Where Reality Tattoo TV Shows Go Wrong
Let's face it: "Reality" tattoo TV shows don't portray the true realities of tattooing in any way, shape or form. Not everyone who gets tattooed has a great story behind their desire to get inked, and few great tattoos are finished in an hour like tattoo TV show producers would have us think. Instead of picking truly talented, upstanding artists, they push aside real talent primarily in favor of scratchers, obnoxiously-loud jerks, and overly-emotional artists who will put on a show for the uneducated Americans who enjoy a "good competition" or who just want justification for mocking the industry, labeling tattoo artists as lowlifes, and treating tattooing as if it isn't a legitimate profession.
Sadly, the misconceptions people have of the tattoo industry are due in large part to the twisted way producers portray the profession and prey on the prejudices of those viewers who haven't yet accepted tattooing as the true art form that it is. Even when said producers pick talented, respectable tattoo artists to participate in their reality tattoo TV shows, the artists have no control over how they're depicted. Scenes are edited, actions and words are taken out of context, artists are forced through contractual obligation to do things they normally wouldn't do, and producers manipulate reality to create what the masses hunger for most: drama, drama, drama.
Tattooist Michelle Myles of DareDevil and Fun City tattoo studios summed up the tattoo community's general feelings on reality tattoo TV shows beautifully by saying, "I started getting tattooed because it was anything but trendy or even acceptable." Prior to shows like Miami Ink, "[t]attooing was a fringe subculture...and it certainly wasn't seen as a valid career choice. It breaks my heart to see tattooing get sold out to the media and popular culture... The tattoo industry doesn't have a say in the way it's portrayed in the media. Overall it depresses me to see our industry be represented by such vapid host[s]. We can only hope for the best with what gets spewed out."
In her Huffingtonpost.com article, 10 Reasons the Tattoo Community Doesn't Respect Tattoo Reality TV Shows, Dawn Cooke said something equally profound about why the tattoo community looks down on reality tattoo TV shows. She said that, "There is a war between the real traditionalists who are true to their craft and the tattoo rock and roll super star wannabes... There are those of us who love tattooing for its rich history and the purity of the art form and then there are those...who only care about what tattooing can get them. Some of us are in it purely for the art sake [while] others are here for an ego boost."
Cooke's article goes on to list her top 10 reasons why "reality" tattoo TV shows do the industry as a whole a disservice. She made some great points that inspired us to create our own top list of reasons the tattoo industry is disenchanted with reality tattoo TV shows and to offer some ideas on how to take tattoo television to the next level.
Why the Tattoo Industry Doesn't Respect Reality Tattoo TV Shows
- Tattooing is still counterculture rather than a mainstream fad, but reality tattoo TV show producers are missing that point entirely. They're choosing to cater to popular culture instead of to true tattoo enthusiasts who enjoy observing the continued evolution of the art of tattooing. They capitalize on the average person's fascination with the drama that comes with any competition or other puppeteered "reality" TV show, completely disregarding the fact that tattooing is a true art form that the masses will never truly appreciate or understand unless producers stop sensationalizing tattooing and start educating the public about what's really behind the industry's growth.
- There's very little reality in "Reality" tattoo shows. Producers are keen to manipulate the artists who participate in their "reality" TV shows--artists who are not actors, by the way. They tell artists what to say and how to say it to make it catchy and engaging for their audiences. All they care about is ratings at any cost. They have no qualms about editing footage to generate the most fan appeal, even if it means skimming over or completely eliminating the deeper meaning behind the work their artists are doing and the valuable information they could be sharing with the public. They treat artists like meat; if it's not fresh and tasty enough to make the public drool, they just toss it and move onto the next steak they can pound into submission. Every callous move they make just demeans the art of tattooing further rather than elevating it to the level it rightly deserves.
- Tattoo TV show producers hold no regard for the rich history of tattooing and the way the culture and art form have been continuously developing for thousands of years. Their lack of interest in the evolution of tattooing is an outright insult to the tattoo community. Why not show how Thomas Edison's rotary-powered electric pens formed the foundation of modern tattoo machines, or how tattoos worked their way into the mainstream? There's no shortage of fascinating information about tattooing that would make engaging, entertaining, educational TV shows. So why is the media so hung up on creating mockumentaries falsely labeled as reality tattoo TV shows? It really comes down to laziness and finding the easiest way to drive up ratings, to the tattoo industry's detriment.
- Reality tattoo TV shows exploit a culture that has so much more to offer than competition and drama. Tattoo community members treasure the art of tattooing so much that they perpetually seek ways to improve tools and techniques while working to uplift tattooing's reputation as a respectable art form. More than two decades ago, tattoo pioneer and Intenze founder Mario Barth took note of the public's growing interest in tattoos, and he worked to create the first line of sterile tattoo inks to protect tattoo collectors. He started a trend that's continuously encouraged tattoo supply manufacturers and artists alike to make tattooing a reputable, legitimate trade that utilizes safety measures akin to those used by medical professionals. These are the things that TV producers should be focusing on--showing how far the tattoo industry has come, how much it cares about tattoo collectors' safety and generating pride in the artwork that adorns them, and how important it is to the community to elevate the art of tattooing to never-before-seen levels. Yet producers are more interested in competition, capitalizing on some of the lowest common denominators in the industry, and eliciting drama from shops that, in reality, are relaxing havens for tattoo collectors, all with the goal of driving up ratings.
