It's no secret that the tattooing world has been heavily dominated by men. While some folks are still steeped in backward stereotypes, many women are blazing a trail in this industry, from being some of the best artists in the country to owning and running some of the most successful ink shops. And, as the most recent season of Spike TV's hit reality competition showInk Master proves, women are prepared to take their rightful place at the top of the industry.
Ink Master follows the traditional reality competition format where contestants compete over a few weeks in various mini- and full-length challenges to be the top tattoo artist. The show has always been notoriously light on female contestants. Over the last eight seasons, just 27 of the 129 contestants have been women. Before this season, only two of them had made it to a finale. But on Tuesday night, during the live season finale, judges Oliver Peck, Chris Núñez, and Dave Navarro crowned Kingston, PA's Ryan Ashley as Ink Master. She's the first woman to earn the title.
Season eight has seen the biggest shake up so far when it comes to women tattooists. While only five women were selected for this season (out of a total 18 participants), it was clear from the start that they were some of the strongest players. They made up two of the three finalists, and despite being less than a third of the contestants, the women on the show won half of the challenges. Certainly nobody should be questioning their skills.
And yet, Kelly Doty, co-owner of Helheim Gallery in Salem, MA, and one of the three finalists, understands all too well the numerous challenges women artists face. "I think it can be really intimidating trying to become a female tattoo artist in a male-dominated industry," she tells me via Skype chat. "Just trying to get an apprenticeship right out the gate, you're a gimmick, you're kind of a side-show act. It's better now than it was a few years ago to be sure. But I think a lot of people looking for an apprentice, when they see a female, they're like, 'Make sure it's a cute chick, we want her to look bangable.' So your worth is put as what you look like. You're not given the same level of respect often times."
Luckily, Doty was able to find a mentor who she calls "exceptional." Though even studying under an artist who isn't sexist can't insulate a female tattooist from the very real animosity some hold against them. When Doty was apprenticing, a guy came into the shop and started looking through portfolios. What he did next is, unfortunately, not unusual in the industry.
"The guy looks at me, picks up my portfolio, and tosses it down the counter and says, 'I'm not getting tattooed by some bitch' and kept looking through the other portfolios," describes Doty. "I've had several guys come in, they see I'm female, and then they ask for a man to vouch for me, just to make sure that I could do the job! It's directly correlated to the fact that I'm a female. That never happened to the guys. It's these little microaggressions that keep happening, and they build up."
Doty was the last artist standing on Team Núñez, and the first to secure her place in the finale. I spoke with Núñez via email about Ink Master's lack of women contestants and how this past season flipped that script on its head. Núñez—who starred in one of the earliest reality shows about tattooing, Miami Ink—acknowledges that the industry is heavily dominated by men. "Tattooing was traditionally a male business," he says. But regardless of that fact, Núñez doesn't think that gender factors heavily into the show in any meaningful way, as it's more about the competition than "real life."
"We can't take our eyes off the fact that it's a game," he says. "The girls were outnumbered but teamed up and did their best to team up and use this to their benefit… I don't see it as a female vs. male battle. It just started as male-orientated, and now it is female-orientated."
Despite there not being any official statistics of tattoo artists based on gender, one only needs to look at the numbers at various big city tattooing conventions to get an idea of the inequity that persists within the industry. Women usually only make up around 15 percent of tattoo artists at these types of events. For instance, at the 2015 "Biggest Tattoo Show on Earth" in Las Vegas, only two out of 27 headlining artists were women, and were only a fraction of the over 100 participating artists. At next month's 7th annual DC Tattoo Expo, the majority of artists are men, with only a small percentage of women inking, many of them Ink Master alumni.
One of the remarkable things about season eight is that the women contestants had clearly had enough with this gender disparity. Despite being separated into two different teams headed by judges Oliver Peck and Chris Núñez, the women ended up gravitating to one another for support, and in doing so created the "Women's Alliance"—a topic that got almost as much screen time as the contestants themselves.
While the majority of the women of season eight could have easily won the competition on their own merits, the alliance afforded two things. One, it showcased that in this industry—like many others where women aren't equally represented—there is value in women helping other women succeed. Second, once it was clear to the other contestants that the women were smoking them skill-wise, their reactions were incredibly telling.
Some of the men recognized the women's talent for what it was and found themselves floating within the perimeter of the alliance—to their own advantage. As the women showed their strength, it translated into strategic opportunities like being able to assign canvases to the other contestants that could help or hurt them, depending.
Others, however, began shouting down the women. In one very heated confrontation, Sketchy Lawyer, a tattoo artist from Senoia, GA, declared that they were playing "the vagina card," and that the women's emotions would get the better of them and crumble their alliance. Ironic, considering that Sketchy Lawyer—the contestant that was the most vocal against the women's alliance—later, to everyone's shock, tapped out of the competition because he was just over the show with only a handful of contestants left.
Nikki Simpson, who made it all the way to the final five, felt the male contestants only hurt themselves by concerning themselves with the ladies' alliance. "They saw all of us hanging out in our rooms at night and becoming friends, and they all of a sudden were so paranoid," she tells me. "Honestly our 'alliance' was just women being kind to one another, and really just talking about dicks and Sephora in our room at night. After a while, we decided to just run with it and have one another's backs once we saw they targeted us specifically."
Clearly, the alliance played a factor, but so did some kickass tattooing, and it was the latter that clinched the win for Ryan Ashley. Her assigned 90s inspired New School chest piece demonstrated clean line work, powerful color, and the ability to take on a style nowhere near her specialty of fine line black and gray.
As for Simpson, she's really happy with the way Ink Master was—finally—able to portray female tattoo artists. "I'm happy they've shown the side of lady tattooers that is special," she says. "That we appreciate one another in this scene, and we want to represent it well and do work comparable to any male out there."
And in the end, that is exactly what happened.
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