.

GH: Different artists are different people’s favorites for different reasons, so when you get in the season, you might get three or four fan favorites. Especially with this Revenge season, when favorites are returning.

AR: I think there were so many on both sides of the fence. We, as producers, when we go through and cast the show, we look for characters who are intriguing and interesting and have a point of view, so that resonates with all different types of fans. As producers telling the story, we want to give the audience different levels and different stories, through those artists. So that there’s something for everyone.

How does the casting process work, then? How do you go about deciding which stories to tell, or who gets tattooed as a human canvas?

AR: For the tattoo artists they apply, but we also go out and find and ask people to apply. We look for the best of the best, they have to submit their artwork. We hit the pavement looking. For human canvases, we get a mass amount of people who reach out in the tri-state area, but also across the country. So we have to dig through our database, a lot of times it’s just matching up the right tattoos with what we’re offering. We look for great personalities who know what they want in a tattoo, and that’s basically the process. When you go to our website and fill out an application, it says to tell us different tattoos you might be interested in, so depending on our challenges, we contact potential human canvases based on those categories.

What was the biggest surprise of this season?

AR: A big shocker for all of us and when I wanted to hide under the table, that was a pivotal moment in the season, Sausage and Matty went head to head and Jimmy and Kleen Rock 1 went head to head. We all were on the edge of our seats.

GH: That was the true nail biter. There wasn’t a happy ending to come from it. No matter what happened, it was going to be shocking or weird.

AR: This season, you have so many favorites that you’ve had from past seasons so when it came down and everyone’s starting to get eliminated, which you know had to happen, your heart just breaks. Because you love all of them so much. Those things are hard to watch.

What will the finale hold, for people’s fans favorites? I feel like this season’s been a success for so many people, but the losses were great too.

AR: You have our fan favorites back up there, Matty and Sausage, ready to settle the score. We felt that was a big moment that fans wanted to see… again. We’re letting them go at it. Then, there’s the title competition itself.

GH: We’re so excited about this season, and Spike has been a phenomenal partner from the beginning, they’re supportive, creatively and organically. We feel really lucky.

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