- Tattoo reality show producers don't do their due diligence, so they don't have a clue about who's who in tattooing or what the process really entails. Reality tattoo show producers might earn a bit more respect from the tattoo community if they did their homework and invited up-and-comers and established, respected tattoo artists to join their casts. They may not get the same degree of drama and hijinks out of respected tattooists, but they'd earn a degree of cred for focusing more on the actual art of tattooing and what's involved in creating true masterpieces on human canvases. It's hard to fit the tattooing process into an hour-long show, so turn it into a series that shows what's really involved in having a talented artist create a great tattoo! Unless you want a little Chinese symbol or another simple tattoo design, TV's mislead you if you think you can get a good tattooist to create a complex tattoo like a full sleeve in an hour. It's time reality tattoo TV got real. Show people coming and going as they work out design ideas, get outlines done, come back for color packing, shading and touch-ups, and return to show off their healed tattoos. Share real stories, not fairy tales. Your viewers aren't all drooling idiots with short attention spans. They'll likely be as excited to see what happens next in the tattooing process as they would be to find out how the sequel to a cliff-hanger drama episode plays out.
- Sensationalizing may earn ratings, but it does little to create an authentic view of the tattoo industry. If producers spent a little more time showing people real behind the scenes footage of the tattooing process--things like utilizing tattoo time-lapse technology to show the entire tattooing process, highlighting the efforts legitimate artists make to provide safe environments for their clients, teaching people how tattoo machines work, and educating consumers on the techniques and styles available that result in stunning permanent art--they'd be amazed to see how many more people would take their programs seriously and how many more followers they'd attract. Take a note from Sullen TV's book, producers. They're filming the kinds of things tattoo enthusiasts really want to see.
- It's time for "reality" tattoo TV show producers to open their eyes and see that they're beating a dead horse to death. The tattoo competition theme is worn out, plain and simple. If producers and TV execs want to keep capitalizing on the art of tattooing, brainstorm and come up with some fresh angles! Follow a tattoo artist on a world tour. Focus on how a start-up tattoo shop builds its business. Share the excitement of tattoo conventions and the award ceremonies they host to acknowledge truly talented artists. Do a documentary on how an up-and-coming talent like Nico Negron started out as a teenager with a dream who wouldn't give up and worked his butt off until his idol, Bili Vegas, finally gave him a chance. Create a series on the top talents behind each style of tattooing, like horror and portrait master Paul Acker (shown at right), black and gray realism artist Carl Grace, space and horror prodigy Dan Henk, and the exceptional portrait artist Josh Hagan. Give people a behind-the-scenes look at the tattoo supply business; a company like Painful Pleasures that started in the owner's house and grew to a multimillion dollar empire could inspire entrepreneurs everywhere! None of these ideas are necessarily new, but there are always fresh angles a director with vision can use to create an engaging television program that gives more depth to the art of tattooing than the mundane reality tattoo TV shows interested viewers are limited to watching now.
Is There Hope for Better Tattoo Television?
Sadly, reality tattoo TV shows likely aren't going anywhere anytime soon, despite the outpouring of frustration about their shallowness from the tattoo industry. It's a shame that producers won't delve deeper and show the world the true reality of tattooing. As Cooke said, "The 'reality' is that it takes immense dedication, fortitude, time and money to be a tattoo artist or a serious tattoo collector. Most of this is lost in the flashy bullshit you see on these [reality tattoo TV] shows. How about a no bullshit TV show? ... I'm all for promoting a healthy outlook on our culture but I just feel they are missing the mark a little bit. I can't say I could do better but if I had a million dollar budget I bet I could.
Until producers open their eyes to the endless possibilities for turning tattooing into quality television, it's time for the truly talented tattoo artists of the world to gang up and start dominating reality tattoo shows. Tattooist Michelle Myles, quoted earlier, said about TLC's new reality tattoo TV show, New York Ink, "Sign me up. I don't really think I'm someone they would pick. I don't drink, I'm in a stable relationship, I run a solid shop, I'm not very emotional and I'm not a huge jerk who yells at people." Despite feeling like the odds are stacked against her because she isn't likely to add the element of drama tattoo show producers want, she'd like the chance to represent her community. To paraphrase, Myles said you can either be bitter or step up and be part of the change. Tattoo artists may not be able to control how TV producers portray them, but they can control how they portray themselves. She said, "I don't like seeing assholes represent my profession," and we're right there with her.
If you're a tattoo artist reading this post, stand up with Myles, Cooke and all the other talented tattoo artists out there who are sick and tired of being cast in a poor light. Pool together and dominate the casting calls for reality tattoo TV shows so more legit artists have a chance to make a change. If you're a tattoo enthusiast, speak up! Voice your opinions online and by boycotting the shows that portray the tattoo industry in a negative light. Don't just hope for change; BE the change. And if you're a producer looking for tattoo show ideas with more depth, consider the suggestions we've posed here. We're not just picking on you for the sole sake of bullying. We want you to see how the industry you're highlighting feels about the way it's being portrayed and show you that there are a lot more interesting aspects to tattooing that will make for more engaging TV than tattoo competition and reality shows.