When SpikeTV debuted its tattoo competition show, Ink Master in 2012, many in the industry were excited and even intrigued. Through nine seasons we have seen artists good and bad come and go, rivalries formed and alliances ruled. In an industry notorious for being a “boys club,” it’s no surprise it seemed as though the women weren’t being taken as seriously as their male competitors. While two women had made it into the finals, it wasn’t until season 8 that Ryan Ashley brought it home for the girls. Season 8 featured four other female artists, including Gia Rose, Kelly Doty, and Nikki Simpson.
SpikeTV has branched off and given these talented ladies their own show, Ink Master: Angels. The ladies will be traveling across the U.S. tattooing head to head against some of the greatest artists.
Were all of you artistically creative growing up?
Gia Rose: I was always an artistic kid, and my parents definitely supported my creativity. It was something I did not want to pursue as an adult. I actually really wanted to be an anthropologist.
Kelly Doty: Drawing always came so naturally to me. Everything else has been deeply unnatural. It’s a blessing I have this one thing. My grandfather still has a drawing I did when I was five and a half years old, as my signature on it clearly states, hanging in his living room. So it’s always been a forever thing.
Nikki Simpson: Definitely, I’ve been drawing since I could pick up a pencil. I was always in the back of the class drawing all day, so I would say I’ve always been an artist.
Ryan Ashley: I was always artistic growing up. I was raised by a single mom who did the best she could for us, but we never really had any money. We didn’t have things like cable, cool new toys, electronics or computers, so what she encouraged me to do in my free time was to draw. She was an artist herself – she would never call herself that, but she was the most creative person I have ever met. She was so inventive and could make something beautiful out of anything. She taught me to see the beauty in everything and think outside the box. She used to do these charcoal drawings of my sister and I when we were young, and I would look at them and think to myself, “I really hope that I am as skilled as she is someday.” You know how most kids have lemonade stands and sell cups of lemonade? I used to set up stands by the road where I would get a table and a tablecloth and sell my doodles and my drawings for five cents or 10 cents or 25 cents. I was very young, probably six years old or seven maybe. Some of my family members still have some of these drawings I would do with the price of the drawing written in pencil in the corner.
How did you land at the tattoo medium?
NS: I’m never sure how to answer this. I think I just always thought tattoos were cool, but I didn’t think it was a realistic job opportunity. I ended up going to school for something I didn’t love. Luckily, an opportunity fell into my hands to tattoo.
KD: For me, it was kind of a natural progression. In high school, I started getting interested in body modification and I was always drawing. It feels like it’s what I was always meant to do. And my grandpa had tattoos all up is arms that I was obsessed with. No one can decipher them anymore, they might as well have been written in some ancient language. But when it came down to deciding what I wanted to do, tattooing was the only thing.
GR: I spent my late teens traveling and sort of fell into my tattoo apprenticeship, which doesn’t really happen to people. By my mid-twenties, I realized I was spending most of my time tattooing and that I should probably get good at it.
RA: I got involved in tattooing sort of by accident. I always wanted to be a tattoo artist but I had no idea how a small-town, young girl could break into such a close-knit, intimidating field. I was always fascinated by human anatomy, and from a very young age always loved designing things that accentuated the flow of the human body. Because of this, I started sewing and making clothing. I went into fashion and worked in New York City for about five years after high school. My job at this big fashion company was basically sitting for hours and hours and hours every single day designing very intricate lacework, embroidery, and beading designs and appliqués for their garments. I realized, though, that the corporate 9 to 5 world was not for me. I felt trapped, like a zombie in a cubicle staring at a computer screen, and knew that fulfillment in my life’s work would never come from designing with my heart and having someone else put their name on it. So I left my awesome job in New York City and moved back home to my small town to be inspired by nature and begin a new life with a tattoo apprenticeship.
The tattoo industry is a notoriously male-dominated field, what have your experiences been like as female artists?
