Wednesday, April 3, 2013 | 11:33 a.m.
Two of the new “Best Ink” contestants on the Season 2 premiere tonight are Las Vegas tattoo artists: Derek Rubright and D.J. Tambe. International tattooed model Sabina Kelley, who lives here, returns as the expert judge on the Oxygen series hosted by rocker Pete Wentz of Fall Out Boy fame.
Photographers warned Sabina during her early days of modeling not to tattoo her arms. She ignored the advice and wound up gracing more than a dozen magazine covers and, after becoming a respected tattoo convention host and judge, landing “Best Ink.” Sabina also owns Bombshell Tattoo Removal here.
Pete and Sabina’s 10-episode series lays bare a cutthroat and unpredictable world of tattoo artistry. Twelve of the best U.S. tattoo artists compete for a $100,000 prize and a Tattoo Magazine cover story. Among the celebrity guest judges in Season 2: singer Ray J, Gym Class Heroes frontman Travie McCoy, designers Angela and Vanessa Simmons and urban artist Justin Bua.
Each show features a Flash Challenge and an Ink Challenge, in which each artist has to produce a bona fide masterpiece on skin. Two other challenges each week are Blood Puddin’ -- turning classic pinups upside down -- and You Can’t See Me, which forces the artists working only with needle, inks and their passion to design a tattoo with elements unseen by the naked eye. The Flash Challenge has the tattoo artists hanging six stories in mid-air to spray paint billboards.
The two Las Vegas contestants are both veterans. Derek is a USC graduate who is hailed by UFC fighters here as the go-to artist. Wildly competitive Derek, who became head of his household at age 18 when his mother died, has won numerous awards at tattoo competitions.
D.J., who moved here from upstate New York, has won more than 25 convention awards and most recently defeated “Best Ink” Season 1 contestant Roman Obrego in Lake Havasu. D.J. battled and beat drug addiction and is now a strong believer in his industry’s ethics.
As Pete takes tattoo competition to new heights, I spoke with him during the Las Vegas tapings.
Tattoos and rockers go together hand in glove?
I feel like it kind of goes together like peanut butter and chocolate, I guess. I feel like I kind of have a license for 50 years when you are in a rock and roll band. That is part of that license, I guess.
Tell me about your own body tattoos -- at least the family-friendly body part ones!
I have them on all of my right arm, about half of my left arm, and then I have them on my legs and across my chest. It’s a lot!
Do you remember the first one?
The first one I got was this one in the center of my back. I got it when I was 15. It was supposed to be Earth, kind of, but it looks about as good as a tattoo would if you get it when you are 15 years old -- not very good. My most recent tattoo is one that I got with my brother. It is a tiger on my arm.
Did you have any tattoos done as a result of the TV show?
I’m getting a tattoo from two of the judges on the show, and I think that I will get my 4-year-old son’s name scrolled on my body.
Is it painful getting all these tattoos?
I think it affects people differently, and it really depends where on your body you get it. Wherever you have the most fat usually does the best, but if you get it on a part of the body that is too fatty, the tattoo doesn’t turn out that well, usually. Upper arms don’t hurt as much. It is kind of like a dull, annoying pain.
Pete, what attracted you to this particular show?
This one just made sense to me because tattoo culture is something that I have always been interested in; it has become much more mainstream and a real part of pop culture. People having tattoos isn’t so strange anymore. It’s also really cool that the artists are so credible, the judges are so knowledgeable. Sabina is a babe and knows what she is talking about, as well.
The first season was really cool, but what is interesting in the second season is we are able to do these Flash Challenges, the challenges that precede the Ink Challenges, the ones that are non-tattoo challenges. We were able to do really cool, big stunts. We ran out and painted airplanes in an airplane graveyard, we hung off a six-story building. It was larger than life.
How fast should a good tattoo be?
It depends on the artist. The tattoo sizes that we did most of the time and what they detailed took probably 4 to 6 hours. I have friends who have sat in 8- to 12-hour sessions before. Good artists know when they are done. They know when they have added enough detail, enough shading, enough color. A lot of that comes from confidence and probably the amount of people you have tattooed.
Do people get a little surprised at the cost of tattoos? Las Vegas is the home of the World International Tattoo Convention, and I remember watching Japanese artists who do it differently, and I think one of them sat on top of his patient to hold him down while painting.
I’ve needed somebody to hold me still. The beauty of “Best Ink” is that these skins, which is what the people who are getting tattooed are called on the show, they come in and they get a tattoo from one of 12 artists from around the country, so we have people there from Las Vegas, we have really cool artists, and they get to get a free 5- to 6-hour session of tattooing done. These would normally cost anywhere from $500 to $1,500, and they get them done for free. It’s the price for doing them on TV.
I know people who have gotten their entire sleeves done, and it has probably cost them, I would say, a couple grand. To get it really expensive, you would have to do something like tattoo your entire body, or you would have to get something done to the ink. I think tattooing only increases in value based on the artist who is doing them, so if you get some really old school guy to do it, it would probably cost more money.
I take it a sleeve consists of from shoulder to wrist?
Shoulder to wrist, yeah, and they have ones that are called “job stoppers,” which are the hands and the neck and the face.
What do you think was the secret of the show’s first-season success to win you a second season?
This show is different than other tattoo shows. It really speaks to pop culture being involved. There are great artists, great celebrities. It is relevant to pop culture, and that is really a side of tattooing that I don’t think has really been displayed on TV before. Television is a great medium to do it if you are going to do it right.
Can you see all of your tattoos, or is that the privilege of somebody else?
I can see most of my tattoos. I have a little bit on my back that I can’t see very well. I think tattoos are a really personal thing. I know of people who may have had too much to drink and gotten tattoos that they didn’t really expect that they were going to be the size they were. From time to time, there are misspellings and stuff like that. There was a misspelling on our show. Usually, you are able to find ways to fix it, but then sometimes the fix makes the tattoo bigger or bolder.
One thing that I would suggest to people is that if you are getting a tattoo, you really want to think it through. The great thing about our judges and mentors, and what these guys know and learned on the show, is that it is really the responsibility of the tattoo artist to talk a person into understanding what they are getting and make it so their vision makes sense in the tattoo. Or else you could walk away with stuff that you don’t really like. You should always look at the artist’s portfolio.
I think it is always great to come in with a vision whether you have inspiration photos or pictures or something you sketched. Hopefully you trust your artist enough that they will draw the finished version of it for you because there are some artists, and we see it on our show, who are great at doing portraits, and there are some artists who are more cartoony, illustrative and traditional artists. You want to go to the artist who would suit the kind of tattoo you want to get.
You should really think long and hard before you get tattoos; this is going to be on your body for the rest of your life. You’ll be able to kind of manipulate it in certain ways, but maybe something that you just got into last week or a new friend that you just started liking, maybe don’t get a tattoo of that quite yet. Take your time.
I have a tattoo on my leg that was part of a bet I lost. My friend Dave is in Cobra Starship, and I bet him that if their band sold 1 million copies of their single -- they are on my label [Decaydance Records] -- that I would get anything that he wanted tattooed on me within reason. He picked a picture of himself when he was 13 years old and looked like a serial killer. It’s brilliant, but it definitely looks like I lost a bet.
Season 2 of Oxygen’s “Best Ink” hosted by Pete Wentz premieres today at 10 p.m. ET/PT and is seen here on Cox Channel 365 and DirecTV Channel 251.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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