KD: It’s really interesting, I feel like even in my career’s lifespan, it’s a completely different world than when I started. When I was an apprentice it was difficult. Not only were some of the guys I worked with very specific about not being interested in working with a woman, a lot of the customers also didn’t trust a woman tattooing them. I’ve had people call me a “bitch” and tell me they were not going to be tattooed by “a bitch.” I had people come in all the time that needed a man to vouch for my work. They would look at my portfolio and like what they saw, but still needed one of my male coworkers to assure them that I could tattoo them.
RA: There are many fields in life that are hard for women, or for other specific groups of people. The tattoo world is such a close-knit, strong community with very serious roots and history, so any change in how things are done is always hit with resistance. There are so many female tattooers that were the strong pioneers of our industry, that braved the male-dominated industry and paved the way for us. These women are the true heroes. What we are doing is carrying on their legacy and making them proud. I personally have hit some pretty definite adversity being a female in the industry, I think we all have had our own battles, but that criticism has only made me stronger as a person and as a tattoo artist.
GR: I mean, we live in a patriarchal world. What’s different about the tattoo world, is there isn’t really a human resource department, so there’s a lot of room for sexual harassment. You learn to have a thick skin to work your way through the trenches.
You all came together on Season 8 of Ink Master, what interested you ladies in participating in a competitive tattoo show?
RA: Ink Master happened as kind of a surprise. When I decided to participate in the competition I honestly never thought that all of this amazing opportunity would come from it, or that I would actually win the thing! I tattooed in a private studio by myself without any other tattoo artists. So going into Ink Master, I was really looking forward to the opportunity to meet other really skilled artists and test myself. Learning from them, and being a sponge sucking up all of the knowledge that was so invaluable. It is always so important in life to take every opportunity that is presented to you and make the most out of it while testing yourself at the same time.
KD: The big reason I wanted to join Ink Master was the issue of representation. When you are part of the population that doesn’t see themselves very often in the media, as a female tattooer, you end up watching the shows that are male-dominated. The tattoo industry is male-dominated. I remember being a girl that wanted to tattoo and not knowing if that could even be an option. Then Kat Von D came along and Hannah Aitchison, Kim Saigh — these tattoo powerhouses. It made a real difference to me. It was important for me to do that for someone else.
NS: I had been asked to do it in previous years and it just never worked out. This time I was at the right place in my life to go ahead be a part of Ink Master. To be honest, I wasn’t very gung-ho about it, but once I got there and realized what a weird experience it is I had that light bulb moment. Like I now knew why I was supposed to be there.
And now you all have embarked on a new adventure, Ink Master: Angels. Where did the concept for an all-female tattoo show come from?
RA: Ink Master: Angels happened sort of organically. On season 8, when all of us girls met, we immediately bonded and became friends. The chemistry was undeniable. And the most amazing part of it all was that even to the very end our message and our values remained the same. We worked together and not against each other to better ourselves and better each other in the process. We knew the opportunity we had was once in a lifetime and cherished the bond we had together and the opportunity to show the world our talent. With Ink Master: Angels we were so excited to give so many other deserving artists all over the country the same opportunity that we had. We all wanted to come together to allow these talented artists that may or may not be well known to show their work to America, and display their talent, creativity, and their skills. Honestly, we were just really excited to be able to spend time together again.
What should fans expect from Ink Masters: Angels?
RA: I think that viewers should be most excited to watch all of these artists from all over the country show us what they’ve got. There are so many twists and turns that happen this season, and sometimes what you predict is not what happens. Unlike the original Ink Master, we are the judges, yes, but we are also competing at the same time. This is the first time in Ink Master history that the judges are putting themselves on the line again, and throwing their skills back in the ring to compete.
NS: They will get to see comradery between us women, and us working together and learning from each other. Art is subjective, so we are going to have different opinions. You’ll see arguing, going back and for just like the judges. They’ll also see us bonding, and having fun. We met some crazy personalities out there, and saw some pretty shitty moments from tattooers. But of course, we saw some amazing work from other tattooers. It’s going to be interesting on levels.
Catch Ryan, Kelly, Nikki, and Gia on Ink Master: Angels Tuesdays at 10 on Spike.